Orchestras Live’s 7 November conference on ‘Taking Music Further’, held at Kings Place in London, brought much evidence of good practice to the attention of its 100-plus delegates, as well as a number of wakeup calls over barriers to access and outsiders’ perception of classical music.
A rousing, Zappa-referencing keynote by writer and broadcaster Tom Service called for orchestras to be ‘more like Mothers of Invention’ when attempting to engage new and existing audiences.
A key route into this engagement could be found by opening up the production process, he said, not only by holding more open rehearsals but also by orchestras themselves taking part in the ‘fundamentally active’ principal of listening.
His message that since orchestral musicians were ‘vertiginously talented’ each orchestra was ‘as individual and creatively messy as a rock band’ was a useful reminder that orchestras each hold a great resource in their ranks of players, and that for the best musicians (of all stripes), music is an artform of creativity, expression and communication (see box at the end of the article).
The following panel discussion, ‘What stake should audiences have in our work?’, featured Birmingham Contemporary Music Group executive producer Jackie Newbould, Nottingham Concert Hall music programme manager Neil Bennison, Jake Orr of the under-26 theatre criticism website A Younger Theatre and Alice King-Farlow of the National Theatre.
Newbould emphasised the enfranchising effects of BCMG’s Sound Investment scheme, which was inspired by staff ‘wanting to share the thrill of commissioning’ but which also guarantees a minimum audience, creates willing voluntary ambassadors for the group and ‘does raise quite a lot of money’.
Neil Bennison emphasised the balance required to make a profit on his orchestral seasons without state funding, on ticket sales alone, and without a home orchestra (though a residency with the Hallé has been established in recent years). Presented ‘drivetime’ early-evening concerts have been established as a way to use the music programmed for schools concerts more profitably, with family-friendly repertoire including film music and single-movement performances sometimes conveniently linked to complete works in the subscription season. Open rehearsals with the Hallé have started recently, and season subscriptions have risen to around 350.
Bennison and his colleagues have formed customer circles which act as forums on the hall’s seasons and work as voluntary marketing networks: circles have been helped by concert hall staff to set up coach travel schemes and one subscriber now virtually runs ‘an entire coach service’; volunteer marketers are given small ticket discounts for conducting ‘low-tech’ poster and leafleting.
Jake Orr was ‘what the Arts Council would call’ a high-level consumer of culture, he said, with a typical four theatre shows a week. Nevertheless, and to an audible sharp intake of breath from the audience, ‘I don’t understand the words you’re using’, he said, and had ‘no idea how to begin’ getting tickets. ‘It’s a question of getting through the building, it’s a gigantic brick wall.’ This was, he said, the sector’s biggest challenge.
The rituals of concert going ‘can be alienating’ said Newbould, with Bennison agreeing, ‘And I wish we could do away with the penguin suits,’ he said. This was challenged from the audience by the Orchestra of the Swan’s David Curtis (who insisted his orchestra asked promoters ‘what they want us to wear’), and others who believed the issue to be a red herring. It certainly appeared so given the imaginative and far more (literally) engaging ideas discussed throughout the day.
A session involving a live link-up to Turner Sims concert hall in Southampton followed, with the Aurora Orchestra, conductor Nicholas Collon and narrator Sam West performing Britten’s incidental music for The Way to the Sea. The discussion this provoked about technology, streaming and the concert hall experience suggested that, while such events are likely to become second nature to producers in the coming years and decades, they are, in West’s phrase, the ‘icing not the cake’.
The afternoon panel discussion ‘Great orchestras for everyone ‒ the challenge of reaching remote and underserved areas’ was mediated by arts consultant Jane Williams with Peter Bolton, chief executive of Kent Music, Sarah Ellis of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and North Norfolk District Council arts officer Brenda Seymour.
Bolton said the impact of the new Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury had been great, with the Philharmonia visiting five times a year and selling well. But he was surprised when the Budapest Festival Orchestra visited and the concert ‘did not do as well at all’. This, he thought, was ‘because the promoter didn’t know what he had on his hands, maybe’ and showed the necessity of building audiences methodically over time.
Seymour said that there were ‘significant challenges in working in remote areas, but it comes with great rewards’. Geography was a major factor in such work, and arts officers such as herself could play a vital role in catalysing entire villages to host artists. But the network of arts officers was at risk, a sentiment echoed around the room.
Bolton said it was important to ask ‘How inclusive is your [music education] hub?’, and said Kent Music was taking a data-led approach, analysing music provision against free school meals and ethnic data. ‘If we can’t [give support to those who need it] we’re not doing our job properly as hubs.’
Themed successfully around Orchestras Live’s key agenda of ‘bringing orchestral music to people in under-served areas across England’, the fully subscribed conference also provided a showcase for the charity’s First Time Live ‒ Youth scheme for ten- to 14-year-olds; and the ‘Young Producers’ strand within First Time Live, which saw young people (two of whom, Amy and Rio, were present) running concerts themselves from concert presentation and stage management to lighting and, at times, conducting. Partnership working is central to Orchestras Live’s work: if you think they could help, do get in touch.