Conductor and music director, Peter Dyson reflects on the decision of St Martin-in-the-Fields to cut ties with their freelance promoters, conductors and musicians

Conductor and music director, Peter Dyson reflects on the decision of St Martin-in-the-Fields to end its relationship with the freelance promoters, conductors and musicians that have built up the venue’s musical reputation for decades.

After devoting my entire working life (three decades) to the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square and having been instrumental, along with my friends and colleagues, in creating one of the UK's most successful, non-subsidised concert venues, we have been informed by the venue, with absolutely no warning or consultation of any kind that all post-COVID-19 concerts would be ‘in-house’ only, and the army of freelance musicians who have loyally created and nurtured the commercially and artistically successful concerts series at St Martin’s are now being discarded and thrown onto the scrap heap.

I was in my first year on the Advanced Conducting course at the Royal Academy of Music in 1991, and I vividly remember a class with Sir Roger Norrington, when he said “If you want to be a conductor, start your own orchestra” which I took to heart and promptly did. The Belmont Ensemble of London gave their first official concert at St John’s Smith Square, and shortly afterwards I received a letter, out of the blue, from Canon Geoffrey Brown, then Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, explaining that they were looking for a new young orchestra to establish a commercially viable concert series to support the work of St Martin’s. At that time there was very little going on in the evening concert programme and a new business, including the café and bookshop, had recently been set up to help fund the work of the church, the Vicar wanted a concert series to be part of that broader St Martin’s family.

We started with four, then another six concerts, which were thankfully all successful, as I had literally bet my house on them working. We quickly grew to 40 concerts per year (I have now given over 800 concerts there), and we were soon joined by other concert promoters and conductors who also took up the baton and a flourishing concert series was born.

For 29 years our orchestras, ensembles and choirs have brought joy to thousands of people and in the process raised millions of pounds to support the work of St Martin-in-the-Fields in maintaining the fabric of the building as well as raising funds for their valuable work with the homeless. But we have gradually had the number of our concerts reduced over the past six years and have been squeezed harder and harder financially. Yet I could never have imagined, even in my worst nightmare, that we would be where we are today. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, we cannot help but wonder whether COVID-19 has provided a pretext to end our collective involvement with music at St Martin's.

The current pandemic has been the worst time in living memory for most musicians, having their livelihoods decimated by the inability to perform in public. Now any hope that we could rebuild post-COVID, from the ground up, as we originally did in 1991, has been snuffed out. This now means that the financial viability of hundreds of freelance musicians’ work and dozens of independent chamber orchestras may be at an end. We offered our help and experience to St Martin’s to rebuild the concert series post-COVID several months ago, our email did not even receive a reply.

We are deeply disappointed with this lack of engagement, especially at a time when musicians everywhere are losing work and income. So we are requesting that St Martin-in-the-Fields listens to the freelance community that has made this church the respected musical venue that it is today, and works with us to rebuild this legacy post-COVID.

Peter Dyson
Conductor and music director
www.belmont-ensemble.com

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