Crossing Borders: The Association of British Orchestras conference 2019

Clare Stevens eavesdropped on this year’s Association of British Orchestras conference in Belfast. This is what she heard.

Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, originally opened in 1997, has recently been extended to create ICC Belfast, a compact modern venue that proved to be an excellent location for three days at the end of January for the 2019 conference of the Association of British Orchestras. The theme of the conference was ‘Cross Border’, which had an obvious local resonance that was explored or touched upon in several sessions; but it also prompted discussions and provocations on a wide variety of other topics.

The host Ulster Orchestra and its Managing Director Richard Wigley played an important part, but the lively opening session showcased an imaginative outreach project by the Czech Philharmonic, which was also in Belfast in conference week. For the past five years musicians from the Czech Phil have been helping to run a summer school in eastern Slovakia for children and young adults from the Romani community. They come from socially disadvantaged families, settlements and orphanages and face great prejudice from mainstream communities, particularly in Prague where the Czech Phil is based. From the summer schools, singer, voice trainer and choir leader Ida Kelarová has created a choir, Chavorenge, which performed in Belfast with some of the Czech Phil musicians, urging the conference delegates to join in with their final song in an exuberant performance that flew round social media.

Later in the week Kelarová spoke movingly about how the Charovenge project has illustrated the ability of music, and especially singing, to bring confidence and life to desperately deprived communities, challenge prejudices and change perceptions. ‘The message is that we are all blocked from expressing our souls,’ she said. ‘ Through music we help these Roma children to be proud of their heritage and a lot of people are already changing their thinking.’

Chavorenge Children's Choir, members of Czech Phil and Ulster Orchestra

Needless to say the ‘B’ word was frequently mentioned, and ISM Chief Executive Deborah Annetts chaired a fascinating panel discussion looking at the impact of Brexit on the sector. Panellists including Ulster Orchestra chair Stephen Peover, deputy chair of IAMA Helen Sykes and chair of the ABO finance managers group Ivan Rockey joined Deborah in spelling out the dire implications of a no deal Brexit for the sector, and the wider problems musicians will encounter after the end of freedom of movement even under a withdrawal agreement. Deborah used the panel discussion to promote the ISM’s Save Music and FreeMoveCreate campaigns calling for continued freedom of movement for musicians after the UK leaves the EU.

She reiterated the message in her speech at a reception hosted by the ISM before the conference concert for which members of the Ulster Orchestra shared the Waterfront Hall stage with colleagues from the Czech Phil, Netherlands and Barcelona Symphony and several UK orchestras. This was part of the orchestra’s Creative Europe-funded ‘EOLabII’ programme, which facilitates musician-led concepts for new audiences. Featuring Strauss’s ‘Four Last Songs’ sung by Dorothea Roschmann and the Belfast premiere of Shostakovich’s fourth symphony, the public concert was conducted by the Ulster Orchestra’s outgoing music director, Rafael Payare, a product of the Venezuelan Sistema. The visit of the ABO conference to Belfast for the first time for 20 years provided an appropriate stage for the announcement of his successor, the Italian Daniele Rustioni, who will take up the baton in September this year.

Three very different ‘provocations’ highlighted the main strands of the conference agenda:

Catherine Arlidge of the CBSO and National Children’s Orchestra kicked off with statistics that seemed to prove orchestras and their classical repertoire are unimportant, immaterial, insignificant and irrelevant to most people. She went on to explain how the CBSO’s Notelets performances for young children have become the best-selling series in the orchestra’s calendar, thanks to a strategy of thinking about who the potential audience would be, what they would expect and how the ‘product’ could be tweaked to suit their needs.

Northern Irish composer Brian Irvine stated his passionate belief that orchestral music connects with people at a visceral level, but went on to attack the complacency of most orchestral concert programming and presentation, and to accuse education and outreach activities of being a patronising sideline. If orchestras are serious about ‘bringing brilliance to people places like the housing estates of West Belfast,’ he said, ‘ there is only one truly effective way of doing so, and that is with the creation and delivery of ambitious new work that represents their lives.’

The UK’s Disability Champion for Arts & Culture, Andrew Miller, introduced a topic that made a great impact over the three days: he wondered if it was conceivable that by 2030 our national culture would still be as non-disabled as it is today? He cited the Arts Council of England’s 2016/17 disability report on employment which revealed that only the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Hall for Cornwall employ anything close to the national average of people declaring themselves to have a disability, and pointed out the value of the disabled sector as audiences as they have a collective £250bn spending power.

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Change Makers project was the focus of a session dedicated to this subject, with a panel including Lisa Tregale, the head of BSO Participate and James Rose, conductor – using a head-stick – of the world’s first professional orchestra of disabled musicians, famous for their performance at last year’s BBC Proms. This produced a fascinating discussion which got down to real detail about how close involvement with disabled musicians (that normally just does not happen) changes people’s attitudes, and what changes need to take place in an organisation, from physical access to buildings to modified audition processes, to ensure that opportunities to perform, to take administrative roles and to be part of audiences are genuinely open to all.

John Kieser of the New World Symphony in Miami, Florida and Steve Brosvik of the Nashville Symphony provided a transatlantic perspective on equity, diversity and inclusion. Kieser outlined how diversity is at the heart of the New World Symphony’s fellowship programme, which prepares graduates of music programs for leadership roles in professional orchestras and ensembles. ‘We have created The Bridge Plan, which charts the progress of a musician from when they first pick up an instrument to having an established career. We find it’s at all the bridge points [between junior school and high school, high school and college] that we tend to lose people. Careers guidance people tend not to know about opportunities in music and the arts. We have about 30 vacancies on our programme a year and we have worked with Sphinx and with the Latinx*communities to ensure that the word gets out to them and that they are supported through the audition process. It’s not true that there aren’t musicians from those communities “in the pipeline”; we found there is no lack of talent in the black and Latinx communities, but the key issue is whether they will feel comfortable within our academy once they get there. They need to feel that there are others like them, so has made a huge difference when the cohort of players from BME backgrounds has increased from two to 12 to 16.’

Brosvik talked about the Nashville Symphony’s Accelerando programme, which aims to identify young musicians of colour, get them into conservatories and eventually into professional orchestras. ‘We now have 16 musicians in our programme; they have weekly lessons with our players, masterclasses, and theory lessons. There are plenty of musicians out there, we just need to make sure they know they are welcome and give them a plan to succeed. Sometimes that means overcoming family objections; often they are reluctant to let their children come to music school as they don’t see it as a good career.’ He also talked about audience development, and about Nashville’s efforts to break down the barriers between the local community and the orchestra’s neo-classical performance space that looks like a courthouse or a public library; strategies have included expanding repertoire so that people come in to hear music in a genre they are familiar with, rather than expecting them to cross the threshold for the first time to attend a symphony concert.

Topics such as developments in digital scores, live streaming and the use of new technologies for audience development and strengthening relationships between youth and professional orchestras were explored in other sessions. Much of the final day was devoted to the idea of musicians as educators and facilitators of community projects. Jonathan Simmance of the Ulster Orchestra spoke about the deep emotional impact on himself and his colleagues of creative projects with the victims of domestic violence, and his session concluded with a searing poem, read by a representative of a local woman’s aid charity with an accompaniment written by Simmance and played by a small ensemble from the orchestra, in which an elderly woman looks back at a life blighted by such violence.

A more objective angle on the value of listening to and performing music was provided by the philosopher Sir Roger Scruton in his keynote speech on the final afternoon. He touched on how we hear a collection of sounds and turn them into music in our heads; the effect of background music as opposed to music to which we have chosen to devote our full attention; the importance of the shared experience of listening to music in a concert setting; and how music education is vital in nurturing an appreciation of this experience. Summing up the appeal of tonal music to those who are used to listening to it, he said: ‘Life is full of incomplete or disastrous gestures, but music is full of gestures that reach conclusions … it doesn’t so much transcend reality but provides us with a more pure version of our daily lives.’

Help Musicians UK supported some sessions on musicians’ well-being and on sustaining long careers in a changing profession. As the conference drew to a close Graham Sheffield CBE, chairman of Help Musicians UK, announced a new partnership with the ABO in the run-up to the 2021 centenary of his organisation that would see the development of a much more holistic approach to supporting professional performers, rather than just responding to crises. This will include supporting a leadership programme that will help to broaden the pool of diverse talent within the sector. Help Musicians UK will be the charity partner of the ABO for the next three years, helping to shape the themes of future conferences.

*Latinx is now the preferred gender-neutral term for a person from Latin-American communities

Podcasts of some of the conference sessions can be found on mixcloud/aborchestras

ABO Classical Music Awards

The annual ABO Classical Music Awards have once again honoured excellence in the fields of orchestral, concert hall and artist management. They were presented at the ABO conference dinner held at Titanic Belfast, hosted by Jane Jones from Classic FM, on 23 January.

The prestigious ABO Award went to Cathy Graham, Director of Music at the British Council in London, for her work across all genres of music on projects which create trust and understanding between the UK and the rest of the world. Well-known to ABO members for her constant and active support of the sector, Cathy has served on many boards and is currently Chair of Streetwise Opera, the award-winning charity that uses music to help homeless people move forward with their lives. Her deep love of music, and her attendance at so many concerts and performances, are evidence of the depth of her support and enthusiasm for the work that UK orchestras do.

The winner of the Artist Manager of the Year category was Angela Sulivan, of Sulivan Sweetland Ltd. Alongside managing the careers of artists including Avi Avitaland, Augustin Hadelich, her work with sitar player and composer Anoushka Shankar on the Land of Gold project –which highlighted the plight of displaced people–encourages audiences around the world to donate to the charity Help Refugees.

Concert Hall Manager of the Year went to Suzanne Rolt, Chief Executive of St George’s Bristol. Since heading up the St George’s team in 2006, Suzanne Rolt has put her own inimitable stamp on the venue’s reputation, and overseen the major‘ Building A Sound Future’ project which, with an investment over six million pounds, has dramatically enhanced the experience for visitors to the venue.

Orchestra Manager of the Year went to David Wilson, General Manager of the London Mozart Players, a completely re-invented orchestra, player-directed and player-run, the only one of its type in the UK. The heart and soul of the orchestra for thirty years, he has overseen everything from imaginative concert-planning and associations with leading performers, to touring and continuing outreach activities, and a gala 70th birthday concert at the orchestra's newly refurbished home venue, Croydon's Fairfield Halls.

Photos from the ABO Classical Music Awards.

Photo 1: Deborah Annetts, Chief Executive of the ISM and Alan Davey Controller, BBC Radio 3

Photo 2: Lucy Thraves, Classical Music Magazine, Robin McGhee, Campaigns and Public Affairs Officer, ISM and Naomi Belshaw, WildKat PR

Photo 3: Jessica Salter, Communications Officer, ISM, Vanessa Reed, Chief Executive of PRS Foundation and Ruth McPherson, Senior Partnerships and Marketing Manager, ISM