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Onwards to Cardiff

Ahead of the annual Association of British Orchestras (ABO) conference in January, the ISM’s Francesca Treadaway put the spotlight on the conference’s hosts: BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Sinfonia Cymru and Welsh National Opera.

‘The ABO has never had three orchestras jointly host their conference. It was our idea to pitch for it – it’s been on the table for a number of years as a possibility’, Peter Harrap, Welsh National Opera’s Chorus and Orchestra Director, explains animatedly. ‘As the relationship between us has become stronger and more open, it’s become more obvious it’s the right time.’

It’s clear to me that collaboration, the theme of the 2018 ABO conference, is at the heart of everything that Welsh National Opera (WNO), BBC National Orchestra of Wales (BBC NOW) and Sinfonia Cymru do. In separate conversations with the heads of the organisations, each – with great admiration – talk about how they work with each other to bring great music-making to the whole of Wales.

‘Other than a wonderful welcome to Cardiff, hosting the conference in collaboration with Sinfonia Cymru and WNO is a demonstration of the way we work together in Wales,’ Michael Garvey, Director of the BBC NOW, explains. ‘There are approximately 360,000 people in Cardiff – it is small in comparison to other cities in the UK. To serve content, we have to work together or we will just tread on each other’s toes.’

The organisations have quarterly ‘anti-clash’ meetings (adding in organisations from across the city) to proactively go out of their way to avoid clashes, and on occasion, to proactively come together to make their collective audience ‘understand something or see something in a different light’, Michael explains.

BBC NOW has a dual role as a broadcast orchestra and the national symphony orchestra of Wales, which sets it apart from the other BBC orchestras and choirs. The eldest of the three organisations, the orchestra gave its first performance in April 1928. It is now based at BBC Hoddinott Hall, which is named after Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott, and is situated at Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay.

‘Previously we were a BBC broadcast orchestra like all the other orchestras, making content to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 from a studio within a BBC building’, Michael explains to me. ‘But once we started receiving public funding from Arts Council of Wales and from the licence fee, the dual role of the orchestra became more important.

‘We try to balance our national orchestra requirements and our broadcast requirements. The two are not mutually exclusive but in the past we have focused less on the live audience than perhaps we have wanted to.’

BBC NOW - Photography: Kirsten Mcternan

The WNO was formed in 1946 above a car dealership (where the Chairman operated a garage) and they formed with an amateur chorus and used other professional orchestras and freelance groups. For years they did seasonal work, touring and building up relationships with different venues in 1973 (the professional chorus in 1968). Its touring remit in Wales is Cardiff to Llandudno (‘because they have the largest theatres, with Wales Millennium Centre being the flagship venue nationally and internationally’), and in England, WNO perform main scale opera in Plymouth, Southampton, Birmingham, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Liverpool and Bristol. They also perform operatic works and concerts at the Royal Opera House in London and internationally, with Hong Kong on the spring 2018 schedule.

Sinfonia Cymru, the youngest of the three organisations, was set up in 1996 to do two things: provide a platform for musicians as they start their careers, and to take orchestral chamber music out of Cardiff into the regions of Wales that didn’t traditionally receive much music making. It was lottery-funded by Arts Council of Wales to tour and in 2011, it became revenue funded for the first time. That enabled it to become professionalised – ‘we are completely professional now, so all of our musicians receive fees like they would be if they were anywhere else’, Sophie Lewis, Sinfonia Cymru’s Chief Executive tells me.

Each of the orchestras have a shared interest – to serve Wales, and in particular areas outside of Cardiff. Music services have been closing all over Wales and music education provision is on the decline.

Sophie tells me that Sinfonia Cymru has noticed an impact.

‘I would say in the 11 years I have been [at Sinfonia Cymru] the number of Welsh musicians we have engaged has reduced. We don’t only work with Welsh musicians. We audition across the whole of the UK. We prioritise Welsh musicians but the number coming through has gone down.’

It was always the case that many of them left Wales to study, but we seem to be having less of that as well. It is having an impact on us for sure. It’s been an unhelpful downward trend.’

‘In a word, [the state of play of music education in Wales] is embarrassing,’ Michael says, his frustration evident.

‘The disintegration of music services means that the children of Wales are fundamentally missing out in comparison with their peers across the border.’

‘There’s no hub system here in Wales and a lack of cohesive strategy for music education means that a generation is missing out.’

Michael tells me that some say it’s BBC NOW’s job to make up for the shortfall of music education in the country.

‘People say “You get public money from the Arts Council of Wales and the BBC, it’s your job to be serving people on this level”.’

‘We deliver a great range of targeted activity; workshops, concerts for schools and special schools, various different opportunities to work with BBC NOW. But we simply cannot provide the coverage that music services can.’

To ensure they are reaching as many areas of Wales as possible, Sinfonia Cymru collaborate with the Mid-Wales Music Trust. ‘We go into Powys in particular, the biggest county in Wales, which is very rural and probably the most under provided for county in Wales in terms of music education,’ Sophie explains to me.

‘There isn’t a formal music service in Powys and there hasn’t really ever been – it’s a real priority for us.’

WNO also engage in an extensive outreach programme. They run a Youth Opera, singing clubs and also Community Choruses for bigger WNO concert projects. They also perform schools concerts in regional venues. In addition, WNO open up their dress rehearsals for school children – tickets for which are growing in demand (‘we once did a dress rehearsal for a whole school who filled the whole theatre!’ Peter tells me).

All three organisations are dedicated to providing opportunities for young and emerging performers.

Providing opportunities for young musicians is the very reason that Sinfonia Cymru was set up, Sophie tells me.

‘From our perspective, it’s important that when they graduate, young musicians get an opportunity like Sinfonia Cymru. It is important that they take the time to work out what they want to do, because it is a vastly competitive world – and there aren’t as many jobs.

‘Young musicians coming out of college are being more inventive, entrepreneurial and thinking very widely about the portfolio career. And I think what Sinfonia Cymru does is offer the very best musicians in the UK an opportunity to not just perform with their peers and play music for the first time together, but also the chance to explore their wider creativity and embrace risk.’

Sinfonia Cymru

The WNO has talent development in their DNA, Peter tells me.

‘We run a successful side-by-side project with Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD), where instrumental students play in some of our rehearsals and often at specially arranged performances. In fact, some of our professional freelancers working in the business have come through that system. Working more widely with young singers, as well as stage director and stage management students, our partnership with RWCMD has brought into being an Opera School at the college. We’ve also extended our side-by-side scheme to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and this has now been running for four years,’ Peter explains.

Sophie also says, ‘We have a partnership with RWCMD. Through our ‘Curate’ project (sinfoniacymru.co.uk/curate), a series of innovative live and streamed performances devised and delivered by our musicians, we are working with two Trainee Creative Producers from RWCMD who have their own experimental zone during the intervals. We also work with the Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT).’

All three organisations tell me that partnership is intrinsic to their work.

‘We wouldn’t survive if we weren’t in partnership’, Michael tells me.

‘We work in partnership with the local music services, concert halls, schools, colleges and universities – partnerships are intrinsic to the work we do. Frankly, it’s the way we have coped in this world where funding is falling.’

Peter echoes Michael, ‘As far as national funding is concerned, you are considered to be lucky if you have stable funding with no increases – the norm now is for organisations to be fighting over a shrinking amount of money. Collaboration is so important – you can achieve so much more together.’

‘Working together is something not to be feared.’

This feature first appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of ISM Music Journal.