Friday 8 November 2013

Orchestras Live - 'Taking Music Further' (1)

Orchestras Live - Taking Music Further
Orchestras Live is a charity which focuses on providing high quality orchestral experiences for people regardless of who they are or where they live. The charity targets communities where orchestras usually fail to go. The theme of the conference yesterday (7 November 2013) at Kings Place, was 'Taking Music Further'. Over 100 people from music eduction hubs, orchestras, festivals and concert halls gather to hear a variety of presentations looking at what Orchestras Live has done in the last year, and considering what could be done and needs to be done in the future. 

After an introduction from Orchestras Live's chieve executive Henry Little we heard a keynote speech from broadcaster Tom Service entitled Orchestras: more like Mothers of Invention... we saw a film from Scunthorpe about one of Orchestras Live's First Time Live projects (where the young people are involved in the actual organisation of the concert). In the afternoon there was a live link-up with the Aurora Orchestra who were rehearsing for an Orchestras Live concert that evening in Southampton, again followed by a panel discussion. This article, the first of two, covers the activities of the morning session. (the second article can be read here)

In his keynote speech, Tom Service started by talking about Frank Zappa and his film 200 Motels and Zappa's views on the disenfranchisement of orchestral players and the cultural irrelevance of orchestras. Service went on to point out that much of what Zappa said is still true today. Anecdotal evidence from Orchestras Live's First Time Live projects suggested that the young participants were discovering that orchestral music was anything but a passive experience. He argued that the engagement of the entire process of creating an orchestral concert was inspiring and that we should be prepared to expose the mechanics of rehearsal. That if orchestras streamed their rehearsals on-line the orchestral experience would become more about the people than the programming; to go back to Zappa, it would make orchestras simply big rock bands. Such an opening up would be scary for organisations but empowering for musicians; orchestras should be seen as being as messy as a rock band. Service also talked about the fact that to listen should be a highly active verb, not a passive one.

There followed an inspiring film from Scunthorpe about the First Time Live project there. In this project 30 young people, aged 13, were responsible for the entire organisation of the concert. They planned the programme, acted as events management and technical crew and one even conducted the orchestra in one number. They showed remarkable commitment, confidence and professionalism. Talking to two of the young producers afterwards it was clear that participation in the project had changed their view of what an orchestral concert would be.

The morning was completed with a panel discussion, facilitated by Alice King Farlow from the National Theatre, Neil Bennison (Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham), Jackie Newbould (Birmingham Contemporary Music Group) and Jake Orr (A Younger Theatre) talked about the issues raised and about their own organisations attempts to widen reach.

Newbould talked about BCMG's Sound Investors scheme. Since 1991 they have raised over £330,000 for the commissioning of new music. Audience members buy £150 shares in the new work and they get to meet the composer, go to rehearsals and get a signed copy of the score. It also means that a premieres there are 30 to 60 people in the audience who are involved in the work, either as individuals or as groups, and in fact sound investors tend to bring their friends to the concerts too. This has affected BCMG's practice, not the acutal programming but it has caused them to think about presentation particularly in rehearsals, and about the informality in concerts. Later on in the discussions she came back to this, mentioning that when BCMG rehearsed a non-Sound Investment work, the players found the rehearsal a little flat with no audience.

Their other scheme, which ran for 10 years, involved taking the group to the audience. In order to get more audience involvement in neighbouring counties they took the entire ensemble, composers and batteries of percussion to schools and libraries. Newbould described the scheme as hugely expensive, but they toured programmes of contemporary music by unknown names, playing to packed village halls with people full of curiosity. It was a way of taking down barriers.

Neil Bennison for Nottingham Royal Concert Hall described how their Nottingham Classics orchestral subscription concerts have run since 2011 with no subsidy, and has in fact made money. The series involves 12 concerts from visiting orchestras, with the hall developing a special relationship with the Halle. Though the series does run core classics, they are always looking for ways in, and have just started open rehearsals with the Halle. One popular alternative format is their 6pm drive time concert; this came about to utilise resources put together for the schools concert, and the idea of the orchestra performing the same material, with the same animateur, at 6pm led to a popular family concert. At the schools concert, school children play with the orchestra, in order to build participation at the drive time concert they formed a choir which has grown from 450 to 700 people.

When the hall lost its local authority subsidy they were concerned to retain audience loyalty and increase customer base. They started consultations via customer circles and from these came a number of coach schemes (bussing audience members from more distant locations) which are starting to be run independently by volunteers. Volunteers are also heavily involved in the distribution of leaflets.

The final panel member was Jake Orr of A Younger Theatre, a group which gets young people involved in the theatre, including getting them to review and write about it. He talked about taking young people into the theatre and the barriers (real and perceived) that this involved; simply getting through the door was the biggest challenge as buildings were forbidding.

The discussion then widened to talk about various schemes and ideas for getting young people involved. Newbould talked about how BCMG's composer workshops with children led to the children wanting to hear the composer's work but that the formal BCMG concerts were not at a suitable time, thus leading the group to develop family friendly concerts. Whilst Bennison talked about the Nottingham concert hall's under 25 scheme, with tickets for £5, and how they are growing a Facebook group and developing a relationship with the University.

But there are challenges. Bennison feels constrained because his programming is limited by what the orchestras offer them. Whereas for Newbould, there are no challenges, if you really want to do something than do it anyway. Interestingly, for Orr the biggest problem was education as many young people see such events as education rather than entertainment. The biggest challenge is to help young people find joy and pleasure from arts events.

There was a lively discussion about the problem of the rules surrounding concert going, and the difference between ritual and reverence, with older people being comfortable with ritual whereas younger people find it alienating. For Newbould, the BCMG players deepest musical experiences were often in their concerts in the village halls where they experienced the strongest communication with the audience. A lively side discussion developed into the importance, or lack of it, of dress code and whether this is important or not; no consensus seemed to be possible here in the short time.

A final, important point before lunch was that an important factor in breaking down barriers was that the children and young people should identify the orchestral performers as individuals, as people rather than simply as part of a group.

My second article covers the afternoon session with a live link-up with the Aurora Orchestra.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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