Saturday, 4 April 2015

Orchestras Live - celebrating 50 years of taking professional music making to the places others never reach

Orchestras Live - First Time Live Youth in Harlow - 2015
Orchestras Live - First Time Live Youth in Harlow - 2015
Orchestras Live's Henry Little chats to me about new Steinway grands in Cockermouth, the first professional orchestra in Barrow in Furness in 30 years, orchestral work with older people in Colchester, going beyond the premiere, playing to an audience of under fives and much else besides.

Orchestras Live is 50 this year, but despite this long track record of sterling work the organisation remains somewhat unknown. Existing to help generate orchestral provision in areas where professional orchestras rarely go, either through distance or for economic reasons, the organisation's work can have a transformative effect as it acts as a catalyst in facilitating the bringing in of professional orchestral resources, with the concomitant involvement of local school and young people. In fact, I first experienced their work live when I attended one of the First Time Live - Youth events in Grimsby (see my article). These are concerts, by a professional orchestra, which are organised, planned and presented by a group of young people from the host area and they are a truly remarkable series of events. But First Time Live - Youth is just one of Orchestras Live's many activities and I met up with the organisation's director Henry Little, to talk about the first 50 years.

Henry had recently just come back from Barrow in Furness, which still takes 4 1/2 hours by train from London. Orchestras Live's project there brought the Manchester Camerata to Barrow-in-Furness, probably the first professional orchestra to play there for 30 years. There was an evening concert in full hall, attended by over 200 people, as well as two schools events with over 1000 school children at each as well as the live streaming of the concerts to the schools which could not attend. In many ways, this was a typical Orchestras Live event and one of its benefits is the interest and confidence which it leaves behind. Not just in the school children. The evening concert was a risk taken on by the venue (despite support from Orchestras Live, the event is still a financial risk) but the success has given them confidence to think about doing more.


Orchestras Live - First Time Live Youth in Shepshed - photo Jan Ford
Orchestras Live - First Time Live Youth in Shepshed - photo Jan Ford
And the audience is there; Henry talked to some of them at the concert and was struck not just by a willingness to travel, but also the willingness to learn music they didn't know rather than only coming to music that they have heard before. Henry's view is that they should seek not just to offer an audience the very best, but also to take them on a journey.

Orchestras Live does this via a network of partners all over the country. The county of Cumbria (which is where Barrow-in-Furness is) is vast, and rather disconnected. So Orchestras Live has partnership with a group of voluntary music societies in places live Penrith and Keswick, and through them helps create a concert series, Orchestras Live Cumbria. For one of these concerts the Britten Sinfonia, tenor Mark Padmore and violinist Pekka Kuusisto performed a programme which ranged from Corelli to Nico Muhly in Cockermouth (presented with Cockermouth Music Society). Talking to the audience Henry was told that they 'had no idea who Nico Muhly was, but it was fascinating piece and engaging'. It helped that both Padmore and Kuusisto talked to the audience, thus helping to engage them and take them on a journey. Henry is amazed at how much this does not happen, and feels that interaction can be essential.

Henry was previously head of opera at the Arts Council (in the days when the Arts Council had a head of opera), and since his move to Orchestras Live he has been seeking ways of making the organisation's events more innovative. Rather than simply commissioning new music for such concerts, the organisation has created its Beyond the premiere programme where instead of just commissioning the create a series of performing opportunities via the organisations network of partnerships all over the country. They have around 40 partners, all of a great variety of types ranging from the voluntary music societies, to festival, education hubs and councils. What links them all is their keenness to bring top level orchestral performances to their own areas.

Orchestras Live - Ten Pieces in Thurrock
Orchestras Live - Ten Pieces in Thurrock
What this network means is that if you put on a programme in somewhere like Cockermouth, you have the opportunity to put it on elsewhere. The performers have to get there, so it makes sense for Orchestras Live to help arrange for one of their partners on the orchestra's travel route to take the concert as well. The first Beyond the Premiere event was Alec Roth's guitar concerto which had five performances. And there have since been six other such programmes. But the performers do not simply turn up and present the audience with the new work, part of the concept is the idea of involving the audience, preparing them for what they will hear.

A recent Beyond the Premiere event was based around a new work by Huw Watkins for the Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS) which went to Cockermouth, Bradford on Avon, Beverley and Chelmsford. This was based around a new Huw Watkins work for OOTS supported by the Royal Philhamonic Society/Performing Rights Society Composer in the house scheme. And Watkins was a good ambassador for his work, and the fact that he is a pianist too was a great advantage.

Though the issue of pianos on such tours can be a bit of a challenge, as bringing in a good one can be prohibitively expensive. Recently Cockermouth has acquired a new Steinway grand with the support of Orchestras Live and an Arts Council Grant.

Orchestras Live - First Time Live II in Luton
Orchestras Live - First Time Live II in Luton
But finance is also something of a challenge, trying to find innovative programmes which are affordable within parameters which promoters can tolerate, because even with significant investment from Orchestras Live, the promoter has to take a risk and hopes to get a return. And the message to orchestras is how can you be as innovative as possible. A recent concert in Chelmsford is a prime example, as the 28 string players from the Philharmonia performed conductorless, directed by their leader. This is a way of providing access to the orchestra's phenomenal performing tradition, whilst making the project viable in smaller spaces. And other larger orchestras are looking how to go to similar performance spaces in remote areas, with a Philharmonia brass being considered for a tour.

Such events, do not just involve an evening concert to adults. Having got the professionals there, t the remote venue, Orchestras Live uses its links to local education hubs and other music education groups to enable young players to join the professionals and play alongside them.

In a remote place, then the biggest single cost is travel. With this in mind, Henry is looking forward to the fact that the Government is planning to introduce tax relief for orchestras on qualifying costs. And Henry hopes the process with help orchestras be more competitive in terms of what they can offer to Orchestras Live partners.

And every event relies on these partners, an event needs local champions and this is the most important factor in making the event a success, Henry feels. One of Orchestras Live's strengths is the way that during their 50 years they have developed this network of over 40 partners. They have had a long time to build trust and confidence. Orchestras Live remains very clear on the value proposition, with the partner organisation receiving back more than they put in, provided the money is invested in the orchestral world.

Orchestras Live - Lullaby concerts
Orchestras Live - Lullaby concerts
With Local Authority Partners, the projects work so that they deliver specific things for them, for instance the new Health and Wellbeing strand which contributes to specific Local Authority priorities. An example of this is a project in care homes with Orchestra Viva in Colchester, which included a concert as well as participatory work from workshops to develop a sense of engagement with the older people and they want to repeat the model elsewhere in Essex and elsewhere, and work with more than just old people. At the other end of the spectrum, Orchestras Live runs their Lullabye Series with orchestral tours to children 0 to 5! These are themed events, with an animateur and lots of active participation from the children.

Of course, funding is tight but Orchestras Live has been confirmed as a national portfolio organisation until 2018 and Henry feels they have a good relationship with the Arts Council. And he works with what he describes as a fantastic team, many of whom have work for the organisation for 25 years.

The aim over the last few years has been to increase the organisation's profile and it is coming to be recognised as a national asset in its own right. Not only does Henry feel that public recognition is stronger, but Ed Vaizey singled them out in his keynote speech to the ABO Conference.

A glance at the Orchestras Live upcoming events page on their website reveals the wealth and breadth of events, with many planned for the anniversary year.

Elsewhere on this blog:

No comments:

Post a comment

Popular Posts this month