Saturday 2 April 2022

A tradition of excellence in danger of being eroded: the Continuo Foundation started simply as an idea to support the UK's period instrument groups

Continuo Foundation: A collage from all activities taken place in the first grant round
Continuo Foundation: A collage from all activities taken place in the first grant round

The Continuo Foundation's aims are 'to enable a flourishing of live period performances in every region of the country, and to help period-instrument ensembles and musicians engage and inspire ever-larger audiences of all ages.' Despite having only existed since 2020, the foundation has already awarded over £350,000 in grants to 51 period music ensembles. The foundation was created by Tina Vadaneaux and she is its CEO. Tina's career began in corporate finance on Wall Street, going on to various leading City firms following a move to London. Yet, music and more specifically Early Music was something that she loved, and she always chose to go to Early Music concerts and got to know musicians over the years. With the coming of the pandemic, she became aware that not only were events cancelled but that musicians' diaries for the foreseeable future were completely empty.

Tina felt that the UK's tradition of excellence in this field was in terrible danger of being eroded as musicians went off elsewhere to earn a living. She was also aware that there was a desire amongst performers to get together and perform even with no live audience. So she decided to try and do something; the Continuo Foundation was created to raise money to give grants to help groups create projects. Tina didn't know whether it would work but thanks to some amazing patrons, advisors and trustees, the foundation goes from strength to strength. The initial target was £100,000 and the first round of grants was launched in January 2021.

There was an overwhelming response to this first round, with 75 different groups applying for grants and some amazing ideas for projects. For many groups, it was the news that money was available that provided the inspiration for creating a project and she feels that it is lovely that a pot of money inspired creativity. Tina had no idea that there were so many period performance groups in the UK; to date, over 100 groups have applied for grants. Many are run by musicians, who have little fund-raising and marketing expertise. So from the outset, the foundation set out to have this expertise in house with its expert advisors (currently David Hill, Dr Berta Joncus, Lindsay Kemp and Joseph McHardy), which means that groups' applications do not have to be long and involved; this has been welcomed by groups applying and is a success. The advisory panel makes recommendations which are then discussed by the trustees.

The development of the foundation has been in carefully controlled stages. That first round of grants in January 2021 was intended to help get musicians back to work. Now, in what Tina calls the second stage, the aims have developed to help groups perform more, to encourage performances in different parts of the country, and with more performances thus helping performers earn more income. A future development is to create an online hub that will bring together details of all the UK period instrument groups and their performances thus creating an online resource and making the performances more visible.

The foundation has no staff, it is run by volunteers which means that unfortunately, they are not able to give detailed feedback to applicants, but they write to people before the public announcement, which Tina sees as a minimum courtesy, and they provide a list of other funding sources.

For the last round, which has just been announced, they had 66 applications and made 25 grants. This round introduced a new category, for newly formed groups and they had 13 applications. For this category, groups were invited to submit a ten-minute performance video in lieu of performance history. Tina also spent time talking to the groups, after all, they want the projects they support to succeed. Even for the more established groups, the foundation's grant is only the first step and they like to develop a close relationship with the groups they support and help to promote the events. Tina tries to go to as many of the events as possible, both in London and around the UK, and she finds that the groups are grateful that this happens, that the foundation's approach is certainly not 'here's £5,000 now go out and do it'. This support was particularly welcome in 2021 when almost all the projects had to go over hurdles to make them happen.

Supported by a Continuo Foundation grant: Bach Club Soloists concert at St Mary’s Church, Putney in February 2022 (Photo Continuo Foundation)
Supported by a Continuo Foundation grant: Bach Club Soloists concert at St Mary’s Church, Putney in February 2022 (Photo Continuo Foundation)
The foundation's money comes from generous donors; the majority are private individuals, but they have had three significant grants from the Maria Björnson Memorial Fund with a commitment for grants for the next three rounds. They find that individual donors are inspired both by the idea of the foundation and what it has achieved. Many early donors were so pleased that so much happened so quickly that they gave more to subsequent rounds. When Tina started the foundation, she had no idea whether they would reach the goal of raising £100,000 and now they are looking at approaching a total raised of over £500,000. 

There is a deliberate aim to make things less London-centric, to encourage performances across the country. From the second round (in July 2021) the evaluation criteria included a preference for live performance over recording and a keenness to support concerts outside London. So far the foundation has supported 100 performances in 46 different locations around the country. A lot of the musicians live outside London, or their parents do, and they are keen to take music to other communities providing it is economically viable. And people do come, and they find that regular series of concerts grow audiences. The response has continued to be wonderful. The most recent round of grants added another 24 locations so that music is getting to communities, with groups like The Telling touring to 17 different locations (supported by a round three grant), engaging with new audiences and new places.

For the future, the foundation has a community of over 50 ensembles that have had grants and each has an online presence, often reliant on word of mouth to get people to concerts. So the foundation wants to create a single hub to bring audiences and musicians together, to list all the UK's period instrument concerts and multiply the effect of the grants. Also, by collecting data the foundation feels that it will give confidence to groups to take concerts to new places. Having an online resource will also be helpful to audience members, at the moment it is easy to miss events with so many smaller performing groups.

There is a huge amount of research and rehearsal time needed to create a programme, often unpaid, and then the group might put on a single performance which inevitably loses money. It is better to multiply performances, and many of the projects supported have been this sort of tour. And the rewards are not just financial, performers find that playing the same programme together several times over a short period brings artistic rewards. And a small ensemble can perform in 100s of suitable venues, unlike an orchestra. Again, this is where the online hub will come in useful as many non-traditional venues have no publicity in house.

The foundation plans to launch the next round of grants in July 2022, and they are working towards raising £100,000 and are confident they will get there. They find that there is a huge value in announcing that there will be £100,000 in grants, twice a year. Not only does it give inspiration to groups, but it also helps them plan ahead and with fundraising, people are motivated to reach a goal when they see the potential impact. 

The foundation is reacting to the current environment all the time, reacting to what is happening. Groups still need support into 2023, then they plan to look ahead more with plenty of ideas to get music around including festivals and supporting students. 

Supported by a Continuo Foundation grant: Instruments of Time and Truth concert at Holywell Music Room, Oxford in January 2022 (Photo Continuo Foundation)
Supported by a Continuo Foundation grant: Instruments of Time and Truth concert at Holywell Music Room, Oxford in January 2022 (Photo Continuo Foundation)

What is most important are the musicians in the UK's thriving period performance scene. The 2021 grants involved over 500 different musicians (350 instrumentalists, 150 vocalists) and the foundation will continue to track this. The musicians are so full of knowledge, Tina comments that she has never been to a concert where she didn't learn something. And small groups travel easily, so the foundation sees this as a wonderful opportunity to bring culture to communities everywhere. 

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