What’s next? That is the theme of the annual conference of the Association of British Orchestras, and rarely has it been such a vexed question. Yet director Mark Pemberton detects a surprisingly positive mood in the sector, and is keen to look at new opportunities for orchestras. Andrew Green reports

What with their involvement in the Olympics, the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations and the BBC’s Music Nation project, British orchestras have had an especially high-profile year. Not so high-profile as might have been the case had BBC TV chosen to make more of the Jubilee music commissions and the role orchestral musicians played in the famous river pageant, perhaps, but that’s water under the bridge, you might say.

‘Yes, I watched the pageant with some disappointment,’ says Mark Pemberton, director of the Association of British Orchestras, with the mildest hint of understatement. ‘It really was a lost opportunity to draw attention to what orchestras do. But it was still a massive summer for our members.’

Connecting, championing and developing: Mark Pemberton
Photograph: Joe Plommer

And didn’t they just need that sort of encouragement ‒ a morale-boost to offset the continuing environment of public expenditure cuts, which for one thing have resulted in pay freezes wherever you look. ‘Surprisingly, though, there’s still a positive mood out there,’ says Pemberton, ‘much of it based on seeing the loyalty being shown by audiences.’

The merest glance at the ABO’s schedule of events indicates just how significantly the sourcing of financial advice figures in the service the association offers its members. One area under examination has been so-called ‘crowdfunding’ ‒ the vogue for raising money via small donations for very specific projects. Hen Norton, co-founder of the arts crowdfunding site WeDidThis.org.uk, addressed ABO members at one session. ‘There are many interesting websites promoting this sort of idea,’ Pemberton observes. ‘We’ve seen groups like the Gabrieli Consort start to go down this route. Crowdfunding might provide cash for a new recording or something like that, with donors perhaps getting a humorous type of acknowledgment – maybe having one bar of the music in question being named in their honour.’

At the macro-economic end of the financial scale, one big change in the landscape has arrived in the shape of government initiatives to boost large-scale arts funding via its Catalyst programme. This makes funding available to encourage projects aimed at developing endowments, inspired by the primacy of endowment in US arts funding.

‘Some orchestras have begun a drive here,’ says Pemberton. ‘I’m in favour of anything that helps advance fundraising capacity, but I nonetheless have reservations about such a focus on endowments. The trouble with an endowment is that although an orchestra can access the interest it yields, the rest is locked away. Most current fundraising involves money that’s available for use immediately. This isn’t the best economic climate in which to establish such an ambitious initiative, not least in terms of interest that can be generated. And what we don’t want is for people to divert their existing giving into endowments. We should remember it took decades to establish endowments in the States. And it’s arguably the over-reliance on endowments that’s causing such difficulties over there now.’

Another interface with new government money this year arrived in the shape of the ABO’s leadership of a consortium of organisations (among them Dance UK, the Independent Theatre Council and the Visual Arts and Galleries Association) which has won a £1.1m grant over three years to increase the amount, range and quality of ‘family-friendly’ arts provision. The cash has facilitated the appointment of a ‘Family Friendly Arts’ campaign manager, Alastair Tallon. ‘His first job,’ says Pemberton, ‘has been to consult members of the consortium to discover what they’re currently doing and what they’d want from such a campaign. One thing that’s clear is that the phrase ‘family friendly activity’ is largely interpreted currently as relating to children. Parents and grandparents tend to be regarded as glorified child-minders. In fact, they should feel completely included in a genuinely inter-generational experience.’

However, government giveth, and also taketh away. This year has seen the ABO lose its Arts Council regular funding: no huge sum involved, but the association’s board nonetheless took the opportunity to re-think its role. ‘It’s been a useful exercise,’ Pemberton comments. ‘We’ve conducted a survey of our members, the results of which fed into our new strategic plan which will be launched in November.

I’m in favour of anything that helps advance fundraising capacity

‘We’ve decided to highlight and prioritise three words that stand for what we do – Connecting, Championing and Developing. ‘Connecting’ refers to how the ABO brings its members together to improve their knowledge of the issues that affect them, sharing their collective experience. ‘Championing’ of course has to do with the way we demonstrate why orchestras matter in the media and to government and key opinion-formers. ‘Developing’ particularly has to do with helping the staff of orchestras to improve skills and better carry out their jobs.’

Gabrieli Consort crowdfunders, crowding in

One relatively soft-touch way in which the ABO already carries out its ‘championing’ role is seen in its organising role for the All-Party Parliamentary Classical Music Group of MPs and peers. Meeting three or four times a year, all its members are genuine devotees of classical music, according to Pemberton. ‘Everyone who attends is there because they want to see classical music continue to thrive. They have the wellbeing of orchestras at heart and make sure ministers are aware of the group’s existence.’

Members of the group are prime targets for ABO News, launched earlier this year as an online newsletter. ‘The idea is to remind all those who receive it of the range of work orchestras do,’ Pemberton explains, ‘of how they’re entrepreneurial and fleet-of-foot, and that they stand for excellence and access. The feedback’s been excellent. Often it’s: “We didn’t know orchestras did all these things”.’

Other ABO initiatives this year have included a joint exercise with the Musicians’ Union to examine the implications of the abolition of employers’ rights to impose a default retirement age, an exercise in fact extending across the range of career and personal issues that concern individual members of orchestras. One outcome has been the publication of a declaration of intent under the banner: ‘Staying Happier for Longer’, designed to promote a continuing face-to-face dialogue between employers and players.

‘Every musician should feel they’re in a conversation with those who employ them,’ says Pemberton, ‘that there’s a regular appraisal going on: “How’s it going? How do you feel about us as employers?” and so on. The dialogue should cover issues from how to handle retirement through to promoting personal development. Bill Kerr of the MU has been talking to orchestras, some of whom are already piloting ideas. The 2013 ABO conference will assess the progress that’s been made, but this is a long-term project.

‘It’s important that conservatoires are involved in the discussions here. In fact, we’re planning a series of sessions with Conservatoires UK at our forthcoming conference, focusing on the next generation of orchestral musicians. We want to look both at students’ expectations of a professional career and at what orchestras need from them – flexibility, for example, an ability to adapt to new ways of working.’

That ABO conference, staged in Leeds and hosted by Opera North, has as its theme ‘What’s Next?’ – homing in on new opportunities opening up for the orchestral sector. The keynote speaker is Max Hole, chief operating officer of Universal Music Group. ‘He has a rock-and-roll background,’ Pemberton observes, ‘and has promised to be “fairly controversial” in his views about the serious changes he feels classical music has to make. We’ll have to wait and see what he says, but the areas covered may involve new forms of classical music presentation and a look at whether the CD is dead.’

Among the strands of conference content will be everything from the science of gearing up for ‘own-label’ recordings to examinations of streaming opportunities and the developing world of cinema screenings. ‘Given that we’re being hosted by an opera company, it will be interesting to look at the lessons to be learned from the increasing number of screenings of opera. What are the implications for relaying and streaming concerts?’

By the time the conference comes round, orchestras will have a better idea of what they can expect from the new secretary of state at the Department for Culture Media and Sport, Maria Miller. In conjunction with the organisation Arts & Business and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the ABO staged a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham which had Miller as its star attraction.

Pemberton’s verdict? ‘It was clear government policy remains wedded to increasing philanthropy. We’re delighted however that the secretary of state is prepared to listen to our sector, and we hope to engineer a meeting with her shortly to move forward on some of the issues around tax breaks and lifetime legacies.’