As Saffron Hall celebrates its fifth anniversary, Lucy Thraves caught up with chief executive Angela Dixon to find out more about the venue and its work in the community

(c) Paul Eccleston Arthouse ltd

How has Saffron Hall evolved over the last five years?

When I arrived at Saffron Hall in April 2014 there was no programme in place for the following September. I was the only member of staff and there were around 1,000 people on the database. Five years on, we are presenting over 100 events a year, there are nine full-time staff, 40 casual staff, 80 volunteers and 23,000 names on the database. 

The first full programme in 2014/15 was principally classical music but now, alongside an extensive classical music programme, we present jazz, folk, world music, dance, talks and a foyer folk and jazz programme.

Over time we have also established ourselves with young people and nearly 10 per cent of our audience is now under 18. Sunday afternoon programming has really helped grow this audience demographic.

How have you raised the hall’s profile?

It is quite hard to grow profile in a venue outside London. Local press tends to be supportive but very general in their coverage, and concert reviews are simply unheard of. We are reliant on word of mouth, so I keep the quality of the programme high and our front of house team deliver a superb standard of customer service. A few weeks ago, we held a gala dinner for 300 people in the hall and Nicola Benedetti was the special guest. It was hard work but these kinds of events help to highlight achievements and show off the flexibility of the venue. We changed the acoustic setting in the hall three times during the dinner!

How does the hall’s location within school grounds affect its atmosphere?

Unlike many arts venues, Saffron Hall is constantly teeming with life. The hall itself is also the school hall and so is used for music concerts, musical productions, public exams, masterclasses, parents’ evenings and a careers fair. The dual use of the space means that the community are very familiar with the hall and very comfortable within it. Amateur music groups and school groups are frequently in open rehearsals or in the audience for concerts with the London Philharmonic Orchestra or Maxim Vengerov but are just as likely to find themselves on stage performing with English Touring Opera, the BBC Concert Orchestra or the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. Last weekend the Saffron Building Society Choir appeared on stage with the London Community Gospel Choir – it was quite an evening!

What kinds of outreach programmes are on offer? How are these incorporated within the day-to-day running of the hall?

From the outset there was a very strong link between the public programme and the schools and community work. The two are now so intertwined that I don’t even try to separate them. The artists and ensembles that we have close relationships with all feed into our schools’ programme, which offers an experience of music, theatre or dance to every primary school aged child within 10 miles of the hall. We work very closely with Saffron Walden County High School’s sixth form music academy through workshops, leadership training and free tickets to all our concerts. We also offer in-depth residencies for small handpicked groups of children who would most benefit from the confidence boost of working with professional musicians can offer. 

Two weeks ago, 20 children in year 9 (13/14 year olds) came off-timetable for three days to work with Brooklyn-based percussion group So Percussion. At the end they performed a piece they had made with the group to their year group and then again that evening as part of So Percussion’s public concert. We recently held dance workshops with hip-hop dance company Boy Blue to all the boys in years 7 and 8 at the school – around 350 pupils.

The Hallé are this season’s associate ensemble and some of the musicians spent a day with us in side-by-side rehearsals with Saffron Centre for Young Musicians and talented musicians from secondary schools across the region. Musicians such as Nicola Benedetti and Jess Gillam perform regularly at the hall and work extensively with schools and many artists from the programme also visit our community project Together in Sound, a weekly music therapy programme for people living with dementia and their carers, run in partnership with Anglia Ruskin University’s Cambridge Centre for Music Therapy Research. 

What’s the most enjoyable aspect of your job?

It has been a privilege to be part of such a visionary project and to work with a community of people, from the teachers and staff at Saffron Walden County High School to the loyal audience members and supporters to the world-class artists who have made Saffron Hall their home, to build something extraordinary in such a short time. Concerts that can be taken for granted in London are cherished and adored in Saffron Walden. All artists coming to the hall comment on the warmth and appreciation of the audiences and it gives me great pleasure to reward that audience with some of the finest music-making in the county and beyond. To be able to share that experience with schools and people living on the edges of our community is very special indeed.

On a more practical level, arts venues are struggling as local authority and arts council cuts bite still further. Saffron Hall receives no substantial regular funding from either local authority or arts council. Its educational setting creates a model that is both beneficial, sustainable and replicable. I enjoy sharing our experiences with other organisations that are thinking of doing something similar and I hope that other venues likes ours will flourish across the country.

Do you have any plans in the pipeline?

Having established an audience, a team of staff and a reputation for Saffron Hall, my next goals are to diversify the programme further. I would like to make classical music more accessible to those who have never experienced it through innovative presentation, and I would like to start focusing more on new music. We are starting to establish a strong dance programme at Saffron Hall and I would like to think we can, over time, become the home of dance in the region. We will be announcing a new partnership with a world-class ensemble in the spring, which I am very excited about. Demand is growing for our work with people with dementia so I want to expand the geographical reach of Together in Sound.

We want to do more intergenerational work within the community: we are piloting a project this summer called Come Together which brings together young carers, groups from Mind West Essex, people living with dementia and other groups who suffer from isolation and loneliness. Saffron Hall has 400 free parking spaces and is very accessible, but I have plans to improve experiences for disabled audience members still further. We rebuilt the bar shortly after I arrived as the original one was not adequate for the size of audiences we now regularly attract. Crucially I don’t have any plans to improve the hall; the building itself and its acoustics are perfect – there aren’t many concert halls that can say that!