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Golden anniversary: Northern Chamber Orchestra

Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

Q&A: Northern Chamber Orchestra general manager Tom Elliott

9:00, 15th July 2017

The Northern Chamber Orchestra is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Katy Wright speaks to its general manager to find out more

How has the ensemble changed over the past 50 years?
It’s changed mostly in terms of its region and its audience base. About 35 years ago a venue in Macclesfield – the Heritage Centre, an old school building which was derelict at that point – was made available by Cheshire East Council, and a couple of members of the orchestra thought it was ideal. It’s a lovely venue with a 420-seat capacity, the perfect size stage for the orchestra, and a gently sloping floor, so it has really good visibility. Even though we’re based in Manchester, we’ve built it into our home from home, and have been able to use it as a springboard to other places. We’ve also been resident orchestra at Buxton Festival for 25 years. Those two residencies have been the foundation of our loyal audience base. We’re now looking to have much more of a presence in Manchester, and we hope the Stoller Hall will become our base here.

What makes the orchestra unique?
The fact that – unless we’re doing a big piece or working with a choir – we very rarely have a conductor. Our musical and artistic director Nicholas Ward, who has been leading the orchestra for about 35 years, sometimes directs from a slightly elevated position from within the orchestra through a combination of energetic playing and the odd raised eyebrow. He’s worked with all these musicians for some time, so he’s built up a rapport – not just with them, but also with the audience too. He gives the orchestra that sense of real liveness and flexibility that means we can play in all sorts of different venues, but also means we can fit to the music and the occasion, and bring a certain clarity to the pieces which are more often heard with a symphony orchestra.

What do you do in learning and outreach?
We’ve done extensive work with early years, but we’re now also working with children who have been introduced to these instruments for a few months to a year and giving them the chance to create some music. It’s a matter of imaginative work with early years but very much hands on, and then taking that approach to primary and even secondary school children as well.

How is the ensemble marking its 50th year?

Maintaining core values: Tom Elliott
Maintaining core values: Tom Elliott

We’ve got our usual season of eight concerts at Macclesfield, but we’ve got some wonderful soloists, including Chloë Hanslip, Jennifer Pike, Elin Manahan Thomas and Gwilym Simcock. Gwilym presents a bit of a different avenue for us as an orchestra; his playing combines jazz and classical elements, so we hope he could help us reach a new audience, as well as interesting our existing audience. We’re very keen to branch out into new areas while still keeping our core belief, which is in the value of the great classics. We’ll also be working with Martin Roscoe and with our president Raphael Wallfisch.

How would you like to see the ensemble develop?
I see us as having a key role in the strategic vision for Manchester. There is a huge amount of investment and building work in the city and we need to make sure that high-quality classical music is at the heart of that vision. A proper cultural identity is crucial to attracting investors, businesses and people in to Manchester as it builds and we believe that the great works, by the great composers, played brilliantly has to be central to this identity. There is more to Manchester than pop music.
I’d love us to get a proper venue there and put on a season of at least eight concerts a year there with some of these wonderful soloists we’ve worked with, raising our profile across the region, and then eventually become more of a UK-wide ensemble which could look to tour. We’re based within Manchester Metropolitan University and we’re very keen on the sense of collaboration which is engendered here with different faculties working together, and we would want to forge links with different universities and abroad. With Brexit on the horizon, people have become somewhat inward looking, so we want to prove that through culture you can get a true sense of collaboration and put music at the heart of talking with other countries and other people.


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