Dougie Scarfe has taken over as the new chief executive of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Fiona Clampin meets him to learn about his past and the orchestra’s future
There is a photo on the wall of the BSO chief executive’s office that shows six men who conducted the orchestra in 1910. Four are seated – Elgar, Dan Godfrey, Alexander Mackenzie and Stanford – with Edward German and Parry standing behind them. All apart from German are sporting walrus moustaches, and wearing a range of expressions from inscrutable to quizzical.
‘It’s an extraordinary photograph that makes me smile,’ says the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s new chief executive, softly. ‘Amazing.’
If Dougie Scarfe feels at all in awe of running an orchestra with such an illustrious list of past conductors, he doesn’t show it. He exudes a quiet confidence and gives the impression of somebody keen to understand profoundly the myriad relationships that make any orchestra tick, but especially this one. With a concert schedule taking the BSO regularly across 10,000 square miles of the south and south west of England and north to Bristol, there is a lot for someone new to get to grips with.
‘The BSO covers probably a larger area as a resident ensemble than any orchestra in the country,’ Scarfe says, ‘and with a bigger mixed economy of local authority support than any other orchestra. Some have one metropolitan city council to go to. We’ve got 11 or 12. So there’s a new set of relationships to build up with people involved in arts management, local authorities and the Arts Council, as well as staff and the orchestra. I’ve been doing an awful lot of homework.’
Homework, as most school children will tell you, can be tedious, but Scarfe relishes the challenge ahead of him. He is driven by a zeal to communicate the transformative power of music that has remained with him since he first took up the French horn, aged ten. Attracted by its shiny surface, his music teacher mother bought him the instrument, which he played in the National Youth Orchestra and later in the orchestra of Opera North. A playing-related injury forced him to give up the horn after 11 years in the job, and he went on to fulfil a number of roles with the company including, most recently, director of the orchestra, chorus and concert programme.
The board have appointed me to run a business, let’s be clear about this
His 23-year stint at Opera North came to an end in July when he took up the chief executive’s post at the BSO. Scarfe was head-hunted, after the role remained vacant for more than six months following the departure of Simon Taylor. With his experience of both performing and management, it’s easy to see why the BSO board felt he was the right person for the job.
‘The board has appointed me to run a business, let’s be clear about this,’ he says. ‘However, it is an artistic business, and I think if you’ve been a professional musician for a number of years as I have, it gives you a real insight. An orchestra is a body of incredibly skilled people and it’s important for a chief executive to be able to relate, and understand what staff in any part of the company would want to come and tell you. But I think almost equally important as having been a player is the fact that you are leading an organisation which makes music and spreads the gospel of why music is important. If you fundamentally believe that, and that’s all you’ve ever wanted to do since the age of ten, then I think that helps.’
Scarfe says the orchestra is in great shape, and he is excited by the relationship developing between its principal conductor Kirill Karabits, the players and the audience. ‘There is that real buzz around the place,’ he enthuses. ‘We’re now in a position where our audience is trusting Kirill, wanting to go and hear what he will do. And so alongside Tchaik 5 and Beethoven 9 and the great popular stuff he does, we are continuing the cycle of Prokofiev symphonies and works like Sibelius’s fourth symphony. These are great, great pieces but you need the audience to have that trust.’
‘And that feeds into other things. James Macmillan’s coming back this year, which I’m really excited about. What that photo in my office reminds me is that the BSO has an amazing history of first performances and bringing music from contemporary composers to the public, and that’s why our ‘living tradition’ strand is so important when we’re planning the season.’
The season kicks off officially in Poole this month, and coincides with the 120th anniversary of the orchestra’s beginnings. In May next year, audiences in Bournemouth will have a chance to hear some of the pieces performed on 22 May 1893 in the ensemble’s first ever concert. They will also experience the collaboration between Karabits and violinist Nicola Benedetti that has brought the BSO recent acclaim through their CD recording, The Silver Violin. ‘That date was fixed before the recording came out,’ says Scarfe, ‘though actually it’s a great way of celebrating an orchestra with a great history which is also looking forward.’
With the music hubs now up and running, Scarfe is keen to make the most of the BSO’s role here to inspire young people. In September, he and his team successfully secured a grant of £140,000 from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation to support the orchestra’s work in this area. Here again, he admits there will be challenges because of the large nature of the region and the number of hubs within it. But, as with the concerts, the education work brings him back to the theme of relationships. For example, the Vibes scheme for 14- to 25-year-olds, offers opportunities to meet musicians as well as get discounted tickets.
‘All arts organisations face the challenge that there aren’t as many people who take up the clarinet aged ten as there were in the past, and fewer free school music lessons. We don’t just open the door and they flock in, we have to build a relationship to show why. If we’re not our own advocates, who is going to do it for us? And I mean that in an entirely positive and constructive way, because the raw power of a symphony orchestra can really engage people. And we must never tire of the passion of the case that we have to make.’