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Positive outlook: Mark Pemberton

Mark Pemberton

State of the Nation

8:00, 3rd November 2017

This month’s guest editor of Classical Music is Mark Pemberton, director of the Association of British Orchestras, who looks here at the role of the annual conference and explains why he remains optimistic in challenging times

In January 2017 the ABO held its annual conference in Bournemouth. Plunged in fog on the first day, Southampton airport ground to a halt, and delegates from across the country limped in after many hours’ delay. Which rather justified our conference theme of Disruption. But there were happier disruptions throughout the conference, with musical interruptions by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and most memorable of all a stage invasion by Donny Osmond.

A musical interruption: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra musicians at the 2017 ABO conference © ABO
A musical interruption: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra musicians at the 2017 ABO conference

But these are serious times, and much of our discussion focused on the disruptions, negative and positive, that have an impact on our industry. And most importantly, we talked about our preconceptions about diversity and inclusion, and how we have to be willing to disrupt them to make a real shift in the culture of orchestral life. Our sector is under scrutiny more than ever for its tendency to be ‘pale, male and stale’, and we aimed to set an agenda for change.

One year on, it’s time to look at progress and take a view on what still needs to be done. And in line with our theme of Collaboration, we need to look at how partnerships fuel change.

What does collaboration really mean? Why does it matter? Well, so much of the way that orchestras work relies on transactional relationships. The promoter pays a fee. The customer buys a ticket. The workforce earns a salary.

We fly into venues across the world, play amazing concerts, and leave. But is this nothing more than just a one-night stand, or can we wake up in the morning and forge a deep and meaningful relationship? Can we involve our audiences in the creative process, turning them from consumers to collaborators? And can we build a genuinely collaborative relationship between manager and musician, putting to bed the tradition of ‘them and us’?

These are big asks, but that’s what the ABO conference is for. We aim to provoke debate, forge consensus, and set an agenda for the future of our industry. Because in the current climate, the stakes are too high.

Discussing the big issues: Conference delegates © ABO
Discussing the big issues: Conference delegates

I’ve been at the ABO for just over ten years, and my, the world has changed in that time. When I arrived in the summer of 2007, we were still in the political era of ‘no return to boom and bust’. The climate for public funding was benign, corporate sponsorship was at a high, and the orchestral sector was motoring. And then, in 2008, all changed with the global financial crash. At our conference in January 2009, Chris Giles, economics editor of the Financial Times, gave us an extremely gloomy prognosis of what was to come, and all too soon he was proved right. The general election of 2010 was followed by huge cuts in public expenditure, and the spending squeeze goes on. Sponsorship also took a hit as business contracted, and has never recovered. Thankfully individual giving has seen a welcome increase, and audiences have grown.

What has become clear in these difficult times is just how resilient and enterprising British orchestras are. They have held their nerve, continued to be bold, and maintained their commitment to offering the highest quality music-making to the widest possible audience, using their public and private investment wisely and adding to the nation’s economy and well-being.

They have also grasped the opportunity to serve as cultural ambassadors for the UK, arguably visiting more countries and reaching more people globally than ever before.

Which brings me to the hottest of hot potatoes in my in-tray. Brexit, covered in admirable depth in the recent ISM guest-edited issue of Classical Music, poses huge challenges to our sector. From freedom of movement of our workforce, to touring across the EU, leaving the single market and customs union will make our members’ lives difficult, creating barriers and red tape and adding extra costs.

But maybe we can see some silver linings, which we will explore at our conference in Cardiff in January. If the government is serious about trade deals and new markets, then orchestras have an opportunity to play their part, contributing to the ‘soft power’ that culture adds to international relations. But we also need to maintain our links with European colleagues. British orchestras are hugely popular with audiences in Europe, and we don’t want to lose access to our traditional market.

Challenges and opportunities: Brexit remains a big issue © Stockstudio
Challenges and opportunities: Brexit remains a big issue
© Stockstudio

And we need to explore what the government’s agenda for putting British workers first in the queue for jobs post-March 2019 will mean for the future recruitment of orchestral musicians. Collaboration with stakeholders across music education will be essential for ensuring that, as access to talent from Europe and outside the EEA is increasingly switched off, we have a steady supply of home-grown musicians to fill the gap. We need to combine forces to argue strongly for increased investment in music educations and skills development, to ensure British orchestras maintain their quality and international competitiveness.

So this is why Collaboration will be the topic of discussion in January 2018. British orchestras cannot solve the challenges they face alone.

And the ABO is doing its bit to build partnerships too, including working with the PRS Foundation on the Resonate project. With funding from the Foyle Foundation, in 2016 the ABO built a database of works commissioned by its members over the past 30 years, and the PRS Foundation then launched a three-year grants programme to incentivise ABO members to perform works on the database. The aim is to deal with the problem of so many new works only ever receiving a single performance, and giving hidden treasures the chance to shine again.

And the ABO remains active in the Arts Council England-funded Family Arts Campaign, an audience development initiative led by a consortium of associations across music, theatre, dance and visual arts, which has successfully embedded new approaches and partnerships in programming for families.

These are challenging but exciting times. Here’s to the next decade, and I’ve every confidence British orchestras, with the help of their association, will continue to thrive.

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