ABO Conference highlights 2019

At the end of January, the Orchestras Live team joined sector colleagues at the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) annual conference held in Belfast. Here are their highlights…

Stuart Bruce, Senior Creative Producer

The trip to Belfast was memorable, not only for the quality of the ABO conference and a stunning concert by Ulster Orchestra but also because of the warm welcome by the people in this impressive city.

The first conference session I joined, just 25 minutes after landing at the George Best Belfast City Airport, was entitled ‘Cross Border: Design an Orchestra!’. Facilitated by senior managers at Southbank Sinfonia, City of London Sinfonia and the National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain, delegates were challenged to think about the kind of orchestra they would build for a certain kind of community if starting from scratch. It was fascinating to hear people’s ideas, ranging from something similar to the conventional orchestral model to more unusual solutions. My own view was that a quite radical, flexible ensemble would be the ideal, encompassing different musical genres and able to configure itself into a host of different sized teams, ensembles and orchestras suitable for everything from collaborative projects through to large-scale performances, all of equal importance. Indeed, this relevance to people and place is at the heart of the Orchestras Live ethos, and whilst there is currently no single performing organisation that can fulfil all of these functions, we do draw on the particular strengths of many different orchestras to produce a myriad of activities for particular communities and audiences across the country.

Jan Ford, Senior Creative Producer

Cross border was the theme of this year’s ABO conference, held in Belfast, hosted by the Ulster Orchestra – whose performance of Shostakovich’s mighty Fourth Symphony at the Waterfront concert hall needed the cross border co-operation of a number of orchestras for a performance of that scale!

One of the most interesting sessions I attended focused on the importance of place-making and the role orchestras can play in this. Facilitated by Arts Council’s Director of Music, Claire Mera-Nelson, with Martin Sutherland, Chief Executive of Coventry City of Culture 2021, Cian Smyth, Producer, Belfast International Arts Festival and Helen Williams, Deputy Director, Arts, Libraries and Digital, the session explored the social and economic impact of place-making –  how places have capitalised on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, and improved areas by creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well being.

The session on live streaming demonstrated the contrast between the marketing driven, income generating, ‘exclusive’ live streaming – “make your living room your private box at the opera” of Vienna State Opera versus the enlightened, integrated approach of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra not driven by revenue generation but by a commitment to benefiting the entire community of Detroit.

Both showed the power of digital, to be both inclusive and exclusive, connecting with new audiences as well as generating major income streams. Balancing the power of ‘borderless’ digital to make orchestral music more inclusive whilst exploiting its income generation potential seems to be the challenge.

Sarah Derbyshire, Chief Executive

This year’s ABO conference came at a time of significant organisational development for Orchestras Live. As well as a restructure that has redoubled our focus on creative production, insight and impact, we have a new Chair in Dr. Tony Stoller. I was particularly pleased that there was an opportunity for delegates to meet Tony at our breakfast event, when we also launched “From Bingo to Bartok”: Creative and Innovative Approaches to involving older people with Orchestras. Commissioned by the Baring Foundation and co-edited by me and Matthew Swann, City of London Sinfonia (CLS), this is the first publication that demonstrates the range of high quality, in-depth activity sector-wide. It was enormously encouraging to see a wide range of delegates, from musicians to CEOs and Chairs, engage and debate on the topic so early in the morning!

I was particularly struck by the high proportion of orchestral musicians attending this year’s conference and felt that they made a distinctive contribution throughout.  The session I co-convened with Lucy Galliard, Director of Learning and Engagement at City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), explored the topic of musicians as educators in the widest sense.  Three exceptional practitioners – Cherry Forbes (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment), Katherine Spencer (CLS) and Jane Wright (CBSO) – gave an insight into their personal belief in this work as well as the challenges. One outcome from the discussion that followed was a commitment to enable greater exchange and practice sharing between musicians. We will continue to liaise with the ABO and its member orchestras on how this can be achieved and hope to report at the 2020 conference.