Stuart Bruce reflects on three decades of making inspirational orchestral experiences…
When I joined the company in 1990 it was known as Eastern Orchestral Board (EOB), an association of local authorities which was basically a funding mechanism to support the cost of bringing professional orchestras into the East Midlands and East regions. As EOB’s first Education Manager my role was to develop the learning and participation activity linked to orchestral concerts. Back then not all of the established professional orchestras had education departments or staff, and those that did were at an early stage, so it’s been interesting to trace and have an input on how the work of different orchestras has evolved from a fringe add-on into a significant part of their work.
My previous job had been running a community music organisation, and I brought the principles of collaborative working and giving people a voice through music-making into the orchestral sphere, looking to capitalise on our significant network of co-investing partners by extending the way they promoted orchestral events in order to engage with a much wider range of people beyond concert audiences. Compared with more recent times of austerity and crisis, there seemed to be money around which could be channeled into ambitious projects, such as a three-year association from 1998 with composer-performer Tunde Jegede that involved commissioning and producing a succession of collaborative pieces with different orchestras, diverse artists from other genres, and sometimes local community groups.
The organisation’s emergence as a producer coincided with the gradual shrinking of local authority budgets and the network of arts development officers. Increasingly we looked for new ways to make things happen, forging partnerships in education, health, social justice, academic research and other areas. We wanted to take orchestral work to a wider range of community settings and increase opportunities for people to connect and engage on their own terms. New formats like small-scale performances for Early Years and family audiences in rural locations, intergenerational work bringing together diverse communities, and youth-led projects developing a host of industry skills and pathways for young people, are a few examples of how we took a lead in exploring community-based partnership models, with a national reach after becoming Orchestras Live in 2007. That leadership role has more recently seen us focusing on co-producing inclusive ensembles, supporting a diverse talent pipeline for music collaborators with orchestras, and exploring digital possibilities for people to connect and create with orchestral musicians, amongst many other things.
I feel lucky to have been involved in such a diverse and constantly changing pattern of work, inspired by so many gifted artistic and production partners, communities around the country, and of course my wonderful colleagues at Orchestras Live.
So, how much has the sector changed over 30 years? In some ways quite a lot, although certain conversations feel very similar to those in the 90s. Whilst some incredible work is done by professional orchestras, the sector still struggles to move beyond its historical conventions, constraints and precarious financial culture. I do think orchestras now regard learning and participation as a vital part of their existence, and there are many more orchestral musicians who relish a broader range of creativity in their lives than simply performing on stage. We know there are lots of people out there who enjoy orchestral music in a variety of ways, not least in films and computer games, yet many do not engage directly with orchestral events or feel the genre is especially relevant to them. Much more needs to be done, especially in under-invested communities, to change perceptions, provide genuine access and promote creative involvement in an amazing artform that can be truly inspiring and empowering when shared in the right way. After all these years of progress there is still plenty to do!