Helen Harrison, Music Director, Conductor and Orchestras Live trustee, reflects on this year's Association of British Orchestras (ABO) Conference, which took place online from 10-12 March...
‘Aftershock’ was the headline for the ABO Conference aptly describing the situation orchestras face as the Covid earthquake continues to manifest itself. I'm sure many delegates agreed with the sentiment that it was ‘the most important conference in the history of the ABO’. For me, the conference was underscored by the theme of how orchestras can connect us even as the virus keeps us physically apart.
With the murder of George Floyd last year, Diversity and Inclusion was up front and centre throughout. Stressing the need for action and not more talk, sessions highlighted tools and practical applications. For me, as a Trustee for Orchestras Live, using Music Masters’ ‘I’M IN’ Audit and strategy tool has changed my own thinking and practice as we challenged and drilled down on our processes and systems. On a practical level, as a conductor, now is the time to programme more diverse repertoire.
With our entire lives moving online it’s not surprising that digital connection in all forms was a hot topic. As a ‘consumer of content’ also known as an ‘audience member’ I’ve streamed all kinds of content on different devices depending on my mood. For me, so many orchestras have successfully removed the barrier of the stage with their creative and personal content during Covid times. This prompted me to question what will our audiences want and need from orchestras as they rejoin us in person; who will those audiences be; how can we continue to deepen these connections?
In my own practice, the power of Zoom to deliver meaningful musical activity and sustain connection with my community and youth ensembles has been a revelation. From the conference, I felt a palpable sense of new possibilities emerging from blending online and live delivery in this work.
Digital offers new ways to connect but what does this mean for income streams? No one underestimates the scale of the financial challenges ahead for the survival of orchestras in the face of Covid. The significant loss of touring income due to Covid cancellations is exacerbated by the impact of Brexit on European tours which is still unfolding.
Here at Orchestras Live, from our work with our orchestral partners we have the evidence that shows just how powerful orchestras can be in connecting, healing and uplifting our communities. Can a bold, new strategic approach and funding model connect orchestras and communities to rebuild together from Covid? Are there opportunities to bring life back to our abandoned high streets by repurposing spaces to revitalise communities with music and orchestras at their heart?
I came away from the conference with a sense that we are going to make the changes needed to ensure orchestras continue to connect us as the aftershocks subside.