Senior Creative Producer Stuart Bruce reflects on Able Orchestra's Manchester debut as part of the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) conference in January 2020.
Having been to many ABO Conferences over the years, the latest one will always stand out because of the performance by the Able Orchestra at the BBC Philharmonic Hall in Salford. With the conference theme being about looking ahead to what the landscape for orchestras will be in the next ten years, it was fitting that we should have the opportunity to showcase the Able Orchestra as a dynamic example of a new, inherently inclusive ensemble that Orchestras Live and Inspire Youth Arts have developed over the last five years.
Since the partnership was formed and Able Orchestra became a flexible collection of diverse young musicians, some using assistive technology, working alongside a range of adult music leaders, digital artists and orchestral musicians, there has been a succession of performances on different stages in the East Midlands and London. It felt absolutely the right time to present it to the international orchestral sector as an established ensemble to illustrate what could be achieved with some imagination and a willingness to consult with, and bring together, disparate groups and individuals with the shared purpose of exploring and making music. With a long association between partners and participants in Nottinghamshire and the Hallé, bridged by the co-production role of Orchestras Live, we were delighted that the Hallé and the BBC Philharmonic, who hosted the ABO Conference, provided a large number of their players to join Able Orchestra for this project. The resulting performance on the Wednesday evening of the conference formed an ideal counter-balance with the Hallé’s Beethoven programme at Bridgewater Hall the following evening – like two sides of a coin: tradition and innovation.
Another feature of the project was that for the first time we commissioned a separate artist to create a piece with and for Able Orchestra. Composer Oliver Vibrans had cut his teeth on music for live theatre, and he relished the opportunity to write a piece for an ‘orchestra’. Oliver’s vision was for the acoustic instrumental sounds played by young and professional musicians to be processed and manipulated live by the young disabled musicians using Control One and other devices. This created a very different sound world to the other piece we programmed for the performance, taken from Able Orchestra’s existing repertoire, again showing the artistic diversity of this unique band.
Of course, a project of this complexity was not without its challenges. Working in a new way with a composer who has a particular creative approach meant that expectations and requirements were not always aligned. Also, the practicalities of rehearsing material with separate groups in different parts of the country meant that everything came together for the first time literally a few hours before the performance, a situation made even more complicated because of all the technology required for manipulating and projecting more than 30 acoustic instruments. Happily, the performance unfolded beautifully, thanks to the great professionalism and commitment of all involved. An audience of 250 people, including conference delegates and members of the public, responded enthusiastically to the 30-minute event.
For me, the most telling outcome was that numerous people I spoke to were thrilled with the quality of the pieces and the overall artistic experience. It felt like Able Orchestra had arrived as an artistic force, something that could make a real contribution to the orchestral sector, rather than being regarded as a music project to facilitate inclusion. Going forwards we need to ensure such high quality experiences become the norm, and that innovation is recognised, supported, and becomes more prevalent across the country as orchestras become more ambitious and more relevant to our diverse society.
You can watch a recording of their performance below, featuring an introduction by Oliver Vibrans talking about his new piece, and an interview with Trainee Music Leader Jess Fisher reflecting on her experiences as part of Able Orchestra.