Senior Creative Producer Stuart Bruce reflects on our first live music performance event since lockdown: London Mozart Players' performance at Mannington Hall in partnership with Sheringham Little Theatre.
A lot has been written, quite rightly, about the terrible outcomes of the Covid crisis – the unprecedented plight of freelance musicians and the professional orchestras which depend on their work, as well as the many venues around the country facing a very uncertain future which in turn will impact further on the livelihoods of musicians and ensembles. We know from national research over recent months that there is a lot of loyalty amongst audiences for their local venues, tempered with understandable caution about returning to conventional indoor theatres and halls whilst issues of safety and social distancing remain. The implications are particularly acute in the less affluent, less well-served parts of the country where the loss of cultural provision can affect not only audiences but the wellbeing and aspiration of entire communities.
As a national producer of orchestral work, Orchestras Live sits in the middle of this maelstrom and understands the threats faced on all sides. Of particular importance to us is the ethos that orchestras are for everyone, and what we produce is about making orchestral work more inclusive and relevant to the widest range of people, as well as enabling people to engage with, shape and collaborate in the delivery of orchestral activity. Under normal circumstances this manifests itself in a rich array of distinctive projects and events up and down the country. But since March we have been wrestling with the same urgent questions as all of our partners and working fast to save and repurpose important projects. We’ve also continued our usual path of rethinking how things could be done in order to develop new kinds of creativity and artistic collaboration, to broaden audiences and cultural participation, and to continue building a more diverse workforce equipped to deliver work that is genuinely inclusive. If anything, the pandemic has highlighted the critical need for such work.
Thinking outside the venue
Whilst our partner venues have been struggling with the dreadful uncertainties around financial sustainability, redundancies and constant rescheduling, we have been having conversations with them about trying to think flexibly, using the power of their brand to take events to alternative indoor and outdoor spaces, and combine this with bespoke high quality online content that extends their artistic programme and income streams. This could all help rebuild confidence amongst existing audiences whilst reaching new people through a fresh offer. It is an opportunity to consult local people on reshaping the programme and involve them directly in its delivery.
We managed to embrace many of these things in a recent event in Norfolk. Through our long-standing partnership with North Norfolk District Council, Orchestras Live had curated a series of orchestral concerts and projects at rural and coastal venues over the last ten years. Working closely with Sheringham Little Theatre, one of the many ‘Crown Jewels’ that is the regional theatre network, we planned an outdoor concert at Mannington Hall, the home of the Theatre’s Patron who offered their walled garden free for this purpose. We invited London Mozart Players (LMP) to give the concert. Having been the last professional orchestra to perform in North Norfolk it seemed fitting that they should signal the return of such experiences to the district.
At the same time, we wanted the event to be rooted in the locality, so four young people connected with Sheringham Little Theatre were tasked with programming and presenting the concert. They worked with LMP musicians and managers to plan a sequence of pieces that would complement their own narrative of reflections and poetry about their lived experiences of lockdown.
Another integral strand was to hire a video production team to film the concert, with tickets on sale for the enhanced recording alongside sale of the live tickets on the Theatre’s website. Also on sale were picnic hampers for the concert goers, generating some vital extra income for the venue. In the meantime, extensive preparations were made to ensure the event could be socially distanced for performers and audience, with an army of volunteers organized the manage the exercise safely. All of these elements formed a coherent strategy to ensure as many people as possible could experience the event in some form, despite Covid restrictions, and that the experience would be as enjoyable as possible even without the normal facilities of a performance venue, with the ripple effects being felt throughout the community.
When the day came there was some anxiety about the strong winds of Storm Francis, but in the end the sun came out and the performance went smoothly. The sense of joy was palpable, both in the audience and on stage, characterized by a comment from an audience member:
I spent much of the concert holding back tears as it was such a pleasure to sit and listen to an excellently played and well-balanced programme in the company of others.
~ Audience member
Positive for all
Apart from being a wonderful experience of live music in a beautiful setting, this event mattered on a number of levels.
For the orchestra and its musicians, it was a much-needed chance to work together and rekindle a collective artistic purpose. For the young presenters it was a cherished opportunity to learn from, and collaborate with, world class artists, inspiring them in their own ambitions as performers. For Sheringham Little Theatre it brought visibility as an active promoter and some income generation after an extended period of closure, as well as being a chance for their audience to re-engage with their theatre on new territory. For the local authority it was a moment to announce some positive news about the relaunch of cultural tourism in the district. And for Orchestras Live it was the first live event we co-produced since March, integrating our ethos of placing local people at the heart of orchestral projects whilst also implementing a monetized digital dimension for the first time with one of our promoter partners. You can expect to see similar outcomes through our partnerships around the country over the coming months.
Tickets for the recording
Tickets are still available to watch the digital recorded version of the performance and can be bought for £6 via Sheringham Little Theatre's website. The performance will be online to watch from 29 August to 29 September 2020.