Trustee and outgoing Vice-Chair of Orchestras Live's Board, Kevin Appleby reflects on the changes the orchestral sector has seen over the last decade as his tenure with Orchestras Live comes to a close.
At Turner Sims Southampton, the concert hall where I am artistic director, our programme in 2019/20 is inspired by the theme A Year of Journeys. On the one hand, it reminds us of the 400th anniversary of the 1620 sailing from Southampton of The Mayflower with its pilgrims heading to the New World: arguably one of the most significant journeys in history. The programme also reflects on the individual journeys of performers and composers, be they literal or metaphorical, planned or enforced, psychological or physical. So it seems logical, as I come to the end of my tenure as a trustee, for me to reflect on my own journey through almost a decade with Orchestras Live.
The orchestral landscape is always colourful and complex to observe, and Orchestras Live sits in a unique place at the heart of it, engaging with a very wide range of stakeholders. This is eloquently articulated in the recently published Impact Report for 2018/19.
Evolution or revolution?
Changes in the world of classical music tend, in my experience at least, to be more about evolution than revolution. Yet over this decade, there seems to have been a whirlwind of important events, particularly around diversity, inclusion and access. These have included the establishment of the Paraorchestra in 2011, the Able Orchestra in 2014, Chineke! in 2015, and Peter Wiegold’s The Third Orchestra in 2019.
The question being posed at the Association of British Orchestras’ annual gathering this January is, ‘What will be the landscape for orchestras in 2030?’ With Arts Council England announcing the detail of its Ten Year Strategy for 2020-2030 the same month, it will be fascinating to see how the UK’s orchestras respond in the coming decade to the questions raised in the last.
Aversion to the unknown?
The programming landscape in 2030 is also on the conference agenda: this is an area understandably close to my heart. Venues and orchestras alike are keen to present more of the music of today: but we are aware that to encourage audiences to experience the unfamiliar, we need to be increasingly committed and creative in our marketing.
I was therefore interested to rediscover on my bookshelf a copy of the Penguin Book publication Music 1950, described on the cover as ‘A comment on outstanding events and a general picture of what has taken place in the musical world during the last year’. Alongside features on ‘The problem of modern opera’ and ‘State aid and the arts’, one article caught my attention: an analysis by J E Potts of orchestral programmes from 1948/49, consisting of some 1,705 performances of 621 individual works at 393 concerts predominantly in London and the major UK cities. 301 of the works – almost half – were only played once, whilst the remaining 320 had on average four performances. 12 composers provided 49% of the total number of performances, Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky being the top three. There were 16 first performances, including three from women composers Ruth Gipps and Mary Chandler. Potts concludes with a comment on the public’s ‘deep-rooted preference for the familiar and aversion to the unknown’. Having programmed concert series for many years this has a familiar ring to it: I’m not sure whether to be demoralised that so little has changed in 70 years, or heartened that the challenge we face today is not just a 21st century one.
Our digital habits
Love it or loathe it, new technology is rapidly dominating the 21st century orchestral experience. For example, the proliferation of online services and digital channels allows me to travel virtually to venues in London, Berlin, Gothenburg, Detroit, Moscow and Tokyo for a live orchestral performance, with excellent sound and high definition pictures.
But the very concept of a traditional two-hour concert, be it in person or online, is challenged by a trend towards ‘cultural snacking’, as one commentator describes it. This growing habit of dipping selectively into the performing arts is exemplified in a recent article which reports that listeners to music on the streaming service Spotify skip to a new track before it finished, 40% of the time. Having recently launched the Turner Sims playlist, a compilation of tracks from artists from our forthcoming season, you might test yourself on the latest edition to see how quickly you are tempted to move on!
Why be optimistic?
So, in the face of these concerns, which sit alongside ongoing challenges such as a proliferation of other attractions, a lack of funding for the arts, and the threat to music provision in schools, why do I feel a sense of optimism as I move on?
My first experience of an orchestra was at the age of seven, when I went on a school trip to a concert in the unprepossessing surroundings of a local cinema. I was transfixed. Since then I’ve been fortunate to hear all kinds of orchestras and orchestral projects in all kinds of settings, but that initial ‘eureka’ moment has stayed with me. For every time it is suggested that classical music is highbrow, elitist or outdated, I’ve seen audiences of all ages totally captivated or surprised by a performance in the same way that I was on that school trip.
My experience with Orchestras Live has convinced me that the sector is fully engaged with its challenges, old and new, and is working energetically to address them. Together, we are on our own journey towards a re-defined orchestral experience which will continue to provide that ‘eureka!’ moment for the audiences of today and tomorrow.
Kevin ApplebyVice-Chair (outgoing November 2019)