A concert hall in the countryside

Angela Dixon, chief executive of Saffron Hall, looks back on five years of success, and ahead to what the future might hold for the countryside concert hall.

A world-class concert hall in the grounds of a state school in rural Essex offering a programme of leading international musicians and a year-round programme of engagement with the local community sounds highly unlikely if not downright improbable.

And if I was to tell you that the hall was funded by a local resident then your disbelief might increase further.

But that’s exactly what happened five years ago when an anonymous individual donated GBP10m (€11.5m) to build a 740-seat concert hall, with a large orchestra pit, in Saffron Waldon. The donation was driven by a belief that state-of-the-art facilities and outstanding performances should not be confined to big cities, but also thrive locally, at the heart of communities.

Dismayed by increasing budget cuts threatening arts education in the state system, the donor decided that this world-class concert hall should be part of the local comprehensive school. In addition to welcoming the best artists, the dream was for it to act as a home for the local amateur music groups, and ultimately serve as an example to other philanthropists to support state schools.

Five years on we can look back at hundreds of artists who have performed and been resident here including Marin Alsop, Britten Sinfonia, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Maxim Vengerov, Nicola Benedetti, Antonio Pappano, Leonidas Kavakos, Hugh Masekala, The Sixteen, Czech Philharmonic, Edward Gardner and Courtney Pine. All artists who have appeared at Saffron Hall have enjoyed its astonishing acoustics, engaged audiences and praised its programming, which ranges from piano recitals to symphonic music, opera to folk concerts.

Marin Alsop and Nicola Benedetti take a bow at Saffron Hall
Marin Alsop and Nicola Benedetti take a bow at Saffron Hall

The ever-expanding programme now also includes world music, dance, talks and spoken word, as well as a family and schools programme and a foyer music club. Local amateur groups hold regular concerts at the hall and the Saffron Opera Group recently completed an acclaimed Ring Cycle.

As an arts venue embedded in its community, learning and participation programming is one of our top priorities. ‘Together in Sound’, a weekly programme for people living with dementia and their carers really makes a difference to their lives, with the benefits of musical therapy on dementia patients having long been proven.

Saffron Centre for Young Musicians, a specialist Saturday school offering musical training to students aged seven to 18, runs in partnership with Guildhall School and Essex Music Education Trust. Now in its third year, it has become one of the biggest music schools in the county.

Saffron Hall also acts as a school hall and the dual use of the building is the key to its success. The hall is full of life, all day, every day. When the school empties out at 3:30, the site is still ringing with the sound of young voices as the evening audiences arrive. If there are rehearsals during the day, school children from all of the surrounding schools are invited in to listen. They are in daily contact with internationally-renowned artists in all musical genres. In the hope of making contact with great art normal, we are building children’s expectations to see it as an integral part of life – an essential aspect of their community.

Children take part in an interactive concert
Children take part in an interactive concert

There is much to celebrate. Last season Saffron Hall sold over 35,000 tickets, bringing in a box office income of nearly three quarters of a million pounds. 10% of the audience were under 18 and our audience is loyal: Over 500 people came to five concerts or more in one season. Over 100 people living with dementia and their carers have taken part in ‘Together in Sound’ and the trust has worked with over 23,000 young people from 52 schools.

Saffron Hall was born of a dream and we are proud of what we have achieved in five short years, and with little money. But Saffron Hall isn’t immune to the tough challenges faced by other venues, and our fifth birthday is an opportunity to think about our model and how it can be replicated in schools, new concert halls and performing arts buildings around the country.

Saffron Hall truly sits at the heart of its community, serving them from cradle to grave. It is a special place, where the London Symphony Orchestra performs one day, GCSE exams are taken the next morning, and a school dance show is rehearsed in the afternoon. It is a place where the extraordinary happens every day.

At a time when public funding for culture is diminishing and the arts are struggling to find oxygen in the state school sector, Saffron Hall has provided answers. The dream continues: it is our vocation to inspire other schools and communities around the country, to make the extraordinary ordinary.

Saffron Hall celebrates its fifth birthday with a gala dinner and concert on 1 December. Other forthcoming highlights include Iestyn Davies’ residency (from 21 November), Sō Percussion (23 November), Czech National Symphony Orchestra (25 November), and a host of wide-ranging festive events during December. Further information at SaffronHall.com