A united front at ABO this January

ABO CEO Mark Pemberton
ABO CEO Mark Pemberton
The Association of British Orchestras (ABO) is holding its annual conference in Belfast this month. IAM speaks to CEO Mark Pemberton about what’s on the agenda – Brexit, bums on seats and overcoming barriers

If you look at the location of the next Association of British Orchestras (ABO) conference you’d be forgiven for thinking that the organisers were making one heck of a statement. Taking place at ICC Belfast, Northern Ireland, the conference summary states: “Crossing borders; it’s what orchestras do”. In the context of Northern Ireland, Ireland and Brexit, the subject of borders couldn’t be more prescient.

“The interesting thing is that we had been planning to go to Belfast before the referendum took place in 2016 – it is entirely coincidental that we are going there,” says ABO director Mark Pemberton. “We don’t want to get bogged down with Brexit. In fact, we want the conference to be an escape from those issues. We will have a session on Brexit and the Republic and Northern Ireland, but we are also going to be looking at the other boundaries that exist, such as the boundaries that stop us accessing audiences.

“Brexit could throw up problems with accessing talent and touring, but right now we don’t know exactly what those issues will be: we don’t know if EU citizens and non-Europeans will be treated the same or if they will need work permits that we need to pay for. On the touring side, there could be issues around visas and moving instruments and costumes.”

“One thing that exasperates us is the blind assumption made by politicians and the media that classical music is dying, that it is only attended by rich White men. But we’re not dying at all, far from it…”

Geography and politics aside, the borders of class, culture and access will be considered from a manager’s perspective. “Diversity and the challenges we face around becoming more inclusive have been crucial for us over the past few years. At the conference we will ask, ‘What are the barriers orchestras face in having a more diverse workforce and what can we do to approach that?’.

“The Changemakers session will include discussions on disability, which is an increasingly important issue for orchestras to address. How are we responding to opportunities for people with disabilities? We’ll look at the case study of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO), where they are doing a specific project around creating an ensemble for those professional musicians with a disability. This case study could inform the future practice of other orchestras. BSO spoke at the conference in 2016 and it will be good to catch up with where they are and what has been accomplished.

“One country that is further ahead on this is the United States, so we will have guest speakers Steve Brosvik of Nashville Symphony and John Kieser of New World Symphony giving us updates on the programmes around strategies to encourage musicians of colour to get through the education system, get through to the conservatoires, and into professional employment.”

For a few years now, British institutions like ISM (Incorporated Society of Musicians) have campaigned to keep music on the curriculum and for it to be recognised as a priority. The current picture isn’t promising though. Could slashes to music education in the UK affect the diversity of talent coming forward?

“We are concerned that training to become a classical musician could become a reserved privilege of the few,” agrees Pemberton. “But that is not just because music lessons are under threat, it’s also because there is so much available now for young people in other creative fields. We need to identify what orchestras can do to inspire young people and how we can cut through the crowd to reach them.”

Pemberton is also keen to point out that the issue of safety in the workplace has peaked and must now be urgently addressed. In 2016, Royal Opera House (ROH) viola player Chris Goldscheider successfully took action against the company for injury – his hearing was damaged during rehearsals for Die Walkure after he was placed directly in front of the brass section.

“It is a complicated issue, because unlike in a factory where noise is incidental, with an orchestra the noise is the product and the musician creates that noise. So we are wrestling with how this safety legislation will work in practice. We don’t want to short-change the orchestra by stopping them performing loud repertoire that satisfies the audience, but at the same time we must protect our players.”

Discussion, he adds, is key to making a better work environment all round: health, welfare, diversity and accessibility. “Some of this has to do with making sure the relationship between management and musicians is collaborative, getting past the ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitudes that prevail. We need to make sure everyone is working towards the same goal: creating great music for the widest possible audience. Getting past these ‘borders’ takes up energy that could be better used on making music.”

Pemberton adds that, generally, while the sector is competitive it is also good at sharing ideas. “We don’t just have the annual conference, we have twice yearly networking meetings with different managers that bring together team leaders in education, finance, fundraising and so on. Everyone who attends gets to put forward their ideas, and it is great to see the energy in the room and how they manage to solve one another’s problems.”

What is the general consensus among ABO members? Is classical music doing well? Or is it in peril, as the media would have us believe? “One thing that exasperates us is the blind assumption made by politicians and the media that classical music is dying, that it is only attended by rich White men. But we’re not dying at all, far from it: in the period 2010-16 audiences at classical music concerts in the UK increased from four million to five million, that’s a big increase. All the efforts our colleagues have made to widen participation and repertoire is paying off – more people are coming through the doors to our concert halls. For example, statistics gathered by The Audience Agency show that, in London, classical music is actually drawing the younger ‘culture-vulture’ audience.”

“The classical music industry in the UK is still wonderful,” Pemberton points out. “British orchestras are world-renowned and we want to keep it that way.”


The 2019 Conference will be held at the ICC Belfast from 23-25 January, hosted by Ulster Orchestra.