A week with… David Butcher

IAM spends a week with the Hallé Orchestra’s Chief Executive, David Butcher


Today is the start of the Siemens-Hallé International Conductor’s Competition. We have eight semi-finalists selected from over 200 applications from every habitable continent. There’s an evening reception at Hallé St Peter’s where myself and Robin Phillips from Siemens formally welcome the young conductors to Manchester. I’m struck by their youth – is it my age or are conductors getting younger?


It’s 10.30am and I’m in the main hall at Hallé St Peter’s for the first day of the competition. The Hallé Youth Orchestra are tuning up and we have 100 or so guests and patrons here to witness Day One. I’m on a jury of seven sitting next to our Music Director, Sir Mark Elder, and Stephan Frucht, conductor and Artistic Director of Siemens Arts. We’re on our first coffee of what will be a long day. Each conductor is inspiring. It amazes me how with simple gestures a conductor can change the sound of an orchestra so quickly – a sign of real talent. That said, I decide that the stars of the show are actually the players of the Hallé Youth Orchestra who (typically) receive a standing ovation.  

I catch up with Mark in the evening. He may be one of this country’s great conductors, but I swear he also makes the finest Negroni in the Northern Hemisphere. We put the world to rights..


An early morning meeting with our Finance Director. It has not been easy navigating a business with a £12m turnover through the recent pandemic and current turbulent times. We need to be imaginative and bold, with a good dose of prudence, to continue to grow and realise our ambitious plans. 

With a head full of figures, I’m back behind the jury table, fortified by (another) strong coffee, peering over [Bulgarian-British composer] Dobrinka Tabakova’s score and 10 Hallé principals led by Roberto Ruisi. It’s day two of the competition and the eight competitors navigate Dobrinka’s sumptuous music On Colour, as well as Britten’s fiendish post-Stravinskian Op.1 Sinfonietta. I love hearing the Hallé players shine in this non-symphonic rep, and Britten’s 19-year-old brilliance is brought to life by this new generation of conductors. Late afternoon, the jury meets and selects three finalists for tomorrow’s final at Bridgewater Hall. There’s agreement but it’s been difficult. Siemens kindly treat the jury and guests to dinner and there’s palpable excitement for tomorrow’s final.


I’m in the office early and with so much time taken up with the competition, the email count is scarily high. A meeting with Marian Sudbury, the new Chair of Bridgewater Hall, and then to morning rehearsals. By the evening many guests have arrived for a pre-concert reception. I’ve forgotten my reading glasses but manage to get through a speech without embarrassing myself. We’ve all been on a journey together – conductors, musicians, audiences, jury – and I feel protectively avuncular as the finalists weave their magic in the glorious acoustics of Bridgewater Hall. We award the prize to the young Japanese-American Euan Shields. What pleases me most is that for all the eight candidates the experience has been an immersive and useful process where they have learnt so much. This is obvious from their comments and the jolly post-show party which heads into the early hours.


The next morning I’m in a weekly meeting with Anna Hirst our Head of Artistic Planning. We are close to completing the 2023-24 season but there are gaps and programmes to finalise. We’re launching some new ideas, including a new Rush-Hour series starting at 6pm and a new contemporary series featuring artists such as Steve Reich and Jeff Mills. Later I have an informal and positive meeting with the two new Co-Chairs of the Orchestra Committee but am interrupted to speak to our FD who’s been trying to get me by phone: it’s Budget Day and the Chancellor has extended Orchestral Tax Relief at 50% for the next two financial years. A wonderful bonus for the Hallé (worth around a million pounds) and news which will help nearly all UK orchestras of difference sizes and scale.


A morning meeting with Nitin Sawhney, who is coming to perform with the Hallé next season – his ideas are great and I’m excited about the collaboration and a new work he’ll write for us. Then to a board meeting; it’s bittersweet as it’s our Chair David McKeith’s last meeting. David’s tirelessly and brilliantly steered the Hallé over the last 14 years, not least when I took over at the Hallé back in 2020, mid-lockdown with all 80 players and most of the administration furloughed. We’ve found a great successor in Debbie Francis, the first female Chair in the Hallé’s history, who attends. This is followed by a celebratory dinner in the restaurant of the new Oglesby Centre at Hallé St Peter’s, the perfect venue as David was central in creating this beautiful cultural music centre for the city.


Friday is spent in the office grafting away at admin and emails: the administrator’s craft or sullen art, exercised by early morning light (to misquote Dylan Thomas).  

At lunchtime, I speak with Angela Dixon, who runs Saffron Hall, a gleaming £9m concert hall set in the local comprehensive school [oh, for more halls like this in our schools]. We discuss the Hallé’s next visit and Thomas Adès (whom she manages) who will be the Hallé’s Artist-in-Residence for the next two years. I then drive over to Sheffield City Hall, slightly weary, for a Hallé concert of Italian-themed music. I’m thrilled to see a full hall and many young people whom our education teams have been working with earlier in the week. And after what’s been another long week I, along with an attentive audience, am uplifted and transported from Sheffield to Rome, courtesy of the Hallé and Respighi’s inspired musical evocations.     

David Butcher is Chief Executive of the Hallé’ Orchestra

To find out more about the Hallé’s 2023-24 season, visit halle.co.uk.