Diary: a week in the life of Mark Pemberton


It’s the week of the ABO Conference, one of Europe’s biggest classical-music gatherings, which the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is hosting this year in Birmingham. Today passes in a blur of last-minute details and late bookings…but thankfully no speaker cancellations.


Load the car with everything we’ll need. We have delegates from a host of countries, including six from Brazil as part of a British Council exchange programme. The ABO team are there when I arrive, packing more than 300 delegate bags branded by Classic FM, our principal media partner. By the time we turn in at midnight, we’re all set.


Sir Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Arts Council England, kicks off proceedings with a galvanising speech. He says he is grateful for the better-than-expected settlement for the arts from the Chancellor but all too aware of the challenges our sector is facing from cuts to local government funding. He is followed by a panel discussion on regional devolution and what this might mean for the arts, on which key speakers include David Partridge of major property developer Argent, and Anita Bhalla, chair of Town Hall, Symphony Hall Birmingham.

From CBSO Centre we all head to the splendid banqueting suite at the Council House – a monument to Victorian civic pride – for a reception where we are welcomed by the Lord Mayor of Birmingham. Our guest speaker is Andy Street, managing director of the John Lewis Partnership.

A delicious dinner – even the Brazilians complimented the beef – follows at the Town Hall, Birmingham’s grade 1-listed homage to the Parthenon. After the meal we present the ABO/Rhinegold Awards for orchestra, concert-hall and artist managers, followed by the ABO Award which honours an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the orchestral life of the UK. This year’s deserved winner is Sally Groves, music publisher extraordinaire.

Sally Groves and Margherita Taylor
Sally Groves and Margherita Taylor


A marathon 12 sessions are programmed for today. Topics range from employee ownership, and whether the John Lewis model would work for orchestras; to performing in found spaces, featuring Kate Whitley, co-artistic director of Multi-Story Orchestra, which plays in a car park in Peckham; to the thorny topic of a new concert hall for London, with Sir Nicholas Kenyon, managing director of the Barbican Centre, and Laurent Bayle, president of the Philharmonie de Paris.

One aim of the conference is to enable our members to hear from experts in industries outside our own. To this end we also hear from the director of HR at Jaguar Land Rover talking about the journey that company made from British Leyland – a byword for industrial unrest – to becoming the UK’s most successful car manufacturer, and how they got their unionised workforce onside.

Next up are speakers from Wasps RFC rugby team and England Hockey, where we learn that the challenges of running team sports and orchestras have more in common than you would think.

But the most left-field and certainly funniest speaker on the programme is Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, who’s here to talk about behavioural economics and what we can learn from, for instance, bees, especially the cohort genetically programmed to ignore the waggle dance and, rather than follow the rest of the drones, go off and explore on their own.

The range of ideas and level of debate is exhilarating. My only regret is that because I’m constantly on the move, I don’t have the time to sit through an entire session.

The evening culminates with a concert by the CBSO at Symphony Hall, including a performance of Percy Grainger’s The Warriors, featuring 13 percussionists and three grand pianos.

By bedtime my Health app tells me I’ve walked 12,109 steps: that’s almost 10km.


Another 10 sessions, the standout of which is Albert Schmitt of Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, which is embedded in a secondary school in a deprived part of the city, where pupils found themselves sharing premises with musicians to transformative effect.

The day concludes with a speech from culture minister Ed Vaizey, who commends us for bringing in speakers from outside our bubble to see what we can learn, but urges us to do more to recruit musicians from ethnic minorities.


Too tired to drive back to London last night with the rest of the team, I leave after breakfast. My post-conference treat is a matinée of English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire at the Coliseum. Stellar performances all round, not least from the English National Ballet Philharmonic. The music may have been knitted together from works by 10 composers, but under Gavin Sutherland’s baton it sounds cohesive.


A chance to put my feet up. ABO’s 2017 conference in Bournemouth is taking shape nicely in my head.


Mark Pemberton is the director of Association of British Orchestras, whose annual conference ran from 20-22 January in Birmingham.