City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: Expanding an art form

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s newest recruit, Chief Executive Emma Stenning, has an impressive resumé, with Chief Executive at Bristol Old Vic and Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto among her many achievements. She shares with IAM how her previous theatre roles will shape her vision for the orchestra

During my first weeks as the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s (CBSO) new Chief Executive, I had the pleasure of joining our players at the Aldeburgh Festival. It was my first visit, and I was completely enchanted by the sublime location, the beautiful concert hall and a performance of Elgar, Britten and Holst that lifted the soul. The following morning, I visited Britten’s home, The Red House, and gained an insight into the composer’s remarkable life and absolute commitment to the community in which he worked. And so, when a friend and music mentor suggested recently that I might enjoy the speech Britten had delivered in 1964 on acceptance of the first Robert O. Anderson Aspen Award in the Humanities, I looked it up with real eagerness. 

In the much-celebrated address, Britten said:

“It is the composer’s duty, as a member of society, to speak to or for his fellow human beings… I want my music to be of use to people, to please them, to ‘enhance their lives’. I do not write for posterity… I write music, now, in Aldeburgh, for people living there, and further afield, indeed for anyone who cares to play it or listen to it. But my music now has its roots, in where I live and work.”

Whilst many of my orchestral colleagues can no doubt recite these words from memory, the passages were entirely new to me, as is much of the extraordinary world of classical music. But they made sense, spurring me on in my mission to lead the CBSO, a role I had assumed only months previously.

I arrived in Birmingham this spring, fresh from a theatre career that had taken me from the London Fringe to the West End, via festivals, international touring and leadership roles at Bristol Old Vic and Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto. I had found myself powerfully drawn to the opportunity of the orchestra, largely due to its undeniable brilliance, but also because of the pressing need for the artform to find fresh relevance, new audiences and a resilient business model. That we could set about facing these challenges in Birmingham, a “super diverse” city, and one with Europe’s youngest demographic, seemed like a gift, and I was thrilled to be offered the job.

Community connection 

I said, from the outset, that I wanted us more fully to connect with the people of Birmingham or, to borrow Britten’s phrase, better speak “to and for” our city. I began work the same week that the CBSO launched a rebrand, and was delighted to see that the new look boldly shouted, “Birmingham’s Orchestra, loud and proud!”. I was relieved to see that we were already heading in the right direction, but the question remained as to how we truly live up to this promise.

It’s something that we are only just beginning to explore. During some recent strategic planning time, my Senior Management Team and I agreed that whilst we champion Symphony Hall as our home, we should consider Birmingham as our playground, pun fully intended. The company has already made a terrific start, with our “Symphonic Sessions” at Hockley Social Club attracting a wholly new audience for evenings of great street food and music programming on the more experimental side. The next step is surely to explore how we might collaborate with artists from the city’s many different communities. We’ve already made some tentative steps. Just a few weeks ago, for example, a small ensemble of CBSO musicians performed alongside Bangladeshi artists at the city’s annual Nowka Bais Festival, a project that drew brilliant crowds and left our players entirely energised for what future collaboration might mean. It was inspiring to hear their feedback, and I am ever more determined to make space in our schedule both to respond to more invitations like Nowka Bais, and also to invest in collaboration with artists from the full cultural breadth of the city’s music traditions. 

Creating a three-dimensional experience 

We also need to think more creatively about the concert form. I love those evenings when the orchestra just soars. Somehow the music lifts you out of your everyday life, into a different realm, and it is pure magic. But, I say that as someone who is already inclined to buy a ticket, knows where the concert hall is, has already found out that I love Rachmaninoff, and would travel pretty much anywhere to see our Chief Conductor, Kazuki Yamada, conduct this particular ensemble of musicians. 

In truth, the promise of an orchestra in a concert hall just isn’t enough to capture the social spend of a great many people who are in search of a more immersive, or event-like experience. The theatre producer in me can see that this isn’t too hard to change – it’s all live performance after all – and I look forward to inviting new collaborators into our process who will help us think differently about staging and the three-dimensional experience of sharing space between artists and audiences. 

What’s thrilling to me, is that the CBSO is up for the adventure. It’s a company with an audacious history, and yet the current players, board and staff wear that legacy lightly, seemingly unafraid to head forwards with a pioneering spirit. It’s a spirit perhaps best demonstrated by the opening of the CBSO Shireland Academy, our secondary school that will welcome its first intake of students this month.  With state provided music education in the UK at a crisis point, and our orchestras acknowledging that something must be done to make our musical forces more representative of the communities they serve, what better way to respond than opening a school that will immerse its pupils in music. 

Located in Sandwell, the school’s intake is over 80% global majority, and those students will have daily encounters with CBSO musicians, who will provide masterclasses, mentorship and performances, as well as supporting each young person’s ongoing musical endeavours. Our players can barely wait for the school to open, and neither can I.

I’m rather in love with my new job, as you can probably tell. There are some great challenges ahead, not least the campaign for continued tax relief from the British Government and the maintenance of Local Authority funding, neither of which will be easy. We’re best positioned in both conversations when we can demonstrate that we make music that truly matters to the world around us, just as Britten did. 

I am very, very proud to be part of Birmingham’s orchestra. As a newcomer to the orchestral world, I am deeply inspired by those around me, determined to make music for everyone, and ever hopeful for the future of our artform. 

To discover more about the CBSO’s 2023-24 season, visit

Photo of CBSO Chief Conductor Kazuki Yamada: Ben Ealovega