Orchestras join forces at ABO Cardiff

Collaboration is theme of the 2018 Association of British Orchestras (ABO) conference. ABO director Mark Pemberton on what is up for debate this year
Mark Pemberton
Mark Pemberton

Last year the Association of British Orchestra held its annual conference in Bournemouth with the theme of ‘Disruption’. Much of our discussion in 2017 focussed on the disruptions, negative and positive, that impact our industry. And most importantly, we talked about our preconceptions about diversity and inclusion, and how we have to be willing to disrupt them to make a real shift in the culture of orchestral life.

Since that conference, the sector has come under even greater scrutiny. For example, the issue of sexual harassment in the arts and entertainment industries has been very much in the news, and the spotlight has also fallen on orchestras and classical music. We are liaising with our members to ensure they have robust policies and procedures in place.

The 2018 ABO Conference, jointly hosted in Cardiff by BBC NOW, Welsh National Opera and Sinfonia Cymru, takes ‘Collaboration’ as its theme. What does collaboration really mean? Why does it matter? Well, so much of the way that orchestras work relies on transactional relationships. The promoter pays a fee. The customer buys a ticket. The workforce earns a salary.  We fly into venues across the world, play amazing concerts, and leave. But is this nothing more than just a one night stand, or can we wake up in the morning and forge a deep and meaningful relationship? Can we involve our audiences in the creative process, turning them from consumers to collaborators? And can we build a genuinely collaborative relationship between manager and musician, laying to rest the tradition of ‘them and us’?

These are big asks, but that’s what the ABO conference is for: we aim to provoke debate, forge consensus, and set an agenda for the future of our industry. In the current climate, the stakes are high. I’ve been at the ABO for just over 10 years, and my, how the world has changed in that time! When I arrived in the summer of 2007, we were still in the political era of ‘no return to boom and bust’. The climate for public funding was benign, corporate sponsorship was at a high, and the orchestral sector was motoring. And then, in 2008, that all changed with the global financial crash.

At our conference in January 2009, also in Cardiff, Chris Giles, economics editor of the Financial Times, gave an extremely gloomy prognosis of what was to come, and all too soon he was proved right. The general election of 2010 was followed by huge cuts in public expenditure, and the spending squeeze goes on. Sponsorship also took a hit as business contracted, and has never recovered. Thankfully individual giving has seen a welcome increase, and audiences have grown.

What has become clear in these difficult times is just how resilient and enterprising British orchestras are: they’ve held their nerve, continued to be bold, and maintained their commitment to offering the highest quality music-making to the widest possible audience, using their public and private investment wisely and adding to the nation’s economy and wellbeing. They have also grasped the opportunity to serve as cultural ambassadors for the UK, arguably visiting more countries and reaching more people globally than ever before.

Which brings me to the hottest of hot potatoes in my in-tray: Brexit. It poses huge challenges to our sector from freedom of movement of our workforce, to touring across the EU. Leaving the single market and customs union will make our members’ lives difficult, creating barriers, red tape and adding extra costs.

But maybe we can see some silver linings, which we will explore at our conference in Cardiff this January. If the government is serious about trade deals and new markets, then orchestras have an opportunity to play their part, contributing to the “soft power” that culture adds to international relations.

We need to maintain our links with European colleagues: British orchestras are hugely popular with audiences in Europe, and we don’t want to lose access to our traditional market.

And we need to explore what the government’s agenda for putting British workers first in the queue for jobs post-March 2019 will mean for the future recruitment of orchestral musicians. Collaboration with stakeholders across music education will be essential for ensuring that, as access to talent from Europe and outside is increasingly switched off, we have a steady supply of home-grown musicians to fill the gap.

We need to combine forces to argue strongly for increased investment in music education and skills development, to ensure British orchestras maintain their quality and international competitiveness. So, this is why collaboration will be the topic of discussion in January 2018.

British orchestras cannot solve the challenges they face alone. And ABO is doing its bit to build partnerships too, including working with the PRS Foundation on the Resonate programme. With funding from the Foyle Foundation, in 2016 ABO built a database of works commissioned by its members over the past 30 years, and the PRS Foundation then launched a three-year grants programme to incentivise

ABO members to perform works from the database. The aim is to deal with the problem of so many new works only ever receiving a single performance, giving hidden treasures the chance to shine again.

ABO also remains active in the Arts Council England-funded Family Arts Campaign, an audience development initiative led by a consortium of associations across music, theatre, dance and visual arts, which has successfully embedded new approaches and partnerships in programming for families.

These are challenging but exciting times. Here’s to the next decade, and I’ve every confidence British orchestras, with the help of ABO, will continue to thrive.


The ABO conference, the UK’s leading classical music forum, takes place 24-26 January 2018 in Cardiff, Wales, and is hosted by three collaborating organisations: BBC National Orchestra of Wales (NOW), Welsh National Opera and Sinfonia Cymru. Key speakers will include Tony Hall, director general, BBC; Sir Ciarán Devane, chief executive, British Council; Nick Capaldi, chief executive, Arts Council of Wales; Sam Jackson, managing editor, Classic FM; Alan Davey, controller, BBC Radio 3; Rebecca Allen, president, Decca Records Group UK; Jasper Hope, chief executive, Dubai Opera; and BBC Radio 3 presenter Katie Derham.