Geneva’s Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is rejuvenating its programming and audience engagement through intelligently conceived concerts and a new approach to management. New general manager Henk Swinnen explains his own path to the orchestra – and his plans for its future.
I’ve been fascinated by classical music since childhood. I remember going to classical concerts with my parents, and discovering what an emotional experience that was. Soon after my eighth birthday I started to play the oboe and since then music has always been an essential part of my life.
After studies in Brussels and Rotterdam with Paul Dombrecht and Thomas Indermuhle, at 19 I got my first job as a principal player and started my professional music career in Belgium. In 1993 I moved to Hilversum in the Netherlands after having won the audition for principal oboe in the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, conducted by Peter Eötvös and Ton Koopman.
My career as an oboist developed over several years, and in 2007 I made the decision to move into management. In 2010 I was approached to become artistic manager of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, and I started to work with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the young prodigious Canadian conductor. To see him develop from an extremely gifted youngster into one of the major conductors of our times, and being inspired by his generous artistic pers- onality, was probably one of the most enriching experiences in my professional life so far.
The fact that I have been an orchestral musician for many years has always enabled me to be aware of the musicians’ view and their specific ability of judging an artistic project.
Since February 2013, I have been the general manager of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. It has a rich history, certainly, but the OSR is an ensemble with huge potential, and one that’s clearly willing to face the new challenges of these times.
The orchestra’s multi-faceted sound is unique; this was clear during our UK tour earlier this year. The musicians displayed a transparency in sound, and sustained lyricism in their phrasing. Since the orchestra also has an important role in playing for opera – 40 per cent of its performances are dedicated to the Grand Théâtre de Genève – its artistic activities are varied.
For the years to come, I intend to introduce some new ideas concerning programming and management. We will need to enhance the character of our performances, develop our education and outreach programmes, make strategic appearances at important festivals, and find a new music director [Neeme Järvi holds the position for the 2013-15 seasons].
We are already arranging meetings between our musicians and audience after concerts, in order to establish an informal contact and dialogue. These chats give the audience the opportunity to ask questions concerning our way of working, and we encourage them to make suggestions.
For the musicians themselves, we’re organising a series of meetings with all the different instrum- ental groups to open up a dialogue. We want to involve the musicians in a discussion about how to accomplish our artistic mission and how to drive the orchestra forward.
The 2015-16 season will be the first that I am wholly responsible for; at that time I will change some of our subscription series. The aim is to create more attractive programming for a wider audience.
On the marketing side we plan to develop the orchestra’s presence within Geneva. We want to establish a strong identity with the clear message that the OSR is a dynamic institution, welcoming everybody in its famous Victoria Hall.
Last but not least, we are developing an educational project which enables children to discover classical music, as well as learn about the life of an orchestra and the links between classical music and other art forms.
All these challenges are recognised by the new board and the new president, Florence Notter. We share the same vision and they support me in my work of bringing a new dynamism to the team and the musicians of the OSR.
By our centenary in 2018 the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande will be an orchestra with an up-to- date range of artistic products and once again be in a prominent position within the international orchestral landscape.