Inside Southbank Sinfonia

An orchestra like no other, based in the heart of London

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Crusading for equality

As we welcome a new fellowship of players to Southbank Sinfonia for our 15th birthday year, Managing Director James Murphy takes to the blog to share an issue that’s become something of a passion for him and the orchestra. 

If, like me and my team, you work behind the scenes in classical music, you’re actually a bit of a crusader, here to ensure people recognise the power and worth of a remarkable art form. Day to day, we don’t really think of ourselves as crusaders but, all told, it’s who we are.

Recently, I’ve found myself crusading for a cause I honestly hadn’t given great thought in years past. At Southbank Sinfonia we’re privileged to welcome conductors of all kinds, from the venerable likes of Vladimir Ashkenazy and Antonio Pappano, to the latest sensations fresh out of music college – just like our players. As part of this, we’ve come to work with some fantastic female conductors, still a fairly rare sight on the podium, this particular profession – like many things – not really recognised as unisex for centuries. The times have thankfully changed and some of the most exciting conductors are now female. Nonetheless, in candid conversation, some of them have shared with me their ongoing struggle for parity in a world where men still seem largely to prevail. I started to wonder what my orchestra and I might do to help change this, fuelled by the initiatives of a handful of others in our sector.

Early in 2017, I had the opportunity to share my progress, and general sentiments on the matter, with colleagues from across our sector at the Association of British Orchestras Conference. What follows is a digital distillation of the ‘provocation’ that the ABO invited me to present.


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Removing the dust

For this year’s collaboration with pioneering conductor Charles Hazlewood, the usual Rush Hour concert format was given a bit of an overhaul. Should classical music be changing? Clarinetist Daniel Broncano shares his thoughts.

This week was the first time this year we played new music. One of the pieces by James MacMillan, …as others see us…, was truly contemporary, but even The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives and written 80 years ago has a thoroughly modern approach to it. Matching this, our Rush Hour concert also took on a slightly different format to normal.

Sometimes you get some hostility about presenting music in a different way, but I think it’s really important. Projecting images, like in the MacMillan, helps the audience have a clearer picture of what the movement is about, but it also makes the whole package a bit more attractive. And in the Ives, where the orchestra was broken up into sections and moved around, a spatial aspect to the performance added a nice immersive element to it.

Performing ‘unusually’ isn’t done all that often, and in this case it was particularly difficult as we had to memorise the music for our six interventions in the Ives. It wasn’t easy because the writing is ‘unforecastable’  and unpredictable; it’s far more difficult than most pieces to memorise. But on the plus-side, it wasn’t too difficult to perform in this fragmented orchestra because the three groups of instruments are fairly insular in their parts and aren’t reliant on visual contact.

Southbank Sinfonia - James MacMillan - Rush Hour

Perfoming ‘…as others see us…’

The Unanswered Question lends itself to an alternative presentation because it’s meant to be thought provoking, but even in other pieces I think it’s important to experiment because the concert ritual wasn’t that rigid two or three centuries ago. It’s only over time that it has become more rigid and set in its ways.

You have to remember that many pieces weren’t ever intended for concerts – chamber music was often meant for private recital almost as background music. So it’s good to remove the dust and do something new. When these pieces were first written the new thing about them was that they hadn’t been heard before, but today we need to bring a different ‘new’ to the table. Just playing the music is not enough because people have listened to pieces hundreds of times in recordings so you need to present it in a new way.

This week was a challenge for us and it would definitely have been easier to play the Ives sitting at your stand with music. But on the other hand the greater risk is exciting and motivating; it makes you more switched on, and it makes the audience more switched on. Then, when you see the audience fully engaged you play better – there’s a connection between you.

Southbank Sinfonia - Charles Ives - Rush Hour

Performing ‘The Unanswered Question’

It also adds some theatre because not having the music allows a little more choreography, so this week we had the wind quartet wandering around the church. It makes something that’s more compelling for the eyes, a bit of theatre that makes the whole thing more complete.

I actually think it can be quite awkward to have a thought-provoking piece of music performed in a conservative format. In many ways, unusually presented concerts can be a lot closer to the spirit of the music.

Find out more about Daniel here.