Southbank Sinfonia is unique in that they are the only full-time, independent Orchestral Academy currently in existence, but it is their open-mindedness that really bowled me over when I met their Chief Executive, Justin Lee.
They are actively paving the way into the future. Not only are they prepared to re-evaluate the role of the orchestra in the 21st century, but they are equipping their players with the ability to survive the modern music market. Justin Lee explained that their aim is not only to generate creative people who are passionate about music, but crucially to develop musicians with the means to communicate this. Consequently, they are trained in public speaking and are expected to talk to the audience at concerts.
The organisation is not tied to the rigidity or risk of a concert series. This gives them the flexibility to explore alternative avenues and take artistic risks, ensuring that there is still a role for the orchestral musician in 20 years time. Prepared to look beyond the autonomy of classical music, Justin Lee relishes the opportunity to collaborate in cross-art performances. This comes from his passion to reveal connections. Classical music is not chronological or closed to the world, though many a conventional concert typically portrays it as such. Instead, through his programming he hopes to weave musical connections across time or use other art forms to shed light on the music. If they had a niche it’s their use of movement. For example, the musical mirroring in a Bach Canon was demonstrated in concert by two players physically imitating the direction of their musical subjects.
Justin astutely demonstrated the need to identify his audience and find the best environment for them. However, he recognised that having such a diverse output is impractical to market. Consequently, they utilise venues to attract the right crowd. This means that they can reach audiences that would not traditionally come to a classical concert. For example, their recent collaboration at the National Theatre pulled in mainly thespians rather than musicians. However, Justin described how the orchestra has to balance between being a business and an arts organisation. Financially it is more lucrative to focus your energy on your core market, but as an arts organisation there is this obligation to reach out to a broader audience.
Justin admits that not every one of Southbank Sinfonia’s concerts is cutting edge, but he is striving to address this balance. He wants to lose classical music’s conservatism and image of elitism. While orchestras normally tack something a bit spicier onto their main concert series, Justin would like these alternative concert experiences to be the norm for Southbank Sinfonia. Exciting projects are in the pipeline for installations, concerts where you can ‘graze’ and collaborations with unexpected artists. However, arguably a lot more effort goes into organising these cross-collaborations and far more rehearsal time is required to ensure their success.
Southbank Sinfonia proposes that this is the model that will take orchestras into the 21st century. I sorely hope this holistic approach to make-making is successful, as I think I would have a much better chance of dragging a friend to one of Southbank Sinfonia’s events than to a conventional concert.