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The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) has launched a vision statement and announced its intention to explore a range of new opportunities. Recently appointed Chief Executive Emma Stenning explains why the future of orchestral music in the city depends on engaging with local communities and welcoming wider audiences...

One of the joys of doing this job is getting to know a city and getting to know the people who do brilliant things here. It’s so thrilling, and I find Birmingham a completely vibrant, welcoming and happy place to be -  despite the obvious challenges that the council is throwing our way.

We shouldn’t be backwards in saying that the city boasts an orchestra among the finest in the world. I am so blessed to spend my day surrounded by musicians of such exceptional quality - and listening to them play is a complete delight!

One of the things the CBSO does really well is tour around the world, play to packed houses, celebrating and promoting Birmingham. But the thing we could do a bit more of is think about what it actually means to be Birmingham’s orchestra. 

The team did a brilliant job of last year’s rebrand, saying really clearly ‘Birmingham’s orchestra, loud and proud’, but when I arrived, I thought ‘What does that really mean?’ I know we do fantastic concerts in Symphony Hall, but by and large, knowing this to be an extraordinarily diverse and incredibly youthful city, I don’t see the full breadth of Birmingham represented in our audience, and there’s no point in my hiding that. For me, that represents an incredible opportunity.

In our vision statement we talk about wanting every life to be enriched by music, and we need that to mean every life, because we don’t have every life in Symphony Hall right now. We have a city that has incredible cultural breadth and creativity, so I’m pushing to really examine what it means to be Birmingham’s orchestra. We’ve got to think about how we connect across communities across the city, and across the different musical disciplines that are here.  

Our show with the Orchestral Qawwali Project, featuring a group of Indian musicians, was a great example. It was rammed full in Symphony Hall - and not an audience that would typically be there. We have an incredible opportunity to explore collaborations with musicians of different disciplines and different cultural backgrounds - and then we might start to feel like Birmingham’s orchestra.

Another example was two contrasting proms we did last summer. One was Kazuki Yamada, our amazing conductor (main image), doing Carmina Burana, a big classical concert that was absolutely joyful. The next night we did a Bollywood prom, which was amazing, and the audience of course was completely different. I’m not saying it should be one or the other - it should be both. We should have the confidence, and the breadth of perspective, to say this city represents all of that.

It’s not about making huge changes. Our audience is extraordinarily loyal and incredibly important to us, and I’m absolutely certain that we’ll always have a large part of our programme that they will cherish and really love. 

Ultimately it’s all about providing exceptional, accessible music. At times I might try to encourage the audience and say: you might not instinctively think you’d like this, but come and try it, and trust us that quality is a given; brilliant live music is a given.

I’ve spoken to a lot of our members and superfans. They’ve grown up with this music and grown to cherish a more-traditional construct, and I really respect that. But part of what I’m trying to do, along with thinking about the diversity of the audience, is get to a place where maybe their kids, grandkids and even great grandkids are really excited to come as well. And wouldn’t they love that? 

Last season we had a night of music from video games. On the one hand that might make classical-music traditionalists cringe, but speaking to some of our audience, the fact that they had some of the teenage lads in their lives suddenly desperate to come to a concert with them was completely delightful to them. I also spoke to a few people in the interval who told me, ‘You know what, it’s really good.’ 

While we have some concerts at Symphony Hall that are packed, across the year we sell about 55 per cent of the capacity. Clearly there’s more to do, and an opportunity to invite more people into the hall. Part of what we’re looking at is how to make sure what we’re doing is incredibly welcoming, because a lot of people are uncertain whether they are welcome.

Some people fear there’s a set of rules they don’t know that everyone else in the hall knows. I didn’t grow up with classical music or have a background in this artform - I went to my first classical concert in my 30s. I still sit at shows and think ‘Wait till someone else claps; don’t be the idiot who claps first’ - so I know what that feels like… and I run an orchestra! 

I’ve got to be empathetic with the people who are fearful. I really like walking out onto the stage at the start and saying: “Hi everyone, I’m so happy that you’re here, and we’ve got this amazing concert that we’re going to listen to together.” Then I’ll tell them a little bit about what the show is about.

None of this is rocket science. It’s just about saying let’s stop being an artform where the perceived reality is a little bit scary, and let’s encourage people to relax and enjoy themselves.

One of the reasons we’ve issued the draft version of the vision statement is that it’s knowingly draft. The bit we haven’t done yet is engage with the audience and the public about what they think. Everyone has to be in a dialogue together. It can’t be finished until it’s in the public domain and we’re given feedback.

We also need a bit of time to try things out. Tom Morris [the CBSO’s newly appointed theatre director in residence] has started to work with us to explore the staging of our concerts - what lighting design and projection might bring - and is even working with the musicians on where they sit and if they move at all. 

I feel very lucky to be working with this particular group of musicians. Kazuki Yamada, our chief conductor & artistic advisor, is truly adventurous, ambitious and generous. When I ask him about things I might be worried about doing, he always wants to do even more and experiment even more - that’s an incredibly infectious energy for the orchestra.

We have a group of incredibly adventurous musicians who are deeply passionate about audience engagement and the future of their artform. It’s a fairly open conversation across the orchestral sector that unless we do something to discover a new audience and understand what our audience is in a rapidly changing world, then the old way of doing things is time-bound. 

We’re all in it together. A community of orchestras are working together and saying, let’s learn by doing, and share as we go, and together let’s learn a new language of orchestral music that will take us forward. After all, every musician wants to play to a packed hall!

For information and dates on all upcoming CBSO concerts, visit cbso.co.uk