Orchestras talking shop

James InverneMon 1st March 2010

James Inverne joins the Association of British Orchestras for its annual conference in Glasgow

Once a year the orchestral world comes together for a grand spot of introspection. They take time away from the office, from their home halls, to take a look at what they and their colleagues are doing. There’s a sense of collegiality rather than competition, as the people who shape our concert-going lives (at every level, from local small-scale ensembles to great national institutions) meet, confer, talk music, talk business. It’s the Association of British Orchestras’ annual conference.

This year I joined them for the first time, in Glasgow, to chair a panel on the future of the recording industry. It was a rather fascinating occasion. My panel was made up of as interesting a mix of people as one could wish – Decca’s Paul Moseley (also founder of the Onyx label), Chaz Jenkins from LSO Live, the digital guru Jonathan Gruber (from Ulysses Arts, and in a previous life digital director for Universal Classics) and the technology expert and founder of “online jukebox” Wi7, Steve Purdham.

Some highlights – Jenkins pointing out how important it is for an orchestra’s own label to have a clear branded identity that is unique to the recordings (and his rather outrageous slide of an album cover featuring a well-oiled male band), Purdham telling everyone to stop worrying about the financial model (“even this jug of water, free to us, cost money to make and a thirsty man in the desert would give his life savings for it”), Moseley ruminating on what major and independent labels do differently and best, and Gruber’s suggestion that it all feeds back to keeping things going in the end.

I was also struck by Chaz Jenkins’s point that it is not enough to rely on old recordings to keep an orchestra’s image fresh and vital. People expect new recordings. Even the Berlin Philharmonic would not be viewed with the continuing reverence they enjoy were they to simply rely on old Karajan recordings.

And the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Stéphane Denève is an interesting chap as well as a fine conductor. The way he delivered an informal talk about the composer Guillaume Connesson mid-concert reminded me rather of a priest or rabbi in a small community – mentioning things that had happened earlier in the season, just as a sermon might begin, “in last week’s service we talked about…” The audience loved his conversational style, and I loved the RSNO’s subsequent performance of Connesson’s A glimmer in the age of darkness – colours bursting through a primeval gloom. The orchestra was also on fine, barn-storming form for Respighi’s The Pines of Rome (brass behind the audience for that surround-sound effect).

I had an interesting discussion with the head of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. They’ve talked about and rejected (at least for now) the idea of creating their own label in favour of signing up with the German label Orfeo. It means, he explained, being with a proven distributor – and an organisation that can carry the brand into Germany (which they are touring this year). In turn, I suppose, the CBSO connection helps bring Orfeo into the UK. An interesting business, the recording industry just now. And with so much enthusiasm for great music-making on show in one place, one couldn’t help but leave the ABO conference excited by what may be in store.

James Inverne

James Inverne is former editor of Gramophone. He now runs a music management + PR company.

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