Symphony bids farewell to unrattled Smith

Ed Smith forged a remarkable creative partnership when he hired an unknown conductor called Simon Rattle 20 years ago. Now Smith, too, is leaving the hot seat.
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The Independent Culture

"There was no fear. We were like young gymnasts who throw their bodies around without any thought of hurting themselves. And what Simon and I didn't know in the late Seventies enabled us to take all sorts of risks which we would both think very carefully about now."

"There was no fear. We were like young gymnasts who throw their bodies around without any thought of hurting themselves. And what Simon and I didn't know in the late Seventies enabled us to take all sorts of risks which we would both think very carefully about now."

There can be practically no risk that Ed Smith, who's just stepped down as Chief Executive of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, took with its former conductor Simon Rattle that didn't pay off. When Smith left the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for the CBSO in 1978 the organisation was in a state of flux following the abrupt departure of both its conductor and its manager.

"People were very apprehensive when I suggested that Simon Rattle should become the CBSO's new conductor. He was only 23. I had to assure them that though it was a risk this appointment was only for three years."

Their 18-year partnership at the CBSO ended only when the conductor finally moved on last year. During that time, according to Rattle, "There were in every way two music directors - one of them with less addiction to the limelight and I can't say too strongly how complementary we were to each other. Sometimes it was my rashness being tempered by Ed's concern for practical details and frightening efficiency and, at other times, it was the reverse with Ed quietly giving us all the courage to take wing and really fly."

Being friends for more or less 30 years had occasional drawbacks, however, as Smith recalls: "Once or twice he would say 'I thought we were supposed to discuss these issues before things actually happened', and sometimes I had to dig him out of a hole as he had to do with me. But we knew each other as well as two men probably can know each other in terms of our capacities and passions. As far as he and I were concerned our relationship was trusting, exciting, ambitious and mutually supportive."

Smith is " deeply happy" to that someone else is taking over. "What is expected now of a chief executive is well nigh impossible to achieve. When I came to Birmingham we would have one meeting a year with our funders and for the rest of the time we put on concerts. Today, even with colleagues to help, being in charge of an orchestra is a very, very difficult task, to be honest. There's never a week goes by where there isn't some sort of fancy scheme being cooked up, a different form to be filled in.

"Funding now has to be for something so specific, something different, involving young people or old people. Never mind the middle-aged. It's all new audience initiatives, enhancement packages, incentive funds. And there are such a lot of buzz words - recovery programmes, stabilisation policies, flexible changing schemes, but what do they mean? In reality to an orchestra they mean: do what you're doing with less money."

Even the CBSO, the darling of regional orchestras, with invitations to play all over the world, recording contracts and an enviable critical reputation, has an accumulated deficit of £500,000, a small amount in comparison with some orchestras. The CBSO has applied for a stabilisation award which Smith hopes, if the orchestra is successful, will wipe out the deficit.

"We have started some re-structuring of the way the organisation is run in order to stabilise it though not necessarily with less money. It's unlikely that the CBSO will be able to continue to do this range of work to its current high standard without more public funding."

The novelty of a new hall, as highly satisfactory in every way as Symphony Hall, pushed up attendances. Now, as Smith wryly remarks, it is stabilisation of the audience that is needed, attracting that generation of concert-goers lost when culture was downgraded in our education system. Would that be helped by the tricksy presentation some so persuasively advocate? Not as far as Smith is concerned.

Audiences, he believes, come on the basis of sheer artistic quality and are not noticeably enticed in their droves by voice-over player introductions, audience welcomes, visual gags such as coloured or dimmed lighting and on-stage screens. As by far the longest-serving orchestra chief executive in this country he has a clear and surprisingly positive picture of the future of British orchestras.

"Decision-makers are beginning to recognise the enormous contribution orchestras make to the well-being of society. Take the CBSO and what it provides in its adult chorus, fantastic youth choruses, recitals, ensembles such as the flourishing Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, its teaching and the creation of education projects and, with its purpose-built rehearsal and performance hall and studios, as a venue for visiting performers. These aren't add-ons - they're an integral part of life in this city. There is money there," he believes, "coming from Government to the Arts Council, which could and will ultimately sustain orchestras".

Birmingham recognises what an asset it has in the CBSO in terms of the city's reputation and profile. However, although business support remains buoyant in education and community projects, Smith admits: "We all made a huge mistake, coming to rely on sponsorship as core funding in terms of balancing your books, instead of as the icing on the cake providing for that extra special event, a rare performance or prestigious tour."

"If an arts organisation is not performing well enough, in the widest sense, then hard decisions have to be taken even if that means the Arts Council saying: 'No. You've had you're chance and we can't go on supporting this just because it's historical.' Instead I'd love to see the Arts Council fund an individual, rather than an organisation to experiment with something he or she passionately believes in for the development of their art. Imagine if someone had only done that with [theatre director] Peter Brook 30 years ago, he'd be practising his art in this country rather than in Paris."

And what about what Arts Council Chairman, Gerry Robinson, calls the 'bonanza for the regions'?

"I think that the devolution of funding major organisations like the CBSO from the Arts Council of Whitehall to regional control is the most ill-thought out policy that's ever been put forward. It hasn't happened yet and I think there's a long way to go before both orchestras and Regional Arts Boards will feel the circumstances are right. There aren't enough people with sufficient expertise to contribute in all the regions and there are already signs that the bureaucratic buck is simply being passed from the Arts Council to the regional boards."

At 50, he's got no intention of retiring yet. With the discovery and appointment of Rattle's successor, Sakari Oramo, who has "taken over a great orchestra and made it even greater," Smith simply feels, "it's the right time for me to go, after 21 years of the most fulfilling job of any orchestra manager in the world."

He won't be following Rattle to Berlin, however. "Simon may have had enough of me, I may have had enough of him and, anyway, I don't speak German! I'm lucky to be able to break loose and do this but I'm a single man without any responsibilities and I can live quite comfortably without having to earn for a few months. I'm off to do what I've always wanted. I'm going on a cargo boat to the West Indies with a lot of books, and scores and CDs of Sibelius's seven symphonies and I'm going to study them, bar by bar, for fun..."

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