In 2013-14, we saw a 54 per cent increase in new attenders to see our chamber orchestra, Manchester Camerata, compared to the previous season. We have a restless ambition to redefine what an orchestra can do. We’re constantly challenging how we engage with audiences – so if that means we perform in a grand concert hall one day, and a car park the next, so be it.
Like any big city, there’s a real wealth of performance spaces in Manchester – clubs and bars, chapels and cathedrals, impressive concert halls and everything in between. We’ve found that by performing in venues like Gorilla Bar or the Royal Exchange Theatre, we’re cultivating a new audience for our work – taking the music to them, rather than expecting them to come to us.
There are some great examples of new types of audience engagement happening in the industry. The Berlin Philharmonic recently performed at a train station at peak time, with musicians popping up in lifts and all kinds of places. It doesn’t get much more direct than that. And I remember the London Contemporary Orchestra giving audience members coloured glasses to experience each movement of Stockhausen’s Klang in a whole new light.
When we launched our UpClose series in 2011 – experimental gigs in more informal venues – we soon found that with every new venue came new audiences and new opportunities to engage with them.
Take our upcoming concert at the Royal Exchange Theatre in March, Challenging the Senses. Leader Adi Brett will direct a small ensemble in minimalist composer George Crumb’s haunting Black Angels – described as “the most beautiful ugly sound”. There’s so much to listen to in that piece, so we thought, let’s encourage people to really listen and blindfold the audience (an optional enhancement of course). The beauty of being at the theatre is that we’re able to benefit from their production set up and expertise – so without giving too much away, we’ll have scent bombs and all sorts going off.
All this comes down to collaboration. In April, we were the first professional orchestra to perform at Manchester’s Albert Hall – a forgotten Wesleyan chapel resurrected by the man behind the Trof venue empire, Joel Wilkinson. When I first met Joel, we were standing in the main space at the Albert Hall at the start of the restoration, with light pouring in through the stained-glass windows. Joel was wearing a high-vis tabard, looking like a workman – not your archetypal venue tycoon. We talked about our passion for music, culture and Manchester, and bringing this amazing building back to life.
I noticed the acoustic straight away: it was like a crystal – so clear and direct. And because the place has such atmosphere and feeling to it, it opens up all kinds of production opportunities. With very subtle lighting and production techniques – such as musicians performing in different places around the hall – there’s virtually nothing that wouldn’t work in there in terms of how you want an audience to feel.
And, of course, venues like this attract a huge clubbing audience, who are enjoying music and listening to amazing artists from different genres, so it’s a natural place for us to be. That’s an audience we want to test out and engage. We’ve had to adapt how we work and learn from how Trof produce their events to create the right type of programme and environment to cultivate those audiences. In the end, our concert in April attracted 25 per cent new attenders.
November sees us perform at Gorilla Bar for an electic programme ranging from Bach to Lady Gaga. We’ll be joined by the amazingly talented Martynas Levickis, the man who is single-handedly reinventing the accordion.
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I’m always hungry to find the next venue or the next opportunity to engage with audiences, old and new. You can’t stand still in this industry and there’s too much opportunity out there not to chase it.
Bob Riley is chief executive of Manchester Camerata.
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