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First National Congress of Spanish Symphony Orchestras

by MichaelSpencer on Monday 3rd of January 2011

It is very easy to become overly focussed on one’s own situation particularly when budgets are threatened by funding and sponsorship cutbacks.  The current pressures being felt by orchestras are however part of a global retrenchment of arts funding and it is useful to see how others are facing this challenge.

At the end of October I was invited to speak at the First National Congress of Spanish Orchestras in Madrid held by AEOS.  The topic was ‘The Symphony Orchestra in the 21st Century’.  As a result of the global recession Spain’s economy has become one of the most vulnerable in the international community, and along with every other commercial enterprise orchestras are concerned about their future.

Spain has a relatively short orchestral legacy with most of them being formed only in the last 25 years.  The majority also receive the bulk of their funding from local or national government and traditionally this has given them a degree of stability.  The orchestras are, however, concerned about the way this might change as budgets become tighter.  In the current situation no organisation can afford to be complacent about  funding arrangements no matter how well entrenched they may appear to be.  Showing some foresight, the purpose of the Congress was to bring orchestras together as a unified body to create a pre-emptive platform for discussion.

The topics ranged from marketing and fund-raising to press and media relations.  A particular focus however, was education and community programmes.  These were seen by all as fundamental to the creation of viable and sustainable survival strategies.  Speakers came from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Association of British Orchestras, the National Orchestra of Portugal, and some of the Spanish performance venues.  I was invited to speak as an independent consultant.

From the presentations and discussions which followed there were three things in particular that struck me.

The first was that there was common agreement on the importance of education programmes as a means of advocating the work of an orchestra across a broad constituency; at one end students, at the other sponsors.  They were viewed also as being integral to an orchestra’s overall positioning and promotion, and that they should therefore synergise closely with the marketing and sponsorship departments.

The second was the similarity of each speaker’s presentation both in the method of articulation and content.  There seemed little by way of differentiation that distinguished one orchestra’s programme from another.  Each seemed almost exclusively to confine their programme to the engagement of young people.  And the educational level at which this connection was made seemed to focus more on entertainment value than pedagogical rigour.

This leads to my third point.  Because the cultural context in which each educational programme was delivered was different this would imply a comparative diversity in approach.  Therefore it seems strange that the style and content of each presentation was so similar.   Education programmes have to be responsive to the communities within which they sit and consequently should carry their own unique ‘thumbprint’.  This may mean, for example, that for some orchestras school students may not be a primary strategic focus.  Perhaps older people or people with disability may be more appropriate.

The purpose of this congress was to investigate practices elsewhere in the world and explore their potential for creating more sustainable offerings.  The ultimate aim, however, is to put  something in motion that is relevant to Spain.  This means having the courage to look at other organisations and learn from their failings as well as from their successes.

This article first appeared in the Magazine of the Musician’s Union of Japan

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