Simon Webb, head of BBC Philharmonic, talks to Northern Soul
As I wait in reception for the general manager of BBC Philharmonic, I notice a large crowd of people being body-scanned by security. Blimey, I think, just how raucous are classical music fans? Are they liable to lose it during Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony? It comes as a relief to learn that The Jeremy Kyle Show is filmed at Salford Quays and the queue snaking round the building is here to watch For 22 years I believed you’re my dad – today I hope you’re not!
Away from the hubbub, Simon Webb is in reflective mood, musing on his first six months as head of the internationally-renowned BBC Philharmonic, and full of ideas about the future. A former cellist, he’s mindful of the BBC Phil’s global reputation and the importance of its place in the local area. The Bridgewater Hall is home to the Phil’s flagship programme but the 90-strong orchestra travels far and wide.
“The orchestra was established in 1934 and was in Manchester’s Oxford Road,” says Webb. “It was the BBC Northern Orchestra until it became the BBC Philharmonic about 20 years ago. It’s fundamental for us to engage with the local community. We have a very positive relationship with local schools and Greater Manchester as a whole.”
“Our focus in terms of learning has always been schools and Greater Manchester, that’s a very important relationship for us. For example, we’ve set up an ensemble for each of the main Greater Manchester areas and we find opportunities for the children to performance with the BBC Philharmonic. It works on the principle that every child has a creative impulse. There’s no person who doesn’t have a musical sympathy. We are providing opportunities to explore the creative impulse through music. I see it as opening a door. A lot of the children we work with are still of an age where they could pick up an instrument and learn it.”
Webb has some big shoes to fill at the BBC Phil – his predecessor, Richard Wigley, was at the helm for a decade and was instrumental in developing the orchestra’s work across the region and in its home city. “This was the job I didn’t think would ever come up,” admits Webb. “I know Richard well and I know the set-up well, and I’ve always been impressed with the orchestra. Then the job came up and I didn’t believe it.”
Webb’s previous role was as director of orchestral management at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra but he has also performed with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and was administrative director at Sheffield’s chamber music group, Music in the Round. In addition, he developed orchestral provision in Yorkshire and the Humber.
Webb says: “Of course, the bit you don’t have to do with [the BBC Phil] is fundraising. And that’s a huge part of a non-BBC orchestra. The bit you have to do is the whole broadcast way of thinking. All of our output is built on the principle of being on air. That’s new for me. It’s a different mindset and that’s been the steepest learning curve, understanding how broadcast content gets done.”
He adds: “The Bridgewater Hall is our public facing work and then there is what Radio 3 needs. It’s a real privilege to be doing this. Radio 3 broadcasting is a diet of of classical music and it has its own editorial priorities and we have to deliver into that agenda. That’s all about the radio audience. The Bridgewater Hall is all about us being the BBC orchestra for the North. It’s a huge repertoire and we have to choose which areas we focus on. This season the focus is Beethoven but some of the lesser known work. This stuff is not often done in concerts. And it’s Nielsen‘s 150th anniversary. But we are also focusing on composers from the North of England. And that important emerging theme will become more clear in the upcoming season.”
It’s no surprise to learn that the BBC Philharmonic has a sizeable recording output: it has made more than 200 recordings and sold around 900,000 albums. What is less well known is that it is partly funded by Salford City Council and, as Webb has already pointed out, is committed to community engagement work.
“We are working to get into every school in Salford,” says Webb. “And over time we will have worked with every school in the city. And part of this work will involve bringing schools into the studio.”
Among the outreach events taking place shortly is Meet the Phil which offers students the chance to visit MediaCity and listen to the orchestra in rehearsal. This is followed by a Q&A session where attendees can quiz players, composers, producers and conductors about their work. There’s also the Journey Through Music scheme for families with children aged 8-16, an initiative whereby tickets are sold at discounted prices and there are specially-curated programme notes to guide audience members through the music and pre-concert workshops.
Most recently, the orchestra embarked on an ambitious BBC Philharmonic Presents… series, all broadcast across the BBC’s national radio networks, as well as BBC Radio Manchester, from its base at BBC North in Salford. The programme was an enormous success and included performances with 1980s pop legend Boy George, American singer-songwriters John Grant, and electronic dance stars, Clean Bandit. But the orchestra is not resting on its laurels.
“I’m six months into the job and I have a couple of things I’m really focussing on. First, British music and British composers, including Northern composers. I’ve always been a bit frustrated that we don’t acknowledge how great the British music creative scene is. Second, our relationship with Salford, and looking at ways that our community of musicians can work with the local community.”
In the meantime, if you can’t make it down to Salford Quays or over to The Bridgewater Hall, there’s always the chance you could catch Webb playing the cello at his local church.
For more information on the famous Japanese pianist’s concert, Nobuyuki Tsujii performs Rachmaninov, on October 31, 2014 at The Bridgewater Hall, follow this link: www.bbc.co.uk/events/eqjv4f
To sign up for the BBC Philharmonic newsletter, click here
To read about the BBC’s Ten Pieces initiative, follow this link: www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/mediapacks/bbcmusic/
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