Orchestra of the Swan's new season


by Christopher Morley

These are uncertain times, and as I write the uncertainty looms larger. However, concert-giving organisations have been making heroic plans, and deserve for them to come to fruition.

One such is the Stratford-based Orchestra of the Swan, announcing an imaginative autumn season at the town's Play House, combining both well-known music as well as works by unjustly neglected composers. Debbie Jagla, OOTS Managing Director, tells me how she and her team envisage the audience experience, and how it will lend itself to social distancing.

"This is an interesting one and something we have battled with, but we think we've come up with the answer!", she says.

"The first concert on October 6th will take place 'in the round' under the central lighting gantry, which means that we make the best use of the venue acoustic and enable as many people as possible to have a good view. Capacity is of course severely reduced to a third of the normal size, so the raked seating, which would usually seat 200, will only accommodate 60.

"However, we have compensated for this by adding up to 20 tables on the floor looking inwards towards the centre, each of which will seat a bubble of up to 4 people. With table cloths and table lighting, the atmosphere will be intimate and inviting. The concert length has been reduced to an hour without an interval, enabling us to repeat the entire performance 90 minutes later, allowing us to maximise our audience. Drinks will be available on arrival and can be taken into the hall, there'll be a separate queue for the loo and thorough cleaning......what more can you ask for? We encourage audience members to wear masks, which can be removed once you are seated."

During these locked-down times freelance musicians have been under tremendous financial strain, and have indeed risked losing the incentive to keep their playing techniques on top form. Debbie picks up on my concerns.

"As a small charity, we were unable to pay our freelance players for cancelled work as our player fees to perform far exceeds any ticket income; in fact, every concert makes a financial loss which has to be made up through fundraising from individuals, companies, Arts Council England and Trusts/Foundations.

"All freelancers, our players could not be furloughed so most have claimed through the self-employed government scheme. But many have fallen between the stools as they have multiple freelance jobs and the estimate of income is based on your annual earnings from the highest of those jobs; and with payment of only 80% of that figure, that's a big income drop.

"However, we were quick off the mark once Covid hit. We immediately formed a Player Fund and invited all those who had purchased tickets to the cancelled concerts to donate their ticket refunds to the player fund. We continued this appeal for 3 months, raising £19,000 which was paid directly to 29 'core' players.

We were very fortunate to receive funding from the Linbury Trust for our work for people living with dementia in early March just before Covid hit, so combined with emergency funding from both ACE and the National Lottery Community Fund, we were able to create multiple digital projects which paid our players to record from home during lockdown and to meet in small groups to record post-lockdown.

In the meantime, our players have worked hard to maintain their 'form', mastering self-recording techniques and supporting each other through the crisis. As an organisation, we are delighted to be resuming live concerts in October and fundraising like crazy to ensure we cover the never-ending funding shortfall by devising ever more ingenious digital projects to enhance our brand and raise awareness of our brilliant players. So watch this space.....

David Le Page. concertmaster and Artistic Director of OOTS, tells about the planning of this return to the "new normal".

"Essentially we got tired of waiting for the government to make a firm decision," he says with typical bluntness. "There was also a sense that many arts organisations were waiting for each other to make that leap into the unknown. We thought our decision might encourage others to follow suit."

"Of course we knew that with social distancing - for the audience and the players - there would inevitably be a compromise, in terms of player numbers and therefore repertoire. Compromise is not necessarily a bad thing though because you are forced to compensate for it by being creative and by working with what you have at your disposal.

"I'm delighted that we didn't hold off until the beginning of 2021, which at one point seemed to be the sensible option. I played my first three live concerts at the end of August and the feeling of relief to be playing and the thrill of attending a live performance for the audience was palpable. They were very moving performances and it's something I won't forget. It was the longest period of time I had not played to an audience since I first picked up the violin at the age of seven."

How will social distancing affect ensemble and communication between the players?

"Being further apart and seated at separate stands means that there will have to be even more listening and awareness than usual. We will function like an expanded chamber group with all the qualities that implies. I think the fact that everyone is trying harder and listening more intently (audience too) coupled with a feeling of joy about being able to do this at all, will undoubtedly make for a very special performance."

David relives the hectic programme-planning.

"There certainly was a frenzy of activity when putting this autumn season together! I was about to go on holiday to Devon when we all decided that we would go for a reduced season of concerts between October and December. This meant changing what I had originally planned to do and basically starting again from scratch. Sadly, I knew that we would have to reduce player numbers and that this would have a knock-on effect in terms of the kind of repertoire we could feasibly perform.

"There was a deadline which coincided with the end of my holiday for the new brochure to be ready so I knew I had to move quickly. I would lie awake at night on holiday, running through various programme ideas then I would get up early and begin putting together the jigsaw of ideas for this unusual season.

"I wanted our first concert to be poignant and celebratory and to acknowledge what everyone has been through during the last six months. Starting with Max Richter's beautiful and inward-looking On the Nature of Daylight and finishing with Copland's exquisite and life affirming Appalachian Spring seemed to encapsulate this idea of new beginnings. On the way I wanted the audience to experience the unfettered joy of Rameau's music so we're playing a suite arranged by David Gordon which is an amalgamation of tunes from three of his operas.

"I also felt it was important to reflect what is going on in the wider world today so we are going to feature three composers from distinctly non-white, non-European backgrounds. Undine Smith Moore features in the first concert followed by Errolyn Wallen in the second and Joseph Bologne in the last.
I'm always trying to find a balance between justifiably well-known works and some unusual and hopefully pleasant surprises. Hence we have Bach, Mozart and Copland but also Reich, Rameau and Undine Smith Moore."

Debbie Jagla sums up all the uncertainties prevailing at the moment, and for how long beyond.

"So times are precarious and there's no such thing as a confirmed booking any more.......we just have to face forwards, plan optimistically and pray there won't be a second Covid wave which sends us all back into hibernation!"

*OOTS opening concert is at Stratford Play House on October 6 (6pm and 8.30pm). All details on www.orchestraoftheswan.org, and 01789 267567

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