EROICA'S REBIRTH

A BIRMINGHAM ORCHESTRA REBRANDS ITSELF



EROICA'S REBIRTH
By Christopher Morley


So many amateur orchestras are formed with the highest aspirations, and I have seen so many of them come and ago. But the Eroica Camerata has been going strong since 2006, and is rising from the enforced pandemic lockdown with a striking new look at itself.

"Our first public concert will be on Saturday in St Nicolas Church, Kings Norton, our home venue, with a programme of Beethoven and Brahms second symphonies. This follows a successful play day in September with the orchestra working on the Brahms and also Beethoven's Egmont overture, which will also feature in the concert. The Beethoven was on our very first concert programme in 2006," says music director Peter Marks.

"However, I am planning several key differences with past performance practice," he continues

"The pandemic has given me time and cause to reflect on what I consider about our music-making both important and not.. For one thing, our patrons can access the highest level of music-making in Symphony Hall at similar prices and so I see no point in trying to replicate the formalities of the concert hall anymore. The collective music-making and sharing this with our audience is more important to me. As such, I shall be making the following changes:

"No more dress code for the orchestra.
"No more conductor walk-ons. The musicians are mostly long-time friends and I do not wish to be separate from them. I shall be with them to begin.
"No more tickets. Patrons will be invited to pay what they wish/feel via our donation fund.
"No more premium printed programmes. Written information will still be provided for interest.
"No press reviews. We have no need of these. Of course, you and your colleagues are most welcome to attend and do not require tickets for entry.
!I plan to abbreviate our name to Eroica.

"We will continue to aim for the highest level of music-making we can reasonably expect to in our two-rehearsal format and to work with the best soloists we can.

"These are uncertain times for us all and we can only hope that our previous audiences will feel comfortable to return, along with the newcomers that we hope to reach. Like all the other arts organisations we have our books to balance but perhaps fewer expenses due to our model."

This is such a striking manifesto, and I ask Peter, who by day is a Consultant Genetic Counsellor at Birmingham Women's Hospital, and is permanently the father of two very young sons, to expand upon his ideas.

"When it was clear we were not going to be able to perform for some considerable time I explained to the players that I was going to watch and wait and only resume concerts when it was not only more safe to do so but also when audiences would actually want and feel safe to return", he begins.

"I had naively thought that our finances would be fine while we were 'paused' but there are of course background running costs to the organisation (I run the orchestra as my own not-for-profit business, not as a charity) like bank charges, insurance fees and such like. We didn't have much reserve and so I took the step of asking the players to donate to a GoFundMe fund for the orchestra if they could afford to. I also asked family members. There were a lot of generous donations (the players don't pay a subscription to play) and so this has enabled me to resume our activities at this stage, culminating in that 'play day' to a small audience of players' relatives.

"The name change has been the result of me having a lot of time to think about our future as an orchestra and why we do what we do. I guess the name change is fairly cosmetic but I don't think the word 'Camerata' really means much to anybody other than those 'in the know'. Changing this to something more prosaic like 'chamber orchestra' might be more obviously descriptive but it is still a mouthful of sorts. Keeping 'Eroica' was important to me as it is still the name we identify with and it is at the end of the day a brand of sorts for us."


Peter's rethink of the entire approach sounds fascinating. Was this entirely his decision, or a collegiate one?

"A benefit of running the orchestra almost single-handedly, with no committee, is being able to make changes and decide programmes at will", he replies.

"I think that the players enjoy the music we do, as they keep coming back. I'm delighted we still have so many players who joined from the beginning or not long afterwards. They are my friends and I do like to get their views on what we do. I do have help from the players with some of the organisation, too, like fixing extra musicians and programme writing. Having said that, I don't think I've actually discussed these proposed changes with the majority of them yet!

"I suppose what I'm trying to do is 'socialise' the orchestra, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows my politics! But I mean this in all senses of the word. I want as many people as possible to have access to our concerts and so a major change is doing away with tickets and inviting audience members to 'pay what they feel' to our donation fund. This could be on the night of the performance or retrospectively when they have gone away and had chance to reflect on it. There is obviously some financial risk involved in this sort of change but I will keep an open mind on how the orchestra is funded in future.

"I want to remove some of the formalities you might see in the concert hall, too. It's not all that expensive to see a professional orchestra with all of these points of etiquette and Birmingham is blessed with one of the best concert halls in the world not to mention a world-class professional orchestra. I don't see the point in trying to recreate these conditions in our community setting as we can't match up to that. I question some of that etiquette in any case. So another change I'm making is I'm no longer going to walk on separately as the conductor. The players are my friends and we all share the stage together. I'll be among them to start, not separate as before.

"Then there's what we wear! I've always insisted the players don't go for formal concert dress as I know full well how uncomfortable it is playing a violin under your chin with a bow tie wedged underneath. And so we've always worn any variation on black. I'd like to relax this further and have no dress code at all. I did enjoy seeing some prominent musicians at the BBC Proms this year wearing colourful trainers, for instance, though sadly not the orchestral players! Of course, the players can wear what they wish and they may prefer something smarter. I suspect there will be a tendency towards black in many cases…and a conductor should always wear black for technical reasons of course! But colourful trainers might be an option still…"

*Eroica performs at St Nicolas Church, Kings Norton, on Saturday January 15 (7.30pm). Details on www.eroica.org.uk

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