Managing Director James Williams: 'Necessity is the mother of invention'

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‘Unprecedented’; ‘unknown’; ‘uncertainty’ – all words that have dominated the press and media over the past few months and reflect the new ‘normal’ in which we are now living our lives. Schools and offices have been closed, high streets deserted and our freedoms curtailed in order to control the spread of COVID-19, a virus that has caused loss and pain to many families across the UK and the world.

The music world has been playing its part to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 by closing concert halls doors in mid-March to prevent public gatherings. Creativity and innovation, both characteristics that define the UK’s world-renowned culture sector, flourished as many of the UK’s performing arts organisations including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra transformed overnight their live artistic programmes onto digital platforms, enabling audiences to maintain contact with their favourite cultural organisation, more often than not for free. Closer to home, it’s been wonderful to learn more about the individual lives and personalities of the RPO’s musicians on our digital platform #RPOatHome and to see individuals’ creativity flourishing, which by definition is harder to achieve when performing together as an 80-piece orchestra.

But beyond providing much needed distraction from the challenges of lockdown, data received from the RPO’s most recent national poll shows that there is a more meaningful role that orchestral music has played in helping people through the lockdown. This most recent survey (found here) shows a huge spike over the past three months of people listening at home to orchestral music, with over 60% of these people citing tangible benefits to their mental health as a result. A greater number of young people have been picking up their musical instruments, practicing for longer and the RPO’s Spotify page now welcomes nearly 4.2 million listeners per month. The doom-mongers who suggest that classical music is dying, need to re-visit their hypotheses!

But as you know only too well, nothing beats experiencing great orchestral music live in concert and one question I am constantly being asked by audience members, supporters, musicians and staff is when this will next be possible for the RPO. Frustratingly, there is no clear time-line for when we can return to work and the priority at present has to remain protecting the health and wellbeing of all audience members, musicians and staff. What is clear, however, is that any return to performance will be gradual, building up from small-scale performances that can be achieved with social distancing measures in place. We’re looking at a number of options to take RPO musicians into more unusual performance settings and spaces that will allow for implementing social distancing measures within a comfortable environment, whilst thinking carefully about how we can use digital platforms as a tool to reach those audiences who perhaps are unable to travel. Whilst international touring is unlikely to return until 2021, the RPO remains committed to our presence in towns and cities across the UK and are in discussions with promoters and venues to see what might be possible to achieve to ensure that the RPO retains a presence across our regional residencies. And we are adapting numerous community and education programmes to provide practicable solutions to ensure that people young and old across the UK can continue to engage with our pioneering creative programmes. Details for events across the Autumn will be announced on the RPO’s website across the summer, and please do keep an eye out as we roll out our plans: www.rpo.co.uk/whats-on. The old English proverb ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ has never felt more relevant than today and I’d like to pay tribute to the wonderful staff and musicians at the RPO who have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to make sense of these challenges.

So as the UK begins emerging from lockdown, we must not forget that the performing arts has a vital role to play in continuing to support society on this road recovery. Music should not be seen by Government as a ‘luxury’ but as an ‘essential’ resource that enriches society by challenging, reassuring and inspiring in equal measures. Music provides the soundtrack of everyone’s daily life whether that’s on the radio, television, film or personal listening and its musicians such as the players in the RPO who have created this content. And yet it is the very existence of music organisations and musicians like the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra that are now under severe threat. With concert halls closed and unable to reopen for the foreseeable future whilst social distancing measures are in place, the RPO has overnight lost 90% of its annual income which has placed a massive strain on our financial reserves and has left the RPO’s freelance musicians without a monthly income. Many of our supporters and donors have responded magnificently with gifts for which we are extremely grateful; however, this generosity extends to mitigate only a small proportion of the financial losses the RPO has endured over the past four months.

Yesterday’s announcement of a Government support package for the UK’s cultural sector is most welcome news, and although there are many details and conditions of the funding package yet to be confirmed, UK orchestras hope that this financial support will help sustain them through this period of enforced closure. Such financial assistance would enable the RPO to realise its creative ambitions over the coming months and to play a crucial role supporting individuals and wider society through this challenging recovery. Plato’s famous quote about music feels more relevant today than perhaps at any other time in history: “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” Let’s hope and pray that our politicians share and understand these sentiments and that cultural intuitions such as the RPO are supported for future generations.

Thank you for your continued support for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and I look forward to welcoming you back to a RPO performance very soon.

James Williams
Managing Director
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra


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