Earlier in our milestone year, we welcomed James Williams as our new Managing Director. Hannah Nepil caught up with him in a recent phone interview to find out more about how he’s settling in and future plans for the organisation.
James Williams sounds surprisingly relaxed. Perhaps, after only a couple of months as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s new Managing Director, the stress of the role hasn’t fully set in. Or perhaps he is just concealing it. After all, as he points out, it takes a lot of work ‘to get under the skin of these big, complicated organisations. You have to do a lot of listening to people to get a feel for the culture and the organisation’s values.’
Happily, he is nothing if not prepared, having spent his career working in arts management. A former tuba player (‘though not professionally,’ he hastens to add), he studied Music at York University, before landing a job on Yehudi Menuhin’s Live Music Now scheme. ‘We brought live music to people who had fewest opportunities to access it, such as elderly people with dementia,’ he explains.
Then came roles as Programming Manager at the Royal Northern College of Music and, most recently, as Director, UK Programme and Creative Projects at the Philharmonia, where he indulged his passion for contemporary music, curating the Music of Today Series, and masterminded initiatives including the Philharmonia at the Movies film music series and iOrchestra, a major digital and education project in the South West.
Still, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonia are rather different beasts, as Williams points out himself. ‘The RPO in particular has always had to be very entrepreneurial. So its USP [Unique Selling Point] is really its flexibility and the sheer diversity of its repertoire; this ability to perform a Mahler symphony one night and the next to perform symphonic rock, and somehow be able to click from one to the other without any compromise on quality.’
What kind of changes, then, is Williams planning? ‘I’m going to be terribly boring and a bit tight-lipped at the moment,’ he says, before dropping a few carefully-worded hints: ‘I have a real interest in new music, community and education work and digital projects, so clearly I’m not going to lose any of that enthusiasm here.’ He also stresses the need, especially in these lean times, to stay mindful of ‘changes in society, changes stylistically in music, what is in vogue, what isn’t in vogue to make sure that what we’re doing is relevant to the communities we serve.’
Still his main priority, he insists, is ‘to continue to value what is so special about the RPO, without setting off in a totally different direction.’ Which means that the Orchestra’s flexibility, its diversity, and – phew – its annual Bake-Off, should remain in place. ‘I’ve already identified a few fantastic bakers in the organisation,’ says Williams. Is he one of them? ‘Probably not. Even though I do enjoy cooking, I’m very rarely at home to actually cook ever because most of the time I’m out at concerts and networking events. But I understand that the RPO Bake-Off is legendary. Long may it continue.’
Written by Hannah Nepil