Why Orchestras Matter / The Guardian

Posted on October 7, 2009

Wielding The Baton

As both chief executive and artistic director of the London Philharmonic, Tim Walker holds a unique management position in this country. However it is his role as chair of the Association of British Orchestras that he is keen to highlight and the role it plays in the public arena.

It’s not just those managing public services who are feeling the need to outline their usefulness to the nation as talk of cuts gets seriously underway. The nation’s cultural life also fears the squeeze and British orchestras are no exception. The Association of British Orchestras (ABO), for instance, has embarked on a campaign to raise their profile in the run-up to the next comprehensive spending review.

To this end, Public went to interview Tim Walker, the affable, softly-spoken Australian who chairs the ABO, to talk about the organisation’s aim of ensuring that by 2017 every pupil in England will leave school having had the chance to listen to a leading orchestra.

Walker also spoke about the advantages of bringing a business-like approach to the world of the dedicated professional, which will resonate with many public managers.

The ABO which represents more than 65 orchestras, from the London Philharmonic to youth orchestras. Right now, as well as its programme to introduce the children of this country to world-class orchestral music, the organisation is tackling an unlikely topic – the Olympics.

“We have been grappling with some of the issues to do with the Olympic games. The organising committee has to record all of the national anthems and we would obviously wish the authority to commission those from British orchestras,” explains Walker.

“We would not wish the committee to commission, say, an eastern European orchestra simply because that might be less expensive. This affects us all; we feel that when the prizewinners get up to accept their medals that’s a real opportunity for the great sound of British orchestras to be heard all over the world. We will be lobbying to make sure that work is done by great British orchestras.”

Chairing the ABO is part of Walker’s advocacy of this country’s orchestral life. His day job is running the London Philharmonic Orchestra, where he is unusual in combining the posts of both chief executive and artistic director.

He joined the orchestra six-and-a-half years ago, leaving his native country to join what he describes as London’s world-beating musical culture, attracted both by the capital itself and by the prospect of building on his musical and business expertise.

“This job particularly interested me because it combines the role of chief executive and artistic director,” he says. “It’s not unique in the world, but it’s unique in Britain and that’s quite attractive, particularly if you’ve spent a lifetime in music management.”

Creativity and management skills

Walker himself is unusual in combining creativity and management skills. He possess an honours degree in Arts, a diploma of music and a diploma of education from the University of Tasmania and a diploma in financial management from the University of New England.

Combining the roles of business manager and artistic director has put him under more pressure, he acknowledges. “You’re more on the line all the time,” he says. “There are double the risks, double the reason to move you on, let’s be frank about that.”

On a day-to-day basis, many of the decisions are made solely by Walker, where in other musical companies they might be shared. But he believes it works well, partly because of the way he works.

“I think it works for me because I work in a very consensus sort of way, anyway,” he comments. While Walker says he is “not the kind of person whose going to appoint a principal conductor that I don’t think the orchestra would want to work with”, he goes on to say that there are advantages to being able to make those kinds of artistic decisions.

“It means you can more easily push your company forward. With companies that leave the decision on appointing the principal conductor to the orchestral members, it is easier for them to perhaps choose the conductor who makes their life easier, who maybe finishes rehearsals half an hour earlier.

“Whereas I can take the decision to appoint somebody who is going to challenge people. People need to be challenged, but do they always want to take that decision themselves? Perhaps not.”

Click here to read the article on The Guardian website.

 Tim Walker