Finding My Way to Cardiff: ABO Conference 2018

Written by Claire Bayliss, CLS Orchestra Manager

The end of January saw my first visit to an Association of British Orchestras (ABO) Conference – this year, co-hosted by BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, Sinfonia Cymru and Welsh National Opera Orchestra at the striking Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff.

Collaboration was the theme, and indeed the order of the day before the Conference had even opened; when delegates were forced to share taxis in a bid to overcome the failings of Great Western Railway and arrive on time.

There was a buzz in the air: colleagues catching up on a year’s worth of news, faces being put to names across the business, and networks expanding – all while we were taken through a thought-provoking, challenging and enjoyable series of discussions, presentations, performances and speeches.

International Collaboration was on the cards: how Brexit will affect our industry (the answer: we don’t know until it happens), and how we can still do more to address the Diversity Challenge, especially in consideration of hidden disabilities. Horace Trubridge, the newly elected General Secretary of the Musicians’ Union set his stall. The question of increasing musicians’ engagement in industry discussions was brought into focus with a bold pledge to double the number of orchestral players attending the Conference in 2019. We celebrated successes of our colleagues with the ABO Award and Rhinegold Awards, and we heard from Alan Davey (Controller of BBC Radio 3, BBC Proms and BBC Performing Groups) on the BBC’s plans for classical music.

Collaborative performances were interspersed throughout the Conference: BBC NOW and the orchestra of WNO each took one half of the opening night’s concert; Sinfonia Cymru performed Birdsong, the result of a collaboration with Gwilym Simcock and Kizzy Crawford, and featuring visual projections by Ruby Fox; a jazz quartet from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama provided after-dinner entertainment; and Martin James Bartlett, winner of the 2014 BBC Young Musician of the Year, performed at the closing session with the 2016 Finalist and Woodwind Category winner, saxophonist Jess Gillam.

For me, however, the focus was very much on 10.00 Friday morning when I was to co-present a session as part of the ABO’s Find Your Way 2017–18 cohort. The brief: fresh thinking around collaboration. The challenge: according to the Arts Index, only 37% of the UK population think that culture is a valid use of taxpayers’ money – down from 50% five years ago. How can we use collaboration to make our work more relevant to society today?

Find Your Way 2017-18 Cohort

It has been a privilege to work alongside the outstanding individuals Toks Dada (Programme Co-ordinator, Town Hall and Symphony Hall Birmingham), Helen Dunne (Orchestra Manager, Royal Opera House), Simon Fairclough (Director of Development, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra), Nick Jackman (Development Director, London Philharmonic Orchestra) and Annie Lydford (Head of Communications, English National Opera). Together we’ve been examining ways that we can collaborate better with the commercial sector (Us vs All of Them), with our peers (Us vs The Others), and with each other within our own organisations (Us vs Us).

The preparation of our presentation was a collaboration in itself, but after much discussion in face-to-face meetings, skype conference calls and late night messages; many hours of research on brand partnerships, loyalty schemes, co-investment potential and knowledge sharing; two shared documents totaling 39 pages, a complex 3×3 grid cross-referencing our ideas, and the design and fine-tuning of 59 slides; several snatched meetings and rehearsals in corners during the Conference, a tense moment in which we narrowly avoided a catastrophic technological glitch, and the last few minutes of pacing and muttering to ourselves, we were finally ready.

It paid off, and we delivered.

Helen and at the ABO Conference
Helen Dunne (left) and Claire Bayliss (right).

The audience looked engaged throughout – many taking notes. They responded to our questions and laughed at the right moments. Upon finishing, we received a hearty round of applause and some challenging, but friendly questions. Our session had provoked debate and interest amongst our colleagues within the sector.

We set out with the aim of each delegate taking away maybe one or two thinking points back to their home organisation – we achieved that, and more. What a feeling!

But not to rest on our laurels, the next Find Your Way challenge is just around the corner…


The ABO’s Find Your Way programme is a nine-month leadership course offering ambitious and emerging leaders of the orchestral sector the opportunity to further develop their managerial knowledge and skills, under the guidance of an experienced coach. The programme is funded by Arts Council England and the Jerwood Foundation.

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