Attend a concert in the coming season and you may hear Arvo Pärt’s Silouan’s Song in almost total darkness before Nicola Benedetti takes the solos in The Four Seasons; encounter indie artist Bill Ryder-Jones live with the orchestra at Manchester Cathedral; hear the accordionist winner of Lithuania’s Got Talent play Bach and Lady Gaga in Manchester’s trendy Gorilla Bar; or don a blindfold and experience scent bombs in the Royal Exchange Theatre as the musicians play George Crumb’s Black Angels followed by Dowland, Shostakovich and Haydn.
They do conventional concerts, too: a Christmas programme with Tine Thing Helseth, a New Year’s Day Viennese special, an evening of string classics under music director Gábor Takács-Nagy with new leader Adi Brett as soloist, Elgar’s cello concerto with their own principal, Hannah Roberts, and concerto performances by pianists Dejan Lazić and Ingrid Fliter among them.
But even more extraordinary than the boundary-pushing public performances are the off-stage ones. The orchestra is pioneering a research-led programme for dementia sufferers, in partnership with Care UK, as music produces a measurable benefit in reduced medication costs for people in care homes.
The musicians are working with young people on the autistic spectrum, and their non-autistic peers, making mini music dramas alongside a team from the Royal Exchange Theatre. They have devised an operatic presentation with schools in Chester, with 100 performers, fire engines and smoke machines in Chester Cathedral, to get a safety message across more effectively than ever before. They are making a three-act ‘filmed opera’, with Salford’s Culture and Leisure department and six local schools, to celebrate the Bridgewater Canal ‒ Britain’s first purpose-built commercial waterway.
And, alongside work with In Harmony Telford and Stoke-on-Trent (Nicola Benedetti’s joining these youngsters for a pre-concert event at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall on 20 September), they have a Youth Forum for ages 14-19 in Greater Manchester, the youngsters creating their own novel approaches to classical music.
One they hope will bring in new attenders is the Bill Ryder-Jones concert, with its own pop-up craft beer bar provided by BrewDog Manchester. A pop-up gin bar from Booth’s, also in Manchester Cathedral, was a big success last season, and experiments like that have encouraged more new ideas.
‘An analysis of our new attenders last time showed the total was up by 54% on the previous season,’ says head of marketing Paul Davies. ‘We’re attracting young professionals who are into the arts but want something different. We’re developing our audiences through collaborations and digital marketing ‒ Facebook and Google advertising are working remarkably well.’
One example is the Camerata Composers’ Project, coming in January 2015, when ten young composers under the guidance of Mark Simpson and Clark Rundell will be at the new, 300-seat auditorium of Manchester web hosting company UKFast, already used for Camerata rehearsals.
Head of learning and participation Nick Ponsillo emphasises the long-term value of Camerata’s work in health and social arenas. ‘Each of our strands has a research relationship attached,’ he says. ‘We want to develop an evidence base for each area.’
Camerata’s Youth Forum, begun in 2012, has become self-reproducing, with young people from deprived backgrounds recruiting their own successors, delivering their own projects, and beginning to influence programming, too.
‘I don’t know of any other orchestra that’s involving young people in this way,’ says Nick Ponsillo. ‘There’s already a lot to show that music enhances learning ‒ encouraging children to be creative helps them increase their attainment everywhere.’