Leading a chamber orchestra

 8 February 2011

Britten Sinfonia chamber orchestra is known for its adventurous approach to programming. Challenging perceptions of classical music, the ensemble has risen over the past decade to become one of the UK's top chamber orchestras.

Britten Sinfonia is a chamber orchestra ensemble based in Cambridge, UK.
Britten Sinfonia is a chamber orchestra ensemble based in Cambridge, UK.

The Britten Sinfonia orchestra

Comprised of freelance musicians, the orchestra plays around 70 concerts per year. Unlike most orchestral ensembles Britten Sinfonia has no principal conductor, working instead with a range of guest artists. Its eclectic repertoire has ranged from the music of iconic composer Moondog to Bach.

The orchestra also commissions new works including recent pieces by Judith Weir, Nico Muhly and James MacMillan. In 2009 they became the first orchestra to play at the Latitude Festival alongside acts such as Nick Cave and the Pet Shop Boys.

David Butcher is Chief Executive of Britten Sinfonia, and has been with orchestra since its foundation in 1992.

Joining the Britten Sinfonia

“The orchestra has changed. When I arrived it was me and a part-time administrator and one computer. But one of the things that was there right at the start was quality.”

“People have got to enjoy working with us. You've got to gel. However great a soloist is, if there isn't communication with the orchestra, it isn't going to work.”

“The first plan I did was very much a three-year plan. Very much about establishing it within the east of England and putting Nicholas Cleobury [the Sinfonia’s then-conductor] at the helm. I'm still here after 17 or 18 years. And as you can imagine, it's still growing.”

“I'm certainly out of the office more than I was three years ago,” he says, speaking about a typical day. “More of my job now is dealing with curating the artistic side and looking at the overall business plan, but equally I'm out and about there talking to promoters and funders. The great thing about this job, it's full of variety.”

Career path to chief executive

Music has always been a passion for David. For a time he considered a career in composition. ”Going way back to A-level times and deciding which way I was going to go, there were three choices: one was to do Law, one was a place at Guildhall to do composition, and the other one was I was quite interested in history."

David chose to read History at University of London Goldsmiths' College, but kept up his musical interests, organising small festivals during his time at Goldsmiths. “I liked making things happen and was inspired by that as well as performing.” After graduating, he applied to work with professional orchestras, but without any direct orchestral experience found it hard to get a first foot in the door.

Given the choice of either becoming a trainee bank manager or working in a music shop, David choose the music shop, keeping in mind his aspiration to work for a professional orchestra. After a year, he got a job at the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

David worked with the Academy from 1986-1989. “I went in as junior administrative coffee boy, but straight away was doing a lot of orchestral touring with Iona Brown and also touring with the bigger orchestra and managing the chorus. What's interesting looking back was that, in terms of specific training, I hadn't got any. It was very much learning on the job.”

His next job, General Manager of the National Music Theatre, was a step up in responsibility. “It had a very good reputation and was effectively like running an opera company. But I have to say that it was very tough, because I was learning on the job.”

Noticing gaps in his skills, David sent himself off to do a few courses. “This is the problem at the top with leadership, even with strong boards who are essentially managing you. Often you are sending your colleagues off to courses, but in terms of your own career path, curiously there isn't anyone looking after you. You have to be sensible enough, like I hope I was, to think: ‘right, my financial skills are not good enough’. A lot of it was off my own bat, but that was a steep, steep learning curve.”

Essentials skills for a Chief Executive

As Chief Executive, David is responsible for Britten Sinfonia's artistic, strategic and business planning. He describes himself both as a Creative Producer and Curator. “I'm bringing ideas together and fostering ways of making it work.”

“My job is dealing with curating the artistic side and looking at the overall business plan, but equally I'm out there talking to promoters and funders."

“There are a multitude of skills that you actually need – financial, business planning, clear thinking, but those are specific areas of work. What's important to underpin all of that is basically people skills and the ability to communicate.”

He adds that, whilst having clear targets is important, enthusiasm is vital. “I'm aware of that when I see people, perhaps in other organisations, who don't have that fire in the belly. The great thing about this organisation is that we're actually having fun. It's feeling that you are at the cutting edge, you are pushing forward and above all, working with quality.”

That sense of fun, David believes, should translate itself to every part of the organisation, from performances on stage to the morning staff meeting. “People have got to enjoy working with us, that's terribly important. You've got to gel, there's got to be fantastic communication going on. However great a soloist is, if there isn't communication with the orchestra it isn't going to work.”

Mentors and mentoring

“In the organisations I've worked in before I've certainly learnt things from the people there but I wouldn't hold up any one of them as being my absolute mentor. At the moment my inspiration is the colleagues that I work with.”

Outside of the orchestra, David meets regularly with contemporaries such as Glyndebourne's General Director David Pickard and the Hallé Orchestra's Chief Executive John Summers. “I get on with John very well and really admire what's he's done in his career. He's certainly someone I go to if I want to chew over some ideas, and that's helpful.”

Another mentor is the composer John Woolrich. “He's one of the finest concert programmers I know. I will often send a programme that is almost finished to him and he'll come back to me and agree or disagree.” Talking through ideas, debating and being challenged is, he says, “terribly important,” and “incredibly healthy.”

David is often contacted by new and emerging organisations for advice. “One is competitive, but equally I'm very happy that there are new orchestras being formed and making good progress. It really is the more the merrier, so one is helpful as one can be to organisations like that.”

Britten Sinfonia also have an intern scheme. “It kind of goes full circle about what I was saying earlier about the first foot into working in an arts organisation. It's really hard to, particularly now. So it's been lovely to be able to help people like that.”

Supporting leadership within Britten Sinfonia

Unlike most orchestras, Britten Sinfonia does not have a principle conductor or artistic director. Instead, it works with variety of guest artists across the musical spectrum, from internationally renowned artists such as pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, composers such as James MacMillan to the Danish music collective Efterklang.

“If you think of other orchestras, there is usually going to be that figurehead there and that's fine. I see ourselves as being very different to how a symphony orchestra works. Certainly with what we do there is an element of breaking new ground, not for the sake of it but just because we can and we're very open to the vast amount of music that is going on at the moment.”

“The problem with leadership, in terms of your own career path, is there isn't anyone looking after you."

Leadership is encouraged within the Britten Sinfonia. When a soloist is invited to collaborate with the orchestra, they work together on programme. “We're supportive as we can. We think really hard and agonise over the projects. We work hard at devising a programme that both suits the style of the orchestra we are, but equally a programme that will often challenge them as well so that they are progressing too.”

Is there more help for people who want to become leaders in the arts? “I have to say that I'm not so sure about that. I think the Clore Leadership Programme has been a good development.”

David is personally more interested in the wider business circuit of courses, but they are often too expensive for arts organisations. “I've always been disappointed that certain funding organisations have not been able to provide bursaries towards courses like that whereas there has been great creative arts based training. I think it would have been good to have created a fund where one can apply, for example, for marketing courses that are not necessarily geared towards the arts. I think that there is so much to learn from business generally.”

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