Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Arts Funding: it's DIFFERENT in Germany. A chat with Simon Halsey, CBSO Chorus Master

I first met Simon Halsey 32 years ago, when he joined the team at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Now, he is the CBSO Chorus Master. This summer, he leads an extravagant public participation project, Crowd Out, taking over Millennium Point with a thousand, count 'em, a thousand, singers. I'm in: there's a blog post to come on this later this year. 

Halsey at TEDx, Berlin 2010. Photo Sebastian Gabsch
At rehearsals, he flipped from English to German with ease, the result of working in Berlin for the past 15 years. He is ferociously busy, about to swap the Berlin Philharmonic Chorus, Germany's top choir, for the London Symphony equivalent. His job is Chorus Master, but in reality it's a lot more. He has deep knowledge of funding, and, critically, of how organisations can survive and prosper, re-inventing themselves, burrowing deep into in the communities they serve, with humility and practical intent. 

So, he is an interesting and political man, as well as a committed musician with
a unique perspective.UK Arts and Media institutions could do well to study how the CBSO, with his help, has played its hand over the past three decades. There are profound lessons to learn. 

A whole different world

The fact is, things are really different. For a start, Germany has full-time, professional choirs. We.... don't. Simon explained; my jaw dropped.
"The budget for any one of the great opera companies in Germany is greater than the entire arts budget for the United Kingdom. Germany has 7 full time professional choirs, 80 full-time symphony orchestras, and over 360 full-time lyrical theatres. Nearly every town in Germany has a theatre that performs using voices and music, six days a week."
"A city like Birmingham would have at least an independent orchestra – which we do, in the CBSO – but would certainly have a radio orchestra as well, which we sort of used to. There was a light music orchestra at BBC Pebble Mill; we don't have that any longer. There would be a full time Opera House, and almost certainly a full-time Operetta House as well. Coventry would have an opera house too, as would Wolverhampton; so would Leamington Spa.

I went to the opera the last time I was in Berlin. The seating was spartan, but the performance (Mozart) was faultless. The audience was, well, very bohemian. The group of front of us was two couples; the boys were in full drag. Not quite what you see down the Hippodrome.
"Berlin provides everything! If you want to dress up and go in your pearls, then you will be most at home in Daniel Barenboim's State Opera (Berliner Staatsoper), which is being completely rebuilt to the highest imaginable specification."

But ten years ago, it would have looked just a bit scruffy?
"Well, it was in a fairly dire condition: the communist regime let it deteriorate, even though they had the most splendid performances. And only 800 yards down the road is the Comic Opera, which is extremely cutting edge, a bit like English National Opera.On top of that there's the Deutsche Oper, which is in the West, and was created because, in communist times, the other two were in the East."

Standards and motivation 

"The point is that German culture is very different. They pay a great deal more for their culture, through taxation. But our amateur orchestras, our choirs, our Gilbert and Sullivan societies, most of which are amateur, are often better than the German equivalent. I take the CBSO Chorus abroad – four times last year, we're about to go to Finland – and everyone assumes we're professional."

That's amazing. Can you explain that?
"Nearly everyone in the chorus has a University level music education, though they often work outside music. People with that level of music education could probably get a job in Germany, because there are so many jobs."

Are you saying that the CBSO chorus is to a standard that outstrips those in Germany?
"It doesn't outstrip. The CBSO chorus and other choruses – Chicago, Melbourne – are great choruses of a professional standard, from a different tradition. The Berlin Radio Choir that I have has certain luxuries – more than 50 concerts a year, for example. So you need to look at it the same way you'd look on an orchestra. We've just taken six weeks to fully learn a piece, which we will perform with an orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle, after which we will go on tour. Now, the CBSO Chorus, no matter how good it is, can't do that, because they've got jobs."

The Chorus at Symphony Hall in 2012. From Glenn Ford's flickr stream

Infrastructure and outreach 

So the challenge of maintaining the CBSO chorus, where people have limited time to commit to the project – because they work – has to be a tremendous load on you and your administrative staff...
"We have amazing people. We have them because of the work we've done over the past thirty years. We have an adult chorus, a youth chorus, a children's chorus; we have community choruses - unauditioned choirs in Selly Oak and Handsworth and elsewhere; we have a very big part in the work that goes in in schools and universities too. I have a new professorship at Birmingham University, we're training young conductors there... and so on and so on."

So you have built your own feeder system? A broad nursery slope of music organisations which can feed talent up?
"Yes. And we've also got this new relationship with the university, with at least six of my best students singing in the CBSO chorus. I don't particularly want them singing in the chorus when they're students, because I've got so many fantastic choirs at the University. But as they graduate, if they stay here, I want them in the chorus, and if they go to London, I want them in my London Symphony Chorus!"

Ah. London too?
"I've had fifteen great years in Germany, but I am back home now, and I want to do everything at both ends of the Chiltern Line. In Birmingham, it's working in association with the CBSO, Symphony Hall and Birmingham University. It's an ideal way to work and develop people, and I'm pleased that it's been copied, by the Northern Sinfonia and by the Halle in Gateshead and Manchester. The CBSO influence has spread across the country."

Spotting and developing talent

So this is about very deliberately opening things up, as constructively as possible?
"Yes. When I joined the CBSO, there was a great professional orchestra and a great amateur chorus. For a long time, I was pushing Simon Rattle and Ed Smith. then chief conductor and general manager, to spread things more widely. Finally they allowed me to found the Youth Project. Once we saw the logic of these choruses working in the CBSO family, it became sensible to take the Midland Youth Orchestra and make it the CBSO Youth Orchestra. If the Choruses were delivering singers, what about getting the next generation of players?"

This is more than just scouting talent - especially with the structure you're describing.
"It's changed completely. The CBSO has become the centre of all music education, as well as playing the concerts. If no-one else is going to provide musical education, then the orchestra has to be at the centre of its city.  Interestingly the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony and the CBSO are all now delivering a very large amount of their education work through singing, in schools, colleges, even with seniors like you and me. It's easier to do it through singing: you don't have to learn an instrument for five years."

Would BCU's Conservatoire agree with that position?
"Yes, I think they would, because their players are part of a scheme with the orchestra, and the ties are very close. The University of Birmingham is also running extremely fast in this direction. So at UoB there are a whole set of new teaching professors, a new music building, new Masters degrees in singing and conducting; the CBSO is coaching the university orchestras. I am teaching conductors and singers."
"All over the world, there will have to be this kind of alignment – of the music colleges, the orchestras, the provision of instrumental and singing tuition into schools. Everyone is going to have to do it together. And Birmingham is quite a long way down that route. In five years time it will be completely joined up."

I love the notion of ideas and skills flowing up and down the creative and teaching chains.
"It requires people to stay long enough. All the main players have been here twenty, twenty five years at least."

You're now in your mid-fifties. You've been doing this for over thirty years. But you're talking like an enthusiastic teenager.
"Yes, I am. Because the doors are now open."

How long did it take you to get the doors open?
"Not long. The CBSO Youth Choruses have been going for about fifteen and twenty years. The first half of my job was to provide singers to sing with the orchestra – now it's much broader than that."

If you could pick one group of singers, would the CBSO Chorus be the closest to your heart?
"Yes, I've worked with them for 32 years, It was a result of people seeing the standard of the CBSO chorus that I began to get invited to conduct abroad. That stems from my work here. My new work in London comes because the London Symphony would like to learn from what the CBSO and its choruses have done."

To get your choruses to really swing, to get them on point, you have to drive them, seduce them, love them, crack the whip....
"All that. And you have to run a very tight administrative ship. You have to take it extremely seriously. I have to believe that my job is training them for other conductors to conduct. So I take all the rehearsals, and then I hand them to Andris Nelsons or Simon Rattle, of whoever it is. I have to believe that that job - Chorus Master – is a great calling in itself, which traditionally it wasn't. There's a marvellous note in a Berlioz score, which reads something like 'You're going to need two conductors at this point. If you're going to use the Chorus Master, make sure he is of a higher standard than normal'."

How would you feel – how, maybe, have you felt – when you have prepared your chorus to an absolute peak of perfection, to the best possible standard you can achieve... and then you've handed them over to a conductor who hasn't done right by them?
"It's frustrating. But it doesn't happen to me much now. Now, in Birmingham, London or Berlin, I am in a position to choose what projects the choir will do, and with who they will sing."

CBSO Choruses website
CBSO Chorus concert programme

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