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The BBC Concert Orchestra: versatile, flexible and valuable

Andrew Connolly

General Manager, BBC Concert Orchestra

Over the next few months, we’ll be publishing a series of posts spotlighting each of the BBC’s performing groups. The first features the BBC Concert Orchestra, who this week launch Southbank Centre's Changing Britain Festival. The BBC Concert Orchestra’s General Manager Andrew Connolly writes about the orchestra’s work.

The BBC Concert Orchestra is one of the BBC’s six performing groups and contributes distinctive musical performances across the BBC’s radio networks, creates learning events with young and old alike across the country, commissions new music, makes regular appearances on BBC television and appears at various live shows including the Proms, Proms in the Park and most recently the BBC Music Awards. Since 1952 it's been a regular fixture on BBC Radio 2’s Friday Night is Music Night as well as giving frequent broadcasts on BBC Radio 3.

As General Manager of the BBC Concert Orchestra, I manage an administrative and support team of 14 - Alex, our Orchestra Manager, has the direct responsibility for managing the 56 staff players. In my role I am responsible for our strategy, budget and securing opportunities for the orchestra in BBC TV and Radio programming and with external business partners.

We’re off to a tremendous start in 2015 with our appointment as Southbank Centre’s new Associate Orchestra. This Friday (30 January) we launch their Changing Britain Festival with a special edition of Friday Night is Music Night for Radio 2 in an edition which marks the launch of the BBC Light Programme in 1945. Meeting people from all parts of the music world who want to collaborate with the CO brings me great joy and this most recent invitation is for me affirmation of the increased vitality and impact of our programming.

The orchestra has come a long way in the 60 plus years it’s been around. In the past decade we’ve built on our established reputation and now constantly challenge ourselves artistically: what new things can we do?, how can we give concerts no-one else is thinking of? We pride ourselves in going out there and commissioning from people like jazz pianist Uri Caine, oud virtuoso Rabih Abou Khalil and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood - artists who are often new to working with orchestras.

The CO is a truly versatile group - Paul Driver from The Sunday Times wrote last year, “The BBC Concert Orchestra is a remarkable body, equally at home it seems, with Friday Night is Music Night (of which it has been the staple since 1952) and the wilds of modern music.” That versatility is as true today as it ever was: our repertoire ranges from baroque to contemporary that's still wet on the page; oratorios to cutting edge jazz. We’re recruiting a lot of new players at the moment and they have to have the flexibility to be superb in all genres of music. We have a 'can do attitude' which is reflected back to us when artists say it's so easy for them to perform at their best with us.

So, perhaps not a surprise then that you’ll have seen us in the BBC Music film of God Only Knows and centre stage at the BBC Music Awards back in December. Previous challenges have included broadcasts from Wellington’s Arch, Imperial War Museum and Liverpool Street Station for the award winning Flashmob the Opera. We’ve been part of BBC Radio 2’s Friday Night is Music Night since the show began its eclectic approach in 1952 and are constantly thrilled by the artists the show pairs us with (it’s the cast of Eastenders tonight). We’re delighted to have jazz trumpeter Guy Barker as our Associate Composer alongside Keith Lockhart as our Principal Conductor (he is also Conductor of the Boston Pops) and longtime friend and colleague Barry Wordsworth as Conductor Laureate.

We certainly appear at the more orthodox classical events you’d expect from an orchestra, but for us at the Proms it was Elgar’s Violin Concerto with Nigel Kennedy followed a couple of seasons later with the 1812 Overture on instruments made of scrap. TV’s 'Scrapheap Symphony' pushed the players to their limits, with Ben our Principal Cellist giving us the quote of that year "I'm sorry I can't do this much longer, my fingers are bleeding" - that's real commitment from your staff! Proms in the Park is, of course, a big deal for us every year, most recently with Earth Wind and Fire (a lifelong ambition realised for this ex-brass player) and Jeff Lynne’s ELO. You never quite know what's coming round the corner with the BBC Concert Orchestra.

For the BBC as a whole, that flexibility makes us a valuable resource. We’re as happy performing in Watford, where we have a base, Chichester and Southbank Centre as we are out of London in the east of England and Devon and Cornwall, where we started two Family Orchestras. April sees us flying the flag on the east coast of the USA and New Year’s Eve may well be spent on a return visit to China.

Ultimately, we’re an orchestra that is able to respond dynamically to the needs of venues and festivals throughout the UK and programme makers across the BBC. Wherever we go we try to link things back to our BBC life by making broadcasts for Radio 2 or Radio 3. We utilise spare capacity in recording studios playing for BBC soundtracks and commercial recordings. The challenge for me as General Manager is how to balance these varied (and sometimes challenging) demands whilst ensuring the right overall mix to enable our players to keep performing brilliantly. Our versatility and range of repertoire is the CO’s trademark - it is a joy and privilege to be entrusted with it.

  • The BBC Concert Orchestra will play three concerts at the Southbank’s Changing Britain season, including Friday Night is Music Night on January 30th, ‘Twisting the Dial’ on 7th February and ‘Conflict and Healing’ on 22nd March.

  • The orchestra will also visit Kings Lynn in June to perform Ten Pieces concerts to primary school children from across Norfolk.

  • Cheltenham Jazz Festival (29 April – 4 May) will see the BBC Concert Orchestra collaborate with Guy Barker and his Big Band for Radio 2.

  • Find out more about the orchestra’s 2015 concerts on the BBC Concert Orchestra website

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