You don’t need to go to London to hear top-class classical music

    From theatre to art, photography to live music, we’re blessed with a rich and vibrant culture in Tunbridge Wells. In this series, we’re taking the pulse of the local arts scene and speaking to some of the movers and shakers to see if it’s sinking or swimming. This time, we catch up with Giles Clarke, chairman of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Symphony Orchestra, to hear about the challenges of bringing classical music to the forefront of the town’s musical repertoire

    Tunbridge Wells Classical Music

    Tell us about the background to it all
    The orchestra itself is 93 years old. It was set up as a group of quality local musicians and today is made up of amateur players who perform to a professional standard. Led by our music director Rod Dunk, there are six concerts each year between October and Easter, which are held at the Assembly Hall Theatre in Tunbridge Wells and supplemented by hired-in professionals, mainly from the BBC Concert Orchestra.

    Are the players mainly amateurs or professionals?
    It’s not strictly true that the orchestra is made up primarily of amateur musicians. At our December 2014 concert, for example, there were 43 professionals and 38 amateurs, ie more than half pros. The number of musicians will vary according to the programme, but the professional/amateur ratio remains rather constant. Most of our pros are regulars who play at most of our concerts, but others are brought in as required by the music played.

    How did you get involved?
    I’m a classical music enthusiast and I went along to listen to the concerts. I then had my arm twisted and sold tickets for three or four years, before having my arm twisted again and becoming chairman. I’m not a professional player, but am really keen there should be an orchestra like this in Tunbridge Wells and to make sure that the future of the orchestra is as rosy as it has been in the past. Before this, I was a botanist by training and head of exhibitions and education at the Natural History Museum.

    What are some of the main challenges?
    Along with every other orchestra, the problems are twofold: advertising and finance. Even if the hall is sold out, we still lose thousands of pounds, so bridging the gap between income and expenditure is the big issue and trying to find sponsorship through trusts and foundations is very much part of the game. When letting people know that there is an orchestra in Tunbridge Wells, word of mouth is fantastic, but getting the original word into the mouths can be more difficult.

    How has your audience changed and how do you try and appeal to a younger demographic?
    Classical music is a niche market and there are certain kinds of people who go to concerts, so one’s always in the business of trying to catch the next generation of listeners who might be interested. We offer discounted tickets at £1 per concert to students and under-18s, but the real core audience is generally much older. We’re talking about having a family concert next year and looking into further school initiatives, we keep trying!

    Has the recession had an impact on the orchestra?
    In the last two or three years, there has been a very sharp decline in numbers of people who go to the concerts. The economy’s been bad and people don’t have as much money to spend, but it didn’t seem to match the economic slump, which went on for a couple of years before people stopped buying tickets. This is true not just of us, but of all the local orchestras – and nobody really knows why.

    Where do you get your funding? Are you supported by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council?
    We don’t get any money from the council; it’s under real pressure at the moment, so this is the kind of thing it drops out of. In 2010 and 2011, we received £2,500 each year from them, but there has been no further funding since then. We’re looking for sponsorship and the most successful approaches recently have been to trusts and foundations. I think commercial sponsorship is something we ought to do more of – getting out there and banging on the chief executives’ doors. But finding volunteers to do that kind of work is an uphill struggle!

    What kind of annual deficit do you face?
    Over the past ten years, the gap between our income from ticket and programme sales and our expenditure, on hiring the hall, professionals and sheet music for instance, has averaged about £30,000 per year (about £5,000 per concert). Income and expenditure fluctuate year to year, but the deficit remains at that order of magnitude.

    How do you tackle this issue?
    The deficit is met from individual donations from season ticket holders, player members’ subscriptions, from grants from charitable trusts and foundations, Gift Aid, commercial sponsorship; other fundraising activities and occasionally from legacies.

    Is there an official body of volunteers who help out?
    Any remaining deficit is covered by funding from the Friends of the RTWSO. This is a separate charity, with its own trustees, set up in 1987 principally to support the orchestra. Thanks to some early legacies which were soundly invested, the Friends’ annual contribution to the orchestra has averaged about £15,000. Thus, we benefit from a level of continued support that many other orchestras don’t have. But it is incumbent on orchestra trustees to do all they can to maximise income so that the Friends’ reserves are not in the long run depleted. The Friends organisation is our salvation; we rely very heavily on it and are astonishingly grateful for people who have chipped in to make it successful.

    What kind of challenges come with having such a large input from volunteers?
    Managing volunteers becomes a big issue in this kind of thing. Knowing how to get the work done and the schedule adhered to with a group of people who are enthusiastic, but have different calls on their time, is quite a tall order. One needs to have the right people who are passionate about the job they’re doing. We’ve got a fantastic committee of people who take tremendous pride and get a lot of personal satisfaction out of doing a job that’s really worthwhile.

    How has your latest season been, both culturally and finically?
    Musically, it has been extremely good – you don’t often hear Tunbridge Wells people shouting and stamping at the end of a concert! But selling tickets has been an issue and the financial problems are not getting better at the moment.

    What makes you the most money?
    I’m afraid there’s no such thing as a big money-spinner in the world of symphony orchestras. Very few in Britain or elsewhere could survive without some form of private or public support. Of course, a programme of familiar music (Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart) will sell more tickets, as will a well-known soloist such as Nicola Benedetti, Stephen Hough, Freddy Kempf or Peter Donohoe. But even when we sell every seat in the house – about 980 in the Assembly Hall – our profit margin is very thin.

    How do you think Tunbridge Wells culture is doing in general? Is it in crisis or looking more optimistic?
    I certainly don’t think it’s in crisis. With the various venues, there’s a tremendous range of stuff going on, which is very positive. There’s quite a considerable cultural life and a lot of energy and enthusiasm among the people who are performing and putting things on. It’s about getting people to know about it and to think this is a cultural centre and a worthwhile area where you can go to top-quality cultural events. When they come, they’re enthusiastic and come back, but getting the news to them and getting them to believe that things locally are of a high standard is the task we have, and we take it on with enthusiasm.

    What are your hopes for the future of the orchestra?
    Our top priority is boosting the quality of the music and the performances – ensuring that we’re making the best music we can for the area. Each year, we try to choose programmes that stretch the orchestra but still keep the audience with us. You don’t need to go into London to hear top-class classical music; you can hear it in Tunbridge Wells. Getting the town’s residents to appreciate that is the challenge. When it works, though, it’s so worthwhile.



    How long have you been with the orchestra?
    My fi rst gig was in December 2008. It was a revelation, I had no idea a local, semi-amateur orchestra could sound that good.

    Any particular highlights?
    There are so many. Earlier this year, we played the third piano concerto of Rachmaninoff with Peter Donohoe, which was incredible. The atmosphere the soloist and the orchestra managed to create was really special.

    Which musicians inspire you?
    Most of my inspiration at the moment comes from the other people in the orchestra. The experience of making music with professionals for whom playing the notes is a day job is something I could listen to for months and learn from.

    What do you do for a living outside the orchestra?
    I run a standards consulting team at Swift, which is the network the banks use to send money to each other. I’ve been extremely lucky to be able to indulge myself by playing as an amateur with professionals, while having a job at the same time that’s rewarding and pays the bills.

    Do you have high hopes for culture in Tunbridge Wells?
    I’m always surprised by how much there is going on. The number of different recitals available to people, from small chamber music groups up to full symphony orchestras, is much more than anybody thinks.


    FOUNDED: 1922
    PERFORMANCE VENUE: The Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells
    TICKETS FROM: £15.25
    MUSIC DIRECTOR: Roderick Dunk LEADER: Julian Leaper
    SUPPORT: The Friends of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Symphony Orchestra