When Lockdown began, we at BBC NOW had to quickly assess how we would continue to connect with our audiences, fulfil our dual role as a BBC performing group (PG) and Wales’ national orchestra, and how we could do this from home.
Our management did an incredible job creating a strategic plan that would enable us to stay visible and relevant in spite of the closure of our studio, Hoddinott Hall, with a schedule of work that has been diverse and challenging.
Connecting the Dots - a pan BBC education initiative - saw us ‘visiting’ (via Zoom and Microsoft Teams) many mainstream and SEN schools still open across the country. The tech difficulties we’ve all encountered with video conference software were the biggest hurdle, but after a few tweaks of mic settings, finding a suitable performance space at home and not being able to see the children’s reactions were soon the only difficulties.
In what we hope will be a continuing relationship with Age Cymru (Wales’ national charity for older people), the Orchestra has additionally used online conferencing platforms to enable members to bring afternoon concerts into nursing homes.
We also began a comprehensive mentoring scheme with the National Youth Orchestra of Wales. With one-on-one sessions and group webinars covering topics from the instrument specific to professional life and musicians’ wellbeing, I hope that during a time when many young people would ordinarily be anticipating inspiring residential courses, these sessions went some way to filling that gap.
Working with composers remotely
Supporting established and emerging composers is a priority for us, and a partnership between the Orchestra and arts organisation Tŷ Cerdd saw ten works by Wales based composers commissioned. I worked with Christopher Bond, whose brilliant vignette of early pandemic life, Covi:Tuba, juxtaposed the melancholy of the global situation with the frenzy of a supermarket trip.
For Radio 3’s Composer Postcard series, I was teamed with Ella Jarman-Pinto for her work ‘Lucky’ (the title comes from a speech by author/activist Kimberley Jones). These collaborations were a great opportunity to interact with the composers via telephone, email and video call and to keep the chops in shape.
I hope they enjoyed the process as much as I did, and thanks to Tŷ Cerdd and Radio 3 for finding a way of alleviating the creative isolation of lockdown.
Getting to grips with home recording
Getting to grips with home recording enabled us to continue some studio work, providing backing tracks for Welsh Album of the Year celebrations and the Eisteddfod (arrangements by Rhys Taylor).
This also enabled us to harness the power of social media, with arrangements by Gareth Glyn, members Lenny Sayers (clarinet) and Peter Taylor (viola), and some sound and video wizardry by our tech team, Andrew, Simon and Jake. We created numerous orchestral montages, were joined by Sir Bryn Terfel, collaborated with the Orchestra National de Bretagne, and unleashed the ‘Doctor Who Theme’ worldwide.
Plotting new Health and Safety approaches
I’ve also been on the pan-BBC/MU/Equity Health and Safety working group, which included all of our respective management teams and took guidance issued by DCMS and translated it into a ‘Safe Return to Work’ document for the performing groups.
We hope that this document, the resulting risk assessments, and work carried out in BBC buildings (one way systems, queuing signage, distanced stage plans), will help other arts organisations navigate their return to work. Alongside this, personal practice has continued and, like many, I’ve been adapting to teaching online.
And now, here we are approaching the end of Summer. The last five months have been surreal, and as an organisation we’ve been on a real learning journey. Having recently enjoyed a few days back in Hoddinott Hall things are, tentatively, looking up. The new normal will take some getting used to, but musicians are fantastically adaptive creatures - we will make it work.