BBC Philharmonic’s Simon Webb on life in Sheffield and bringing classical music to young people
PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 February 2018
How do you win younger orchestral audiences? Encourage them to switch on their mobile phones during a performance, says Simon Webb
Simon Webb has quite a commute. Every morning he runs or cycles to his local railway station in the suburbs of Sheffield and jumps on a train bound for Manchester. It would make sense for him to move closer to work, but he loves Sheffield and has no intention of leaving. ‘When we came here, we made a deal to stay put for the sake of our children,’ he says. ‘And it’s the perfect place for us as a family.’ There are really good schools in Sheffield, lots going on culturally. Webb’s wife is a violin teacher, so it works for her, too. The surroundings aren’t bad either. ‘Yesterday afternoon I got off the train and walked back home through Ecclesall Woods,’ he says. ‘It’s lovely.’
Webb also loves his job which, as general manager of the BBC Philharmonic in Salford, is on the busy side. And that’s putting it mildly. He’s responsible for everything the orchestra does, making sure that it has ‘a distinctive and strong artistic profile as the BBC’s orchestra for the north of England’. He reports directly to the controller of BBC Radio 3 and works closely with other BBC radio networks to increase the BBC Phil’s profile on say, 6 Music and Radio 2. ‘We have a secret agenda to get more music onto speech radio, too, such as Five Live and Radio 4,’ he says. ‘Well, it’s not a secret anymore because I’ve just told you. But look at it from a Yorkshire perspective: the county has a big rural community, so there are people who live a long way from concert halls. We need to find ways to get orchestral music to that audience more easily.’ The BBC Philharmonic – which has been performing under different names since the 1920s – plays more than 100 concerts a year, almost all of which are broadcast on Radio 3 and tours internationally. It doesn’t stick slavishly to the classics, either, and has collaborated with pop, rock and indie artists including Clean Bandit, The 1975, Jarvis Cocker, Will Young, The Courteeners and The xx. It’s played film music concerts with Simon Mayo and movie critic Mark Kermode, as well as TV sporting themes in a show called What’s the Score, hosted by Five Live’s Colin Murray. ‘We take risks and deliberately programme a little bit differently from other orchestras,’ says Webb. ‘We’ll play contemporary music and forgotten music and we also work very closely with local music services – be they in Rotherham or North Yorkshire – to develop young talent and highlight the opportunities orchestras offer.’ For example the BBC Philharmonic recently commissioned work by a young composer and York University lecturer, Martin Suckling, which it will perform sometime in the new season.
Occasionally, Webb will bump into ‘that great Yorkshireman, Ian McMillan’ on the train to Manchester. Recently, after chatting during the journey, the BBC Phil ended up providing musicians for a chamber opera which MacMillan had written, called The Arsonists that was based in a warehouse. ‘Ian didn’t define exactly where the warehouse was,’ says Webb. ‘But I think we can guess that it was somewhere near Barnsley. It was the first opera ever written for a Yorkshire accent.’
All of which is not, admittedly, the first thing that springs to mind when you think of orchestral music. Even so, there is a feeling among some sections of society that the genre is stuffy, elitist and simply not for them. Webb wants to challenge that – and one way to do it, he says, is with new technology. The BBC Phil is working ever-more closely with BBC North’s digital teams to use the latest high-tech innovations to create online content, stream concerts and generally enhance the performance experience for audiences within the concert hall.
‘Specifically it’s about asking how we connect with an audience under 45 years old,’ says Webb. ‘It’s an ever-changing world, so we have to change just as fast. For example, I have three teenage children and they expect to have a phone in their hands while they’re watching TV. If they’re having a conversation with you they’re also looking at a screen and constantly grazing different media. There’s no point in fighting that. That’s the world we live in.’
Purists will shudder, but it’s why the BBC Philharmonic is actively encouraging its audience to switch their phones on during a performance. ‘We ask people to put their devices on silent, of course,’ says Webb. ‘We’re finding ways to send content to people’s phones in the concert hall which enables them to respond in real time to the music they’re listening to. It might be biographical info about the composer or performers, or information about the music. And maybe they can reply in real time. If orchestras don’t do things like that, then they’re not responding to today’s world.’ The ‘old fashioned’ concert etiquette of sitting in reverential silence during a performance is something that must be challenged, Webb believes. ‘But we have to be careful. When we play around with new technologies we also have to absolutely respect those people who want a traditional concert experience. We’re not here to take that away from anyone.’
When it comes to orchestral music, Webb has been there, done that and bought the tuxedo. As a former professional musician he spent 15 years playing the cello with various orchestras, including the London Philharmonic under the distinguished batons of Sir Georg Solti (‘one of my musical heroes’), Bernard Haitink and, at Glyndebourne, Andrew Davis.
Yet for a significant portion of his life Webb did his best to avoid being a musician, choosing to read theology at Cambridge University. ‘My uncle was a clergyman who lived in Ilkley,’ he says. ‘He told me his vocation was like toothache. It wouldn’t go away until he did something about it. I think music is like that. Well, maybe not ‘toothache’, because that doesn’t sound great. But it certainly wouldn’t go away until I did something about it. So at the end of university I thought I should go to music college just to make sure I was making the right decision.’
Music duly became his life but playing with an orchestra is, he thinks, a young person’s game. ‘I had small children and wanted to bring them up somewhere where they would have more time to spend with their dad,’ he says. The family moved to Sheffield and he moved into management, taking a job with the city’s chamber music promoter Music in the Round before working at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He took on the BBC Philharmonic role four years ago.
Webb thinks that orchestral music is in a healthy state in Yorkshire. Part of his remit is to work with schools and youth and community orchestras, which is a hugely gratifying experience. ‘Most of the things we do are in Yorkshire,’ says Webb. ‘And when we do work with them, we find people who really want to engage with us. There’s a very healthy appetite for it.’