BBC NOW Director Michael Garvey in Conversation

BBC NOW Director Michael Garvey in Conversation

This year, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales celebrates its 90th anniversary. Since its sell-out inaugural concert at Cardiff’s City Hall on 12 April 1928, the orchestra has overcome many challenges to become one of Wales’s most cherished cultural flagships. Latterly, one key to its success has been a willingness to explore collaborative working – both within its own, multifarious activities and within the wider classical music and arts sectors in Wales.

So it seems apt that, this week, January 24-26, BBC NOW is joining progressive partners Welsh National Opera and Sinfonia Cymru to co-host the annual conference of the Association of British Orchestras. The conference last came to Cardiff in 2008, hosted by WNO. Ten years on, and with membership now at 175-plus, 2018 will be the first time in ABO history that the conference has been co-hosted by three performing organisations. Appropriately enough, the conference theme is ‘collaboration’.

Ahead of the conference, and before 90th birthday celebrations got underway this January with a special series of concerts featuring the music and curation of Composer-in-Association Huw Watkins, Steph Power spoke with BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales Director, Michael Garvey. In a wide-ranging conversation, Michael offers fascinating insights into the joys and challenges of managing one of the UK’s top international orchestras, with a unique dual role as a BBC ensemble and a national orchestra with a special responsibility to the people of Wales.


Steph Power: The Association of British Orchestras last held its conference in Wales in 2008. That was just after the global financial crash and, since then, it’s been a decade of challenges to put it mildly, with austerity biting deep. How has BBC NOW navigated that decade? I know part of it was before your appointment in December 2013!

Michael Garvey: Yes, I’ve only been here four years – not even half that time. But the history preceding my time is very evident to me. I suppose there are a hundred things that were a part of that moment ten years ago when the ABO was last here. For a start, Hoddinott Hall was very new; actually it opened officially on 22 January 2009. The Dora Stoutzker Hall at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama also opened in 2011, and I think a general development of venues – particularly in Cardiff – has contributed to both good and bad.

The proliferation of activity is significant, and that’s a wonderful thing, with more opportunities for people to hear different types of music in a far more open or accessible way. One can’t deny that’s what our sector should be doing. Whether the capacity of the audience to buy or accept that product was considered strategically beforehand is a secondary point, and we are reeling from still trying to manage that even now, ten years on.

Then factor in that, at the time, individual organisations and venues didn’t talk to each other as much as they do now – they wanted to be very proud about making their own projects work rather than making things work for everybody. So there was far less collaboration than there certainly is now.

I would say that the theme of this 2018 conference is very apt, frankly, because we have dramatically moved towards recognition that, from the audience’s point of view, we have to work together. We cannot work in isolation, either within Cardiff or Wales, or even the UK. In Cardiff, the audience is small in comparison with other big cities which have the same amount of product entering the marketplace. There’s symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra, opera orchestra and then opera; there’s college, visiting international orchestras; there’s a number of quality semi-professional orchestras, there’s endless choirs – and that’s even before you get into theatre and cinema and all the other things that comprise an arts scene – in a city that’s only got 350,000 people.

And that struggles, relatively speaking, with income.

Well, trying to encourage someone to buy a ticket, and to buy our ticket rather than somebody else’s ticket, is not easy! I’m not sure whether that’s why we’ve been driven to collaborate more, but I’d like to hope we’ve done so because we want to make sure the audience is well served. And that’s even before you think about austerity and all the other challenges that were arising ten years ago.

From BBC NOW’s point of view, the thing that I’m trying to drive here in my time is to help the orchestra recognise its role as both a BBC orchestra and a national orchestra. I think perhaps ten years ago, and certainly prior to my time, we were very focused on making sure we delivered our requirements to Radio 3, who are a major funder and a primary platform for broadcasting activity. That’s a wonderful thing and will continue to be so. But I think we perhaps over-focused on that – or rather, under-focused on what our national role was.

So I’m trying now to drive that dual role for the BBC and for Wales. Which is a wonderful privilege to have, but doesn’t come without its challenges.

Do you see Brexit as a fundamental threat? Obviously there’s huge unpredictability in terms of free movement, arts funding and so on, but on a deeper cultural level too?

Certainly there’s a lack of clarity and understanding as to what it will look like. As a result one must put it on a risk register as a question mark. I can’t say we have seen any negativity in actuality at the moment other than questions from musicians about whether they’re going to be able to continue to work here, and whether we’ll be able to use conductor x from Germany or soloist y from Spain. There are lots of questions about visas and freedom of movement – and instruments on airplanes even – but those are things that this sector has dealt with for years, and I suspect we’ll find ways of overcoming them in the future.

Regarding funding, it’s no worse than the challenging times of austerity that we’ve all been living in. The orchestra is no different and has had to shoulder its fair share of the burden. And that’s a challenge in terms of where we prioritise the decreasing amount of money. We’ve had decreasing money from Arts Council Wales as well – although I have to say in the last year it’s gone up again by a couple of percentage points, for which we’re very grateful.

I’m managing that declining budget in a business model that’s not like other, non-BBC orchestras in that I can’t go and fundraise from anybody else; I can’t go and ask corporate sponsor x to put in £150k to sponsor this concert series – and rightly so because the BBC is already generously funded by the public purse. So that’s quite a challenge because I have a fixed overhead and have to deliver to the BBC and ACW without extra sources of funding.

How do you see BBC NOW’s various activities evolving? Are projects like Ten Pieces, Relaxed Concerts and so on predominantly artistically driven, or are they part of a wider strategy?

Artistic ideas have got to be the heart of everything we do, but we’re also about building brand and profile – and those will build us more audiences, and maybe even more money in the future. If more people are interested in what we’re doing, it gives us a louder voice to say this is valuable, you need to fund it.

So yes, while putting on excellent quality performances is the heart – and it’s what our audience expects, both broadcast and live – branching out in the way that other, independent orchestras get to do is also a future we need to look at.

What’s interesting is that, even though we’re not an independent orchestra, people will always compare us to independent orchestras. People will say, well the CBSO are doing this or the Berlin Philharmonic are doing that, have you seen it? And I’ll say, yes I have – but we’re not like them.

So in terms of working – as you do – at both a top international level and a grassroots level, how does that balance work? You do lots of education and outreach work around Wales, for instance, that the public may not necessarily get to see.

I’m not sure it does balance, in all fairness. I regularly talk with the management team about how we prioritise the resources; we could easily spend all the cash in performing very nice concerts at St David’s Hall – or in learning activities in mid-Wales primary schools!

I guess it’s about experience, sucking and seeing and feeling what’s right. It’s about trying to find models that maximise our work. So what we’re doing, in North Wales particularly, is trying to move to a model whereby everything you could experience if you came to visit us in our Cardiff home, you can also experience when we’re on the road up north.

The suite of activity that we offer on our North Wales tours has broadened. Yes, you get the usual, wonderful concerts that are broadcast on Radio 3, with superb musicians, soloists and conductors. Then those same people will do a crossover concert at Pontio – because it’s a wonderful venue and suited for it. Then we go to Venue Cymru in Llandudno and use their arena rather than their theatre space and deliver two schools concerts for 1500 kids across a six-hour period, and deliver work that’s appropriate for primary schools and people with a range of special needs.

One of the things that keeps me up at night – and this might sound a bit arrogant – is that, if we’re not doing it, it’s not happening in Wales. In symphony orchestra terms, there is no competition. Which is wonderful, but at the same time it’s quite a burden to deliver everything that a symphony orchestra can do. And that’s what people expect of us – across an entire country, and not just cities as other orchestras do. Hence having to collaborate with other people and recognising that, when we go to North Wales, we do it at an appropriately spaced window so we’re not there the weekend before Welsh National Opera are there, for instance. That would be foolish – although we might have done that in the past! But we’re not doing that any more, and Peter [Harrap – WNO Chorus and Orchestra Director] and I talk regularly about how we space those programmes out, so we make sure the people in North Wales get a regular diet rather than just a feast at a particular time of the year.

Staying with that theme of collaboration, am I right in saying that that kind of cross-pollination – and also through the South East Wales Orchestral Consortium – is helping to fuel the kind of cross-arts ventures that enabled last year’s Russia17, for instance?

Yes, the Consortium had an aspiration when it was set up in 2014 [by Hilary Boulding, then Principal of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama] to collaborate artistically as well as logistically. We tried it first with the Rachmaninoff season a couple of years ago. Russia17 wasn’t curated necessarily as an idea, but it just evolved; there was the centenary of the Russian Revolution, WNO thought they were doing some Russian stuff that was related, we quickly realised we could do something which would complement that. Then there was Chekhov at Sherman and all sorts of other things began to come in; it was blindingly obvious, frankly, and working together for the good of the audience just seemed the right thing to do.

Of course collaboration happens in the arts all the time in many ways – and there are big, specific projects like the UK City of Culture that Swansea sadly missed out on recently (and once – alas – we might have bid for European City of Culture!). But we’re talking here about a deep level of collaboration sustained across a wide geographical area and a long period of time in a way that’s not easy to imagine happening in other parts of the UK. Does it signal a real coming together in Wales – even a USP for the nation?

Yes, those things often only seem to happen when the City of Culture is in town – which hasn’t yet happened in Wales. But that’s no reason not to make things happen. And I don’t know whether it’s driven by, as I say, the need to work together, or just a different attitude that this city is experiencing in general. What Next?, for example, is particularly strong in Cardiff.

Maybe it’s the size of the city – we all know each other for a start! People might look at Cardiff as a wonderful example of collaboration – but the other thing that’s changed in those years is that different people are here now, bringing different approaches and new ideas. Maybe it’s just coincidence, a freak of chronology, that we all seem to be of that same mindset, here at the same time. It’s not a picture of utopian cultural life – things could always be better, of course – but it is working!

In terms of sustainability going forward, what do you see as the immediate and longer term challenges?

It’s largely about people I suppose, so it’s a responsibility that we all have, to encourage others to have the same approach. If we all do that, then in ten years time, we’ll have created a new generation with that same thinking. That might be necessity as a result of the environment we live in, both financial and otherwise. And maybe that’s a very good thing, actually; you have to find ways of being proud of your own definition, your own brand and what it stands for and who your audience is. But at the same time it’s not just ‘my’ audience. People don’t just come to BBC NOW concerts, they go to WNO and to Sinfonia Cymru, and to visiting orchestras in the International Concert Series at St David’s Hall – and probably to Bristol’s Colston Hall occasionally as well. So it’s not ‘my’ audience – it’s just an audience I’m providing some product for, and therefore that product has to sit in a bigger marketplace.

Yes, audiences overlap – and collaborate too in the sense that they talk to each other, share experiences and so on. Maybe there’s no such thing as ‘the audience’? Maybe it’s not nearly so fixed or definable as that phrase might suggest?

I agree, and I think it’s quite dangerous that we probably only create a product to serve an audience that we already know. And we probably super-serve that audience with far too much of the same product, and we’re very scared of dishing up a new product because we don’t know what that audience is. But in avoiding that new product, or trying to find that new audience, we will quickly bring about the demise of our sector, if that’s not too dramatic a phrase. Because, while there will always be classical music enthusiasts and there will always be people who come to concerts – I’m not talking about the audience falling apart or getting older; I don’t believe that’s the case – but if we don’t find a product that’s relevant for a new audience in a new world that gets endless other bits of distraction thrown at it, then we’re really missing an opportunity.

We invest in new music because new music will, by evolution or even revolution, move us and move the musical form on; we’re not doing the same thing with the product enough in my opinion. And doing concerts in a different way to different audiences at different times of the day, with different musicians – different music even in different places – will move the concert experience on for people. We need to do more of that. Actually we invest quite well in new music – the BBC is particularly good at that – but I’m not quite sure whether we do the same thing for the product itself.

It wasn’t that long ago that people were predicting the death of the symphony orchestra – and some avant-garde composers rejected it as bourgeois, or outdated and unwieldy. But many of those composers changed their minds, and actually I think it’s flowering as a medium; as with contemporary opera, more composers than ever seem to be writing for orchestra, or seeking opportunities to do so. And people love hearing orchestras – it’s such a physical, vibrant and exciting way to make music.

I totally agree, the sound of a live orchestra at full pelt – and at its quietest, tenderly beautiful – is viscerally exciting. I’ve probably talked to three or four composers this week that we’re commissioning and working with in the coming 12 months, as part of our 90th birthday celebrations. That’s great! Yes, I don’t agree at all that the art-form itself is dying. But the packaging and the stuff around it, and making that art-form relevant to different audiences could do with a bit of help I think.

That’s surely got to be an experimental process; not everything will work, so you need leeway as you go, and situations might change quite quickly. How do you go about building that kind of adaptability in?

That’s quite a challenge! You talked about Ten Pieces earlier – a wonderful thing. It’s true value is in the classroom, not necessarily on the radio – which is the natural home of the concert. It’s a challenge to convey on the radio the actual, wonderful delivery of a child learning about music for the first time. And so our job is to try to do both. Similarly there’s an expectation from ACW that we’ll take wonderful musicians and put them into a concert-setting in Aberystwyth or Newtown – and those audiences that don’t really get much other product from a classical music point of view expect a normal concert.

And a certain repertoire.

Yes. Beethoven doesn’t happen very often in Aberystwyth, so if we’re not providing that, say, as in the Beethoven cycle we’ve been touring, then it simply won’t happen. And people want and deserve that. But trying to experiment then, and put on a Night Shift type concert, for example, in Aberystwyth, that’s a challenge – especially when we don’t live there, and can’t keep serving that on a regular basis. Because the thing about a product is that you’ve got to keep offering it on a regular basis to build up that audience.

I was quite heavily involved in the Night Shift when it was developed at the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The beauty of it was that you were finding a very hungry audience for that kind of thing because central Londoners got it; the orchestra lived in the middle of town, it could regularly go and deliver this product to this audience – it could grow. This is not to say we couldn’t do that in Cardiff. But where do you put that on the broadcast spectrum? And how do you capture in a radio broadcast the excitement and buzz and informality of a Night Shift type of event?

There are lots of expectations that the orchestra has that it must continue to deliver, and at the same time we also need to innovate and find some research and development time. That’s quite a challenge in an environment where money is tight.

I remember hearing BBC NOW in Brecon many years ago – although I can’t remember who conducted! They played Webern’s Symphony Op.21. Brilliantly. I stood and cheered, but few people even clapped – which outraged me!

It’s really challenging because you don’t want to undervalue an audience and think that it can’t cope with Webern – that we must just give it Tchaikovsky and a Beethoven 7 or something. And yet at the same time, if people aren’t clapping, they’re not really enjoying themselves.

It’s all about getting the audience to trust you, and if we can regularly serve a longterm approach to our programming I’m sure we’ll get to Webern again in Brecon – I would hope to! But we can’t just rock up every six months, play something really challenging that hasn’t been prepared, go away again, then come back in another six months with more challenging pieces and expect people to enjoy us.

I’m all for doing both at the same time: we’ve got to give the audience what they want, and if they want Beethoven 7 and the Bruch Violin Concerto that’s wonderful. But if at the same time we can get them to trust us so that when we put something different in, or something they’ve never heard before, then they’re going to want to come and see that as well. Again we’re talking about doing a double job, and I think that’s the essence of this orchestra – I’ve worked out at last!

Perhaps there’s an element of collaboration between the orchestra and its audiences too – it’s a two-way process?

There’s no point to an orchestra if it’s not engaging with an audience; it has no value. A musician must perform for someone, that’s the point of music. I think it was Britten who talked about the holy trinity of the composer, the performer and the audience.

Yes, audiences are not just passive consumers – so it must be difficult if you’re not there on the ground, say, in Aberystwyth, to get a sense of how that audience is changing and evolving.

Yes, and without wishing to speak out of turn, if I do have a criticism of Wales’s arts sector it’s our inability to understand what the audience is. Largely from a technical point of view we just don’t have the data resources we need. That would be the next golden step for us; we collaborate artistically and logistically, but from a data point of view we don’t know. We don’t know what each other knows – we don’t even know what WE know! We’re putting on concerts and I can’t get hold of the data to find out what the trends are, or what the audience might want or dislike. And that is a real problem for us. It seems to be something that bigger cities in England have got a lot better at, and we are behind. That would be my next plea in terms of anything coming out of the ABO; that we as a sector recognise that we’ve really got to make that work.

With all Welsh towns and cities, you have people coming in from very far-flung places to hear concerts.

We had people coming from Aberystwyth to Newtown recently. It’s not actually very far away, and you’d expect people in central London or Birmingham to travel the 60 miles that that is. Now, it can take three hours to do that in Wales, and yet they still come!

People do expect to have to spend time travelling in Wales. But whether they then expect to be made comfortable when they arrive – to come to something known – is maybe part of the challenge?

We’re trying to work it out at the moment by making sure we strand our programming appropriately. So Hoddinott Hall, as a smaller venue, where smaller audiences can feel quite full for the orchestra to get the buzz of performing live, can be quite esoteric repertoire. And indeed, if we can build Hoddinott Hall as the place where that type of repertoire comes from, then great. That then leaves us free in the other, bigger venues, which need bigger audiences to feel full, to programme accordingly – which probably means music that’s a little bit more well known.

It’s exciting to think of Hoddinott Hall as a kind of crucible.

I’d love us to get to that point; the crucible where you will hear stuff you didn’t know you liked, but when you hear it you’ll be amazed. Partly because the musicians who play it are amazing! Stuff perhaps where we can wallow in our Welshness and play a lot of Welsh music, which we do, as you know, at certain times of the year – because, again, if we’re not doing it, it’s not getting played.

I’d like us to move towards seeing Hoddinott Hall as that kind of research and development-type venue. We’re not quite there yet, but there are lots of plans and thoughts; because it’s our home, we can do what we like with it. Let’s dress it up; let’s open it up at different times of day, let’s change the seating, let’s give permission for people to do things in there that we perhaps couldn’t in other venues because we don’t own them.

There are all sorts of assumptions still about what a symphony orchestra is – even in terms of format and instrumentation, for instance – which would be good to challenge and expand. For instance, Simon Holt [BBC NOW Composer-in-Association 2008-14] might use double basses but no cellos or violas, piccolo but no flute, so bits of the orchestra are ‘missing’. The sound palette is hugely varied.

Simon’s a good example of that, you’re right – and there’s some music of his coming up right now, in February, as part of our 90th birthday celebrations. Our current Composer-in-Association, Huw Watkins [since 2015], will also often write for smaller forces because he likes to hear the interplay in certain ways. Hopefully we’ll see more and more of that in Hoddinott Hall. Equally as an intimate venue, it’s fun for the audience to get physically close to the musicians and see the contact between them.

At Composition Wales a couple of years ago I spoke with an audience member who enthused about sounds; he said he wasn’t interested in extra-musical information or stories, but with the sounds themselves – hearing and seeing where they came from in the orchestra. Is there something about the future of the symphony orchestra being partly about that – about its malleability, utilising different sections and formats in different ways?

I think the players would love to explore that. Many of our musicians are chamber musicians as well and really thrive on that ability to play with each other, not necessarily with a conductor. To play with different set-ups and hear different lines when there are fewer players – two or three cellos, say, rather than a section of ten. A symphony orchestra is like a juggernaut. So it’s difficult to a) stop it and b) turn it around! But what I do with the rest of the musicians, when I’m only using a dozen of them, is my challenge to worry about!

It’s key isn’t it, that at the heart of the symphony orchestra is our relationship with these amazing acoustic instruments that we’ve had in some cases for hundreds of years – and it’s about showing how they are, of course, also modern-day instruments.

That absolutely goes back to what I’m trying to do: to make us relevant – and to make this orchestra indispensable to Wales. Not just to the BBC and ACW, the wonderful funders that we have, but to our audiences. What are we doing to make this orchestra relevant? That might be a normal concert in St David’s Hall or an esoteric concert in Hoddinott Hall. That might be a crossover concert in Pontio, or a learning project in a school in West Wales; the soundtrack to a big BBC1 drama – or a CD recording. All these things are part of what this orchestra does, at an incredibly high standard. Driving a relevance to our audience and always thinking about what it is that the audience want from us in these different aspects is what I’m trying to imbue here. Because in so doing we’ll eventually become indispensable to this country – and that’s my overall aspiration.

Well, personally I think BBC NOW already is indispensable! But there’s something too about cultural leadership – because if you followed the audience always then you might never do anything other than Beethoven 7 or Tchaikovsky piano concertos. So that informing as well as broadening you speak of is vital.

Getting the audience to trust us. And many of them do, but getting more of them to trust us in more places more regularly; that’s where you can become both friend and educator at the same time. We will get to where we want to if we’re positive, in my opinion, and making the most of what we have; being proud and happy at this amazing privilege of performing for people, and looking after a crack bunch of musicians that can play whatever you throw at them. How lucky we are that Wales can sustain something like this – it’s great!

Here’s to that, Michael. Happy birthday BBC NOW – and thanks for talking with me.


BBC NOW and the WNO Orchestra will perform a joint concert for the first time ever, Wednesday 24 January 7.30pm, BBC Hoddinott Hall, as part of the ABO conference: R. Strauss: Rosenkavalier Suite (WNO orchestra, with music director Tomáš Hanus); Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade (BBC NOW, with principal conductor Thomas Søndergård)

Sinfonia Cymru will perform Birdsong at the Weston Studio, Wales Millennium Centre on Thursday 25 January, 4pm (delegates only).

For further information about BBC NOW’s 90th year activities go to

Header photo of Michael Garvey, credit Patrick Olner.