There's a lot more to this artistic director's job than just thinking about music, writes Emma Davies.
David Curtis has been swapping his penguin suit for a track suit to train up for this year’s Shakespeare Marathon in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The artistic director of Orchestra of the Swan regards the commitment as part of the business of leading one of the UK’s most innovative and creative orchestras.
“The exercise will keep me fit, the orchestra will get noticed, and the money I raise will go towards our education programme at special schools in Stratford and Birmingham,” he says.
“All the months of training that I’ve been putting in for the event on May 8 have been similar to running the orchestra, which in itself has been a marathon, albeit a very enjoyable one,” he adds.
It has taken all 16 years since its foundation at Stratford in 1995 for Orchestra of the Swan to achieve the international standing it enjoys today.
Curtis has lived in Stratford-upon-Avon for 20 years. He moved to the Midlands from London, after training with the likes of Sir William Walton and Sir Michael Tippett, to take up a position with the Coull String Quartet as a viola player.
No longer an instrumentalist, he went on to study conducting under the legendary Finnish maestro Jorma Panula and has conducted orchestras worldwide ever since.
It was little surprise then that the charismatic and inspirational conductor should be approached to create a new regional orchestra for the Stratford Music Festival.
“I phoned my professional colleagues and we had an orchestra. The performances were so well received that I realised there was demand for a very high quality chamber orchestra for the region, with Stratford as its base to complement its residential artistic culture,” he explains.
“We decided that the orchestra would be innovative, excellent and accessible. The latter would involve performing in schools, care homes and public spaces other than just concert halls; hosting informal pre- and post-concert discussions; and taking our audiences on a journey of musical discovery with carefully planned programmes.”
As its artistic director and principal conductors, Curtis has helped to nurture new composers, produce award-winning recordings and form partnerships with overseas arts organisations.
Over the past five years, Curtis has commissioned more than 50 new works, established residences at Town Hall Birmingham and Cadogan Hall London, and seen Orchestra of the Swan develop a national and now international profile and become cultural ambassadors for the region.
Creative highlights have included the world premiere recording of the piano concertino by Arnold Bax 70 years after the composer abandoned the work, and a recording of the Finzi and Copland clarinet concertos selected as Classic FM CD of the Week.
“Nothing succeeds like success,” says Curtis, “but it is a measure of our reputation that we attract international soloists of the calibre of Tasmin Little and Julian Lloyd Webber, who performed with us at Town Hall Birmingham in February and that our recording programmes with Somm, Avie and US-based Parma Recordings should attract such international acclaim.
"We have the qualities that any business needs, which is why our bespoke corporate partnerships provide a modern business model for companies that want to inspire their customers and employees.”
Among these has been a three-year residency with Birmingham Airport, which has included leading an education programme and giving concerts in the terminals to welcome international visitors to the region.
“This has helped to demonstrate our accessibility and innovation to arts organisations especially in America where we have recently developed partnerships with the American Composers Orchestra, which promotes new US composers, and Kyo-Shin-An, dedicated to integrating Japanese instruments into Western classical music.”
This will see fruition in three world and two European premieres to be performed by OOTS at its annual Spring Sounds Festival at Stratford Civic Hall from May 27-29.
These will include a concerto based on a fiery 1920s sermon by Douglas J Cuomo, who also composed the theme music to TV’s Sex and the City, and a shakuhachi concerto by James Nyoraku Schlefer, a grand master of the instrument.
Curtis is also finalising plans to present the orchestra’s second concert at Cadogan Hall with pianist John Lill on May 11 which, he says, will provide it with “a unique calling card” for performing throughout the UK.
“It provides the perfect platform for a new principal travel partnership that we are establishing with Chiltern Railways that we hope will result in boosted sales of both rail and concert tickets through a major promotional programme,” he adds.
Meanwhile Curtis admits that he would like to renew the orchestra’s partnership with Birmingham Airport and “to develop further corporate associations beyond traditional sponsorships to the point where we are able to identify and meet each other’s wider business needs”.
That includes helping companies to meet their corporate social responsibilities, an area where Orchestra of the Swan has been pre-eminent. OOTS has given pre-concert workshops for children in Birmingham primary schools to help them develop a greater interest and understanding of music, and worked with special schools on major community projects including a new opera The Odyssey that was performed last year at Symphony Hall.
“An orchestra can be an excellent business model – it’s not a democracy but a benign dictatorship. Like any business, we have limited time to work in and we all have to work incredibly hard together in a highly focused way to create an excellent product.”
* Businesses interested in forming creative partnerships with Orchestra of the Swan or in sponsoring David Curtis for the Shakespeare Marathon can contact him at Orchestra of the Swan on 01789 267567 or at firstname.lastname@example.org (www.orchestraoftheswan.org)