Music societies run by amateur enthusiasts have always been a vital part of the infrastructure underpinning classical music in Britain. Christopher Morley looks at their struggle to survive.
Whether the credit crunch had come along or not, local music clubs have long had to struggle to continue their existence.
Their aims of providing uplifting events to mustard-keen audiences are laudable, but developments in media transmission, new concert halls, and sheer unfriendliness of city centres (as perceived) have led to troubled times in some quarters.
Music clubs operate in various ways: some are promoters of live music concerts, some exist as quaintly-described “gramophone” societies, others combine the two.
Graham Kiteley, treasurer of the Federation of Recorded Music Societies, and long-time secretary of Kidderminster Classical Music Society, is decidely upbeat, telling me how “this year the society has been celebrating a special milestone in its history – 40 years of music making.
“We attribute our continuing success to the variety that we offer music lovers in the district, combining a staple diet of programmes presented by members, sister societies or personalities from the Midlands musical scene, illustrated with recorded music, with four or five live music recitals held in Kidderminster Library.
“Our recent live music programmes with the pianists Allan Schiller and Di Xiao attracted near-capacity audiences. We’re dependent on support from the general public to boost attendance for our live music events, and we have had to increase our marketing strategy with mailing lists, newspaper editorial, and a new website classicalmusickidderminster.org.uk.
“From one perspective 40 years on, we could say that we have succeeded against all the odds. We’ve certainly had our moments, and nationally we know of several recorded music societies that have folded even though they had large memberships and fine facilities. Researchers into social issues have reported that the sort of activities that we thrive on are actually less valued in today’s society compared with previous generations.
“The common problems afflicting most community groups are well known: the age profile of their membership, difficulty in recruiting volunteers to hold office and more competition from greater diversity and availability of leisure activities. “
Richard Phillips has been an active promoter of live musical events in Warwick and Leamington for more years than anyone can remember. After many years providing both Warwick and Leamington with prestigious concerts, he and his wife Veronica are now concentrating on the latter town, and he spoke to me after returning from the Czech Republic, “collecting our Rover which we had to abandon in Prague when it broke down there in early June.
“Leamington Music was launched in October 2006. Veronica and I do the work, and I sometimes use the title festival director, since having directed over 80 festivals in my career, I reckon I have done more than anyone else in the country!
“And we have a small festival on the first May Bank Holiday Weekend, which we started in 1990, and it’s the highlight of our year.
“Leamington Music evolved out of Warwick Arts Society, which existed for 25 years and its strapline is championing chamber music, although it also has taken on the early music mantle that I got going in the 1990s.
“In our first year we put on 30 concerts and in our second 40 and we should again attain that sort of number in this third year.”
How is such a busy programme of events financed?
“About half our income comes from ticket sales, and the rest comes from trusts, individuals, local authorities and a bit from sponsorship,” Richard tells me. “We have a very active Friends organisation which also raises significant money.”
Ross-on-Wye Classical Music Society relies largely upon guest speakers using recorded musical examples, though there is the occasional “live” performance, as secretary Sylvia Parker explains.
“Ross Classical Music Society started in January 2001, succeeding our Wagner Society, that had operated from 1991 to 2001.
“We decided to widen the scope of the society, and so it became the Ross Classical Music Society, with the aim not just to entertain, but, as we state on our programme, ‘to provide music lovers with the opportunity to learn more about music, with well respected lecturers speaking on subjects of interest to members.’”
Subscription fees have to remain comparatively high, as the society invites speakers from some distance away, “but we do break even each year and I think that is fine,” says Sylvia.
“Our audience of course are all getting older, so we hope younger people will join but this has not happened yet.
Subjects for talks are sometimes tricky, as our audience are at various levels of knowledge and we want to make it interesting for everyone.”
“Our latest talk was a combined lecture and recital at Hom Church (because of its grand piano) and this brought 44 people in, which was very pleasing. We’re trying to extend the recital-cum-talk side, we have a violinist coming in December and hopefully next year a guitarist. “
And Sylvia concludes with a proud exposition of RCMS’ aims: “It would be very easy to adopt the attitude that quite a number of societies seem to follow, of having meetings more often, using virtually only members of their society and other local societies to give presentations, but these tend to be just introducing recordings and not pursuing a subject in any depth.
“Of course, they don’t pay the speakers very much, if anything, and the evenings become social events rather than an educational scene. The only advantage would be that we could charge less, which could encourage those without much musical knowledge, but that would be a different society altogether.”
Things are not quite so sunny at Birmingham Chamber Music Society.
Formed more than half a century ago in order to bring top-ranking chamber-music performers into Birmingham city centre (the Barber Institute at the University of Birmingham out there in Edgbaston had all but cornered the market), BCMS has seen its unique status eroded, as chairman Joe Seager explains.
“At one time, we were one of the few chamber-music promoters in Birmingham bringing major groups to the city.
“Now people can hear them at Town Hall, the CBSO Centre, Barber Institute and occasionally, at Symphony Hall. Lots of competition.”
Though BCMS has concerts booked until March 2010, there is a struggle to maintain financial stability beyond then.
“We are taking steps to ease the problem,” Joe explains. “Financial losses have been reduced, mainly as a result of setting a ceiling figure for the amount we can afford to pay artists’ fees. A slight change of direction means we engage fewer star-name ensembles and give more slots to artists on the threshold of promising careers; also we book more locally-based musicians – Eduardo Vassallo, Mark Bebbington, the Leo Quartet, Conservatoire Chamber Choir will appear this season. Members appear well assured that this in no way comprises the high standards we try to set.
“Times have changed. So we feel our slightly different approach could be in our favour. Keep some well established artists; feature younger, highly recommended – -and yes, less expensive groups.
“By doing more to encourage and feature younger artists, we feel this is something that will also help plead our case for Arts Council or other means of funding.
“We already do much to support and encourage music students: we offer a composition prize and support Birmingham Conservatoire’s Sylvia Cleaver Chamber Music competition, engage students for our Summer Concert, provide a slot for young musicians at our main concerts and free tickets for students.”
And Joe reveals the most exciting innovation of all from this society which for decades enjoyed something of a dusty reputation.
“We have another policy change to help build new audiences. We now insist on a contemporary piece in all programmes. By this, we hope to draw new work from among Birmingham Contemporary Music Group followers. We’ll exchange PR material and other promotions.
“So that’s the basis of our fight-back. We’re not raising the white flag. BCMS has been travelling the high seas for 56 years and we’re not ready to drop anchor yet. We feel we contribute much to the cultural life of the city, and beyond, and that we deserve to survive.”
* Birmingham Chamber Music Society’s new season begins on Saturday at the Adrian Boult Hall (7.30pm), featuring the cellist Eduardo Vassallo and pianist Mark Bebbington. Their programme includes cello sonatas by Chopin and Rachmaninov.