British chamber ensemble makes waves abroad

A small UK chamber orchestra is channelling the fame of its hometown to cultivate its international profile.

Based in Stratford-upon-Avon – Shakespeare’s birthplace – the Orchestra of the Swan is bucking the trend of downsized budgets and slashed programming with an award-winning season, multiple recordings and plans to use the famous bard to its advantage.

Despite its size – up to 35 musicians and just four administrative staff – the freelance chamber orchestra is weathering the financial storm remarkably well, having recently signed a sponsorship deal with Turkish Airlines.

It received accolades for its 2012 recording Spring Sounds, Spring Seas and was awarded a certificate of achievement from the Delius Society in recognition of its performances of the composer’s work last season. The orchestra also won the Pride of Stratford Arts Organisation of the Year award in 2012.

But with the 450th and 400th anniversaries of Shakespeare’s birth and death coming up in 2014 and 2016, artistic director David Curtis now has his sights set on audiences farther afield.

‘We’ve got a unique opportunity to capitalise on these anniversaries,’ he told IAM. ‘We see this as a fantastic opportunity to get the orchestra [abroad], particularly to the US and China, where Shakespeare is incredibly well known and very highly revered.’

Turkish Airlines provided Curtis with flights to China last Autumn where he met with promoters, potential sponsors, and was broadcast to an audience of 10m on Chongqing Music Radio.

‘We are working closely with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in developing educational projects around those anniversaries,’ said Curtis, ‘and we’re commissioning a lot of new music and large-scale works, particularly for 2016.’

One of those projects will see the ensemble commission British-Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova to write a work for chamber choir and orchestra based around pencil sketches that the painter JW Turner made of Shakespeare’s home town in the mid-1800s.

‘It seems as though we are bucking the trend at the moment,’ said Curtis, ‘but you’re always walking on very thin ice and we’ve been working very hard. I do think supporters want to support successful organisations. Swan is quite a good analogy actually; hopefully it looks beautiful and serene and calm on the top whereas underneath we’re paddling like heck to keep things going!’

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