Walter Bitner

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Collaboration: The Association of British Orchestras Annual Conference 2018

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Wales Millenium Center (click images to enlarge)

Continued from
Three Days in London

It was the second week of September, 2017 – the week after Labor Day here in the U.S., which is the traditional opening week for orchestras across the country. In Nashville, we were preparing for our Symphony Gala – a grand, festive event that opened our season this year with the incomparable John Williams conducting the Nashville Symphony in a concert of his own works. Symphony offices were already bustling with activity in preparation for this and so many other aspects involved in kicking off the new season.

I was already in a state of excitement when an email arrived in my Inbox from Mark Pemberton, Director of the Association of British Orchestras inviting me to speak at their upcoming conference in Cardiff, Wales.

Needless to say, I was thrilled by this invitation. Unbeknownst to me, Mark had heard me speak about the Nashville Symphony’s Accelerando program at the League of American Orchestras annual conference in Baltimore in 2016, When the ABO invited me to speak about Accelerando at their annual conference, I was sincerely surprised and honored. It felt affirming to be given the opportunity to share with the wider world our organization’s attempt to take a practical step towards creating equitable opportunities for serious young musicians from underrepresented ethnicities. Now that the experience has passed and I have had some time to begin to process all of the impressions I gathered, I still feel this way, and I am grateful.


networking at the Awen Bar between sessions, Association of British Orchestras annual conference, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 2018


The Association of British Orchestras annual conference was held this year at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, Wales, and was hosted by the three professional member orchestras in Cardiff:

All three of these ensembles performed superlatively during the conference. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Welsh National Opera Orchestra shared the bill on the opening night concert with exciting performances of music by Richard Strauss and Rimsky-Korsakov, and Sinfonia Cymru performed in a couple different formats at other times. Each of the host orchestras’ leaders welcomed and addressed delegates during the conference as well.

welsh cakes served at one of the receptions – a delicious cross between pancake and scone

Since the conference was held in Wales, all of the official materials were presented in both Welsh and English, and many of the speakers addressed us in both languages, or at least greeted us in Welsh before commencing with their talks in English.

Although I had been engaged to speak, I looked on this extraordinary opportunity as a chance to learn firsthand as much as I could about how British orchestras approach education and community engagement programming as well as an opportunity to share about my work at the Nashville Symphony. I was not disappointed.


(l to r) composition students Kirsten Evans and Samuel Williams and head of composition John Hardy (Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama), Claire Whitaker OBE (Director, Serious) discuss RWCMD’s participation in the James Richards/Chapter installation at Wales in Venice/Cymru Yn Fenis on Friday’s The Art of Collaboration session, Association of British Orchestras annual conference 2018



Collaboration was the theme of this year’s ABO conference. In my opinion, this theme is in fact the theme of orchestral music, which is a collective and public endeavor by definition. Even within the orchestra as a singular ensemble, all must collaborate to produce the performance together. Of course, the topic of so many of the sessions and presentations was directed to collaboration between organizations. But in the end, these collaborations are still between individuals.

Like many conferences, the schedule for each day varied between activities for the entire attendance together and four smaller sessions scheduled simultaneously. Three of these four sessions presented collaboration topics; the fourth track of sessions presented a variety of topics related to diversity.

Association of British Orchestras Director Mark Pemberton addresses the delegates

I attended sessions for both topics. I was engaged to speak at a session for the diversity track, but as Director of Education & Community Engagement at the Nashville Symphony, so much of my day-to-day work consists of forging and nurturing partnerships with other organizations in the community. As usual at a conference, there were some hard choices, and I missed several sessions I was interested in because they were offered simultaneously with others I wanted to attend.

Much of the discussion on the first day of the conference was related to Brexit and its impending effect on the British orchestra sector (or as we say in the U.S., orchestra industry). Sir Ciarán Devane, Chief Executive of the British Council was the keynote speaker at the opening session and on the panel that followed. As a yankee and music educator by profession, I do not feel qualified to make any comment on all the discussion of Brexit I witnessed except to note that several times during the three days of the conference I heard speakers (including Sir Ciarán) referencing the “results of the American election” with commiseration and acknowledgment that Brexit is the U.K. equivalent of current political trends in the U.S.


Sinfonia Cymru performs Birdsong/Cân yr Adar, a collaboration with pianist/composer Gwilym Simcock, and singer/songwriter Kizzy Crawford ~ an enthralling and reflective performance about the Welsh Rainforest was reminiscent of Esperanza Spaulding’s 2010 album Chamber Music Society and we were all served Sinfonia Cymru IPA to enjoy while we listened! This was one of the highlights of the conference offerings for me.



I attended several sessions in the Diversity track, including a thoroughly prepared session on Unconscious Bias that included substantial work in small groups working through a very personal exercise with a facilitator, and a session that introduced a new instrument for assessing an organization’s structural biases developed by London Music Masters that was presented by Rob Adediran.

post-session selfie (l to r) WB, Lydia Connolly, James Murphy, January 26, 2018 ~ Photo courtesy of James Murphy

It was my privilege to share the stage for the final Diversity session with Lydia Connolly (joint Managing Director of Harrison Parrott), and James Murphy, (Managing Director of  Southbank Sinfonia). This session was intended to provide examples from within the field of programs that are taking steps to achieve change on ethnicity and gender. Lydia presented a new initiative that promises to celebrate and empower female conductors: read Equality on the Podium, an adaptation of her ABO presentation here.

I had corresponded with James in the weeks leading up to my trip to the U.K., and learned that his presentation would be a follow-up to the presentation he gave in 2017 on gender inequality among conductors as well. You can see his 2017 presentation here:



James presented a similar “provocation” at our session, beginning with a review of the (scant) progress in engaging female conductors on a more equitable basis in the past year, then launching full-throttle into his topic this year: Are We Writing Great Female Composers Out of History? Read his Huffington Post article of the same title published two days before our presentation. James is a tough act to follow – I was grateful that my presentation on Accelerando was scheduled before his rather than after.

Accelerando is the Nashville Symphony’s award-winning initiative designed to prepare gifted young students of diverse ethnic backgrounds to pursue music at the collegiate level and beyond. Read the Accelerando category archives on Off The Podium here, where I have chronicled the program since its inception. You may view the slide deck used for my presentation in PDF format here on the ABO website.


Alan Davey CBE, Controller, BBC Radio 3, BBC Orchestras and BBC Proms delivers the closing address of the 2018 ABO conference, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, January 26, 2018


As with nearly every conference I have attended, the most valuable moments I experienced and the most compelling memories I took away were the unique opportunities to have conversations with others engaged in the same or similar work across the field, to share and learn from them. The ABO conference was the epitome of this kind of experience. I am so grateful to everyone who took time to share with me in those packed three days.

Special Thanks to the ABO: Mark Pemberton for the generous invitation and hospitality, Fiona Harvey for many insightful conversations conversations about EDCE in British Orchestras and for assistance in meeting many involved in this work during my trip, Jenny Lomas and Emma Nevell for logistical and practical assistance of all kinds!


The elegant dining room of The Exchange Hotel in Cardiff, where the ABO annual award dinner was held – another highlight of the conference! January 25, 2018.

1 Comment

  1. […] arrived in Detroit less than a week after my trip to the U.K. to speak at the ABO conference. It made for another intense experience attending sessions and holding rare conversations with […]

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