Stephen Saltaire, Chair of BCMG

'Linked but distinct': Interview with BCMG Chair of the Board, Stephen Saltaire

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BCMG is currently recruiting for a new Chair of the Board to follow on from current chair, Stephen Saltaire’s, magnificent work over the last fifteen years.

This is a unique opportunity to work with an award-winning, innovative contemporary music ensemble, which includes a pioneering learning and participation programme, and take it to its next stages of development.

Here Stephen reflects on his time as Chair and the wonderful opportunities ahead for his successor.

What drew you to the role of Chair at BCMG?

In fact, I joined the board of BCMG a few years before I became Chair. I’d been interested in contemporary music since my teens but contact with the group came about through my friendship with the brother-in-law of the then Artistic Director (Simon Clugston). I first heard the group perform (Stockhausen’s epic Momente) at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and was hugely impressed not only by the quality of the performance but by the scale of the group’s ambition. So I was very happy to join the board when invited

BCMG’s first Chair, Jim Berrow, did an amazing job of helping the group develop from within the CBSO to becoming a fully fledged independent organisation, properly funded by Arts Council England and Birmingham City Council. When Jim decided to stand down, I was approached about the Chair’s role and felt that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

How has the organisation evolved during your tenure?

I would say that the underlying mission hasn’t really changed at all, and that’s a good thing. Nor has the sense of care towards the work. But some things are very different. The scale of our learning and participation programme, for example, has grown substantially and evolved into a model of best practice which has been acknowledged around the world. And, inevitably, as the group has become more established, its reputation has grown. We already had an impressive history of touring engagements both in the UK and abroad, but things like our mini-residencies in New York in 2008 and Washington DC last year, are a reflection of BCMG’s growing international profile and the respect in which we are held by composers and artists of the highest quality. We continue to develop and professionalise the organisation at all levels and, despite living through one of the toughest periods for arts funding, we have increased our resilience, with significant reserves on our balance sheet for instance. With that, I think, has come an increased confidence to undertake ambitious and unusual projects such as David Sawer’s Rumpelstiltskin in 2009, Gerald Barry’s Importance of Being Earnest in 2012 or David Lang’s Crowd Out last year.

What have been BCMGs key achievements?

Firstly, I would say, developing and proving a model which remains more or less unique, in which the ensemble has a strong relationship and shares a number of players with a full scale symphony orchestra and yet remains independent and therefore best placed to undertake the most ambitious projects. I really think that has been a very important element of BCMG’s success. We call it “linked but distinct”.

Secondly, I would say our long and immensely successful history of commissioning with more than 160 new works premiered in Birmingham. This reflects the great talents of firstly Simon Clugston and then Stephen Newbould in identifying composers likely to produce a good “BCMG piece” and the group’s willingness to give those composers the space and support to deliver their best.

Of course, you can’t speak about BCMG’s commissioning without talking about Sound Investment, which pioneered crowd funding before the term had even been invented and which has built such strong and deep relationships between our audiences and the music. What is quite astonishing is that, despite working at the leading edge of contemporary work, when it comes to private philanthropic income, BCMG raises twice the national average (as a percentage of its total income). That’s a very quantifiable measure of the commitment from our public.

This really leads me to what I personally consider BCMG’s greatest single achievement. The one thing I hear more than anything else from visiting composers, artists and critics is that only in Birmingham is there such a sense of engagement and community between composers, performers and audience. I grew up in a period when it was sometimes said that contemporary music was in danger of becoming disconnected from mainstream audiences. I think our success with classics from that post-war modernist repertoire proves that this had nothing to do with the music. Engaging listeners in new work requires more than technical excellence. It requires the performers to care passionately about the intentions of the composer and to convey this to the audience. Indeed, it requires everybody in the organisation (including the board) to communicate that passion and that is what I think BCMG does so well.

What have you enjoyed about being Chair?

The greatest reward of being the Chair of BCMG has been the pride I’ve felt in the organisation’s achievements. It has been marvellous to represent the group in places like Washington, New York, Copenhagen, Cologne and Chennai, but also in the UK at major festivals and venues and in our home town of Birmingham. I’ve also immensely enjoyed meeting a huge range of musicians, artists and composers, not only those of the highest international standing, but young emerging talents. I’ve learnt so much from all of them and they’ve deepened my understanding and love for contemporary music to an extent which I don’t think could have happened in any other way.

And I’ve really enjoyed the sense of sharing that engagement and excitement with our audiences and the participants in our learning and participation workshops. We often talk about the “BCMG family”. It’s a much extended one, incorporating performers, composers, audiences, the BCMG team and all those that support us. I’ve made many marvellous friendships through BCMG which I am sure will continue beyond my departure.

Why is it a good time for someone new to take the role?

My successor will inherit a strong position from which to move forward. BCMG is an organisation with a sound balance sheet and a three year commitment from Arts Council England, coupled to a successful track record of raising funding from elsewhere. It also has some remarkably talented people, in terms of the players, the executive team and the board. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to all of them, past and present, for their commitment and support over the last fifteen years. At the same time, the new Chair will have the opportunity to steer the group through its next phase of development. No doubt, especially in the current environment for public investment in the arts, there will be challenges, but I think there will be huge opportunities and a great sense of excitement as well.

See the role description for more information.

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