Orchestral Theatre

Symposium: The Experimental Orchestra

Posted by Adrian Curtin

20 October 2023

Date: Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Timezone: GMT

Zoom (Register here)

Orchestras are experimenting with the standard concert format inherited from the nineteenth century and re-thinking how concerts are presented, how musicians perform, what they perform, where performance can occur, and the role of the audience in the co-creation of the live event. Orchestras exploring these possibilities may collaborate with artists from other disciplines in the creation of generically hybrid work that challenges conventional understanding of the orchestra.

Groups are also experimenting with the constitution of an orchestra, how it functions, and the work it does for audiences and communities. How is orchestral experimentation enabled or constrained by organisational structure and size, employment of full-time players or freelancers, funding and revenue, institutional history, amateur or professional status, culture and politics, and audience preferences?

This one-day online symposium gathers scholars and practitioners to discuss these issues and to share their research and practice. All are welcome to attend. Registration is free.

SCHEDULE (amended on 11/12/23)

09:35-09:45 Soft start

09:45-10:00 Welcome

10:00-11:30 Panel 1: Performance Experimentation

  • Tom Spurgin, ‘Cultures of Experimentation in Classical Music Institutions’ 
  • Matt Belcher, ‘#ConcertLab: Results from Experimenting’
  • Kobe Van Cauwenberghe, ‘Performing Anthony Braxton’s Creative Orchestra’

11:30-12:00 Break

12:00-13:30 Panel 2: Training & Research

  • Phil Meadows, ‘Developing Creative Skillsets with UK Orchestral Musicians’
  • Liz Muge, ‘Player Development – Safe Spaces and Theatrical Approaches’
  • Peter Peters, ‘On Artful Participation: Learning from Collaborative Concert Experiments’

13:30-15:15 Break

15:15-16:45 Panel 3: Community & Culture

  • Gina Emerson, ‘Classical Music, Audiences and Community: Exploring the Social Role of Orchestras’
  • Natalie Farrell, ‘The Civic Orchestra of Chicago and Neoliberal Stratification of Community Outreach Initiatives’ 
  • Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey, ‘The Future of Trans-Cultural Orchestral Practice?: Afghanistan’s Orchestral Music in the United Kingdom’

16:45-17:30 Discussion


Panel 1: Performance Experimentation

Tom Spurgin, ‘Cultures of Experimentation in Classical Music Institutions’ 

Institutions are experimenting with and re-inventing the performance of classical music: this includes, but is not limited to, concerts in informal or unusual venues (Haferkorn, 2018); working collaboratively with non-classical artists; and developing new and different relationships with audiences (Pitts, 2005). All of this is happening within a changing funding context that is beginning to prioritise co-created and collaborative work over and above the presentational stalwarts of the UK arts scene (Hadley, 2021). But how do organisations and the staff within them create the conditions for experimentation and change within our ensembles? 

This paper draws on my ongoing PhD research with Manchester Collective, a small and flexible ensemble that creates ‘radical human experiences’ using classical music, and my lived experiences working within UK orchestras across Learning & Engagement, Concerts, and Marketing departments. Using data collected via ethnographic fieldwork with Manchester Collective, auto-ethnographic experiences within the field, and player/staff surveys, I will discuss the working cultures created within classical music organisations and question how important working culture is within an experimental orchestra. How does working culture impact experimentation? How does experimentation impact working culture? Who creates and embodies this working culture? Whose creativity is it anyway?

By delving into Manchester Collective’s own perception of their position within the sector and understanding their goals, I will discuss what makes Manchester Collective’s programme ‘uniquely Manchester Collective’. I will compare this with my experiences in two UK orchestras, the CBSO and Philharmonia Orchestra, to reflect on the cyclical nature of experimentation and organisational culture change. 

Ultimately, this short paper will question how possible large-scale experimentation is within publicly funded classical music ensembles and what we might learn from smaller and more flexible ensembles. 


Tom Spurgin is a WRoCAH-funded PhD student at the University of Sheffield, completing a part-time Collaborative Doctoral Award with Manchester Collective. Outside of his PhD, Tom is the Director of Learning & Engagement at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), where he oversees the organisation’s work with schools and education institutions, talent development, community engagement, and choirs.

Matt Belcher, ‘#ConcertLab: Results from Experimenting’

In 2016, the chamber orchestra Southbank Sinfonia collaborated with the National Theatre on its production of Amadeus. It provided a tantalising glimpse of an alternative way of working and new possibilities of what an orchestra could do. A fuse was lit: What might happen if we took theatrical ingredients back to ‘our world’ of orchestral concerts?

The result was the creation of #ConcertLab, born from a curiosity to experiment, to see what worked and – equally importantly – what didn’t when incorporating elements from other art forms into classical music concerts. Between 2017-2019, 18 projects explored how movement, lighting, narrative forms, alternative stage layouts, audience immersion, costume, museum interpretation and choice of venue can develop both the audience and performer experience.

An iterative process of learning and evaluation fed a rapid evolution in quality and ambition, seeing the series evolve from simple ‘one variable’ experiments within conventional concerts in year one to bespoke events, a distinct brand and an almost entirely new audience by year three. The series is returning in 2023-24 for a further three inter-disciplinary projects.

This image-led presentation will take us on a quick-fire tour of key projects, lessons learned, potentials discovered, and how we’re seeking solutions to the challenges still to overcome.


Matt Belcher has worked with orchestras and classical music organisations for over 15 years. With a background in marketing and curious about how classical music could evolve its product to engage a wider audience, he was the Creative Director of Southbank Sinfonia’s RPS Award-shortlisted #ConcertLab series and the orchestra’s innovative multimedia family concerts staged at Southbank Centre. He is now a freelance creative director, producer and filmmaker, exploring ways to better connect people to the stories which fuel music, art and history. Find out more at https://matt-belcher.com.

Kobe Van Cauwenberghe, ‘Performing Anthony Braxton’s Creative Orchestra’

This presentation will explore my ongoing research into the concept of the Creative Orchestra as developed by American composer Anthony Braxton. Combining traditional notation with open elements and improvisation in an orchestral context, Braxton wrote several compositions for the creative orchestra throughout his career. I will look at its historical roots and then turn to three specific events in which I was involved as a conductor and performer, exploring the possibilities of Braxton’s unique repertoire in different ways. The first was a performance with a student orchestra of the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp, conducted by me and which took place on June 5th at DE SINGEL in Antwerp in the presence of the composer. The 2nd was a workshop and performance as part of the international Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt, Germany, led by Anthony Braxton and myself and which took place from 11 to 15 of August 2023. Lastly a Creative Orchestra performance with the Brussels Philharmonic and the Ictus ensemble, conducted by Ilan Volkov, which took place in Bruges and Antwerp on 17 and 18 of November 2023 and in which I was involved as performer and co-conductor. In describing these three specific performance situations of Braxton’s Creative Orchestra repertoire, I will propose a different perspective on orchestral performance practice, one that not only incorporates improvisational practices but also explores multi-hierarchical strategies in an orchestral context. In doing so I aim to show that embracing this diversity of practices has the potential to open up new and more inclusive pathways for the orchestra of the future.


After studies in Ghent and New York City, guitarist Kobe Van Cauwenberghe is currently based in Brussels and pursuing a PhD in the arts at the Conservatory of Antwerp with a focus on the music of Anthony Braxton. His research resulted in the acclaimed solo album “Ghost Trance Solos” (ATD10, 2020) and the double LP “Ghost Trance Septet” (eNR105, 2022). During the 2023 Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music he co-curated the first international conference on the music of Anthony Braxton and, together with Braxton, he led a 4 day workshop on his Creative Orchestra Music. In the past years Kobe has played concerts all over the world, both as a soloist as in chamber music formation and large ensemble. As a soloist he released his first solo-album in 2015 (“Give my Regards to 116th Street”, Carrier Records). In 2017 he created the solo project “No [more] Pussyfooting” with live arrangements of music by Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, which he toured extensively. He is a founding-member of the electric guitar-quartet Zwerm, a regular collaborator with Ictus and, until 2021, a member of the Nadar Ensemble. As a freelance guitarist he performed with several groups and ensembles in France, UK and the US.

Panel 2: Training & Research

Phil Meadows, ‘Developing Creative Skillsets with UK Orchestral Musicians’

Cross-genre orchestral collaboration is becoming an established part of festival, in-house orchestral and year-round concert hall programmes. However, the high-level formal training and professional development available to UK orchestral musicians does not adequately prepare them to use their virtuoso classical skillsets to engage and create with those from other musical backgrounds. 

The rapid rise in number of musician-led freelance orchestras highlights a tension between the needs of today’s musicians (and the expectations of the music industry), the training on offer at UK Conservatoires and the vision of the wider UK orchestral sector. Musical improvisation in broad form is well documented and the growing body of literature surrounding classical improvisation and music education offers useful insight into the benefits improvisation can have during the early stages of musical development. Nonetheless, research with a specific focus on those already in the profession remains limited, particularly with relation to classically trained performers within UK orchestras.

This paper presents methodology and preliminary findings from a three-part practical study exploring improvisation and creative music making in the context of professional and aspiring (Conservatoire level) orchestral musicians. The study aims to identify key areas for development, in-line with the UK’s changing orchestral landscape. It focuses on investigating the psychological barriers that impede musicians’ creative development, concentrating on musical and emotional security, and examining their impact on the establishment of musical cohesion and collaboration.

The study comprises three distinct participant groups engaged in varied project formats, encompassing structured workshops and unstructured free play sessions. These initiatives draw upon an extensive range of musical referents and techniques spanning diverse genres. Initial findings suggest the formulation of a framework consisting of diverse tools and techniques that are appropriate for integration within the realms of UK orchestras, orchestral musicians’ personal practice and Conservatoire level education.

Project partners include the Southbank Sinfonia and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in this CHASE funded PhD project being undertaken at the University of Kent.


Phil Meadows is a highly acclaimed and multi-award-winning conductor and arranger renowned for his innovative and dynamic approach to music. Throughout his career, Phil has worked extensively across Europe, collaborating with diverse artists, and producing ground-breaking orchestral works that unite musical cultures in unique and exciting ways. Phil’s talent as a conductor and arranger has taken him to some of the most prestigious orchestras and ensembles in the world. He has worked as a guest conductor and arranger with the Grammy Award-winning Metropole Orkest (Netherlands) and has been commissioned to re-orchestrate his Lifecycles album for the Royal Northern Sinfonia. Phil has also worked as a creative/improvisation specialist for the Southbank Sinfonia, is a regular project leader for Trinity Laban’s CoLab, and is the founder and artistic director of the Engines Orchestra, one of the UK’s most innovative and collaborative ensembles. As a double Parliamentary Jazz Award, London Music Award and Peter Whittingham Jazz Award winner, Meadows regularly performs his original music across the UK, has toured Europe with electronic artist and producer Matthew Herbert and currently holds a monthly residency at the world-famous Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. His PhD research specialises in developing creative skillsets in UK orchestral musicians with a view to enhancing musician security and musical cohesion in collaborative orchestral projects. More information: https://www.philmeadowsmusic.co.uk.

Liz Muge, ‘Player Development – Safe Spaces and Theatrical Approaches’ 

How do we enable a safe and experimental space to explore an audience centred approach to presenting classical repertoire?

MishMash Productions’ vision is to transform perceptions of what classical music could and should be, particularly for young and new audiences.  We believe in pushing boundaries and dismantling outdated traditions, creating a 21st century classical music offer that is exciting, engaging and relevant to the present. 

Established in 2015, we early identified a challenge in recruiting professional, classically trained musicians with the unique combination of skills we need to deliver our staged concerts and theatrical presentation of music. Our approach is unapologetically audience centric, starting the development of each new production with the needs, context and frame of reference of the target audience at the centre. That approach doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive from presenting sophisticated, varied and musically interesting programmes – music that we love.  However, finding an ensemble of musicians with all the skills (and interest!) needed to do this is a challenge – the highest quality musicianship and performance skills, the ability to respond to direction, stage presence, memorisation skills, and more than all that a creative, collaborative and open approach to rehearsal room practice.

This short presentation will shed some light on our approach to musician training from the residential training courses established in 2019 to the R&D delivered with partner orchestras – such as the Royal Northern Sinfonia, Scottish Ensemble and CBSO.

At the centre of this work is a team of experienced theatre directors and producers/musical directors sharing their approach to making work in an extremely practical and impactful way.


Liz Muge is the Artistic and Executive Director of MishMash Productions, an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation dedicated to transforming experiences of live music for young and new audiences. Following a career in music education with Youth Music, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Make Some Noise, and Nottingham Music Service Liz established MishMash Productions in 2015 with support from Arts Council England. MishMash Productions was welcomed into the Arts Council National Portfolio in April 2023.

Peter Peters, ‘On Artful Participation: Learning from Collaborative Concert Experiments’ 

In the social sciences, humanities and higher music education, collaboration across disciplines and institutes increasingly features as an extension of the repertoire of conventional didactic models and research methods. In my presentation, I will focus on collaborative teaching and research carried out by the Maastricht Centre for the Innovation of Classical Music (MCICM). This inter- and transdisciplinary collaboration between an orchestra, a higher music education institute, and a university situated in the South of the Netherlands started from sharing a problem: how can classical music organisations shape new futures through innovating their practices? Each of the partners has a stake of its own in addressing this problem. Whereas the orchestra hopes to attract new audiences and strengthen its public presence, the conservatory aims to update its curricula and the academic researchers are interested in orchestral music as a major practice of cultural transmission. Reflecting on our work in the MCICM in recent years, I will discuss how this collaboration played out in practice. I will focus on the Artful Participation-project (2017-2021), that aimed to improve the quality of audience participation in symphonic music practice. This project combined strategic research into reasons for the declining interest in symphonic music with artistic research to innovate this practice in artistically relevant ways. The collaborative artistic research took place in a series of experiments with new forms of audience participation. Looking back, what was successful and why? And, perhaps more importantly, what proved to be less effective? 


Peter Peters is endowed professor in the innovation of classical music and associate professor at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Maastricht University. His background is in sociology and philosophy. His current research combines a life-long passion for music with an interest in how artistic practices can be a context for doing academic and practice-oriented research. In previous years, he worked on an ethnography of a project at the Orgelpark in Amsterdam aimed at building a baroque organ for the 21st century. It explores how this project draws on historical and contemporary practices of pipe organ building. More recently, as director of the Maastricht Centre for the Innovation of Classical Music, his research focuses on innovating classical music practices, especially symphonic music. Together with Stefan Rosu, he developed the research lines in the MCICM: the role of classical music and its value for society; the ways in which the relationship between performers of classical music, such as symphony orchestras and their audience is mediated; and the ways in which classical music practices contribute to the preservation of our cultural and social sounding heritage.

Panel 3: Community & Culture

Gina Emerson, ‘Classical Music, Audiences and Community: Exploring the Social Role of Orchestras’ 

Despite the steadily growing body of literature on the social dynamics of Western art music cultures (e.g. Bull, 2019; Ramnarine, 2011), this musical form remains underexplored from a music sociology perspective. Specifically, the concept of a social ‘role’ for classical music institutions and the extent to which this music can or does shape processes of community building have been neglected, with ideas of the ‘collective’ having received greater attention within popular music studies and related disciplines. This presentation will explore this question of ‘role’ in connection to how orchestras and similar institutions relate to audiences and communities by drawing on new empirical research conducted in collaboration with the Kammerakademie Potsdam, a German chamber orchestra, investigating the social embeddedness of the orchestra in the Potsdam area. This work is being carried out as part of a larger project on orchestras, sustainability and societal relevance at RIFS Potsdam. I will present case studies and first results from analyses of audience and focus group data from this multi-faceted collaboration with the Kammerakademie, discussing patterns of inclusion and exclusion, notions of regional identity and ties to classical music programming among different groups, alongside reflections on the value of collaborative research between orchestras and academic partners. 


Bull, A. (2019). Class, Control, and Classical Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Ramnarine, T. (2011). ‘The Orchestration of Civil Society: Community and Conscience in Symphony  Orchestras’. Ethnomusicology Forum, 20(3), 327-351.


Dr. Gina Emerson is a musicologist and curator. Her work explores and connects the topics of audience experience, sustainability, cultural participation and the use of new technologies in art music contexts. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate at RIFS Potsdam with the collaborative project ‘A Sustainable Cultural Mission for Music – a New Aspect of Orchestral Excellence’, a joint initiative of RIFS and the Kammerakademie Potsdam. She has been a member of the Art-Science Cooperations for Sustainability research group at RIFS since January 2022. She is the author of Audience Experience and Contemporary Classical Music, published by Routledge in March 2023.

Natalie Farrell, ‘#citizenmusicianatwork: The Civic Orchestra of Chicago and Neoliberal Stratification of Community Outreach Initiatives’ 

Following a $15 million donation from the Consolidated Electrical Distributors’ Negaunee Foundation in 2014—the second-largest donation in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s history, the CSO Association radically restructured its community outreach initiatives to center the Civic Orchestra as its main philanthropic vehicle. Every year, ten to fifteen members of the Civic, the CSO’s prestigious training orchestra, are selected to participate in the Civic Fellows curriculum, which foregrounds “artistic planning, music education, social justice, and project management.” Much has been written about the entrepreneurial shift in post- secondary American music education, but little has been said about the increasing demand for social justice work and emotional labor to be performed by pre-professional musicians (in addition to symphonic repertoire) as part of their preparation to enter the orchestral job market. 

In this paper, I argue that the siloing of social justice-oriented musical outreach work within training orchestra programs, such as the Civic Fellows, is representative of neoliberal austerity measures, in turn yielding material consequences for both musicians and communities they are intended to serve. Drawing upon William Robin and Andrea Moore’s critique of neoliberal musical entrepreneurship in universities, I trace the Civic’s shifting priorities (beginning as a nationalistic project and now interfacing with underserved populations) alongside their contentious history with the American Federation of Musicians and the CSOA’s fiscal politics. The right-leaning Negaunee Foundation’s contributions reshaped the CSOA’s budget, enabling community-oriented projects (i.e. the Civic) to operate financially independently from the flagship orchestra. The stratification of the CSO/Civic’s innovative outreach initiatives, including Notes for Peace and CSO-Connect with Chicago Public Schools, speaks to neoliberal themes such as the individualization of social responsibility and the privatization of music education and welfare resources. The precarity of the Civic Fellows’ condition erects structural barriers to substantive change—while also offering opportunities for radical solidarity. 


Natalie Farrell is a PhD candidate in Music History/Theory at the University of Chicago. She has been published in Music and Letters, The Journal of Popular Music Studies, The Journal of Sound and Music in Games, The Palgrave Handbook of Scoring Peak TV: Music and Sound in Television’s New “Golden Age” and The Flutist Quarterly. Her research on neoliberalism and musicians’s unions has been funded by grants from the Mellon Foundation and the Eastman School of Music’s Paul R. Judy Center for Innovation and Research. In her free time, she likes to knit and spend time with her dog (who is named after Leonard Bernstein).

Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey, ‘The Future of Trans-Cultural Orchestral Practice?: Afghanistan’s Orchestral Music in the United Kingdom’

Historically-European orchestral practices have been adopted, adapted and transformed by cultures across the globe. Orchestral practices—in all their geographical locations—are inherently entangled in a meshwork of post- and neo-colonial power relations, with their social organisation and societal role, instrumentation and repertoire bearing such marks (Shengmiao 2009, Yang 2017, Ramnarine 2018, Tan 2018). It is particularly notable that to-date there has been little reciprocal influence regarding the expansion of repertoire and instrumentation here in the United Kingdom, let alone the social organisation of orchestral practice itself. In Afghanistan, unique forms of orchestral music-making have existed since the early 1940s, blending historically-European, traditional Afghani, and Hindustani instruments and involving the adaptation of Afghan and European repertories (Sarmast 2008, Baily 2015)—a tradition which has now been disrupted twice by the extremist ideology, first in the mid-1990s and again in 2021 when the Taliban took control of the country. Now in exile, Afghan composers and orchestral musicians have been working with colleagues to keep their musical traditions alive while censored in their home country. One such initiative has been The Orchestral Music of Afghanistan: Looking Forward, a project I co-curated with Afghan composer Arson Fahim. We commissioned eight new orchestral compositions by Afghan composers (all but one of which are living in exile) for an orchestra comprising historically-European, traditional Afghani, and Hindustani instruments. In July 2022 (London) and June 2023 (Oxford), I conducted the new works with the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and guest musicians. In this talk I provide a critical reflection on this project and its processes (including my own role in it) with particular attention to the intersection of socio-musical practices, economic power, time, and ‘prestige’. Drawing on these reflections I will query the possibility of a future trans-cultural orchestral practice for the 21st century.


Dr Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey is the Director of Performance at St Catherine’s College and a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield, where she is researching the historic and contemporary orchestral practices of Afghanistan. She is the Conducting Fellow of the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and Coordinator of the orchestra’s Side-by-Side scheme as well as Director of Research for the Oxford Conducting Institute. Her research is focused on the social-psychological and socio-political aspects of orchestral music-making—from the intricacies of co-performer communication in modern and historically informed contexts, to the politics of participation and orchestras’ geo-political significance. She explores these questions through a blend of practice-based research and empirical investigation, combining her work as a conductor and performer with academic scholarship. 

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