Inside Manchester Camerata as the orchestra turns 50

A group of care home residents take up their places in a circle in the living room. In the centre is a table with percussion instruments: bells, shakers, little drums, big drums. A music therapist joins them, playing a cheerful tune on the keyboard that addresses each resident by name. 

“You might not realise if you have dementia that you’re in the session if it’s week one,” Lizzie Hoskin says. “But by week 15, you absolutely know that this is the start of the session.” She leads Manchester Camerata’s community outreach programme, bringing the orchestra into schools and care homes across Greater Manchester.

Manchester Camerata’s music cafe at Gorton Monastery | Photo: Duncan Elliott

Hoskin’s mother was a physiotherapist who worked in care homes and she remembers being recruited to play the piano or violin for residents when she was a child.

“We might start off with someone playing random notes, just as a bit of background music,” she says. “Then, you’ll notice that some participants have picked up a drum or a bell and someone might be tapping their foot.”

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Everyone in the group starts picking up the rhythm and so begins an hour of musical improvisation. 

“There was one guy who is really friendly with sparkly eyes,” Hoskin says. His speech was impeded by dementia, but his whole manner was so charismatic that you could feel what he was trying to get across.

“He went off and sat down and his wife came up to me. She said: ‘I found it really hard over the pandemic, it’s been really isolating because John was always really smiley, but sometimes he’ll look at me when we’re on our own at home and he’ll go, ‘I’m frightened.’ I don’t know what to say.”

Manchester Camerata’s music cafe at Gorton Monastery | Photo: Duncan Elliott

Dementia rates are spiralling globally, with the number of people living with symptoms expected to triple by 2050. Manchester Camerata’s work in care homes, backed up by research undertaken at the University of Manchester, is designed to cut through the confusion and memory issues associated with the condition through musical improvisation.

Later in the session, Hoskin says, “someone picked up a drum and suddenly people were dancing to this rhythm that was being improvised by the participants. John just got up and started dancing and beckoned his wife up. It was like watching two teenagers dancing. There was not a dry eye in the house — it still moves me now and it was three months ago.”

Manchester Camerata’s music cafe at Gorton Monastery | Photo: Duncan Elliott

Manchester Camerata’s outreach work is an example of how some orchestras are broadening their focus outside of the traditional concert hall to more community engagement and collaboration. As the orchestra celebrates half a century and looks forward to the future, its leadership is asking questions about what it means to be produce classical music and operate as an arts organisation today.

I meet chief executive Bob Riley in the cafe at Gorton Monastery. He speaks passionately about the state of modern classical music and the influences which inform the direction of the Camerata.  

“I was very lucky that I worked with Sir Graham Vic at the point where he shifted the Birmingham Touring Opera, of which I was a player, to the Birmingham Opera Company,” Riley says. “And the shift was: do we represent works that have already been written or do we deconstruct those works or even commission new works with a community in mind? And if we do that, where do we do it? How do we do it? Who do we do it with?”

Bob Riley | Photo: Tom Taylor

It was with this in mind that the orchestra decided to move to Gorton Monastery in 2021. The ornate, Grade II* listed building was designed by E.W Pugin and opened as a Franciscan friary in 1872.

After falling into disrepair, it was bought and renovated by a local community group led by Elaine Griffiths and her husband, Paul, who was once a choir boy there. Gorton residents receive heavily discounted or free tickets for Camerata performances.

“The first thing you hear is what you see,” Riley says when I ask about the move. “When a performer comes on stage, you’re not listening to a noise, you’re watching them physically. It’s the same with the venue.”

Gorton Monastery / Photo: Tom Taylor

“When I turn the corner and I see this at the end of the road, my heart just flies. I’m alive, because you see this visually astonishing building.” He points to the high vaulted ceiling and beautiful stain glass windows which project neat rectangles of warm light onto the congregation. 

“Immediately, I think something in here is just going to be incredible – it might be shit – but I think it’s going to be incredible because of how the building looks. I think that’s something that other genres pay far more attention to, very wisely.”

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It’s also important to Riley that the orchestra’s home isn’t a traditional concert hall: “Frankly, some of the behaviour inside concert halls is a bit alien, it’s disruptive in a negative way. Somebody said to me the other day, ‘I went to a concert in the Bridgewater Hall and I clapped and somebody turned around and tutted at me.’ It’s shit, it’s just shit. I think there’s work we’ve all got to do on that — to say that we don’t want that.”

“I wouldn’t want to interrupt your intense emotional connection and experience with whatever you’re listening to, but equally, if I’ve just had a moment and I want to clap, you’ve got to respect that. We have to try and remove some of those things so that people don’t feel that social disapproval will be part of going into a building.”

‘Messiah’ at Gorton Monastery | Photo: Jason Lock

Manchester has recently been pointed to as being at an exciting juncture in its classical offer — the city is home to the Hallé, Manchester Collective, Psappha, the BBC, Chethams and more. “It’s an exciting time, but you’ve got to qualify that,” Riley says. “We’re all only as good as our last gig.”

“As performance organisations, we can tend towards the ‘museum’. We play and re-present something that has been done — and there’s nothing wrong with that. But unless we’re really looking forward to how we create the next set of experiences, commissions, audiences, in a city that is socially radical, we need to be looking forward, striving, aspiring and pushing, I think more than we are doing.”

Manchester Camerata and the AMC Gospel Choir | Photo: Jason Lock

“It’s about investment,” Riley says. “If we want the sustained impact of having the Hallé here for 150 years, we better make sure they’re funded for another 150 years. It’s the same for us, the same for Manchester Collective and Psappha and other groups that I’m sure will spring up.”

“I think there’s a thing of saying, ‘we’re excellent, classical music is in a great place, let’s pat ourselves on the back’. No, let’s rev up for a challenge, let’s actually develop this.”

Manchester Camerata are performing Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid on Thursday 16 June at HOME.