The St. John’s Collective started life two years ago as an orchestral project designed to bring a community together through a shared interest, using my background as a classical musician and composer as a key focus. The ‘community’ were the 30,000 people who work in Spinningfields, the business district which Allied London has spent the last 20 years carefully crafting.
Although the initial take-up was very slow, the project caught the attention of Bob Riley, Chief Executive of Manchester Camerata. Bob was seeking a new home for Camerata – who can list being Glastonbury openers among their unusual claims to fame – and working together, we moved his team from the Royal Northern College of Music to Old Granada Studios last year. As part of that process, we resurrected the idea of a new community orchestra, but we set about trying to broaden its reach across Manchester and attracting people to join.
If you think of an “amateur orchestra”, you’ll probably conjure up images of retired music teachers diligently scraping through a Mozart symphony in a draughty village hall once a week. Instead Bob and I wanted to speak to all ages and abilities by doing something very different, innovative and compelling to break this mould. And so the St. John’s Collective was born.
The idea behind the Collective was to use the talent of the Camerata players to mentor the amateur musicians. We also wanted to have them rehearse in unusual spaces, never before accessible to the public, and play in an ensemble with no long-standing traditions, no established hierarchy and no “well we’ve always done it like that” mantra. And that vision proved to be popular. We launched the Collective in the Oast House in September 2017, and by Christmas, 70 people from all across the city had signed up, including five young composers from the University of Manchester.
It is rare for an amateur orchestra, in the traditional sense, to play anything beyond what would be considered standard repertoire – most simply don’t have the budget to commission new works. But here we were with an entire musical programme specially composed for the group, a bunch of musicians of varying standards who’d never played with each other before and me as conductor equally new to the job. Needless to say the first few rehearsals were a challenge!
Since we started rehearsing at the beginning of 2018, people have come and gone, but a new community has been established. Slowly we have become more confident in each other and risen to the challenge of tackling six new pieces of music in six very different musical styles. So, when the Collective gives its first performance this week, the players can all be very proud of what they’ve achieved in such a short time.
The inaugural ‘Concert and Social’ on Thursday will be an informal occasion to connect with the orchestra and hear our musicians perform the new works for the very first time. All of the music is inspired by the city, its buildings and its people in a unique way and, sat alongside pieces from the young university composers, that includes my own Symphony of Enterprise.
The symphony aims to bring Allied London’s vision for the new St. John’s neighbourhood to life and to capture its buildings through the language of music. From the magnificently imposing Bonded Warehouse, whose romantic-era architecture conceals a hub of entrepreneurship and collaboration, through to the monolithic powerhouse of Manchester Goods Yard, St. John’s will be a place for natural innovators to live, work and play together to form an inspired and productive community.
In a sense, the St. John’s Collective is already a first step on this journey towards a cultural identity, which of course culminates in the arrival of the Factory arts complex set to open its doors at St. John’s in 2021. So I hope you can join me as we embark on that journey, and help celebrate Manchester’s creativity and cultural ambition through the power of music.
The St. John’s Collective Concert & Social took place on Thursday 26th April 2018 at Old Granada Studios. All proceeds from the event were donated to Big Change, as part of Allied London’s commitment to tackling homelessness in Manchester.