Is orchestral music relevant to contemporary needs?

James Williams of RPO, which performed at Expo 2020 Dubai on UK National Day, offers a perspective


Joydeep Sengupta

Published: Thu 10 Feb 2022, 11:33 PM

James Williams is the managing director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO), which performed on the occasion of the UK’s National Day at Expo 2020 Dubai on February 10. Ahead of RPO’s performance, wknd. caught up with Williams to understand how music helped, and possibly even healed us, during the pandemic.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

You took over as the MD of Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 2016. How has been the journey so far?

Ever since I started, the Orchestra has marked both its 70th and 75th anniversaries, appointed Vasily Petrenko as its new music director and has toured to dozens of countries across the world. The RPO is one of the world’s most in-demand orchestras and, therefore, the pace of work here is extremely fast, particularly once you take into account all the recordings and community/education work it undertakes in addition to live performances. Covid-19 has been a major disruptor, but we’ve continued to perform via online channels.

How has music been playing its part to overcome Covid-19 blues?

We know from recent surveys that music helped people with their mental health and provided an escape from difficult times. Music has the ability to enrich our souls and feed our spirit. We were thrilled to be able to perform at socially-distanced concerts, and the ability to make and communicate our music to people all of the world was hugely restorative.

What’s #RPOatHome and how did the concept come about?

#RPOatHome was the idea of RPO’s musicians who, immediately after the pandemic started, wanted to find creative ways of reaching our audiences. Using only home-sourced technology (phones, laptops), players started recording their own content which we then released as a daily musical feature. It gained a following and the musicians built their technical skills day by day, so much so that by August 2020, we’d produced a video featuring the orchestra performing Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

How is orchestral music relevant to a society’s needs?

In too many ways to name here. The RPO is constantly thinking about how it can increase people’s access to and participation in music. We have a diverse range of programmes to suit every taste and need. For example, our STROKESTRA programme enables people who have had a stroke to access free music therapy and our Lullaby project uses the power of music to connect prisoners with their children. Orchestral music also has so much to say about what it is to be human and our journey through life. It questions our assumptions, comforts us, and lifts us up when we are down. That connection on a fundamental level means that it is (and always will be) relevant to each one of us.

Is there an audience for RPO in the UAE?

Of course! Orchestral music is everywhere, not just on the concert platform but on film soundtracks, video games and TV. There are an infinite number of pieces written for Orchestra and discovering it is a never-ending journey.

More news from Arts and Culture