We have known for some time that the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's Afternoon Performance series of 2pm City Hall concerts has been a success in drawing audiences, and has developed its own niche:
the audience tends to be a mix of an older, retired group along with a younger element, mainly students. Contrary to some views, they are not free concerts, a notion I heard expressed only recently, possibly because they are unreserved concerts, with seating anywhere on a first-come first-served basis. Tickets cost £8 if bought in advance, or £10 if bought on the day, and there is a pre-concert soup and sandwich type lunch option which seems to be an added attraction.
There is no doubt that, since launching this series in January 2006, when the BBC SSO moved into the refurbished City Hall, the orchestra, by luck or design, has identified a gap in the provision of orchestral music in Glasgow for a certain audience at a certain time of the day, and set about filling it.
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Of course there have long been lunchtime and early afternoon concerts in the city, from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama as was, to the Westbourne Music series and numerous other daytime ventures. But not of orchestral music. Mind you, older readers might remember back to the 1980s when the SSO ran its own daytime series in the Henry Wood Hall, though that was a different animal to the Afternoon Performance series, and the orchestra then was not the SSO we have now. It was smaller, weaker and still in the early years of clawing itself back from the brink, having survived the attempt to dissolve the orchestra.
Having had another shot at doing City Hall concerts, which didn't last because of uncertainty arising from the proposed merger of the BBC SSO with Scottish Opera, and having had a brief fling with the Royal Concert Hall, which was untenable because of the cost of hiring the big hall, the BBC SSO then moved its operation back into Studio One at the old Broadcasting House in the west end where, in 2005, they staged 19 Studio One concerts, of which 10 were done as lunchtime concerts, at 1pm and 2pm. While by this time the band was beginning to look like an orchestra in search of a home, it's also the case that this period might be seen as preparing the way for the 2006 move into the new City Hall.
I have no idea what the BBC's perception at the time might have been as to the potential of the Afternoon Performance series, but clearly, since it was launched, the lords and masters have been thrilled at the outcome. I distinctly remember director of the orchestra, Gavin Reid, not a man for exaggerated response, being almost beside himself with excitement about three years into the series as he watched attendances climb. But all of that was left behind in the thrill of success which streaked through the organisation at their most recent Afternoon Performance, a fortnight ago with, before the day of the concert, over 500 tickets being shifted. Then, on the day of the concert itself, there was a walk up at the door resulting in an unprecedented 700 strong Afternoon Performance audience, which meant that the City Hall was stuffed and the buzz tangible. "All records were broken that day," reflected a BBC man. And the reason? The repertoire: Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony. "This series is absolutely repertoire led," said the man from the Beeb. And it has to be; that's what it's for. I've seen a list illustrating what happens to that audience when the Beeb takes a risk, as it did programming Bartok, Britten and Golijov: it plummets. So there's a neat wee irony for you: the BBC, provider of the highest order of repertoire, with the most challenging stuff in the book, creating a new audience at a new time by branching out and adding a new string to its already multi-faceted bow, with real, popular classical music, and not your Gubbay pops. Brilliant.