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“In the late Eighties a visionary manager called Ian Ritchie transformed the Scottish Chamber Orchestra into a missionary organisation for new music, working in schools and local communities as much as in ‘proper’ concert halls.  Suddenly there was a real buzz about new music north of the border, and MacMillan’s…were the most exciting items on the block.  He never looked back.”


Excerpt from 'An Afternoon with James MacMillan'

Richard Morrison, The Times

20th December 1997

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Curating & Programming

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What is artistic programming? 


There are different viewpoints and approaches to this subject but, from my own experience over many years, the art of programming is similar to that of cooking.  At a fundamental level this should be so, because art in all its forms, music especially, feeds our minds and souls whilst food fuels our bodies.  Each of these two kinds of nourishment affects the other and together they care for the whole human condition, a holistic view held by the ancients in many cultures and famously described by the Roman poet Juvenal as “a sound mind in a sound body”.  It is encouraging to think that the arts can be regarded, like food itself, as an essential human requisite, but both are easily taken for granted.  Just as meals may be bought off the supermarket shelf, ready to be served up and eaten with minimal thought and effort, concert programmes unfortunately are often presented in a similarly pre-packaged fashion.  An effective artistic director or programmer, however, should function like the chef in the kitchen and the head waiter in the dining room, rolled into one.  The first step is always the selection of good, fresh and varied ingredients, the next is creating and cooking the dish itself – full of flavours, complementing and contrasting with each other – and presenting it beautifully.  The curatorial art mirrors that of the restaurateur in combining the dishes and producing a well-balanced meal which is healthy, enjoyable and satisfying.


Why is good programming important? 


I regard programme-building to be an art in itself and essential to the quality of both the performance and the experience of the event: it also defines the character and public perception of the promoting body or organisation itself.   A curatorial approach to programming involves both the collection and the exchange of ideas – a process of mediation and not dictation.  As with every truly creative process, this requires collaboration always and partnership sometimes.  The whole outcome should be greater than the sum of the parts: when two or more people get together and share a good idea, this normally results in the idea becoming a better one in co-ownership.  Whilst music is my principal area of expertise, I am especially interested in curating multi-disciplinary work that can traverse the arts and grow in other fertile fields of science and the humanities.  I find it particularly important in this context to take full account of the knowledge, experience and expertise that others can bring.  Like society as a whole, our arts will usually prosper from conversation and mediation but will always shrink from isolation and dictatorship. 


In Practice

My work in the area of programming ranges from the hands-on devising and presenting of work as an artistic director or curator to advising and mentoring individuals and organisations, artists and promoters alike, in the creative conversations and processes which lead to successful events and projects.  Instinctively and deliberately, I think ‘outside the box’ and encourage others to do likewise.  I often find that themes, which connect ideas, inspire creative work and set the whole within a fitting context, can give integrity to a single performance and enhance the enjoyment of a whole festival or series of events.


A simple but effective model, which I adopted more than 30 years ago and subsequently adapted to fit a number of artistic, educational and strategic purposes, is the Creative Triangle, with its three cornerstones of invention, performance and audience.  This is congruent with what Benjamin Britten once described as music’s “holy triangle" of composer, performer and listener.  The programmer or curator must draw together the three interdependent corners of this triangle and thereby mediate the creative process of developing and delivering ideas.


This approach underpinned my work as Managing Director of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra from 1984 to 1993.  Before considering the idea of appointing a Principal Conductor for the Orchestra (which indeed followed), in 1995 I created the new position of Associate Composer/ Conductor (for Peter Maxwell Davies) and established one of the first orchestral social programmes and education posts in Europe.  There followed an extraordinary flowering of composition in Scotland, with Maxwell Davies’ unique series of ten Strathclyde Concertos for the SCO leading the way.  A fuller description is in an article entitled The Changing Face of the Music Profession and a wider appreciation of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' contribution to music and society can be found in Remembering Max which I wrote following his death in 2016.


Commissioning composers and other artists has therefore been a vital part of my professional activities over many years and I have been responsible for the creation and development of countless (over 200) new works, predominantly in music.  Although the best pieces have tended to be created for their own time and not for posterity, it is important that as many as possible have the chance to live on beyond their first performances.  Just one recent example is a song-cycle commissioned in 2013 for my final City of London Festival in partnership with Derry~Londonderry (UK City of Culture): Trees, Walls, Cities, which explores the symbolism of trees and of city walls, and in which the eight composers of the songs, with their chosen poets, address the conflicts of their respective walled cities – Derry, London, Utrecht, Berlin, Vienna, Dubrovnik, Nicosia and Jerusalem – where performances are continuing to be organised.


Interdisciplinary Work

1816 – The Year Without a Summer. On 17 and 18 June 2016 I presented a two-day programme of concerts and talks, with leading musicians and expert speakers, at Kings Place in London.  This offered an original and enlightening framework for exploring the full context and consequences of extraordinary natural events which occurred exactly 200 years ago.  The music, literature and other creations of the time were appreciated in a new light – enriched by history and science, they can tell us much that is of interest and importance to today’s society.  There is further information about the background, concerts and study day below, with quick links to the programmes and presentations.


Concert 1: Beethoven and Schubert in Vienna


James Gilchrist tenor and Anna Tilbrook piano

Study Day: proceedings and presentations

​Further details of talks:

Atmospheric Effects of the Tambora Eruption by Prof. Giles Harrison

Frankenstein's Weather! by Prof. Gillen D'Arcy Wood

'Not Yet Saved': Europe After the Fall of Napoleon by Prof. Robert Tombs

Lightness, Darkness and the Creative Brain by Prof. Michael Trimble


Concert 2: Byron in Switzerland

Louis Schwizgebel piano, Di Sherlock & Ian Ritchie narrators and Alberto Venzago photography

The Musical Brain.  Please follow this link to read about events which I curate for The Musical Brain, connecting ‘arts, science and the mind’. 


Please also visit my work in directing various arts festivals: a number of these programmes may be viewed in full. 


Discover More

Please contact me for discussion, further information and availability either as a curator or as an advisor in any aspect of musical or inter-disciplinary programming.

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