Chamber Music Society "Phoenix' Arises in Nairn
A reflective by Music Nairn's Convenor Michael Barnett
For as long as people could remember the promotion of chamber music in Nairn had been in the safe hands of the Nairn Performing Arts Guild. Its founder Gordon Macintyre and his wife Muriel hosted musicians of the highest calibre at Clifton House, initially when it was a hotel, and latterly when it was their home. Concerts were given in "the round" for audiences of about 100, and the intimacy and hospitality were unique. But time stands still for nobody, and in 2006 Gordon announced that they would be moving from the Clifton, and the hope arose that a "Phoenix" might be created under a new committee from April 2007.
Finding committee members prepared to undertake the task was no problem, but the practical challenges were substantial. Top of the list were that we needed a suitable venue, we would be losing the use of Gordon's Bechstein, and whether we could retain our membership. I have always believed that you should be ambitious in setting goals, that you need some luck, but you have to create the opportunities. Fortunately I was not alone in this approach, so we decided to be ambitious and organise a programme for the following season, to seek a venue in which we could accommodate significantly larger audiences, to raise funds to buy a quality piano, to actively promote membership, and to re-brand ourselves with a new name.
Our first step was to seek the authority of our membership by Resolution at a Special Meeting. Members came to the meeting in unprecedented numbers, and unanimously supported the Resolution. This gave us great encouragement, and we started work on a programme and finding a venue. I attended the EMS conference with Gordon in November 2006, and in no time we had a programme – ambitious with 12 monthly concerts and musicians of high calibre. If I had stopped too long to think about it, I would have worried about the financial risk, but two of the fees were covered by the generosity of the Tunnell Trust and EMS, and I am a born optimist! More seriously, I was confident the downside risk was manageable.
Our attention then turned to a venue, and we initially adopted a formulaic approach, listing the pros and cons of a number of local hotels and halls. We then woke up to the fact that Nairn's new Community Centre was about to be completed. This was our first bit of luck – totally beyond our control, but the Centre ticked all the boxes, and has turned out to be a wonderful venue with a perfect acoustic, very supportive staff, and a flexible auditorium that remains intimate for audiences between 80 and 300.
Our second bit of luck was funding the purchase of a piano. We had about £3000 of cash resource, and we were confident we could increase that to about £10,000 by fund-raising, which would enable us to buy a playable instrument. As part of our fund-raising we approached the Davidson (Nairn) Charitable Trust, and we said that our ambition was to purchase a quality instrument, which whilst we would own it, would be regarded as a community asset. To our complete amazement they sent us a cheque for £20,000, which meant with the generous support of our members and others that we had a piano budget of £30,000!
It was now April 2007. We had our new name "Music Nairn", a programme for the season about to start, Christina Lawrie booked in May to give a piano recital, but no piano! More luck was needed, because quality 'pre-owned' Steinways are few and far between, and we really wanted a Steinway. An internet search found a specialist in Oxfordshire who had just bought in a fully reconditioned Model B which we could afford, so an immediate trip to his showroom was arranged. We hired a concert pianist for a morning to play the Steinway (and a brand new top of the range Yamaha for comparison) to us. His verdict on the Steinway was that "it has grunt and occasionally takes you by surprise", and it sounded to myself and our then convener Rupert Furze like a Steinway should. It was delivered just in time for Christina.
Our first season was a great success. Our membership remained loyal and reached 350, our audience averaged 160 per concert, and we had a complete sell-out of 300 for Scottish Opera's "Merry Widow". We made a surplus, which we put partly into a sinking fund for piano maintenance and ultimate replacement, and partly in a professional redesign of our branding. With the support of the Centre staff we have been able to make an evening with Music Nairn something special – we offer wine before the concert and during the interval, and the Centre staff help us 'manage' the audience.
It is hard work for our committee, but very rewarding. We are very fortunate in having the support of a large membership which enables us to be ambitious in our programming. Members pay an annual fee which gives them priority booking and a saving on ticket prices. This helps our financial management because it gives us a useful bank balance at the beginning of the season, and gives us a cushion for the concerts on which we make a loss. Our next challenges are to keep attracting new members, to interest young people in what we promote, and to move our goalposts a little so that we offer repertoire beyond classical chamber music. We have also invested in this website, which we hope will become the main communication method with members, enabling them to reserve tickets, and reducing our costs and administrative workload.