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  • Writer's pictureCultural Practices


Rebecca Parnell, Creative Manchester and Manchester Camerata

Manchester Camerata musicians in concert with Withernsea Ladies Choir at Withernsea High School. Photo credit David Roberts (@moonstonephotographic)
Manchester Camerata musicians in concert with Withernsea Ladies Choir at Withernsea High School. Photo credit David Roberts (@moonstonephotographic)

Rebecca Parnell reflects on Manchester Camerata’s planned programme of live activity and discusses the orchestra’s commitment to research and the possible digital future of orchestral concerts.

Thursday 12th March 2020 was a special day. At Withernsea High School in East Riding, 14 musicians from Manchester Camerata joined residents from local care homes, 100 school children, and the Withernsea Ladies Choir to perform a concert including French classical repertoire and pieces written and performed by the participants. Part of the award-winning Classically Yours project in collaboration with Orchestras Live, this series has brought the opportunity to participate in the creation and performance of high-quality music to a relatively remote part of the country. This particular concert was, although we didn’t know it at the time, the final live Camerata concert before the COVID-19 lockdown.

Manchester Camerata’s concert diary for Spring was full of exciting and diverse events curated by our small and dedicated team, including Arthur Russell’s music at YES bar, Chaplin’s The Kid at HOME, and a minimalist concert at Cloudwater Brewery. As the weeks turn into months in lockdown and the sector witnesses an increasing number of cancellations and postponements, it’s easy to feel defeated as these dates pass with no firm rescheduled dates on the horizon.

As Creative Producer for Manchester Camerata and Creative Manchester, my three-year role involves producing concerts and undertaking research and knowledge exchange projects with the University of Manchester. During the first year, my main research focus was genre perception. Using the vehicle of the ‘Creative Lab’ series, a series of events which investigates issues affecting orchestral music, I had begun to explore the barriers to concert attendance with contributors from both within and outside of the classical music sector. Further to this, I had planned future Lab events, focus groups, a literature review, and a resultant research piece to inform Camerata’s future direction. Given that experts are suggesting that we may not be able to return to concert halls until Autumn 2021, it feels to me that it is now even more important to understand why and how audiences interact with and participate in live music, and to examine how this can help us shape the future of orchestral music in a post-COVID-19 world.

Illustration from the Creative Lab on barriers to attendance, credit Len Grant.
Illustration from the Creative Lab on barriers to attendance, credit Len Grant.

Audience development via digital platforms

At the heart of Manchester Camerata’s ethos is the desire to connect with audiences through unique and engaging high-quality live performance. But what happens when the live experience is no longer possible? Can music connect with audiences on an emotional and social level via digital platforms?

Audience development literature is often (rightly) concerned with uncovering motivations for attendance and the audience experience at orchestral concerts. Motivations are heterogeneous, ranging from the intrinsic motivations of aesthetic enjoyment, transcendence and cognitive stimulation, to the extrinsic motivations of bonding and distinction (De Rooij and Bastiaansen 2015).

Applying Bourdieu’s equation of [(habitus)(capital)] + field = practice (Maton 2012: 50) is a rather reductive but effective way of summarising an attendee’s comfort level at a physical cultural event, as those with knowledge of the art form and experience in the social space will naturally feel more comfortable than a first-time attender. Given that classical music aficionados may not be as familiar with social media and digital platforms as, say, a Taylor Swift fan, (see Schedl and Tkalčič 2014), does the digital space provide an opportunity for the Web 2.0 generation to ease their way into the world of orchestral music?

We can view this time as an opportunity to test the use of digital platforms as an audience development exercise. A 2014 study of a UK symphony orchestra’s app found that, ‘[…] [the orchestra] would face difficulties in enrolling existing audiences in audience expansion activity, beyond those already cognizant of classical music audience culture, through networked publics.’ (Crawford et al 2014: 1080). However, the creation of a responsive online platform which enabled the public to interact with artists to co-create a dance work resulted in non-attenders feeling ‘attached’ to the resultant performance, concluding that similar platforms may be successful in engaging infrequent attenders and new audiences (Walmsley 2016).

An emergency measure or legitimate alternative?

One of the most common motivations for attending any event is to socialise. Experiments have been undertaken to ‘challenge’ the use of digital space to recreate a social experience and encourage attendees to feel co-present (Barker 2013). To move forward in this digital space, we must consider Barker’s 7 aspects of ‘liveness’ and how we might successfully incorporate these into our digital performances:

1. Physical co-presence with performers and performance. 2. Simultaneity with the performance. 3. Direct engagement and absence of intervening mediation. 4. Sense of ‘local’ within the experience. 5. Sense of interaction with the performers. 6. Sense of interaction with others in the audience. 7. Intensified experiences/participation through sensing any of the above. (ibid).

One orchestra’s response

As a response to the COVID-19 crisis, we have all witnessed many orchestras and arts organisations producing swiftly-created digital content, often using low-cost technology. Remote orchestras and solo performances have appeared on social media as a welcome relief from the bleak times we are living through. It has been encouraging to witness these performances and to feel assured that music-making is continuing, but as the crisis evolves into a longer-term sector-wide shift to the digital space, now we must look to create high-quality digital products which address the need for co-presence with performers and a sense of community amongst the audience.

As for Manchester Camerata, we are working hard behind the scenes to consider the future of our sector, including how digital performance will feature in our story. Conversations with artists and partners are taking place alongside research as we test and develop new performance concepts. Although the current landscape is unchartered, one thing is certain: we will play on.



De Rooij, P. and Bastiaansen, M. (2015) ‘Understanding and measuring consumption motives in the performing arts’, 41st Social Theory, Politics and the Arts Conference, Adelaide (accessed 4/5/2020).

Maton, K. (2012) ‘Habitus’. In: Grenfell, M. ed. Pierre Bourdieu Key Concepts. 2nd edn. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 48-64.

Schedl, M. and Tkalčič, M. (2014) ‘Genre-based Analysis of Social Media Data on Music Listening Behavior [Are Fans of Classical Music Really Averse to Social Media?]’, WISMM ’14: Proceedings of the First International Workshop on Internet-Scale Multimedia Management (accessed 5/5/2020).

Crawford, G., Gosling, V., Bagnall, G and Light, B. (2014) ‘Is there an app for that? A case study of the potentials and limitations of the participatory turn and networked publics for classical music audience engagement’, Information, Communication & Society, 17(9), pp. 1072-1085.

Walmsley, B. (2016) ‘From arts marketing to audience enrichment: How digital engagement can deepen and democratize artistic exchange with audiences’, Poetics, 53, pp. 66-78.

Barker, M. (2013). ‘Live at a Cinema Near You’: How Audiences Respond to Digital Streaming of the Arts. In: Radbourne, J., Glow, H. and Johanson, K. ed. The Audience Experience. Bristol: Intellect, pp. 15-34.



Rebecca Parnell is Creative Producer with Creative Manchester and Manchester Camerata. Her research interests focus on the barriers to classical concert attendance and the perception of the genre amongst non-attenders. @BeckyJParnell

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