An honour and a privilege - Sinfonia Viva’s chief executive Peter Helps MBE
PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 September 2019
Nigel Powlson talks to Sinfonia Viva’s chief executive Peter Helps who received an MBE earlier this year
As he will soon celebrate 25 years of being at the helm of Derby-based orchestra Sinfonia Viva, it's a fitting tribute that Peter Helps' dedication has been recognised in the 2019 Queen's Birthday Honours list.
He was awarded the MBE for services to the arts, music and education after ensuring the orchestra has survived and thrived in an era when arts funding has been far from guaranteed - but he is quick to point out that it has always been a team effort.
He said: 'It's genuinely about the orchestra and the fantastic people with whom I have worked, both now and in the past - without them we wouldn't be where we are today. It's a team effort and everyone has been so generous about this, which is lovely.'
Peter's success as Chief Executive of Sinfonia Viva comes despite admitting that he's not musical and only after he switched to the arts from hotel management.
He said: 'I worked in hotels in Geneva, Toronto, Bournemouth and Brighton (I was working in the hotel next door when the Conservative Party was bombed) and then I ran theatres for ten years.'
Peter first made the switch to the arts by working for the English National Opera at the London Coliseum for five and a half years.
'They were probably the most exciting times the company has ever had,' he said. 'They were creating really fantastic productions and it was at the height of corporate sponsorship in the Thatcherite years and there was a lot of money coming in. It was very exciting and a great team spirit.'
After that, Peter moved to join Scottish Opera, running the Theatre Royal in Glasgow before heading down to the Midlands.
When he took over the running of the orchestra in 1995 it was initially only for a year and Sinfonia Viva was in a perilous situation - virtually penniless and without a home.
Peter said: 'After all those years worrying about things like blocked urinals and all the rest of it, I realised that I was enjoying the creative side of things so I felt it was time for a shift in career and this job came up.
'If I had known what I was going into I may not have taken it! Financially, the orchestra was in a bad state and the bank was knocking on the door wanting its money back. The orchestra had done well artistically but had reached a point in its development where it needed to consider where it was going... and we were being thrown out of our offices in Nottingham as well. I had a month to find somewhere else.
'I was very lucky as I found a great board and Mick Walker (Derby City councillor) was a good friend and engineered our move to Derby. He's not credited enough for his vision for the arts in the city.
'There were a lot of friendly people here, but I knew we had to find a reason for being around and I think everyone now will recognise we did that through our education work, and our project and outreach work. It's what we are nationally renowned for and that was the niche we followed. We still do concerts, obviously, but what sets us apart is our project work.'
Over the past 20 years Sinfonia Viva has gained national recognition for high quality classical music in diverse settings from major venues to village halls and for its innovative education and community work.
Key achievements have included developing a long-standing relationship with Rolls-Royce and securing funding for the orchestra's mobile venue to enable performances and community outreach creative projects in both inner city and rural parts of the region.
The quality and vision of Sinfonia Viva's work has been recognised in many ways, from being a finalist in the National Lottery awards for 'Dark Clouds', which marked the start of the WWI centenary, to being nominated for a Grammy through a collaboration with Gorillaz.
The orchestra is best known for its performances at the annual Darley Park concert which attracts audiences of around 35,000 every year.
Peter's MBE not only recognises all of that but also his voluntary work to support the arts both locally and nationally including involvement in the Association of British Orchestras, the Family Friendly Arts Campaign, Derby Arts Forum and Cultivate East Midlands.
As he doesn't come from an artistic background his career move may at first seem accidental but in truth probably dates back to his early family life.
He said: 'Doing this has made me realise how privileged my upbringing was. I had parents who were interested in my education and development and they thought it wasn't just about passing exams but about going to museums, art galleries, opera and concerts. Which meant I always liked the idea of the arts world but never quite knew how to start, so there was always a bit of a pull. I don't claim to have any artistic ability but the move from front-of-house of hotels to theatre management isn't too big a transfer as you still have facilities to maintain and the public coming in.
'I suspect the ENO was attracted by my business background, so it wasn't as big a shift in terms of skills space as it was coming to the orchestra.'
Peter doesn't play an instrument and doesn't mind if that means people therefore see him as a 'bank manager type person'.
'It is a business, like any other business,' he said. 'We have to look after the pounds and if we are reckless with the business it won't survive. I and my colleagues are just moments in time, and we are entrusted to make sure that it keeps going and that it's preserved as an institution.'
Derby having an orchestra to perform at the Cathedral, outdoors at Darley Park and to work with schools and in the community is now almost taken for granted but a city of its size is very privileged to have such an asset.
Peter said: 'When you look at what Derby has to offer in the arts for the size of the city it is amazing. We have a visual arts venue in QUAD that hosts the FORMAT Photography Festival, we have Déda, which brings Festé to the city, we have seen the resurgence of Derby Theatre and we have the Arena. We bat above our weight.
'There has been a lot of co-operation but that, to a certain extent, has relied on the individuals. You look back to 2012 and what the city achieved for the Olympics was amazing and only made possible by all the organisations working together.'
Despite all of Peter's experience he still faces plenty of challenges.
'Money is always going to be one,' he said. 'It's also hard to get profile if you are not a big-name orchestra like the Hallé. There's a slight feeling that people think if it comes from Derby it can't be quite as good, when I think that in terms of creative project work, we are better than a lot of other organisations.'
Looking back to the mid-90s Peter never thought he would stay in one job as long as this, but he's never stopped enjoying the role.
He said: 'The internal challenges I get from my colleagues means I'm never allowed to sit back, and I would like to think we have a robust conversation about practices and what we have achieved so we are always challenging ourselves. I still have the same enthusiasm and I hope that shows.'
There have been lots of highlights in the last quarter of a century.
Peter said: 'There are some concerts that stand out for me. I remember we did Beethoven's Third Symphony in Nottingham, and it was the kind of extraordinary experience you couldn't engineer. The orchestra and audience seemed to be in perfect synch and after the first movement there was absolute stillness and you could have heard a pin drop.
'I have worked with some wonderful conductors and I enjoyed working with André de Ridder as he brought some really exciting projects to the orchestra.
'The tour we did in 2017 with the inflatable venue, which included performing in Derby Market Place, was very exciting. The mass choral project about Bess of Hardwick we did at the Assembly Rooms and Hardwick Hall also stands out, and the Moon project with Anna Meredith is just one of the other highlights.'
The orchestra now looks confidently to the future.
Peter said: 'We are in a good financial position. We cover our costs every year and have done for a number of years. Not having to worry about that frees us to do the other things. We will continue to develop our project work but without the foundation of the orchestra and what it brings as an ensemble that would be impossible. We have to make sure we preserve that orchestral infrastructure.'
And what would please Peter the most going forward?
'I would really love the orchestra in its own right to be acknowledged - a third party endorsement of the things we do and the amazing work that goes on in the organisation. Something like the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards and being able to crack getting on the shortlist. There's a huge amount of hard work and commitment from not just the management team but the players as well that nobody sees.
'I think it's long overdue and formal acknowledgement of that would be lovely.'