The Daily Telegraph

Liverpool’s other championsh­ip side

It’s not just Herr Klopp. Michael Eakin, the boss of the city’s Philharmon­ic Orchestra, has also played a blinder, says Louis Wise

- Visit liverpoolp­

These days, you can’t just be an orchestra that’s playing lovely music in a concert hall for a particular audience,” announces Michael Eakin. He should know: the 62-yearold chief executive oversees not only the Royal Liverpool Philharmon­ic Orchestra, still under the baton of the electric Vasily Petrenko, but other associated ensembles, a vast education programme and the venerable Liverpool Philharmon­ic Hall itself, which has been welcoming visitors for over a century and a half. Yet what is true for any arts CEO these days – that you have to be able to demonstrat­e a veritable Swiss Army knife of talents – has gained an extra dimension in the Covid-19 era. Put frankly, you’ll need a new blade, an extra corkscrew and possibly a laser gun to survive 2020, in an industry where the damage to the live performing arts, deprived of their chief source of income (ticket sales, plus refreshmen­ts), is almost incalculab­le.

And yet. Here we are, four months since lockdown started, and Eakin and the RLPO are… well… OK? Even doing rather well. Plaudits have been whispered for his prudent management of the ship, something he would be too modest to acknowledg­e. Yet he is also aware that to sink it would be titanic. After all, the RLPO is the oldest orchestra in Britain, founded in 1840, and the only one with its own concert hall. But down the telephone from his home in Merseyside, he sounds borderline relaxed.

“This is going to sound ridiculous,” Eakin begins. “It’s not easy, but the truth is, when you’re faced with something like this, you haven’t got any options. You’ve got a very particular crisis to deal with, and you just need to tick it off, almost day by day and issue by issue.”

It is not that he is clinical about it, however. If not a Scouser by birth – he was born in Northern Ireland – he moved to the Wirral when he was 15, and finished his schooling there. The first classical music concert he ever attended was at the Philharmon­ic Hall (The Planets, by Holst); his passion for the theatre, another sector he has shone in as a manager and executive, was ignited by enjoying the glory days of the Everyman, where actors such as Bill Nighy and Julie Walters trod the boards. So he truly cares. But these days caring is not enough if you want your workplace to survive. By August, he believes the RLPO will have lost some £2.5million in live ticket sales, and yet, “we’re not right on the precipice, right now”. So how is he pulling it off?

The RLPO boasts about 75 salaried musicians (250 staff members in total), and for now they are all still employed, and very much engaged, in the cause. Indeed, the messaging from the company has been chirpy: company members performing fun videos on Youtube or Tiktok, and doing virtual sessions with children as part of In Harmony, an educationa­l outreach project aimed at the very poorest parts of northern Liverpool. Meanwhile, Eakin has ploughed ahead with big announceme­nts, also done virtually: a kind of Keep Calm and Carry On (Zooming). They announced the 202122 season, with about 400 people tuning in digitally, and then later the identity of the successor to Petrenko – the Venezuelan Domingo Hindoyan, a star product of El Sistema – who is due to take over in September next year.

Some of this is to Eakin’s credit, and some not – he says the musicians did the videos off their own backs. Also, he says frankly, “we have used the Job Retention Scheme very aggressive­ly right from the beginning – over 90 per cent of our staff are on furlough”. However, he is also discreetly pleased that, after taking the job in 2008, he built up the company’s reserves (which, at the start of the pandemic, were just over £1million). The only problem is, he says: “I’m kind of resigned to the fact that’s pretty much gonna go! But at least, we had them. We’ll get through this year, I think.”

Probed on how he managed to concoct these reserves, during a decade that was, after all, defined by sharp austerity and reduced public funding for the arts, he says, simply: “I suppose trying to be really prudent, with good financial management and maximising income.” (Everything in the hall goes toward this aim, including its car park.) But, Eakin adds, you need some chutzpah, too. “I think that earning income and getting the support of your audience doesn’t just happen by being very bland or safe in your programmin­g. Of course you’ve got to provide lots of popular programmin­g, but also ambitious programmin­g – and those are not necessaril­y different things.”

Thus he has conjured a mix that includes newly commission­ed works by such lauded contempora­ry figures as Philip Glass, curated artists-in-residence seasons (including one from star cellist Sheku Kanneh-mason) and ambitious composer projects – they had planned to present all nine of Mahler’s symphonies, conducted by Petrenko.

Petrenko, Eakin admits, has been “pretty critical” to their success.

“Vasily has been a star. He absolutely is one here in Liverpool, and he has transforme­d the orchestra, got them playing like nobody can remember.” He has no doubt that Hindoyan will do the same. “He’s already been here twice to conduct the orchestra, and both times it was kind of immediate,” he says. “Almost from the first coffee break in rehearsals, you could just tell that the musicians were going: ‘Oh, hello! This is good’.”

The most vital part of Eakin’s successful formula is probably the hardest to define: the love affair you have to maintain with your locals. It is apparently going strong between Liverpool and its Philharmon­ic, but that wasn’t always the case: a hard-line Labour council in the Eighties wanted to get rid of the “elitist” Phil. “During the militant years, we were not seen as an asset to the city by the politician­s,” concedes Eakin. Still, “we now have a Labour council and a Labour mayor [again], but they’ve been phenomenal­ly supportive of us. It’s not a political point, it’s just a statement of fact.”

Eakin knows that the worst is yet to come. “I’m almost more concerned about next year or even the year after, in a weird way, than I am about this year,” he admits. He knows he can’t fend off various large imponderab­les. You do wonder if ticket prices will have to rise (top price pre-lockdown was £45) and thus provide a stumbling block for RLPO’S accessibil­ity. Then there’s the furlough scheme: what happens when it ends in October? “I honestly don’t know,” he sighs.

There is a special relevance when you consider that the chances of being able to put the full orchestra, and choir, on stage at the hall this year “are very slim”. At the moment, social distancing could only allow for about 35 musicians on stage, and singers are meant to be spaced even further apart. Then there is the audience – if you can only bring 300 people into a hall with capacity to seat 1,700, then “that is obviously very economical­ly damaging”, says Eakin.

However, as usual, he is thinking his way around it: they plan to start concerts with audiences in October, and the members of the orchestra will be redeployed in smaller formats, be it an “edited” orchestra or brass or string ensembles.

Asked about his greatest hope and his greatest fear for the arts right now, he barely hesitates. “The hope is that we come through this not only successful­ly, but strengthen­ed, because one of the things that gives me hope is that I can see that people can see the value of this when it’s not around,” he says.

And the fear? “My greatest fear is that that doesn’t happen quick enough to save not only some of the great organisati­ons we’ve got, but also to protect the careers of great artists, at whatever level. I know there are musicians now who are seriously thinking about a complete career change, because this has terrified them.” When we lose great artists and great organisati­ons, he adds, “you’re not gonna get them back”. As he hangs up, though, there’s the oddly clear sense that his Philharmon­ic would never, ever be one to go.

 ??  ?? Star performers: conductor Vasily Petrenko, above; Michael Eakin, chief executive of the Royal Liverpool Philharmon­ic, below right
Star performers: conductor Vasily Petrenko, above; Michael Eakin, chief executive of the Royal Liverpool Philharmon­ic, below right
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