Saffron Hall in Saffron Walden is only an hour away from London on the train. There’s a shuttle bus from Audley End station that takes you from the station to the concert hall. “So it’s sort-of Glyndebourne then,” I quip with a guest at the press launch, “only north of London.”
Although I’m trying desperately to be droll because I think I need to be, there’s really no need. There’s already an urgency about proceedings – an enthusiasm – which is difficult to ignore.
The question posed by most people I speak to as we wait for chief executive Angela Dixon (formerly Head of Music at Barbican, London) to speak is as simple as it is predictable: “Have you been to Saffron Hall?” I confess I haven’t, but that I do really want to, that I do have friends there who could probably put me up for the night if I needed to, they did owe me a favour after all, and they are lovely people. A typical response full of unnecessary detail from a Londonite who forgets that life really does exist the other side of the M25.
Saffron has something distinctive on offer which makes it a tantalising offer. A 740 seater hall built as part of a high-performing state school, attracting world-renowned artists and performing groups, as well as offering music education and participation projects which benefit the younger generation and the local community.
It was no accident Angela Dixon moved from the Barbican to Saffron Hall. She had been a consultant on the project long before building works commenced and although she was originally concerned that the music education element may not work, she happily admits that having seen the venue up and running for a year now, that’s she’s pleasantly surprised. “It’s been a whirlwind,” she explains as the waiters hover with canapes and bottles of wine, “There’s been a wave of positivity for Saffron – a real good news project. We’re very fleet of foot. We can have an idea one week and put it into practice the next.”
When I was at University arts administration was sold as the career move for those who knew they weren’t going to be able to perform professionally. Regional venues were seen as a stepping stone. Now, twenty-five years later, there seen as a great opportunity to increase reach.
Angela offers an unashamedly front-footed response. “Positioning the concert hall next to Saffron County High School is really important, especially when music education is experiencing a difficult time. For me, I think this kind of set up might be a way of fixing the problem we’ve got with music education in this country.”
I think back to my school experience and marvel at how lucky the County High school’s pupils are having Saffron Hall on their doorstep. What impact might it have on their future lives? Do they realise what a gift they have? I hope so.
The roster of artists for Saffron’s second year is impressive and a testament to Angela Dixon’s considerable experience drawn from her time at the Barbican. She proudly tells me that the moment that Jurowski stepped backstage after the LPO’s debut at Saffron, “he said he wanted to come back.” Violinist Nicola Benedetti returns too. Also on the list is the CBSO, The Sixteen, Benjamin Grosvenor, the Oslo Philharmonic, Leonidas Kavakos, Nikolai Lugansky, Joshua Bell and the BBC Singers.
We take these names for granted. Persuading those artists to come to a regional venue rooted in an education environment, where audience arriving by train can be transported to the concert hall by bus, is some considerable achievement. I am itching to visit.
Booking for the 2015/2016 season at Saffron Hall opens on Tuesday 2 June 2015