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Liverpool Philharmonic Hall Image
Creating the Space: Ensemble in Equilibrium

Written by our Marketing Assistant, Grace Sansom


Great thanks to Sandra Parr (Artistic Planning Director) and Hilary Browning (Cellist)

Just thirty years ago, it was not the norm to see women at the forefront of Arts Management. Now, things are finally changing and it was a joy to speak to two inspirational women that are leading the Liverpool Philharmonic to great things.

Sandra Parr started work at the Liverpool Phil as an Assistant Librarian back in the early 1980s, where there were not many women in orchestral management. She always knew she wanted to go behind the scenes in classical music, and she grabbed this role with both hands. In 1982, she, herself, started the iconic Friends of the Phil scheme. She loved the venue, and this passion for music and development has continued to drive her. Sandra now works as Artistic Planning Director (Orchestra & Ensembles) and doesn’t stop! She started by working much above her paygrade and above her role, but is now in a position that rightfully rewards her fearless approach to challenge and hard work. She has the recognition she deserves and her work ethic is stronger than ever.

Hilary Browning is a trail-blazing Cellist and has been part of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for 31 years, although she says it doesn’t feel that long at all! In 2018, she started Equilibrium – an all-women string quartet that perform music composed by women. It is a beautiful and absolutely necessary group, and Hilary’s intellect and enthusiasm will ensure it keeps growing and growing.

Equilibrium was inspired by a conversation Hilary had with a male colleague and musician. In response to her idea they asked, ‘Why would you go to a concert where all musicians were women and the music was composed by women only?’. Hilary’s response was brilliant: ‘Why do you go to concerts were only men perform and only men compose?’ Yes, the industry is shifting in the right way for equality, but this noted equilibrium needs addressing and, as Hilary noted, levelling up takes time.

Sandra sees the organisation as a whole ensemble, an ensemble of individuals that make up the 160 visiting artists that she manages. This feeling of ensemble shines through in both Sandra and Hilary’s attitude to their venue – there is a strong sense of synergy and togetherness. When Hilary is listening to the radio and admiring a new piece by a female composer she’ll call to tell Sandra, where most of the time she’ll have already programmed it! Everyone is on the same page.

They are an ensemble, made up of an incredible workforce, but there are challenges that women are up against that men just do not face in the same way – most of the time. Men have centuries of advantage – women weren’t allowed to play music publicly in Europe until around 1913. Things took a long time to change, and there is still way to go. Hilary noted how an orchestra is still a man’s world in some ways – there is a great lack of female conductors for many reasons, and she has to limit conversations with some male colleagues as she is still met with a reductive sexism. They say they haven’t seen a good female conductor, but she knows that they just haven’t seen one yet. It is a practice that takes astounding confidence and esteem in the industry. Women are playing catch up.

Childcare effects many women in the arts that are striving for career triumph, but having to make a choice. The Liverpool Phil offer a childcare work-swap scheme, where one musician can swap with another throughout UK orchestras, to help with location and childcare; it means mothers can still play music and stay with their children. Hilary said she benefitted from this: she swapped with a cellist from an orchestra in Manchester, who took her place on a tour to play in Japan whilst she continued in the UK. She didn’t lose work or lose time as a mother.

The Liverpool Phil takes pride in being at the industry’s forefront and leading the way when it comes to inspiration. From Equilibrium and their work-swap scheme, to consistent blind auditioning, a 40% female professional orchestra, a strong and diverse youth orchestra/choir and a new funded partnership with Barrow-In-Furness to develop the orchestral presence there. What an impressive list! They are leading the way and Sandra will ensure this continues.

I asked both women about a typical work day for them and, like for most people in the arts, there isn’t one! Both can work up to 7 days a week, and Hilary will spend any day off practising. They are immersed in their wonderful work. This shows in Sandra’s favourite part of her week: when she can sit down in her seat at 7:30pm on a Thursday night and feel what the audience are experiencing. She soaks up that buzz and it seems to be what drives her programming. Hilary endorses this – the Liverpool Phil has an atmosphere that is unrivalled.

There aren’t masses of certainty in an arts profession, especially in the current climate – with costs so high and funding for the arts being scarce in parts. Hilary noted the panic around resourcing. Covid19 brought Sandra significant challenges as concerts were postponed and the hall closed, leaving musicians feeling they were practising without purpose. She told me how, as the international theatre tradition goes, one lightbulb was left lit on stage when the venue closed for lockdown. This lightbulb represented the creativity staying alight, and that nothing would stop the Liverpool Phil creating.

I left my conversation with Sandra and Hilary enthused and inspired, and they seem to have this effect in force across the sector. They show just how hard work and grit in the past decades has opened positions of management for women, and gives hope that the future work to do won’t be as hard. They love their work and love being good at what they do. The Liverpool Phil is lucky to have them; because of their artistic planning, fearless attitude and musical talent, the venue can continue to lead the way in the UK’s Classical Music sector.

From all at Artifax and all those your work helps, thank you Sandra and thank you Hilary!

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