Based in The Netherlands, The Grammy-winning Metropole Orchestra is one of the longest-running and most prolific jazz & pop orchestra’s in the world.
Mixing together a jazz big band with symphony orchestra, it features upwards of 50 musicians who perform both on their ‘home’ stages as well as at venues and festivals worldwide.
For today’s interview, we’re joined by Robert Soomer who has worked as the artistic manager of the Metropole Orchestra since 2017 and is responsible for their programming and artistic policy.
With a career that has also taken in work for national radio, he has been involved in some of the most popular recent collaborations with the Metropole, including Gregory Porter and Snarky Puppy’s first shows in the country.
In this interview, he gives a taste of what is involved in his role, as well as some great insight into how these lessons can be used by independent jazz musicians.
Read on for the full Q&A, but first a couple of key takeaways:
- On pitching in general: he talks about the importance of coming up with an idea or a concrete question. This is something that is often mentioned by people on both the press and live side. Don’t frame your contact as “we just want something” and rather think about what you can offer, specifically, to that person that might make a collaboration more attractive.
- On themes: whether booking gigs or releasing a new album, a ‘theme’ can be a great way to capture attention before the first listen, or to add some context around the music. But as Robert reminds: Only do it if you genuinely like the theme, otherwise it can come over as forced or contrived!
Your title is ‘artistic manager’ – what does that involve and how does it differ, if at all, from things like programmer, curator and director?
Within the Metropole Orkest, as artistic manager, I am responsible for the artistic policy of the orchestra, and its implementation.
So my function consists of thinking up and realising new programmes and collaborations, in consultation with our conductors and Artistic Committee (which consists of orchestra members).
I also have programme consultations with international festivals, venues and soloists to ensure that we can play on beautiful stages in the next years with our leading orchestral programmes.
We also do many concepts in collaboration with broadcasters so I initiate collaborations with media, as well as with other art institutions.
I also produce programmes myself which consists of selecting the repertoire, finding the right arrangers for the pieces that are being played (we usually play repertoire that has never been played in an orchestral setting before, so have hundreds of new arrangements made every year by a team of international top arrangers) and keep all parties involved with the programme.
What does a typical week as an artistic manager of the Metropole Orkest look like?
No two weeks are the same!
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic we have to constantly stay on the ball. There are a lot of projects that only get organised or finalised very last minute and luckily we are good at moving quickly.
Recent things include a hiphop-meets-orchestra project with Dutch TV and a recording with the French Jazz violinist Pierre Blanchard.
We are developed new activities for the summer with some of the major festivals as alternatives to their editions that had to be cancelled due to Covid.
As well as all of this I am also busy with the long term plans for the orchestra, so the programming for the years ahead. Once the theatres, halls and festivals are open there will be ample opportunity to see us live again!
The average week is a mix of internal discussion, contact with soloists and venues about upcoming programmes and initiating new collaborations, and also sometimes being present at the orchestra’s rehearsals, recordings or concerts as a producer.
I know from the classical music world that the principal conductor shapes the long-term the sound of the orchestra. Could this also be said about jazz & pop orchestra?
In our 76 years there have been various chief conductors who have contributed to and collectively built up the sound of the Metropole Orkest.
Each one of course in their own way and with their own vision but always building on what there already is.
Dolf van der Linden made sure to lay a solid foundation for this in founding the orchestra and that has definitely continued with our more recent chief conductors Vince Mendoza and Jules Buckley who both immersed themselves completely in the music and history of Van der Linden and the Orchestra before they took up their posts.
Of course though, the extremely unique line-up of the orchestra – the combination of symphonic strings and jazz big band – and the music that the orchestra has historically played also has been vital in contributing to a long term sound of the orchestra – an orchestra that doesn’t play classical music but that does pop and jazz.
We are now for the first time in our history working without one singular chief conductor but instead regularly with three conductors – our former chief conductor Jules Buckley and Vince Mendoza as honorary conductors and Miho Hazama as permanent guest conductor.
All three of them have their own contribution to the sound of the orchestra and their own vision of what it should be which means that the orchestra now has a rich and regular input from three unique perspectives.
All three conductors know the history and sound of the MO like no other, so they know how to fully utilize the possibilities of the orchestra and to add innovation to the tradition.
The orchestra was founded back in 1945. Is there any secret which kept it running for so long, with such a great reputation?
I think that that’s been due to a mix of the orchestra’s quality, uniqueness and urge to survive.
The urge to survive because the orchestra has, on numerous occasion throughout its history, been seriously threatened with closure and drastic budget cuts from the government – our main source of funding.
Every time though, the orchestra has managed to demonstrate its social importance through protests or other actions, often initiated by the musicians themselves, thereby receiving a lot of social and ultimately governmental support.
The orchestra has also been able to reinvent itself time and again which has meant it has constantly remained relevant: as an entertainment orchestra founded after the Second World War to offer people hope and entertainment in difficult times, to a Dutch based radio and TV orchestra garnering fame throughout Europe, to a Grammy Award winning pop and jazz orchestra that collaborates with international greats and embraces new music styles and artists.
The orchestra’s quality and uniqueness have ensured its international recognition. Nowhere else in the world is there another professional orchestra with this unique line-up playing orchestral pop and jazz.
The orchestra has always been pioneering – with our roots in jazz, we were one of the first to turn our attention to orchestral pop and collaborate with international pop artists.
At the BBC proms we performed a hiphop programme and collaborated with (then) new names such as Jacob Collier and Jameszoo, we were also one of the first to organise a concert programme of video game music.
We also allow room in all of our programmes for young talent alongside established names, and that is how we as an orchestra embrace the future. Alongside this we also continue to honour our tradition.
We play a lot of jazz, especially last year, and work a lot with artists who have already made their mark on the world. Lastly, quality is of course also very important so, together with our conductors, we do everything we can to keep the quality of the orchestra and the musicians high.
How far ahead are you thinking both in terms of concept and detailed planning?
It depends. Some projects are put together on short notice – especially with Covid.
Last year when our big production, The Film Music Evening, was cancelled due to Covid, we put together a totally new project, the Dutch Jazz Jam, within two weeks.
That was a concert (which ended up turning into a series of concerts) in which a number of Dutch Jazz heroes performed with the orchestra and was streamed live on Facebook, YouTube and broadcast on Dutch radio.
We are though also already busy organising things for far into the future – for 2023 and 2024. We are busy organising and planning new recordings, tours nationally and internationally and our education activities.
In practise you actually see that the real preparations – putting together the programme, making the arrangements, etc. – don’t start more than 6 or 7 months in advance.
That is usually when the music is still at the top of the conductor’s and soloist’s minds and the programmes remain relevant which we find very important. This also ensures that, for example, freshly written music can also be included in the collaboration.
How do you balance commercial viability with creative ideas? Is there a built-in audience for the orchestra that gives you freedom there?
It always begins with the content for us!
We make programmes because they add something of artistic value, are high quality, are with soloists who create a symbiosis with the orchestra, and lead to new ideas and music.
But we of course always have to ask ourselves: is there an audience for it? Because one way or another a project does have to earn money.
Luckily we have the luxury that we can have a mix in our season of projects for smaller audiences that earn less (these are often with very original and high quality material,) and projects for larger audiences (often more broadly programmed by still of high quality) that often bring more euros in.
Our big advantage is the breadth of the music that we perform, which constantly brings in contact with different audiences.
The flip side of this is that it can sometimes make it harder to build up our own audience. But we are working very hard on this and will shortly be bringing out an album of new compositions written especially for the orchestra that will be spotlighting our own soloists from within the orchestra.
The balance between the commercial and the creative does remain fragile though.
Thankfully the Metropole Orkest receives structural funding from the dutch government but that is not enough to be able to perform throughout the year and we have to earn money along side this to ensure that, as well as being able to properly pay our musicians, we also have enough budget for things like arrangements, crew, conductors and soloists.
This income comes primarily from ticket sales, sponsoring, streaming and cd sales and from our friends – fans who support the orchestra. All of that support is really vital for the orchestra and we are immensely grateful for it.
Orchestra’s often utilise ‘themes’ as a way of marketing a concert. Do you think this is something newer artists should consider too, as a way of reaching a broader audience?
As long as the theme fits you.
Again: always begin with the content, then comes the labelling and how you want to sell it.
If you’ve always had an affinity with, let’s say Formula 1, then of course it isn’t a strange idea to want to build a musical programme around it. And indeed it can sometimes mean reaching a broader or different audience than you would usually.
But only do it if you genuinely like the theme, otherwise it can come over as forced or contrived.
With an orchestra like the MO we often work with themes, and especially due to our broad palette of music, it usually works very well. We do a lot with film music for example but are soon going to be making a programme about the sun in collaboration with ESA – the European Space Agency.
How do your bookings balance between incoming pitches and outgoing offers from your side?
That is a nice combination of both. Sometimes you even forget who made the first move!
We as the orchestra, but also our permanent conductors, Jules Buckley, Vince Mendoza and Miho Hazama, have an extensive network, so there is always a lot of contact back and forth with international artists, and a lot of ideas circulating.
Some of the ideas become reality, because the timing is right, or it fits really well in the agenda of the soloist and orchestra, or because there is a huge urge to make it happen from the orchestra or the soloist.
But in general I would say that it isn’t really about incoming pitches or outgoing offers but more about being open to good ideas – sewing their seeds and being able to harvest at the right time.
What should every jazz musician know when sending an email to a new contact like yourself?
Always make sure that you send good material (preferably not as an attachment, but on your own (professional)) site – audio of recent recordings and preferably also video.
In addition, it is always good to be concrete, so come up with an idea or a concrete question.
How do you manage to keep up with the jazz & pop scene? Are there go-to festivals, playlists, magazines, etc. you use?
You can stay really well informed via the internet!
For this I use media such as Pitchfork, Musicradar, Downbeat, JazzIsm (in the Netherlands), Written in music, Consequence of Sound, Resident Advisor, ReverbNation, and Billboard.
And fortunately we have a very good infrastructure in the Netherlands in terms of festivals and stages. Places where we play regularly always also have many other interesting things to see.
Think of festivals such as North Sea Jazz Festival, Crossing Border, November Music, So What’s Next and Le Guess Who or venues such as Paradiso, De Melkweg, TivoliVredenburg, Het Bimhuis, LantarenVenster and De Doelen.
Robert Soomer – Next Steps
Thanks for reading!
If you’re looking to discover more about the Metropole Orkest, you can head to their website here.
You can also read about Robert and the other Metropole staff here: https://www.mo.nl/en/the-orchestra/staff
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