Monday, 9 November 2015

Celebrity Soft Spot Bourby Webster

Bourby Webster is the founder and director of the Perth Symphony Orchestra. In her previous life in the UK she was a viola player in the electronic string quartet Bond. She has music degrees from Oxford University and the Royal College of Music plus a Masters in Business from UWA. Since arriving in Perth fifteen years ago she has made transformational changes to our classical music scene including forming the Perth Symphony Orchestra. Last year Bourby was a winner in the prestigious 40 under 40 business entrepreneur awards. 



What music gets your heart racing?

Massive symphonies from Bruckner’s 9th to Mahler’s 10th. The power of a full symphony orchestra in concert is utterly unique in the world. In the right place, you can feel the ground shake beneath you as over 100 musicians use every ounce of technique and emotion to bring the music to life. It can drown me with emotion. Not even the world’s best sub woofer can do that.

What calms you down?

Again music – and usually an orchestra. Baroque instrumental music can have an almost spiritual effect on me. But I also love ambient electronic dance music and internet radio stations like Groove Salad on Soma FM. And then there’s the ocean …

What drew you to move to Perth in 2000 when you had a successful career in the UK?

Two main reasons: a music project I was working on didn’t work out and my heart and soul had been in it, so I needed to get away – far away. My boyfriend at the time was from a city called Perth, in a country called Australia. On the map it was in the middle of nowhere. And he wanted to move home. So it all happened together.

You started North Street Music (NSM) in 2008. What was your vision?

I wanted to make a difference for music and musicians in WA. I’d gone into the corporate world, got myself an MBA and risen to the ranks of senior management. But I wanted to do something with that knowledge to work with the people and industry I love most: music. I wanted to create a go-to company for both the music industry and artists that would have a lasting impact on the industry in WA: a place where I could offer advice, create opportunities and generate more amazing experiences for performers and audiences. Part of this vision was to create a Symphony Orchestra …

Perth had just one professional orchestra for decades until you founded Perth Symphony Orchestra in 2011. What made you think there was room for something new?

When I arrived in Perth in 2000 I was blown away by the talent in WA, and the quality of the WA Symphony Orchestra. But I was also very surprised that there was only one professional orchestra. In London I’d been a part of baroque concerts in the vaults under the Academy of St Martin in the Fields’ church lit by candles, or been part of a touring version of a gothic opera show, or done full costumed Mozart concerts in town squares, or appeared on Top of the Pops with boy bands – such a diverse and massive range of music using classical musicians that can be enjoyed by an incredibly wide audience. So I wanted to add to the tapestry of what was on offer. I also developed a huge respect for the many freelance musicians I met here, their talent is phenomenal, and they were so keen to have more playing opportunities. We had a huge talent pool. So it was all about ‘when’ not ‘if’.
PSO supporting Diana Krall at the 2014 Leeuwin Estate Concert

You have a soft spot for connecting classical music with ordinary people. What is your inspiration?

Classical music has no boundaries. The moods it can create in me, the feelings, are so diverse, so powerful. If I could find a way to give another 10% of the population access to experience what I experience through music, I’d be very happy. I love pop and rock too, and a huge percentage of what I do involves using contemporary music to show what classical musicians can bring to a tune. My inspiration is seeing how the music I love can change people. Hearing the words “I didn’t know music could make me feel that way” is all the inspiration I need. And we get that a lot at Perth Symphony concerts!

Vivaldi by Candlelight
Your shows are fun, popular, different, accessible. In 2013 your event Beer Beethoven and Bratwurst made The West Australian’s Top Ten Events list. How do you manage this in an industry renowned for being somewhat stuffy?!

Everything we do is focused on our audience. What do you want to hear, how do you want to hear it, where, when, in what setting? We’ve changed the concert format in so many ways. It is not simply a ‘listening’ activity – it is an immersive, engaging, stimulating, exciting experience. So even if the music isn’t familiar, the experience is so unique, and compelling, you go away uplifted and inspired.

The music of Queen - a rock and symphonic spectacular
Classical musicians can be cool too! Where did the idea for Chamber Jam come about, and what can we expect this month at the Ellington Jazz Club?

Chamber Jam is a monthly showcase that we run at the Ellington Jazz Club. It began before the Perth Symphony, and was my first foray into engaging a new audience to classical and chamber music. It was a cellist friend of mine, Emma Vanderwal, who said "why can’t we play chamber music in a jazz club”. And I thought, why not?

This month (Nov 15) is the final for 2015, and we go out with a bang. We showcase three eclectic and diverse acts: Just Sax – a brilliant, fun, saxophone quartet that showcases some of the most talented young WA sax players; Caitlin Huxtable Trio  featuring young violinist Caitlin and friends, and iSQ which is a rock and pop string quartet plus rock drummer performing brilliant arrangements of music from Radiohead to Nirvana to Amy Winehouse. I have to offer disclosure at this point: I play in iSQ so I get to be on stage for our final show for the year.

What is the next instalment from PSO and where can we hear it?

I am beyond excited to be bringing Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman to Perth. This was originally an illustrated story about a young boy who builds a snowman, but it has since been turned into an animated film with a score to be played by a live orchestra, written by Howard Blake. I played it in London when I was 15 years old under the baton of Howard Blake himself. I have wanted to bring it to Perth since I began thinking about forming an orchestra. So finally that dream comes true. We play two shows on Saturday 19th December, and I can’t express enough how everyone should come and experience it. The story is so beautiful and moving, and the music sublime.

You have an MBA from UWA and experience working in marketing and business development. The marriage between business and the arts is more important than people often realize – and not always a happy marriage! How do you balance the tension between the pursuit of creativity and the need for money?

I was aware I was going to have to do something very brave, somewhat crazy, and incredibly astutely if I was to start – and sustain – a symphony orchestra. I had no illusion that funding would be incredibly hard to get, and am very committed to finding a sustainable business model. Sometimes I have to make decisions that compromise my artistic aspirations: we cannot perform as often as I would like. If the audience enjoys Metallica, I see it as an honour to be able to play a Metallica tune alongside a Mozart one for them on an epic scale, knowing our musicians also enjoy the variety. I have a brilliant relationship with our Chief Conductor, Jessica Gethin, and we will argue about pieces, venues, artists, composers sometimes, as Jessica holds the music in the highest esteem. So there can be a healthy discussion, but I don’t think either of us feel we have to compromise to be commercially successful as well as artistically brilliant. And neither should we have to.

Conductor Jessica Gethin
You hold a unique position in Australia as a female director of an orchestra that has another outstanding woman (Jessica Gethin ) as chief conductor. Is it still a battle for women to be accepted in these elite roles?

I think I’m a little naïve on this one, as I just keep moving forward without a thought about gender. There are lots of amazing women in the arts particularly, and I’ve been very very grateful for the respect and support I’ve received. I know it has been harder for Jessica as she is very visible in her role, and conductor is definitely perceived as a man’s domain. Someone I greatly respect, Kathryn McDowall, runs the London Symphony Orchestra, one of the world’s most celebrated orchestras – so I am not alone.

You have a tall, dark, handsome electronic music producer in your life. How did you first cross paths?

We met on tour. Oh, so clichéd! I wanted to know what was involved in massive-scale productions, so when Jeff Wayne toured his epic album ‘The War of the Worlds’ in Australia, and I was in the string section, I approached Jeff and asked could I join the tour to learn more. He invited me on the UK / European Tour in 2009. On stage near me was Gaetan Schurrer triggering sounds, playing keys and doing lots of other cool things I didn’t understand at the time, and we found ourselves as the last pair in the bar every night, chatting, laughing and building a relationship. Whoever said ‘what goes on tour, stays on tour' got it wrong. He is an amazing man.

Is it true you that for a time you were also a high level rower trying out for the Sydney and Athens Olypmics?

Rowing was, and still is, a massive passion for me. The synchronicity of oarsmen and women in a boat is the same as a perfectly together ensemble. It is pure joy when it comes together. I started rowing at Oxford University where I studied my undergraduate degree. My hands got shredded from the oar but I was hooked. My solution was to shrink myself and become a coxswain. Because I understood what it was like to row, I was able to relate to people in my crew. I won women’s Henley Royal Regatta Open VIIIs gold medal in 1997, trained with the British Women’s Squad in 1998/9 before moving to Australia. In 2002 I was the first woman to cox the WA Men’s Kings Cup (the State Men’s Crew) at the National Championships winning the silver medal. In 2003 I was invited to the AIS to try for the Australian National Women’s crew, but by that point, working full time, meant it was harder for me to keep my weight down, so I made the decision to keep rowing as a passion. I can still occasionally be found on the river today.

Any regrets that you aren’t still playing in Bond, the best selling string quartet of all time, after the first album Born?

I have so often wondered what life would be like had I continued with the group. What the band went on to achieve was just remarkable. They were gorgeous girls and they transformed the perception of classical musicians forever. If I were still doing it, I’d not be doing what I am now. And I can honestly say I have my dream job. Since I started North Street Music and Perth Symphony I have had only a fleeting moment of ‘this is too hard’. Every day I look forward to work, find it hard to stop at night, and continue to feel incredibly privileged to do what I do. So no. No regrets.

You’ve had several incarnations during your diverse career – what can we expect next?

I have a different job every day with Perth Symphony – script writer, programmer, proof reader, sponsorship director, education presenter. I’m certain my future is in music and will be associated with the orchestra and musicians. But we are on the hunt for volunteers to be Christmas Elves for our performance of The Snowman, so I think Elf could be my next job role!


Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?

My life wouldn’t be complete without Gaetan. Nothing I do would be possible without his incredible support and belief in me. But if we are talking things other than partners, my other ‘thing’ would be cooking. I utterly LOVE looking through recipe books, creating new concoctions (Gaetan and I ‘invented’ coconut, apricot, brandy and ginger balls last night – yum!). I rarely switch off, and there is never a day when I am not searching for people and companies to help the orchestra grow, but coming home with fresh ingredients to make an amazing dinner for friends is something I love.

Thank you Bourby for being part of the Celebrity Soft Spot series. For tickets to the Snowman on 19th December visit www.perthsymphony.com. You can follow the orchestra on twitter @perthsymphony and instagram.

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