How to transform the artistic fortunes of an orchestra

by David Lancefield Partner, Strategy&



Here we bring you the highlights from the second podcast in our Transformation Talks series, where I talk to Sir Mark Elder, CH, CBE, Music Director of the Manchester-based Hallé Orchestra, about how he transformed the artistic fortunes of one of Britain’s oldest symphony orchestras. You can listen to the full interview on Soundcloud, iTunes or acast.

I invited Sir Mark because he has demonstrated enormous skill and emotional intelligence as a leader in transforming the world of the arts – specifically in the way he turned the Hallé’s fortunes around since he took over as its music director 18 years ago.

There are some valuable lessons from his experiences that could be usefully applied in business transformations. In particular, Sir Mark highlights how he encouraged the orchestra members to put more of themselves into their playing, while at the same time being clear about where he wanted to set the bar, as a leader.

This involved communicating from day one in a way that showed the orchestra who he was as a person, as well as what kind of musician he was. The results speak for themselves: the Hallé’s concerts are packed out; the orchestra does pioneering work with music and children in schools; and it has its own thriving CD label.

If you don’t have time to listen to the podcast now, here are a few of the main themes that emerged from the conversation.

1. Encourage your team to put their heart and soul into their work
When Sir Mark took over the Hallé in 2000, he inherited an orchestra that was on the verge of bankruptcy and a group of players who were understandably unsure of their future, and therefore nervous about playing with real emotional commitment.
Sir Mark explains:“I found an orchestra that was very competent but one that wouldn’t put its heart on its sleeve. I just said ‘try and play with your imagination, put your heart into the music so that it will affect the sound’. It was really a question of bringing life back into everybody. In a way I was encouraging them to find their egos”.

2. Know where and how to set the bar for what you want to achieve
The ambition was for the Hallé to become the best orchestra in the world for playing English music [of the early 20th century]. That meant giving it the right repertoire in order to give it confidence and prowess.
Sir Mark says: “So much of transformation, it seems to me, is about ‘where is the bar?’. My work with the orchestra was really opening their imaginations [as] to how far we could go and not accepting routine.”

3. Learn the balance between letting a team “breathe” and directing
Letting people be their best is partly about letting them breathe, to let them feel they are being allowed to do their job. In the Hallé context, this has been about letting the orchestra play and showing that the conductor wants this, yet sometimes imposing direction because the music demands it.
Sir Mark says: “In all forms of human communication but particularly in performance art but in music-making above all, the music has to breathe. What we mean by that is the people playing it are allowing their breath and their control of their breath to influence the way the music comes out. Now I think this is true about all leadership.”

For the full conversation where Sir Mark Elder tells us about his transformation journey with the Hallé symphony orchestra, along with features of some of the best music performed by the orchestra, click here.


If you missed the first in this series click here to read the highlights of the interview with Dan Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, London Business School. Where we talk about “Keeping your people ‘alive at work’ when transformation's on the menu”.

To receive the next in this series and more of the latest content on Business in Transformation, subscribe here.


by David Lancefield Partner, Strategy&


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