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21st June, 2021

Hitting the right note

The Royal Academy of Music has launched an exciting collaboration with Saga that will help support young musicians. By Jane Slade.

'Mozart's table and Wagner's music stand are opposite my desk. That's always inspiring,' observes Jonathan Freeman-Attwood CBE, the principal of the Royal Academy of Music. He may be busy leading one of the world's premier music schools, but he does not take the musical treasures within its beautiful Edwardian walls for granted.

With illustrious alumni ranging from conductor Sir Simon Rattle to percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, the Academy celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2022. And its dynamic principal, himself an accomplished trumpeter, recording producer, writer and broadcaster, is the man tasked with ensuring its position at the cutting edge of music education.

Excitingly, there is a new collaboration on the horizon – the Academy has got together with Saga Holidays to curate special music tours as well as create employment opportunities for some of the young musicians. In 2022 the Academy musicians will be invited on board Spirit of the Rhine to play private concerts to guests as they travel down the Rhine. You can book Chamber music on the Rhine with the Royal Academy of Music now, but places are limited.

Like Saga, the Academy is passionate about the future of today's talented younger generation and proud of its rich history. Saga's new Cultural Odyssey Tours will open the doors to the Academy's handsome Regent's Park home. ‘We are the world's second oldest conservatoire,' Jonathan points out.

The new collaboration with Saga was inspired by a conversation between Saga chairman Sir Roger De Haan and chair of the Royal Academy of Music's board of trustees, Dame Jenny Abramsky. ‘It is a perfect fit in many ways,' Jonathan enthuses. ‘Saga is all about discovery and how the experience of a holiday can be life-enhancing. Music can play its part. And what is more thrilling than hearing a young person performing a piece of music with exceptional skills, expressive character and conviction?'

Indeed, one cannot help but feel a thrill walking up the Academy's sweeping staircase where iconic conductor Sir John Barbirolli and jazz legend Sir John Dankworth once trod. Watching over everything is the bust of former pupil Sir Henry Wood, founder and conductor of the Proms for more than 50 years while teaching at the Academy. The bust is usually on display in the Duke's Hall, except when it is at the Royal Albert Hall presiding over the annual BBC Proms concerts.

However, the Academy has had to innovate to keep on top of its game. It has a new 309-seat theatre, and over the years there have been collaborations with music schools such as the Juilliard in New York, as well as partnerships with alumni.

One of the Academy's donors is former pupil Sir Elton John, who attended the junior Royal Academy as a classical piano student and now not only sponsors eight scholarships each year but has gifted a £1 million organ. ‘Sir Elton is a great friend of the institution,' Jonathan explains. ‘It runs deep with him, hence the wonderful vignette in the recent biopic Rocketman.' (One of the instructors at the Academy recalled an 11-year-old Elton playing back, without hesitation, a four-page piece by Handel that he had just heard for the first time. He duly won a junior scholarship).

Another ambassador is current pupil cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Sheku won the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year when he was only 17 and reached celebrity status after playing at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding. ‘We're hugely proud of Sheku's successes,' says Jonathan. ‘As an ambassador, he has introduced a vast new audience to classical music, particularly young people.'

But for the moment the Academy is shrouded in an eerie silence. The concert halls are dark and rehearsal studios empty. COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on the lives of professional musicians and music students, many of whom rely on an income from live performances to support themselves. Last April, Jonathan appealed to the Academy's 1,500-plus donors to support the Response Fund, a hardship scheme to provide money for food, housing and transport for students unable to work.

‘Students, staff and alumni have responded to the pandemic with resilience, energy and creativity,' he says. ‘We ran a social media campaign, RAMplaysON, during the first lockdown that brought together the wonderful performances by our community, from solos in bedrooms to multi-musician collaborations. We reached more than five million people, but what was most heartening was that even while we were forced to be apart, the music never stopped.

‘Our most important challenge is to imagine what the cultural world will look like post COVID-19,' he adds. ‘It's about how musicians can adapt. We need – shamelessly – to remind people what they have missed.'

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.