Q&A: Rachel Cotton


The general manager of the Piccadilly Symphony Orchestra, which she co-founded in 2014 with conductor Tom Newall, talks to Simon Smith about providing a platform for graduates.


What’s different about the orchestra?

There is a lack of opportunities for emerging professional players after they have finished their studies, especially in the north. There isn’t much available in between amateur and professional in terms of orchestral playing; so in that way we are different.

We provide a platform for emerging artists, giving them the opportunity to play a wide range of repertoire, in a high-quality ensemble. The players have the opportunity to work with a professional conductor and to a professional orchestral schedule. The PSO is open to any student/graduate across the whole country but it just so happens that a lot of them are from Manchester as that’s where the orchestra is based.

We also have a commitment to taking orchestral music out of the city centre and into underserved communities in order to make it accessible to everyone.

Reaching out to new audiences and outreach is extremely important to us as an organisation and it is central to the ideas behind most of the projects that we undertake. Challenging people’s attitudes towards classical music and offering new experiences is really exciting for us.

We have built up a strong relationship with Manchester Communication Academy and the Harpurhey community in north Manchester, which is in the top 4% of disadvantaged communities in the UK. This season will be the third full symphony orchestra concert and parallel outreach programme in Harpurhey. It is something that we are immensely proud to be part of and grateful that they have welcomed us into their community.

How have people responded so far?

We have had a really positive response so far and have been fortunate enough to have had great support and good attendance at all of our concerts. As well as our own concert schedule we have been in demand for event hires and collaborative projects. Some of these include The Bridgewater Hall outreach department, comedian Jason Manford’s Christmas Charity Concerts and the UK’s largest Star Wars fan convention!

General Manager Rachel Cotton joined the Piccadilly Symphony Orchestra in 2013

What is your personal highlight so far?

I would have to say our very first concert, February 2014. We had approached Manchester Communication Academy with the idea of bringing the PSO to Harpurhey. We had no idea whether this would be something they were interested in or whether the community would engage with the concert. The programme was to be Bernstein Three Dance Episodes from On the Town, GershwinAn American in Paris and Shostakovich’s 11th symphony.

The community team at the academy worked tirelessly to promote the concert to the community – a large proportion of them having never heard a live orchestra before. Concert night came and the hall was full – they had to put extra seats out and over 50% of the tickets sold were members of the local community.

There was definitely a buzz in the air and chatting to the audience afterwards it was clear that for those that had not had this experience before it had had a positive impact on them. As it wasn’t in a concert hall where the musicians are often quite far away from the audience, it was also great for the players to be up close and be able to chat to the audience after the concert. It all helped to break down those invisible barriers that often surround classical music concerts.

What are your future plans?

In the immediate future, for the rest of this season, we have a lot of exciting projects coming up including playing a new community commission, the UK premiere of James Stephenson’s trumpet concerto Martha Uncaged, Don Giovanni as part of Bowdon Festival and a two-week tour to Kentucky, USA, in July.

Looking further ahead our plans are to continue to develop the orchestra and what we can offer the players in terms of training and professional development. We also want to expand our community work in Harpurhey and take the model we have developed there into other communities around the UK.

Photos by Rose Hodson and Bridson Photography

This article first appeared in Classical Music