Tim Walker was Former Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra for over twenty years. Balancing its long and distinguished history with a reputation as one of the UK’s most adventurous and forward-looking orchestras, Walker discusses what it takes to grow a profitable business and find the right leader.

Tim Walker was nine when he started learning how to play the piano, and it was only upon attending his very first orchestra, that he realised how much more fun it was to play with other people. So that night, when he arrived home Tim promptly begged his parents to let him start learning the violin too. As a child, Tim was part of the youth orchestra at school, but after a while found it wasn’t really for him… but it was the notion of managing an orchestra, a job which still had that sense of creativity and community which had stolen his heart.  

Finding the right leader

“Yes the conductor holds the musicians together but he or she is also using his or her knowledge and intellect to take the written note of the composer and turn it into something that communicates with us in the audience in a very visceral sense, I would say, because it’s not only something that should hit the heart, I think it also needs to hit the head as well.

While the musicians in the London Philharmonic Orchestra are some of the most talented in the world, it’s the addition of the right conductor that really helps the players shine. The conductor’s role is to unify all the players to one single interpretation of the music, and while the experience of being in a symphony is entirely collaborative, someone needs to ensure everything is flowing seamlessly. But finding the right person for the job hasn’t always been easy. Traditionally in the 19th and 20th centuries, it wasn’t uncommon for a conductor to lead with an iron fist, however as times have changed, so too have conductor styles.   

Growing a profitable business

“Interestingly, the London Philharmonic is one of the few orchestras in the world that actually made money from international touring.”

Before Tim joined the London Philharmonic, the company was solely focused on pursuing profit – the board justified each decision by demonstrating how it would contribute to the bottom line. According to Tim, many people make the mistake of thinking just because the individual elements of an enterprise can pay for themselves, then the sum total will be a sustainable enterprise. However, Tim says there are some avenues that need to be pursued not because they generate profit, but rather because doing those things positions the orchestra for the future. As a result, under Tim’s guidance the London Philharmonic recorded all the national anthems for the London Olympics and played at the Queen’s jubilee, not because they were profitable – but because they intrinsically felt like the right thing to do.  

Do people still care about orchestras?

“I think, the people do take for granted a lot of the music in their lives as being sort of like wallpaper. I remember when I was talking to somebody who may not know the London Philharmonic, but as soon as I say we recorded all the soundtracks for The Lord of the Rings, suddenly they understand… But they don’t really.”

Over Tim’s twenty year tenure as Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the London Philharmonic, he reveals the hardest part of the job was just keeping everything going. The dilemma is though some would argue that enjoying art is a necessity, music is not the equivalent of food and basic services, so the purchasing of a concert ticket is something that in times of financial stress slows or stops altogether. “You can’t let the institution die on your watch… you’re responsible for 150 full time and 75 part time employees all dependent on ensuring that they can pay their mortgages and put bread on the table.”

Tim highlights that these last few years with COVID-19 have been particularly challenging as audiences are not flocking back as they had hoped.  

 Tim believes the way to forge a path out of the pandemic is to remind audiences that real people are making this music. The need for live music will never go away, but when you have 200 people whose livelihoods rely on ticket sales, then large orchestras won’t be around for a long time unless we start buying tickets.  

“When you care for something, you’ve also got to care for how it’s maintained. So there needs to be a cost to care. And the care for orchestras is in people making the effort to actually go to concerts and appreciate what they have.”

AUDIO: Listen to the full podcast discussion above


Timothy Walker CBE AM Hon RCM was Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He was formerly the founder and Chief Executive of World Orchestras and prior General Manager of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Mr Walker was on the Board of the International Society for the Performing Arts and was Chair of the Association of British Orchestras.   

He was an inaugural member of the Australian International Cultural Council, and has served as a director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Henry Wood Hall Trust and the Rachmaninoff Foundation.   

Mr Walker has an honours degree in Arts, a Diploma of Music and a Diploma of Education from the University of Tasmania and a Diploma of Financial Management from the University of New England. He has been a consultant to the Australia Council, Create NSW, Creative Victoria, The Australian Ballet, the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the Orcquestra Sinfonica do Estado de Sao Paulo. 


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