‘It’s my age that’s the talking point’: Toks Dada the Southbank’s head of classical music

Toks Dada is reeling off the concerts that make up the opening weekend of the Southbank Centre’s season, starting tomorrow, and as he starts to run out of fingers he looks more and more like a child in a sweet shop. Who would begrudge him the excitement? It is, after all, the first proper season he has programmed in his role as the Southbank Centre’s head of classical music.

Dada started at the Southbank in December 2020. Days later, Christmas was cancelled and the performing arts sector once again found that any glimmers of hope regarding the lifting of Covid-induced closure were extinguished. “It was a challenging time,” says Dada, talking in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall as the Queen’s lying-in-state queue begins to form by the river outside. “But it gave us an opportunity to ask ourselves difficult questions about what classical music is today and how we could best support and reflect that.”

When he started at the Southbank he was seen as a potential changemaker – but of course many organisations, not only in the arts, talked a lot during lockdown about new ways of working only to find themselves pulled back towards the same old thing once it lifted. Dada remains optimistic. “What I’m seeing is that the appetite for change is still there. There are some things we’ve done that I know other organisations want to do too.” The changes he goes on to detail might seem like small tweaks to a potential concert-goer but are a bigger deal in a juggernaut organisation such as the Southbank: experimenting with different start times for concerts; committing to a family event one weekend a month; a digital offering that’s joined up with the onsite programme; announcing the programme half a season at a time rather than the whole year at once. “Even now, post-Covid, when we’re only open five days a week, that’s 185 events a year. That’s a lot of stories to be trying to tell the audience all at once.”

What does he mean by stories, though? Isn’t it enough just for people to want to come to a concert? “Of course, for some people. But for others … Imagine you’d never been to a classical music experience before. You pick up our brochure, there’s 185 events in there – how do you make sense of that? Part of my job is to make sense of it. And that means working really closely with our resident orchestras.”

Víkingur Ólafsson performing in Berlin.
Víkingur Ólafsson, the Southbank Centre’s artist in residence, performing earlier this year Photograph: Stefan Hoederath/Redferns

As an example of what that might look like he cites the pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, “the kind of artist you can’t put a label on”, who is in the second year of a residency at the centre. His appearances this season will include concertos with the Philharmonia, London Philharmonic and Montreal Symphony Orchestras, a solo recital and a duo concert with the baritone Matthias Goerne. “Because we’ve brought strands such as the international piano series in house, and because we’re working much more closely than we’ve done before with our resident orchestras, we’ve been able to support the vision of an artist who wants to work in all these different ways,” says Dada. “It’s made it much easier for us to curate the programme. Someone who comes to hear Víkingur in concert with the Philharmonia will also see that he’s doing a new work by Edmund Finnis in recital two days later – which might not necessarily have been the kind of thing they would have considered, but one hopes that because of the artist they might give it a try.’

None of these changes is particularly innovative in itself; but it is good to see the Southbank consolidating itself as a place where innovation can happen by bringing outward-looking organisations under its wing. New to its roster of resident orchestras are Aurora, whose theatrical concerts are geared towards new audiences as much as established ones, and the majority-BAME ensemble Chineke! The family events will happen courtesy of the Multi-Storey Orchestra, on tour from their Peckham car park venue, and the Paraorchestra, comprised partly of professional disabled musicians. All these groups fit nicely into an idea to which Dada keeps returning – that the responsibility of a venue such as the Southbank is “to reflect classical music as it is today”.

UK classical music is covered; but what about the art form internationally? “It’s true that Brexit and Covid combined have made it more difficult for venues to welcome international talent in the way they would like to,” he says. “As we’re now open five days out of seven across the entire artistic programme there is a reduction of 28% of dates compared with pre-pandemic. The combination of that and tighter budgets means you’re simply not able to welcome the same number of big international orchestras that you would have done before. That does not mean that we’re no longer a home for international ensembles – we absolutely are, and we’re leaning back in to our role.”

Aurora – now part of the Southbank’s roster of resident orchestras.
Aurora – now part of the Southbank’s roster of resident orchestras. Photograph: Nick Rutter

Dada adds that the Budapest Festival Orchestra are in the diary for the as-yet-unannounced second half of this season. Yet what things will look like for arts venues by then is anybody’s guess given skyrocketing fuel bills. The public open spaces that make the Royal Festival Hall “London’s living room” and that bring potential audiences to the very doorway of the auditorium will need a lot of heating. Dada speaks of caution without giving away any firm plan, but it’s safe to say they won’t be going back to concerts seven nights a week just yet.

He is keen to stress that in many ways he can be seen as a safe pair of hands. At only 32, he already has a decade of experience on the boards of large arts organisations, most recently Welsh National Opera. While he talks about young audiences finding visible role models and representation on the concert platform through Chineke! and the Paraorchestra, surely he’s something of a role model himself as a black man in the very white world of top-level arts administration? He doesn’t deny it, but he laughs. “If anything, it’s my age that’s the talking point! I naturally come with a difference of experience and a different perspective.”

Different maybe, but his perspective includes a deep-seated love of the big orchestral repertoire. “Something I feel really passionately about is that the traditional forms are never going to go away. Often when we talk about adding in new things the perception is that what was there before has therefore been discarded, whereas actually it’s possible to embrace all of these forms.”

Moreover, being a decade or two younger than the rest of the boardroom doesn’t make him an outsider. “No, I’m an insider! I spent so much of my teenage years practically living in concert halls.” He started learning violin aged eight (he would go on to study viola and arts management at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama). “I was hooked from the get-go. I’d sit up late at night watching Proms repeats on BBC Four. I wanted to be part of that world.” The local Saturday morning music school broadened his musical horizons – “we were so lucky, the provision was fantastic, and classical music was just so accessible in Manchester at that time” – and then there was the Bridgewater Hall. He talks, misty-eyed, about hearing Stravinsky’s Firebird played live for the first time, and singing with the Hallé Youth Choir in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. “To this day even just thinking about it chokes me up. That’s why we’re doing everything we’re doing here, because I want as many people as possible to feel how I feel now when I’m talking to you about this amazing music.”