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From concert hall to board room

Stuart Barr was musical director for Dame Shirley Bassey, and has worked with iconic artistes from Sting to Elton John. He’s now a Cambridge MBA student, with an eye to running an international arts organisation.

Panoramic of the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Whether in music or business: ‘It’s all about harnessing the abilities of a diverse group of talented people.’

Lights up, the orchestra starts, but the crowd applauds so wildly that the performer can’t start singing: it’s a genuine “showstopper” moment. Yet to the orchestra’s conductor, it requires astute crisis management to avert disaster.

Stuart Barr (MBA 2016)

Stuart Barr (MBA 2016)

Stuart Barr, Dame Shirley Bassey’s conductor from 2009 to 2015, recalls just such a showstopping moment the first time he performed with the “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds Are Forever” singer at London’s Royal Albert Hall. He started the introduction as the star entered the stage, but the audience wouldn’t stop applauding and cheering. Unrehearsed, Stuart had to communicate to his orchestra with just his eyes and body language to keep the introduction music looping until the audience ended their ovation. A crisis was averted and the first note could hit home.

“The top priority is to make the person above you look good,” says Stuart. “For an artiste to be the star the audience expect, you need to follow and react to their every thought and breath. I was very much reliant on my close teamwork with my musicians, to avoid a car-crash moment on live television and make the performance look absolutely seamless.”

Stuart aced this “showstopper” organisational episode at the Royal Albert Hall. Now the accomplished conductor, arranger and singing coach is seeking new management skills through a Cambridge MBA at Cambridge Judge Business School, with the goal of running a major international arts or entertainment organisation.

“I’ve worked with the very best in the business, and conducted at the highest-profile gigs on the planet from the Oscars to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert,” he says. “Now I want to apply myself to greater challenges, so I need to learn advanced business management: building skills in strategy, finance and entrepreneurship.

“What’s crucial in successful arts organisations is to have people with organisational management skills who can collaborate with those on the creative end of the spectrum.”

He admires many arts organisations, but is particularly attracted to those that are reinventing themselves for the future. Top of the list of organisations he’d like to work for would be the English National Opera. Its unique selling point used to be performing operas in English instead of their original Italian, German or French. However, with other opera houses now using English ‘surtitles’, the ENO needs to renew its artistic vision, and address its financial problems. “So they’re looking at new ways to bring their productions to the widest and most diverse audience, nationally and internationally.”

He was drawn to Cambridge Judge due in part to the Culture, Arts & Media concentration of the Cambridge MBA – which looks at such issues as brand-building, customer development and exploitation of intellectual property.

Stuart’s musical career is rich and varied. He has worked as a musical director in the West End and on television. As a singing coach, he is a former President of the British Voice Association, and was on the faculty at the Royal Academy of Music. He has guest conducted many orchestras including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the BBC Concert Orchestra, and has his own regular band of some of the UK’s finest session musicians. He also recently presented his first music documentary for BBC Radio 4, on the life of transgender composer Angela Morley.

His work with Dame Shirley includes producing her farewell album Hello Like Before and conducting concerts at Buckingham Palace, Carnegie Hall and the Oscars. He has also collaborated with artistes as diverse as Paloma Faith, Gary Barlow and Andrea Bocelli. As well as being a performer, Stuart is proud to be involved with various non-profits: he is Head of Finance at Watersprite (Cambridge’s international student film festival), and Chairman of the London Youth Choirs.

As he neared the end of his first term on the Cambridge MBA programme, Stuart described the experience so far as “exhilarating.”

“I love the contrasts of hard finance and quant, with the practical teamwork on our consulting project. It’s challenging every area of my brain. I also love seeing the parallels of producing music with management. The teamwork involved in getting an orchestra to make great music together is not dissimilar from bringing harmony to an organisation. It’s all about harnessing the abilities of a diverse group of talented people.”