In the past decade, CEO Angela Dixon has transformed this arts venue within an education space. As well as attracting world-class musicians, Saffron Hall recently won a King’s Award for Voluntary Service

First of all, congratulations on your 10 years at Saffron Hall. At the time you joined I believe there was only one other member of staff and just 12 or 13 concerts planned for the coming year. What was your initial vision for the venue at the time?

My desire was to create an excellent programme that was built on quality, and I wanted to offer the audience a guarantee that if you come and see something here, you may not like it but you will never be able to deny that it was of the highest quality.

No concert hall can do everything because different kinds of music require a completely different hall acoustic and set-up. For example, pop music would be absolutely terrible in the hall because we have no standing license. The audience would have to be seated, but most pop groups like to see people jumping up and down all over the place. In addition, our acoustic is really resonant – some might call it echoey – so pop music simply wouldn’t work. However, for every other genre, the hall works perfectly.

Great British Life: Angela DixonAngela Dixon (Image: Angela Dixon)

How have you built links with the local community to ensure that Saffron Hall is well supported by it?

Initially I think we had a database of 1000 people, whereas now we have a database of 48,000 people. To begin with, we had to invest heavily in marketing. We would literally go round and put leaflets through every single door in the local area and so the reputation of the hall grew really quickly, meaning our marketing had to go out wider and wider. To fill a 740-seat hall, in a place where the population is 16,000, you really need people to travel. In fact, 20 per cent of our audience come from more than 30 miles away. This is because of the calibre of the programme and the quality of the acoustics in the hall.

Not only has this brought money into the area, it’s boosted tourism and increased the local spend. We’ve really tried to focus the programme on things that are not being delivered, not just very locally but quite widely. Obviously, we’ve got Cambridge on our doorstep and we try not to overlap with what’s already being done well in there – we’re not trying to compete.

Great British Life: Saffron HallSaffron Hall (Image: Saffron Hall)

What have been some of your highlights at Saffron Hall? Winning Concert Hall Manager in 2016 must surely be one of them?

I know it’s a bit corny to say but our recent 10th birthday weekend was a real highlight. I tried to stuff everything we do into one weekend, so we covered folk and jazz, world music and classical music. One of the hallmarks of Saffron Hall’s programme is mixing amateurs and professionals on stage. It feels like we’re one big musical family because we really do combine our schools and our community work with our world-class programmes. We recently held a jazz evening where different groups of young people performed alongside jazz professionals. On the Saturday, we had an outstanding opera performance with international soloists – their only performance in this country! They’d been to LA and San Francisco, Singapore, Seoul, Saffron Walden and then they were going onto Carnegie Hall in New York, so it was a really high-profile performance. The school chamber choir performed in that concert with those soloists and that amazing orchestra. On the Sunday, Jess Gillam and Britten Symphonia came and a group of young people performed with Jess Gillam at that concert. We also offered a Come and Sing Workshop with London Community Gospel Choir as well as a relaxed folk concert performance for people living with Dementia! For me, that weekend was quite emotional because we saw so many things that we do throughout the year coming together in one space, in one moment in time – that was a real highlight.

Great British Life: Benedetti & Marsarlis masterclassBenedetti & Marsarlis masterclass (Image: Roger King)

I notice that you make use of a team of volunteers. How important are they in the smooth running of the venue and what roles do they undertake?

They’re absolutely vital, not least for the smooth running of the venue but also because they welcome people to the hall. Volunteers perform a vital role in fire evacuations as we have stewards on the doors in case the fire alarm goes off and we need to evacuate the hall, which has happened twice in my time here – both false alarms though! Our volunteers sell the programmes, help our audience find their way about the venue and they’re just incredibly friendly. I can’t begin to tell you how many emails and comments I have on how welcoming the volunteers were to people as they begin to arrive at the hall, particularly those who have travelled a long way, or they don’t know the site. The volunteers are unbelievably proactive – I’ve seen them give people lifts back to the station because their car has broken down, or they’ve sat with somebody for the whole concert because they’ve been unwell, or they’ve driven someone to hospital. I mean, there’s nothing they won’t do for our audience, which is fantastic. They’re also huge avocats for the hall: they distribute leaflets; chat to people about the venue; they go down to Saffron Walden market on a Saturday and stand on a stall and give out our leaflets and recruit people to our community work – they really are amazing. Our Dementia Project is run by a music therapist but she is assisted by a group of volunteers, who are all specially trained in working with people with Dementia.

In addition, Saffron Hall has recently been presented with a King’s Award for Voluntary Service by Jennifer Tolhurst, Lord Lieutenant of Essex, for our Board and our volunteers. It’s an incredibly high distinction and it’s wonderful that their hard work is being recognised in this way.

Great British Life: Saffron Sounds workshops with Jess GIllam Saffron Sounds workshops with Jess GIllam (Image: Sara Platt)

What can our readers expect from Saffron Hall’s 2024 programme, and how far does this differ from what was on offer when you first joined in 2014?

We did our first West End musical, Blood Brothers, in the autumn and at some point in 2024 – it’s not on sale yet – we hope we’ll have another West End show, that’s really the new thing for this year. I usually take our standard Classical programme and try to add one new thing every season, although my team might say it’s more like two new things! We now put on an outdoor summer show, which we started a couple of years ago. Last year we did this in association with the miniature railway at Audley End and there’s a good chance that this will happen again – we’re just sorting out the final details. We also have our Foyer Folk and Jazz event, which started in 2018, but that will be coming up again in the spring. We’ll also have a talks programme and are thrilled that novelist and screenwriter, Anthony Horowitz, will be coming to Saffron Hall this spring.

So what’s next for Saffron Hall? How would you like to see the venue evolve further?

Our dual-use model of an arts venue within an education space is quite unique. There are lots of schools that have concert halls, but they don’t have an independent team running it. The first 10 years has been about building and sustaining this unique model which receives no public funding – unusual for a venue of this size. The second 10 years is going to be about how we can affect the wider region because Essex has no large music organisation, so there’s a big hole. If you think about all the things the Mercury does, they are very, very well supported with public money. However, there is no equivalent musical organisation and so the ambition of Saffron Hall is to fill that gap and be the music organisation that concerns itself with music education for young people, and music-based community work but over a much wider area. By the end of the next 10 years, I’d like to be covering the whole county and for professional and world-class music provision as well.

To view the 2024 programme of events, visit