Something very special is happening in Gorton, East Manchester –  in recent times known for its high levels of deprivation and crime.

Gorton Monastery was built for a Franciscan Order of Friars in the 1860s, with most of the building work done by the friars themselves. The monastery closed for worship in 1989 and lay empty and derelict for many years, suffering from vandalism and looting. 

In 1997, the Monastery was placed on the World Monuments Fund Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World, alongside Pompeii and the Taj Mahal and a campaign was begun to save it via a charitable trust set up by Elaine and Paul Griffiths.

The church and associated friary buildings underwent a £6 million restoration programme completed in June 2007 and were transformed into an award-winning venue for conferences, concerts, weddings and community events.

A beautiful, inspiring space – and now used as a community hub. In particular, the internationally renowned orchestra Manchester Camerata moved into the Monastery in 2020.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a Camerata concert “Mozart, Made in Manchester” and listened to inspiring and uplifting music with the rest of the audience.

But as well as making beautiful music Manchester Camerata believes in its transformative power to connect and I’ve also witnessed something even more moving, when more recently I was privileged to attend its weekly “Music Café” session at The Monastery.

Manchester Camerata has been using improvisation to help people living with dementia to express themselves and communicate with others, reducing frustration and enabling new connections to be made.

I saw three professional musicians, using only a keyboard, French horn and the beat of a drum, to begin to create the words and music for new songs, with (not for) elderly people, reaching out to them – some of whom had been married fifty or sixty years ago in the Monastery - with notes and rhythm, to immediate effect. Faces lit up as everyone joined in with the beat.

One gentleman sat next to me, the words of the new song prompting him into his own rendition of “Smile”, taking him back to his days many years ago as a club singer in the North West. Slowly, one by one, others in the room followed his lead and soon there were two songs being delivered in tandem.

None of this has happened overnight: Manchester Camerata has been delivering its award-winning Music in Mind programme for people with dementia since 2012.  

There is an increasing general awareness that music has a very important role to play for people with dementia but the issue is accessibility – evidence shows that only 5% of care homes have good quality arts and music programmes – and the challenge is to be able to touch the rest of the 850,000 people in the UK who have dementia, not just the lucky handful who are touched by the magic of the Music Café.

By being in the community Manchester Camerata is showing how useful an orchestra can be. CEO Bob Riley sums up the charity’s simple formula:

If you consult and listen, if you then collaborate based on that and you create programmes which are going to make an impact, then you can do it…It’s not about community education or outreach, it’s about social impact, in the way that is going to be most effective for the people who need it, in the way that they need it.”

The first 18 minutes of this recent BBC Radio 3 broadcast gives you more of an idea of the magic being made in Gorton today.