Me, my piano and partying with Hugh Grant and Tom Cruise

Sarah Balfour was a top pianist until she decided arranging celebrations would be more fun — and better paid

By Simon Round, July 27, 2012
Sarah Balfour

Sarah Balfour

Great business ideas can come to people in a number of different ways. Sarah Balfour had hers when she was playing the piano for Hugh Grant.

The event was a marathon seven-hour 1940s-themed party to celebrate the launch of the film Bridget Jones’s Diary. Balfour was an accomplished pianist who regularly played at high-profile events. Her stint at the keyboard gave her plenty of time to take what was going on.

“Everything was themed, from the lighting to the flowers to the canapés on the trays and it looked phenomenal. They must have paid a fortune. While I was playing I was thinking, this looks fantastic but I would have put that there and I would have done this differently. I suddenly thought to myself, I could do this.”

This germ of an idea led to Orchid Events, a company which has catapulted Balfour to a nomination for businesswoman of the year. She and her team have organised a party in Trafalgar Square for the Royal Wedding, featuring Xtatic — one of the bands she manages. There was also London’s Mozart centenary event for 50,000 people in Belgravia, and weddings and parties internationally — she has an office in Tel Aviv and divides her time between London and Israel.

Her first career as a pianist was equally impressive. Balfour grew up in Stanmore, north-west London and by the age of eight was playing the piano. At 12, under the tutelage of her teacher, Jean Anderson, she started to enter competitions, winning the prestigious Young Musician of the Year when she was 14. She thinks that music might be in the genes. Her grandfather, bandleader Al Tabor, was the composer of the Hokey Cokey. However, he could have done with some of Balfour’s business nous. He sold the rights for very little and did not make much money out of it.

Balfour was determined that she would not be exploited. Having graduated from Leeds University in music (she had won two scholarships to study there) she began working as a session musician, and released a CD of classical piano solos, called Keyed In. But within a few years she was becoming frustrated. “I had come a long way and loved playing the piano. In some ways, playing for the likes of Hugh Grant and Tom Cruise was very glamorous. But I found the agents were really mistreating me. They were not paying enough and not paying on time. I found that I was owed money from jobs I’d done six months previously and when I chased them for payment they would even dispute the amount. I was not being treated with respect.”

She decided to do something about it. Equipped only with a £200 laptop in her bedroom, she set herself up as an agent — founding her first company, Music By Arrangement. She spent more than a year auditioning and recruiting musicians. She found that many other musicians had endured the same type of treatment from agents and managers and were very happy to be represented by her. “They all asked me to manage them. I was one of them. They had an ally. I was looking out for the type of things an agent should be looking out for and I made sure that I was treating them as I would like to be treated.”

She also had the advantage that she had played in a number of large London hotels. “But the problem with hotels is that people come and go quickly, so often the people I had known had already left. And most places already retained an agent. But I did persuade one hotel, the Renaissance Chancery Court in Holborn, to give me a chance, I asked them to let me bring in some people to play a few pieces. I said, give us five minutes, and if you’re not happy then no problem. I came in with five of my musicians and we blew them away. They said ‘we’re terminating our contract with our agent and we’ll use you from now’, and that was it. Other contracts followed from that.”

Within months, Balfour was looking to expand. She wanted to be “more than a booker”. She had ambitions to get into management so that she could shape the careers of her artists. And after the Bridget Jones party she also had a notion that she could become an events planner.
“I studied both art and music. I’d seen enough events and I had played at enough events. I knew how they should be done, what will work and what won’t work. I notice all these things. You know I’m the worst person to take to a party,” she chuckles.

Balfour was soon bidding for big events. But she was staggered when she won a bid to organise a Mozart anniversary party in Belgravia. “At that point it was just me working for myself. I was pitching in a boardroom to quite an intimidating crowd who were firing these questions at me. But I put together a pitch which was creative and cost-effective. And I certainly knew a lot about Mozart. ”

Her love for Israel and the number of requests she received to put on simchahs there persuaded her to open an office in Tel Aviv and now she shuttles between the two cities. She makes light of the travel. “I love the fact that I can turn off my phone without feeling guilty.”

And she claims that she does not miss performing — mainly because she still does it. “I do charity concerts twice a month at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. Hopefully, they enjoy it and I get to keep my hand in.”
She adds that there is a huge amount of creativity in what she does now and if things go well a good party can be as moving as a Mozart sonata. “Sometimes everything comes together. I did a stunning wedding in Jerusalem a few weeks ago. The atmosphere at this wedding left me with goosebumps. That makes it all worthwhile.”

Last updated: 2:43pm, July 27 2012