How do you build an orchestra for London?

Sir Simon Rattle, the Barbican and the Southbank Centre create a new orchestra for London

April 1970: in a school hall in the Liverpool suburb of Mossley Hill, an orchestra is gathering. Some of the musicians are schoolchildren, some teachers. Some are parents and local amateurs. Among them, for guidance and moral support, sit five players from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. ‘We thought he had a small concert in mind’ declares an astonished organiser to the local press. But there, standing before a 72-piece orchestra with a confidence that startles his elders, is the conductor who’s brought them together – a 15-year old percussionist from the Merseyside Youth Orchestra called Simon Rattle.

February 2015: 102 young musicians in spearmint-coloured T-shirts sit waiting on the platform of the Barbican’s concert hall. It’s been a day of schedules, sectional rehearsals, sandwich lunches and tightly-timed breaks. Instruments are gripped more firmly, the laughter has an anxious edge. And now he’s here - now it’s all finally about to come together.

He lifts his baton, ‘Shall we just play?’

Sir Simon Rattle’s hair is whiter than in his Liverpool College days, but the smile is the same. Young voices cheer and feet stamp as he makes his way through the violins. ‘Well, how fantastic is this, to see you all here?’ The smile again, and he lifts his baton, ‘Shall we just play?’

Finding our orchestra

For these musicians, it’s the culmination of six weekends of work. But the planning goes back more than a year. As soon as Sir Simon Rattle had agreed to celebrate his 60th birthday by bringing the Berliner Philharmoniker to London for a dual residency at the Barbican and the Southbank Centre, he asked for an opportunity to involve London’s young musicians: to create a Young Orchestra for London. It fell to Anna Wilson of the Barbican and Ruth Hardie of the Southbank Centre to think about what that might actually mean.

‘Ruth and I soon found we were both on the same page’ says Anna. ‘Both the Barbican and the Southbank Centre wanted it to be an orchestra that wasn’t just for the most gifted and talented music students - we both wanted it to sound, look and feel like London’. The word went out to musicians aged 11-21, of every ability, and in every part of the capital. And the whole city responded. ‘That was really surprising’ says Ruth. ‘We thought that’d be the hardest part, representing every borough. Managing to do it was brilliant.’

'We wanted it to sound, look and feel like London'

Why go to such lengths? Rattle’s name alone would be sufficient to recruit a student orchestra of a world-beating standard. In recent years, though, youth orchestras have come to mean something more than just a showcase for gifted players. National music education projects such as In Harmony and Scotland’s Big Noise have built on the model of Venezuela’s El Sistema to demonstrate that orchestral music-making can have a social and educational benefit that extends far beyond the concert platform. ‘Learning music is a birthright’ says Rattle – and from lifelong experience, whether as a schoolboy maestro in Liverpool or through his education work in Birmingham, Caracas and Berlin, he knows what it can achieve.

So Anna and Ruth approached the 400-plus applications with intense care. ‘We didn’t want to duplicate something that’s already being done amazingly, by – say – the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain’ says Anna. ‘As the two biggest arts centres in London we wanted to create something that plugs a gap. We wanted to introduce Sir Simon to the whole world of youth classical music-making in London, not just the crème de la crème – to show him what’s out there’.

'You knew they were going to work hard...'

Anna Wilson, Barbican Centre

A workshop day was held in December 2014. ‘It was hard. Everyone deserved a place. There were some who were less technically capable but had the willingness and keenness - you knew they were going to work hard. Ruth spent three solid days selecting them. Some of them cried with joy when we told them, just before Christmas, that they’d got a place.’

In rehearsal

So, to work. Repertoire was chosen – Sibelius’ Finlandia and Malcolm Arnold’s Little Suite No.2 – rooms were booked in the Southbank Centre, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and Barbican, and schedules were drawn up. Players from the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), London Philharmonic (LPO), and Berliner Philharmoniker were enlisted as coaches, and the animateur Rachel Leach was brought in to help it all hang together – and to guide the members into the worlds of three composers, two arts centres and three great orchestras. Two young British conductors – Ben Gernon and Duncan Ward – split the preliminary rehearsals between them.

A grey Sunday morning in January 2014, and the foyer of the Guildhall School is jammed with instrument cases, coats and music bags. The players have just filed back from a Skype conversation with members of the Berliner Philharmoniker; now they’re seated in a rehearsal hall as Rachel Leach energetically deconstructs, then reconstructs, the music of Sibelius. Without their instruments, the players are divided into three: and there are sheepish giggles as she gets them to improvise a DIY version of Sibelius’s Fifth with clapping, singing and (for a super-keen few) maracas. This afternoon, there’ll be sectional rehearsals. A huddle of LPO players has already gathered in the foyer, clutching takeaway coffees as they discuss what needs to be covered.

'I've played in groups before but this feels different...'

Imperceptibly, something’s already happening between all these musicians. ‘I’ve played in groups before, but this feels different’ says Gorka Puerta, a 17-year old trumpeter from Streatham. ‘It’s as if we all have something in common. We’re all here for the same thing – we’re getting to know each other, there’s more trust’. The gap between the professionals and students is closing. ‘The LPO players have really helped us – I mean really helped us’ says Gabrielle Carberry, a bass player (Bromley, 16 years old). ‘I don’t feel intimidated because they’re all so friendly’ chips in 15-year old violinist Sami Latif from Bexley. ‘They seem just like us’, agrees Gorka.

And college students are informally starting to mentor and encourage their younger section-mates. ‘I was a bit put off on the workshop day because there were so many bigger and better people than me’ says Ruby Widdowson, a 12-year old cellist from Beckenham. ‘But now I’m OK – there are lots of Grade Eight people and they help you, which is really good. You get a good vibe afterwards!’

That vibe is spreading through every level of the fledgling orchestra: and it’s becoming clear that the process is not just one-way. Ben Gernon has felt it. ‘It’s really nice. There’s a sort of wartime atmosphere - in a completely good way! Everyone’s looking after each other. They’re being a lot more vocal now about their ideas and they’re really taking ownership of the project. They’re really starting to develop their own identity.’

Sarah Quinn, a violinist in the LSO, coached the strings. ‘There’s nothing more rewarding that working with young musicians. Learning about their characters, watching their playing improve and their confidence grow is what makes my job worthwhile. There’s something very special about a youth orchestra.’ Raphael Haeger, a percussionist in the Berliner Philharmoniker, is preparing to take a sectional rehearsal. ‘In Mannheim, in Mozart’s time, they had contracts where the musicians were required to train young people. There’s no better way to keep a tradition alive. I became a professional very early, so I never had this experience - this is my way to feel a little bit like I’m that age again. That’s why, for me personally, I’ll always love to do this.’

A new sound

Tradition is about the future as well as past. So on the final day of the project, in the Southbank Centre’s Clore Ballroom, the plan is for the Young Orchestra for London to take everything it’s become, and to burst through the boundaries that separate orchestra from audience. The vehicle for that will be Zero at the Bone - a new commission by Stephen Montague for the Orchestra, plus anyone who cares to join in.

‘I was very impressed with the questions they were asking, and the diversity of the orchestra’ says Stephen. ‘I wanted to give them something different. So at the start we’ve got the brass playing with just their mouthpieces, a very rich sound. Later the percussionists are asked to tear paper. At the end they break sticks – a sort of bone-snapping sound. They’re very open to doing something new, which historically has not always been the case.’

'You don’t just have to play a pure A...'

It’s also a chance for the applicants who didn’t make it into the Orchestra to take part in the project - as well as parents, friends, interested audience members and even just passers-by. Stephen sees the lack of assumptions as a creative liberation. ‘By writing a symbol to play ‘any high note’ in a rhythmic pattern, you can get a fast-moving cluster effect that sounds very like Boulez, but with a lot less – shall we say? – difficulty!’ ‘It sounds phenomenal!’ says Anna Wilson. ‘There needed to be a larger opportunity and celebration of classical music-making in London. And we wanted to show them at an early age that you don’t just have to play a pure ‘A’. There are different tones and textures that are just as important.’

The performance

So Rattle lifts his baton. The opening brass chords of Finlandia snarl out; the tempo increases as the music surges forwards into the Allegro. He stops. ‘I’m one coffee faster than you are. Don’t panic, let’s just all breathe together’. Again, he raises the baton: suddenly the music is moving faster, and something new is happening. ‘There was a nervous energy that they hadn’t really exhibited yet’ says Ruth, who’s been marshalling the orchestra backstage at the Barbican Hall all day. ‘I didn’t know how that moment would go either.’

‘I’m one coffee faster than you are. Don’t panic, let’s just all breathe together’

Sir Simon Rattle

But now that moment is here. Players’ eyes lock on; a cellist starts to sway with his instrument; on the back desk of violins, two girls dart wide-eyed glances at each other, smiling in their excitement. The sound grows richer, the ensemble tighter. Nerves start to turn into music, and Rattle begins to push his orchestra. ‘If you knock your desk partner over, it’s not a catastrophe’ The laughter is less anxious, more exuberant. ‘Make a mistake, yes, but make it a really fabulous mistake’. But mistakes, by now, have never seemed less relevant.

The rehearsal runs its course; the performance, too. Little brothers and sisters in the audience lean forward, legs dangling and mouths wide-open – loudly whispering questions mid-Finlandia. No-one shushes them. At last the applause fades, the Young Orchestra for London leaves the Barbican stage.

‘He just seemed like a normal guy!’ explains one player to his parents. A trombonist, beaming, talks into his mobile phone: ‘I’m just chilling out for a bit, trying to calm myself down’. There’s more to come: the Southbank Centre, Zero at the Bone, and the Malcolm Arnold. No need quite yet for new friends to exchange mobile numbers and arrange chamber music dates, or for aspiring 15-year old conductors to maybe start planning their own orchestras.

The Berliner Philharmoniker is on in 25 minutes, and the audience is already studded with spearmint-green T-shirts. Young musicians from every borough in London will be listening as insiders - as colleagues of these German musicians, just as from now on they’ll hear concerts by the LSO and the LPO with an understanding beyond anything that seemed possible seven weeks ago. At the Barbican and Southbank Centre, orchestral music has become for them a shared experience – a process of communication, exploration, aspiration and friendship.

‘Music is like a virus’ said Sir Simon Rattle, immediately before he performed for the first time with these 102 youngsters: now an Orchestra that really does sound, look and feel like London. ‘And what we hope is that everyone catches it and it’s completely incurable. What I hope is that this will grow and grow and grow. This is just the start.’

Find out about more opportunities to get involved with Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning.

The Barbican and Southbank Centre would like to thank the following for helping to make The London Residency and Young Orchestra for London possible:

Prudential plc

Hollick Family Charitable Trust
The SHM Foundation
Baha and Gabriella Bassatne
Donatella Flick
Emma Kane
Susie Thomson

Special thanks also go to:
The Andor Charitable Trust
The Ann and Frederick O’Brien Trust
C Rifkind and J Levy Charitable Settlement
The John S Cohen Foundation
Tim and Catherine Cox
Vin Dharmarajan
Richard and Jenny Hardie
The Austin and Hope Pilkington Trust
The Robert Gavron Charitable Trust
Sir David and Lady Scholey
The Thistle Trust

We are very grateful to the London Symphony Orchestra and London Philharmonic Orchestra for their generous contribution to this project. Their advice and their players’ time has been invaluable.

Young Orchestra for London performed in the Barbican Hall on Thursday 12 February. Recording courtesy of BBC.

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