We have long been mesmerised by the prowess of disabled athletes as they achieve glory in the Paralympics, Invictus Games, and in all other kinds of sporting events.
Now, on Saturday we can enjoy the music made by the British Paraorchestra as it performs alongside members of the CBSO at Symphony Hall.
The British Paraorchestra is the world’s first professional ensemble for disabled musicians, and Charles Hazlewood, a pioneer in all kinds of musical initiatives, conducts its Birmingham debut on Saturday. The programme includes works by Corelli and Adrian Lee, as well as Lloyd Coleman’s Towards Harmony.
We’ll talk to Lloyd later, but first Charles tells me how we should be assessing the British Paraorchestra.
“First of all, shut your eyes and open your ears because the focus of the Paraorchestra is no different from any other top level orchestra which is what it is, a top class orchestra.
“All music made for the orchestra is bespoke; for a start it is a dizzyingly eclectic range of instruments. In what other orchestra would you find a sitar, a laptop, Celtic harp, lap-steel guitar, baroque lute, alongside all other conventional instruments? The Paraorchestra brings a 360 degree experience.”
Charles describes what it is like, performing alongside professional orchestral players.
“For a start every Paraorchestra member is a professional musician at the top of their game. This will be a meeting of equals, but it will be a new world order to see a stage packed with virtuoso musicians, at least half of whom are also disabled.
“Symphony Hall is without a doubt one of the very, very finest concert halls around, and Birmingham is a jaw-droppingly exciting city. So the combination of that awesome space and acoustic and the great folk of this city is pretty unbeatable for us.”
Adrian Lee, a guitarist with the orchestra, has his piece A performed, and clarinettist Lloyd Coleman will be performing in his own, Circuiting for Solo Clarinet and Towards Harmony.
This will be the first time these new works will have been presented in a concert situation, and Lloyd tells me more about the work of the orchestra. “The Paraorchestra is an interesting project for me to be involved with not only because of its social mission, but also because of the breadth and quality of musicians in the ensemble. I wouldn’t have joined if I felt it was going to be in any way patronising to disabled musicians.
“Instead, it’s kind of a musical equivalent to the Paralympic movement: world-class music making regardless of impairment or background. We always ask our audiences to judge us on the effect our music has on them emotionally, intellectually and culturally, just as they would with other bands and orchestras.”
And Lloyd goes on to describe the genesis of his Towards Harmony.
“Two years ago I wrote a large piece called Towards Harmony, for the Paraorchestra and small symphony orchestra. The piece is custom-built for the musicians of the Paraorchestra – including tablas, sitars, ouds, guitars, electric violins and laptops!
“But the challenge in writing Towards Harmony was to find a common musical thread that everyone could play a part in, and my hope is the audience will be enthralled and fascinated by the various sound worlds they will encounter during the 20 minutes of the piece. It works a bit like a concerto grosso in places – with the CBSO supporting a string of solos showcasing the ensemble – but then in other parts the two groups come together as one to create massive textures that will make the earth shake and move the listener!”
What does it feel like performing alongside professional orchestral players?
“I’ve always enjoyed performing as a clarinetist professionally – it gets me out of the house after months on end of solitary confinement when I’m composing!
“I must say I’m beyond excited to be playing with the CBSO – they’ve always been a favourite orchestra of mine, as I listened to lots of Rattle recordings with them when I was growing up. In the past decade they’ve been on consistently high form, with Andris Nelsons and now Mirga of course – I saw her Prom with them last summer and it blew me away.”
And what will it be like performing in Symphony Hall alongside members of the CBSO?
“The hall is without doubt one of the best in the world acoustically, so we couldn’t ask for a nicer space to perform in.
“On a personal note, I’m very excited to be performing alongside Jo Patton and Oliver Janes – who are part of the clarinet section.
“Jo was my clarinet teacher at school and Oliver is one of my best mates from college, so it will be brilliant to share the stage with them.”
* The British Paraorchestra performs alongside the CBSO at Symphony Hall on Saturday, February 18 (7.30pm, details on 0121 780 3333).
* Tomorrow: Marie-Louise Taylor plays Debussy Piano Preludes, interspersed with poetry readings at the Birmingham and Midland Institute (1pm).
* Tomorrow: Every Friday the Barber Institute at the University of Birmingham is the venue for a free lunchtime concert. Tomorrow’s brings the Odysseus Piano Trio in works by Haydn and Beethoven (1.10pm)
* Wednesday: David Curtis conducts his Orchestra of the Swan in a programme which neatly juxtaposes the spurious Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for Four Wind Instruments with the premiere of a work for the same forces by Joanna Lee (Birmingham Town Hall 2.30pm, pre-concert interview with David Hart1.30pm).