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Like most conductors I'm a bit terrified of Beethoven’s Ninth - Peter Marks

Peter Marks, conductor of amateur orchestra Eroica Camerata, talks to Christopher Morley about its distinct style and sound as they prepare to perform in Kings Norton

Dan Watson Peter Marks rehearsing with the Eroica Camerata orchestra at St Nicholas' Church

I think it’s fairly safe to say that the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony given by the Eroica Camerata in St Nicolas’ Church on January 21 will be the Kings Norton premiere of that earth-shattering work.

It comes as the culmination of a complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies given over the last few years by this youthful amateur orchestra, as Peter Marks, its founder and conductor, tells me.

“One of the most satisfying things about Eroica is that it has a distinct style and sound, mostly because Beethoven’s symphonies and concerti have been at the centre of our work. Now I find the orchestra plays with just the right sound in this music and yet it is adaptable for other repertoire.

“We’ve also performed the complete symphonies of Schumann and Brahms and these have required a much warmer sound. I find these days I am less dogmatic about things like the use of vibrato in the strings, for instance, and repeats. I think this more relaxed approach will help with Beethoven 9 - there are, after all, so many things to be thinking about as a conductor in this work!

“ Like most conductors, I’m sure, I am slightly terrified of this work but I find it in equal parts sublime, exciting and bonkers. I hope that will be reflected in the performance.

“To be honest, I didn’t expect to be able to perform this work because of the logistical difficulties of assembling the chorus. I did attempt to do this mostly myself last year but didn’t succeed. This time, I have the help of James Hockey, a member of the CBSO Chorus and a conductor himself, who has taken on the role of chorus master.

“He’s done an amazing job in finding the 40 or so singers we need with the skill and experience to put the performance together in just three rehearsals. James and I are united in our belief that a fresh approach should be taken to the sound of the chorus in this repertoire - very much in the spirit of the orchestra. In order to showcase the choir away from the orchestra, we have also programmed some unaccompanied choral music by Brahms, which follows the concert opener, Brahms’sVariations on a Theme by Haydn.”

Peter explains how he came to create the Eroica Camerata after a love of music grew in him.

“I grew up in Halesowen and went to Earls High School and King Edward VI in Stourbridge, learning violin (Dudley Music Service) and piano. Beyond A-level I pursued non-musical undergraduate and postgraduate education in order to become a genetic counsellor, working for the NHS. I work at Birmingham Women’s Hospital as a consultant genetic counsellor now and live in Kings Heath.

“ It was while I was a student that I became serious about classical music and realised I wanted to become a conductor. I knew I wanted to be a conductor partly because I find that others’ performances, however good, are never quite the way I’d like them to go. Also, when I listen to really good music-making, there’s something like an electrical charge that I feel and I always wanted to be at the centre of all that, helping to generate that charge.

“By this time I was well on my way to my career in genetic counselling, so I faced a tough choice and forging a career in music is hard enough even if you start out with the ideal qualifications! As it was, I tried conducting by auditioning to become the conductor of one of the university orchestras at Nottingham.

“It was then that I discovered that you can’t just stand in front of an orchestra and hope to be able to conduct without any training.

The conducting teacher there was very kind and gave me helpful advice. This is when I set to work learning from conducting texts and training with conductors such as Michael Rose, Jason Lai and more latterly Kenneth Woods and Mike Seal. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have been invited to rehearsals by Sir Mark Elder and my hero, the late Sir Colin Davis. I take technique very seriously and regard the baton as an instrument as much as any other. I spent months holed up with conducting texts silently practising before daring again to brave an ensemble!

“Opportunities to conduct ensembles don’t come along very often, and it was clear that if I was going to get anywhere I’d have to set up my own orchestra. There are lots of amateur ensembles in the Midlands, and so I wanted mine to have some sort of unique selling point.

“As a student, I didn’t ‘get’ Beethoven and I’d often avoid concerts altogether if his music was in the programmes – hard to imagine now! Then I started to listen to period instrument performances and these really unlocked Beethoven for me, revealing just how edgy and fascinating his symphonies and concertos really are.

“Modern instrument chamber orchestras in this repertoire were beginning to become fashionable and so I conceived Eroica Camerata in this vein. I began by purchasing a pair of Birmingham-made calf-skin copper timpani (made by a one-time CBSO timpanist back in the 1930s! cheaply on Ebay and started advertising positions in the new orchestra amongst friends and colleagues in various local orchestras and at Birmingham Conservatoire. The players were of a good enough standard to meet only twice for rehearsals (including the day of the concert) and so this has been our template ever since. Our first public concert took place in September 2005 at Birmingham Conservatoire.

“We’ve been performing at St Nicolas Church in Kings Norton since 2011. We were looking for alternative local venues as the concert halls at the Conservatoire had far from ideal acoustics, were relatively expensive to hire and didn’t always draw large audiences. I had attended concerts at St Nicolas and was really impressed by both the acoustic and the ambience. We have performed there three times a year ever since then, with the support of Sylvia Fox and her colleagues there. Our wonderful audience there has been growing steadily, which we’re delighted about.”

And Peter adds a delightful coda to our interview.

“The orchestra has been life-changing in more ways than one. Our principal viola, Lily, joined the orchestra in 2007 as a Conservatoire viola student and we went on to marry in 2013. There are quite a few couples who play in Eroica but this has been the only orchestra-inspired wedding so far. Who knows if there will be more?”

* The Eroica Camerata plays Beethoven and Brahms at Kings Norton Parish Church on Saturday, January 21 (7.30pm). Details on eroica.org.uk

Upcoming Concerts

* Today: Andris Nelsons returns to the CBSO with the Fourth Symphony of Anton Bruckner, a composer with whom he’s closely identified. Hakan Hardenberger is soloist in the Trumpet Concerto by the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (Symphony Hall 7.30pm).

* Tomorrow: CBSO principal oboist Rainer Gibbons is joined by Lena Zeliszewska, Christopher Yates and David Powell in quartets by J.C. Bach, Britten and Mozart (CBSO Centre, Berkley Street 1.10pm).

* Tuesday: Much anticipated, Edward Gardner brings his Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra to Symphony Hall in a programme of Grieg (Peer Gynt Suite no.1), Elgar’s Cello Concerto (Truls Mork the soloist), and Walton’s First Symphony, considered by many this country’s greatest (7.30pm).

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