Passionate amateurs who love a challenge are the heart and soul of orchestral music, writes Christopher Morley.
It’s a tale of three orchestras on Sunday, all of them amateur, but all with a proven track record of playing to the highest professional standards.
The longest established is the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra, founded nearly 70 years ago, and maintaining its enviable reputation for tackling some of the mightiest works in the repertoire with immense success.
There is an educational aspect to this, bringing to BPO members the chance to pit their skills against such mighty works, works which professional orchestras having to pay its players might think twice about programming.
Having said that, Sunday’s programme under music director Michael Lloyd is relatively modest in terms of orchestral forces: Strauss’ Rosenkavalier Suite, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, and Rachmaninov’s Symphony no.3.
Soloist in the Ravel is Peter Donohoe, Patron of the BPO, and making his first appearance with the orchestra.
His views of the distinction between amateur and professional are typically trenchant, as he tells me from his Solihull home: “I don’t regard the main issue to be whether or not the musicians concerned are amateur or professional. It’s more important that they’re genuinely interested and committed to music.
‘‘I’ve always considered that the real musical culture of any country is based around its local communities and their activities, rather than in the sort of huge money-spinning events that seem to get bigger every year – like concerts at the NIA or NEC in Birmingham’s case, and every city has its equivalent.
“There’s nothing at all wrong with making the most out of a huge superstar in the world of music – we performers always aspire to that position after all – but we must be careful that we don’t think that that’s everything and forget the hundreds and thousands of wonderful musicians, both amateur and professional, who continue our great musical heritage.
“That’s a rather sweeping bracket! I mean local music societies, amateur and semi-professional orchestras, choirs, brass bands – indeed anything that is community-based.
‘‘I think the events are more important to the people involved and to the community – and ultimately to the general cultural level of the country – than a gigantic commercial venture can ever be.”
Peter then comes out with a shrewd observation. “Further, I believe that no one is in any position to really judge for themselves how good a performance by a superstar actually is, unless they have had real exposure to music in general, and at all levels.. It’s important that we don’t think of this as one or the other – amateur or superstar, student or venerable universally-accepted ‘great’ artist.
There is a huge spectrum of music-making in between, from young people’s orchestras, through amateur orchestras and freelance professional orchestras, contract orchestras like the CBSO, visiting ones like the London orchestras, and superstar ones from other countries – and that’s mentioning only the orchestral world.
“One of my favourite phrases in this regard is ‘you cannot have the cream without the milk’. I don’t think I know of anything truer!”
I then ask what I fear is a stupid question: what does the pianist do with his right hand when playing a concerto for left (and there several, including examples by Prokofiev, Janacek, Britten and Richard Strauss)?
“The weird thing about playing music for the left hand is that by the end of the performance you’re fully warmed up on one side”, he explains. “The left hand feels like it normally does after a concert, but the right hand feels like it does after having not played for a week. It’s a very odd sensation, it almost makes you feel unbalanced in the physical sense.
“And the serious answer to your question is that I sometimes use my right hand to provide a balancing grip on the top end of the piano whenever the left hand is required to leap around, as it does near the beginning of the Ravel.’’
Donohoe was awarded the CBE in this year’s New Year’s Honours list (overdue, many might think). His reaction to the accolade is interesting.
“I think it’s not so much to do with whether or not the government committee that decides these things thinks you are a good pianist (or whatever you are), but whether or not you have contributed something to the community.
“It was stated that it was given to me for ‘services to classical music’, but I do like to believe that it is something more societal than that.
‘‘I’ve always believed that music and the arts are much more important to society as a whole than society tends to realise – and that is no truer anywhere in the world than it is in this country – and it’s always been my ambition to contribute in some way to making that fact more widely accepted, to bring music to a wider audience without dumbing anything down, and to use whatever abilities I have been born with to be genuinely British and to contribute something to Britain.”
There’s another piano concerto being performed the same evening, over at the Artrix in Bromsgrove, where the Central England Ensemble, conducted by Anthony Bradbury, gives the premiere of the Piano Concerto no.2 of Anthony Bridgewater, played by its composer.
“The first movement is rather like a nocturne, a night time piece but with dark and dramatic events at its heart; I can well remember dark winter evenings, after my children were in bed, sitting at the piano overlooking my garden as I wrote it,” says Bridgewater, director of music at Old Swinford Hospital School in Stourbridge.
Tony’s Concerto is framed by two Shostakovich works: the showy Festive Overture and the Symphony no.10, fraught with personal political tensions.
And back in Birmingham the astounding young talents of the CBSO Youth Orchestra are conducted by Michael Seal in April-England by John Foulds, and Walton’s biting Symphony no.1.
Centrepiece of this all-English programme at Symphony Hall is the Elgar Cello Concerto, with Andreas Brantelid the soloist.
And how gratifying that all three concerts are devoted to music of the last century. Those people (there are still some) who blanketly profess not to like 20th century music should think on.
* Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra at Adrian Boult Birmingham (Sunday February 21, 7.30pm). Details on 0121 303 2323
Central England Ensemble at the Artrix, Bromsgrove (Sunday February 21, 7.30pm). Details on 0773 425 6268.
CBSO Youth Orchestra at Symphony Hall Birmingham (Sunday February 21, 7pm). Details on 0121 780 3333