Amateur orchestras rising to the challenge
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)?