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Culture: Breaking down barriers

By Debbie Rodman

Suffolk Philharmonic at The Apex
Suffolk Philharmonic at The Apex

It’s an orchestra with a social conscience. Founder and conductor Leslie Olive tells Debbie Rodman how the Suffolk Philharmonic Orchestra is about so much more than music ahead of its concert as part of the Bury St Edmunds Festival 2018

As part of this year’s Bury Festival, the Suffolk Philharmonic Orchestra will be performing an all Russian programme with special guest pianist and Lizst international Piano Competition winner Alexander Ullman.

Since its inception six years ago, the orchestra of international calibre musicians has performed at every festival, but look beyond the conductor’s baton and there is so much more to this group of talented players.

While playing concerts to classical music lovers is its most obvious role, the Suffolk Philharmonic is eager to cast off any suggestion of elitism and snobbery and introduce its music to the wider community and young people.

Orchestra members spend much of their time performing community concerts in village halls and working with young people in schools – something founder and conductor Leslie Olive is passionate about.

“Because I spent half my life as a teacher I’m passionate about getting young people into music. We are constantly looking for ways to draw the young in, and when I say young I don’t just mean teenagers, I mean people at the beginning of a professional career for whom playing for us is a really valuable experience because it might be repertoire they haven’t covered before,” he explained.

It was his vision which saw the orchestra formed in 2012. Having conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra, the London Mozart Players and the English Chamber Orchestra, and having moved to Suffolk in 2000, he noticed the county had something missing.

“I was conducting a performance of The Messiah one day in Surrey and chatting to the leader of the orchestra and saying how much I loved living in Suffolk, but the one thing we didn’t have was a fully professional orchestra that was seen frequently in places like The Apex – and I was thinking of setting something like that up. He said to me ‘Well if you ever get that going I would like to come and play for you’. He is a member of London Philharmonia Orchestra and within a week had mentioned it to a few friends who said ‘We like the sound of going to play in Suffolk from time to time’.”

Leslie mentioned the idea of the orchestra to a former pupil who was now a successful businessman and he offered financial help.

“It was an alignment of opportunities – we had some money, we had this lovely new venue in The Apex, we had top professional players, international calibre players who wanted to play, and with my two choirs – Eye Bach Choir and Stowmarket Chorale, that was 150 people locally who I knew would support and help me get the word around. I also had a very good relationship with the cathedral and Bury Festival organiser Nick Wells who said he would have an event in the festival. . . so you can see how all those things coming together made me think that if ever there was going to be a time to do this, this is it.”

Leslie put together a programme of music and involved pupils from local schools who played shoulder to shoulder with the professionals at the launch concert in the cathedral in May 2012.

“And that emphasis on being engaged with young people and supporting the county’s work with young people and music, that’s very, very important to me,” he explained.

Going into schools is part of that. “What we’ve tended to do with music in schools is say well OK what they really want is pop music, a bit of reggae. . . so we better help them do it. But I think that’s a cop out. They need to listen to Beethoven. We expect every kid to experience Shakespeare sometime while they’re at school. Well how easy is that for them? Not easy at all. Visionary teachers, inspiring teachers, can have the effect that kids grow up thinking I understood that, I did a bit of that. And yet we don’t do the same with music. We don’t think to ourselves somewhere in the school career we’ve got to give these kids a chance to react to Beethoven, Mozart, Vaughan Williams…

Leslie exudes enthusiam for this role of his orchestra. “It makes me passionate about supporting teachers in schools who are doing their best and the ones that are really making it work. We took four of our string professionals into a primary school and spent a morning with these kids playing alongside and having fun with them, dancing around the room with our players. They could look at these players and think ‘that could be me, I’ve already made a start, that could be me’.

“At Exning School the music teacher has lots of woodwind going on – lots of clarinets and saxophones – so we had this enormous jam session and the sound was delightful chaos with a string quartet of professionals and about 18 kids playing saxophones and clarinets.”

The orchestra’s social agenda is equally as important and grew out of an idea Leslie had while walking his dog in his home village of Rattlesden. He wondered how many people there had ever had the opportunity to hear live music. It was the start of the orchestra’s community concerts. Rattlesden pavilion staged the first. “We got some people to provide lunch and invited anyone who wanted to come to hear an hour’s fabulous music, close up and then have lunch and it was all free.”

Since then it has performed around 19 community concerts across the county and received glowing feedback. “We put out cards asking people for their thoughts – we expect ‘lovely concert’ ‘fabulous players’ but we get people saying quite intimate things.

“You look at those and think this is not just entertainment, it’s touching people where it matters.

“And then we began to realise it was also a small contribution on rural isolation and loneliness, so we really wanted to develop this.”

The orchestra now has a scheme, when funding is available, whereby attendees at the community concerts can access a full-blown concert at a reduced price and with free travel to the event.

“That’s our community programme and we just want to do more and more of those,” said Leslie.

The Suffolk Philharmonic Orchestra under Leslie’s direction has already cast off the shadow of elitism and snobbery surrounding classical music and is opening the doors of concert halls for all to enjoy its magical sound. Long may it continue.

The concert

The Suffolk Philharmonic Orchestra regularly plays at The Apex and will be performing its festival concert there on Sunday, May 20, at 4pm.

Conductor Leslie Olive is full of praise for the venue. “All of us who live anywhere around here should be immensely proud of having The Apex. It’s a buzzing place. We absolutely love performing here, it’s a fabulous venue. Julian Lloyd Webber reckons acoustically it’s the best small venue in the country.”

Alexander Ullman is the special guest for the concert. “Alex has played with us before. He’s going to play the most delicious piano concerto of them all Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2. Just gorgeous, gorgeous music,” outlined Leslie, adding: “I’m a little bit low brow really, classically speaking. I love a good tune and those big romantic textures – scrumptious.”

The concert will open with Glinka Overture to the opera Ruslan and Ludmila. “I describe it as a firecracker, it goes at the most immense rate and it takes a very, very fine orchestra to play it,” said Leslie. “So we’re going to start with this complete firecracker and then we’ll do the concerto with Alex then it’s Tchaikovsky Symphony No 5 in E after the interval – a great rousing finale with this magnificent and extraordinary Tchaikovsky.”

Suffolk Philharmonic Orchestra, May 20, The Apex, Bury St Edmunds. Call 01284 758000 or visit theapex.co.uk

Diary dates

The orchestra will be back at The Apex on June 30 for Armed Forces Day. “The concert will include the theme tune to 633 Squadron, which is my favourite,” said orchestra conductor and founder Leslie Olive. “We’ll probably do The Dambusters and I hope we’re going to do the Regimental Quick March of the Royal Anglian Regiment but I have yet to find out whether there is an arrangement for symphony orchestras. There’ll also be a number of military marches, some film theme tunes. . . so it will be a very popular easy access classical concert with a kind of Last Night at the Proms atmosphere. I’m very much looking forward to that.”

The orchestra will be joined by the sparkling trumpet of Crispian Steele-Perkins and Suffolk soprano Lisa Cassidy.

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