The sounds of things to come

A new orchestra without an audience is doomed. The founder of the Soloists Ensemble explains how and why education is at the heart of its work
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The Independent Culture

Britain needs new orchestras like the Sahara needs more sun. Better orchestras are another matter, and there's more to "better" than playing slickly. Unless they retreat into the heritage culture, they have to find their way in a world that forces a huge range of music on everybody's attention. They can no longer expect the world to come to them just because they shine in their own terms; they have to be inclusive enough to meet the public at least half way, especially if they ask for public money. If they can't do it, they should let a fresh generation try.

Britain needs new orchestras like the Sahara needs more sun. Better orchestras are another matter, and there's more to "better" than playing slickly. Unless they retreat into the heritage culture, they have to find their way in a world that forces a huge range of music on everybody's attention. They can no longer expect the world to come to them just because they shine in their own terms; they have to be inclusive enough to meet the public at least half way, especially if they ask for public money. If they can't do it, they should let a fresh generation try.

The London debut of the Soloists Ensemble, a young professional string group, is one pointer to the future. Launched without subsidy so far, the ensemble nevertheless appears to be the first of its kind to put education and community engagement on a genuinely equal footing. Its Southwark Festival date on 9 October places its schools project - based on a specially written work by six well-known composers and an author - at the heart of the concert, instead of shunting it off to a sideshow in the usual way.

Another feature will influence the orchestra's sound. It set out to recruit players who were either just out of college or still in their first few years in the profession. This is a crucial period in which musicians can easily be stranded, short of experience, between the best youth orchestras and the competitive world of the established ensembles. Some drop out. Those who last are likely to be highly motivated, with a distinctive combination of youthful enthusiasm and newly perfected technique which rarely survives the batterings of routine orchestral life.

Robert Turrell, the ensemble's founder and music director, can't remember which plan came first: the string orchestra, or the education programme. Forty this year, he is an experienced orchestral viola player and conductor with an international outlook, and has been on the staff of Trinity College in London since 1981. He has given master classes in New York and arts management seminars in Britain. He also has the unusual second career of financial planning, thanks to a family firm. "It's always been my ambition," Turrell says, "to set up a really good string orchestra. I was looking to do it at 50, but I'd been working with amateur string groups and that just pushed it forward."

His model is an orchestra that his teacher, the late Nicholas Roth, ran in the Sixties and Seventies: the London Soloists Ensemble. Besides the tribute in his choice of name, Turrell loved the orchestra's style - they played standing up, with a central-European flair. Its recordings are still fondly remembered. "I'm not a great admirer of the authentic/original string sound which has been around for 20 or 25 years now. I've gone to the other end of the spectrum and I'm interested in dynamic, full-blooded playing and 20th century repertoire," he says.

Turrell started developing the idea two years ago, and in the first half of 1998 he set about auditioning string players in their final college year. One London conservatoire did not co-operate, the others ranged from helpful to encouraging, and in any case students from all of them showed up. A total of 21 players were selected to rehearse and play pilot concerts in Sheffield and Sevenoaks that October. These would decide whether the enterprise had a fighting chance.

At the time, the ensemble appeared to have found its own sound quickly, a distinctive blend of passion and precision. In Stravinsky's Apollo, a searching test of any string group, you could see as well as hear the internal strengths: lots of eye contact, lots of listening, the players standing to boost alertness. Turrell reckons that this was not yet the ideal sound, more a starting point, but it was strong enough to put out a promotional CD. The Southwark date materialised, as did sponsorship from Lincoln, the financial services company.

"It worked almost exactly according to the book, because we wanted to make our London debut in conjunction with the launch of our national education programme," says Turrell. The key to this was worked out by Turrell and a Trinity colleague, Douglas Young. It was a multi-cultural project to involve a large number of children, aged from seven to 11, in rehearsing and performing a new piece. The project distinguished itself from purely creative exercises by aiming "to give them the experience of a buzz in performance. I don't just want to be going into schools and showing them different sounds and different cultures, I want them to be up there on the stage".

Their method was to commission a team of six composers, with an expertise in music of different parts of the world as well as the Western tradition. Malorie Blackman, the award-winning children's writer, devised a symbolic international adventure called The Lost Puzzle of Gondwana. Each composer took on a local episode. So Adrian Lee could use gamelan music; David Fanshawe incorporates a field recording from Tonga, while Priti Paintal speaks up for modern India with a vocal number that features a dance backing track - and makes the orchestra the first to play club-culture music in a straight concert. The Russian-born Elena Firsova uses a recorder ensemble, Agustin Fernandez has Latin percussion and rhythms. Mindful of the chaos that can befall multi-composer projects, Young took responsibility for linking it all together as well as providing the US section. However, the various sections allow separate schools to prepare their own contributions, joining up for final rehearsals.

"Next year we want to be doing ten or 15 performances of it throughout the country," says Turrell. "Requests are coming in, and they have to be juggled in conjunction with setting up a tour." The project is planned to develop for five years, towards a fully staged version, maybe with dance. There is talk of taking it to the US in 2001. Inclusiveness is the word: "children of all races, nationalities, backgrounds, and any degree of rechnical skill", and within schools the programme means to set off an increasing amount of cross-art connections, with art and design as well as theatre. It's ambitious, and it needs to keep raising funds. But there's something about a hall full of young energy, the professionals for once as eager as the students, that can inspire the realising of visions. Whatever happens, the orchestral treadmill will be stopped for a night and for everybody involved, life may never be quite the same again.

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