Reuniting the Suffolk Youth Orchestra

busPictured above is the Suffolk Youth Orchestra’s ‘Class of 1990’ participating in a post-concert sing-along revelling in our earlier triumph playing Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony to an audience somewhere in Germany. The expression on our faces is a mixture of relief, elation and excitement at the prospect of the then customary post-concert drink (some of us repeatedly took the call to arms a little too far).

There are albums full of pictures like this – snapshots of a moment in time I can still recall, still taste and still yearn for to a certain extent. They are pictures which don’t so much transport back in time to my youth, but remind me of a series of unbreakable personal connections formed with a musical soundtrack I never tire of listening to (well, except for the Strauss-waltz programme we embarked upon two years later).

There’s been a lot of talk about reuniting the orchestra. Well, at least I think so. I’ve often imagined what it might be like. What would getting back together reveal? Aside from personal stories, would there be anything we’d learn about the importance of music education on individuals demonstrated in their adult lives? Or maybe that was just in my head. As it turned out there were other people who were thinking along the same lines.

It was only a matter of time then before the inevitable of projects began to weigh heavily. The ultimate of reunions. Could the Suffolk Youth Orchestra reunite?

It’s hardly a new idea. There are school reunions – formal and informal – all the time. They’ve been the stuff of screenplays, stage plays, radio plays and extended TV dramas. It’s predictable. We all know how they begin and we all have a reasonably good idea despite everyone’s protestations to the contrary – how they will end.

Bringing the members of the Suffolk Youth Orchestra back together isn’t my idea: the man responsible is a good friend called Richard, someone I met because of Suffolk Youth and whom like many others in the group I’ve maintained a connection with over the intervening 25 years since.

I suspect (though he may correct me here if I’ve got it wrong) what kicked the idea into touch was a chance gathering of a select few from the old Suffolk Youth woodwind section at a local ‘come and play’ session in south east London. There, two bassoonists (one of them had to ring up the owners of the house she used to own to see if she had left her instruments in their loft the day she moved out) and a clarinettist (me) joined what was effectively nothing more than a string quartet, timpani player and a scratch choir, to perform Mozart’s Requiem.

The experience was incredibly moving for us. It was the first time we’d played together for 22 years and whilst we all agreed we could have done with ‘just a few more strings’, it was the unmistakable joy experienced when hearing your line intertwined with the instrumental line next to you which led to a few modest tears being shed and (when we missed notes or key signatures) a great deal of laughing.

The smiles on our faces (disregard the beer upstaging me) are genuine. They are the faces of people reconnecting with the very thing they bonded with in the first place. I know how I felt that day when I took the picture of the three of us, just as I remember how I think we collectively felt during the bus journey home 22 years ago.

It was that picture I glibly posted on Facebook which prompted Richard already keen to get the band together again to go into overdrive and try and make it happen.

It hasn’t happened, yet. But it will do. In February next year. And I am – unexpectedly – looking forward to it. Although that enthusiasm – genuine and sincere, in case you’re wondering – comes with some personal (ish) caveats.

1. This isn’t a re-enactment of a summer tour or ‘Culford Course’

Those experiences were important – vital, in some respects for me – but they can never be repeated. Relatively speaking, cut-off from the outside world and subjected to a different daily schedule of intense rehearsals in the grounds of a large country house, it was little wonder that the experience of music making and relaxing would be an intense one. Young people who do the course now say the same. The summer tours even more so – they are the present-day more culturally sound version of reality TV, without the voting. Life-changing as I found both, they were artificial experiences, as I quickly realised when I arrived at University and discovered to my horror that higher education wasn’t going to be one long SYO tour.

2. It’s not about getting to play in an orchestra again.

I mean, it is about playing in an orchestra, but it’s not really about revisiting the orchestral playing experience. There are plenty of opportunities to play in my locality – many of which I pass on. If it was that important to play in an orchestra regularly, why wouldn’t I go and join them?

3. It’s not about the repertoire.

The repertoire we play will undoubtedly depend on who is available for the dates in February. It’s also dependent on what the budget will stretch to (there is no budget) and the likelihood of successfully getting to the end of the work in the time we have available (considerably less than a normal set of SYO rehearsals). And that decision is best made by those who know who the personnel list is and who know what’s realistic and what’s not.

Personally, I’m not interested in playing stuff I know already. To take the hard-core approach, what would be the point in re-experiencing something we played extensively as teenagers. I’d rather have an opportunity to experience what I considered the most lasting experience of youth orchestra: the discipline and the aspiration. I’d like to learn something new and in the process of doing that see whether my memory is playing tricks on me or whether what we learnt was because of the drive, enthusiasm and dogged commitment of the conductor – the same man who’ll conduct the band this time around.

Not everyone will necessarily share the same view. Of course and quite understandably, there are quite a lot of people who are risk averse when it comes to revisiting something they haven’t done for two decades. Doing something familiar – doing something they recognise – is part of eliminating some of the risk. And I quite understand that. I’m probably a bit weird.

4. It’s about planning and logistics

It was a lot easier when we were kids. We didn’t have jobs. We didn’t have children (actually, I don’t). We didn’t have to commute. There weren’t bills to pay or mortgages weighing down on us. A weekend away playing music was an escape. Twenty odd years later its a logistical challenge, one which inevitably prompts the question: is it really worth it? What’s in it for me?

That’s a difficult thing for the individual and one significant block. It’s also turns what could be a straightforward process for the organiser into a draining experience, because that organising is being done in addition to a full-time job. There by the grace of God, etc…

4. I’m in it for the long haul

The first date in February isn’t going to be perfect. In fact (between you and me) I’m bracing myself for it being quite messy and unpleasant. There’ll be a mixture of nervous and piteous glances to the podium whenever we stop playing. The likelihood of it being the kind of concert I think I remember from the picture at the top of this post is very, very low. So low in fact, it’s a pipe dream worth shattering long before I commit to that weekend. Anything else is a bonus, but really it’s probably going to be a bit messy.

A handful of former players (mastermind behind the project Richard Morris on the right of the picture) met up with Philip Shaw in June of this year to talk through some ideas.

No, this endeavour is the first in a necessarily long line of play-throughs, rehearsals or scratch-concerts which will I personally hope will lead inexorably to the real goal – the thing I’d really love to experience one more time: a concert in Snape Maltings Concert Hall.

It’s not about me, though. I just share some of the thoughts I’ve been having about the project. I’ll admit I’ve hesitated on occasions although I’m relieved it’s in February next year (there are all sorts of work-related pressures approaching which would have made November a complete no-go). The extra few months will give us all collectively an opportunity to reach out to a whole host of others who are yet to be persuaded to make the journey to Northgate Arts Centre.

And ultimately, the only thing we’ve got to prepared to do is (other than arrange child-minding which I know is not necessarily an easy task) take the smallest of risks and see what happens.

To find out more about the SYO Reunion Project send a request to the Facebook group here. There’s also a new Twitter account – @syoreunion run by Richard Morris. 

The group will get together at Northgate Arts Centre on the 22 and 23 February 2014. Spread the word to other former players who may not already be aware of the project or who are as yet undecided or in need of gentle persuasion.

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