North Devon Sinfonia wins BBC Two’s Great Orchestra Challenge

We don’t realise it, but we are spoilt by both the range of UK professional orchestras and the programmes they put on. We assume that’s the only classical music worth considering in this country. It isn’t.

All Together Now, BBC Two’s examination of the UK’s amateur orchestral scene stirs memories and reinforces some of those implicit messages. The most potent and regretfully overlooked being this: classical music doesn’t need to be perfect for it to be valid.

Benjamin Britten – arguably this country’s most potent classical music export – understood that well enough. In 1952, seven years after the composer’s seminal operatic work Peter Grimes had premiered at Sadlers Well and long after Britten’s professional reputation had been secured, the Aldeburgh Music Club – a group for amateur singers was established.

Why would Britten have made a conscious effort to work with amateur singers when the currency of his reputation meant he could, surely, command the services of any professional singing group?

Cynics would say that he recognised he wouldn’t have to pay amateurs for any works he might create for them. A more charitable interpretation would be that he recognised how important it was for people to be actively engaged in music-making.

Aldeburgh Music Club is today a group of singers supported by a mix of professional and amateur music-makers, but the group’s founding aims remains as true today as it did then. The comparatively passive classical music world that most of us experience as members of the audience does amateur music making a massive disservice. It overlooks the effort people make to put on a performance, and the pleasure they derive from the process.

At the same time as highlighting a thriving amateur music-making endeavour which has thrived in this country for at least the past 60 years, All Together Now legitimised it too. Watch any one of the four episodes and that will be painfully obvious. If one enters into a process where quality is strived for and expectations managed, then the result is always going to be rewarding, far more so than the contractural obligations most of us have to withstand. Be you player or audience member, everyone is supporting one another. No-one is doing it for money: they’re doing it for love.

In that atmosphere people smile a lot. They giggle at themselves. They pat one another on the back. They forgive one another.

I’ve been in amongst it myself. What we’re striving for is the long-lost reminder of our first experience playing in an orchestra – the miracle of seeing the impossible instrumental part we’ve practised on our own miraculously make sense when its interwoven with the textures we hear all around us as we play.

I watched each episode of All Together Now and envied the participating bands: communities coalescing around a shared challenge and a shared goal. Other than church, I can point to no other endeavour where so many people of different ages come together – surely the next challenge we all of us need to tackle.

There was no sense of one orchestra being better than the other during the series. Such judgment cruelly denies every single player’s individual committment to their art. Instead there was an infectious spirit of camaraderie between the bands. The prize was, in a sense, moot. What meant more was seeing something I know I’ve benefited from in my time celebrated on screen. Long overdue.

There had to be winners, of course. I had a hunch it would be the North Devon Sinfonia when I watched them and finalists Stirling Orchestra play their extracts from Elgar’s Enigma Variations at the Royal Albert Hall a few weeks back. I made notes as I listened.

My presence there was only because of a serendiptious interview with the conductor from North Devon Sinfonia a few days before.

“Jon, are you from Suffolk?” said the voice over the phone.
“Yes, I am from Suffolk.”
“I think you know my husband.”
“Oh really? Who is your husband?”
“Daniel Kent.”

This came as a complete surprise. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I might know anyone involved in the competition.

Dan Kent and I have a connection that goes back a long way. County Youth Orchestra, late-eighties/early-nineties. Dan played in the second violins, I played in the woodwind sat next to Dan’s brother Rob who was irritatingly good at the clarinet. I’m someone who is always thrilled by the unexpected. This interview and the unexpected news which emerged, transformed what had been an otherwise demanding day.

Perhaps it wasn’t so surprising after all: Dan and I, and the other members of the Suffolk Youth Orchestra, shared a similar interest back then. What was so very pleasing was that nearly thirty years later, it’s something he’s continued to pursue. Hearing Elgar’s Enigma – a work SYO played back in the early nineties – brought those early memories flooding back.

But All Together Now reminded me of other stuff. I saw flashes of the same enthusiasm for the end-goal me and my contemporaries experienced when we went on the many tours the Suffolk Youth Music Service ran. We all strived for perfection playing concerts in unexpected locations. We were transported by the experience. Did we realise we were taking it all for granted.

The moment when North Devon Sinfonia won their opportunity to play at Proms in the Park – took me back to County Youth. Seeing both orchestras bond after the final result was announced was a delicious reminder of heartfelt goodbyes after many meaningful summer-long concert tours.

Don’t watch All Together Now for perfection. Watch it for the power inspiration has over those hungry to improve. And when you’re engrossed in it, watch out for the joy on people’s faces when they’ve completed their contribution. That’s real, unadulterated joy you’re seeing there. Every competing orchestra was an advert for the benefits of participatory music-making all too many classical music experts dismiss as unimportant.

All Together Now was a joyous celebration of amateur music making that rejected cringeworthy cliches and tired TV tropes, trusting its audience to appreciate the very thing its programme makers sought to highlight. As a TV programme it is a template for how to authentically introduce new music to an unsuspecting audience in such a way that long after the credits have rolled they’ll run off and find the music themselves on Spotify. All the orchestras benefited from the passion and enthusiasm of conductor Paul Daniel and bassist Chi-Chi Nwanoku. Presenter Katie Derham appeared in her element too, geeing the players up, supporting them, and catching them when they fell.

I’m not entirely sure whether All Together Now can come back for another series, but I really hope someone tries. It deserves too. It also feels like a programme made just for me.

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