Opera Company Helps Birmingham Music Students

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By Diane Parkes

WHEN Welsh National Orchestra visit Birmingham this month they will not only be performing live on stage they will also be giving a helping hand to the musicians of the future.

Because the company, which stages Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, Giacomo Puccini’s Madam Butterfly and Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner’s Dream at the Hippodrome  will also be taking time out from rehearsals to work with young musicians at Birmingham Conservatoire.

This summer will be the second time the professional musicians have shared their skills with the students – but it parallels a similar project which has been taking place in their home city of Cardiff for nearly 20 years.

Spearheading the work for WNO is bassoonist Chris Vale who first launched the project with Phil Boughton orchestra manager, known as side-by-side, in the mid 1990s after teaching at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Initially it involved just a handful of students but today it has become an ambitious scheme which has helped many young people gain a real understanding of playing in an opera orchestra.

“When I was working at the college I was dealing with a lot of the same students for outreach work at the college and the thing that they all said was that they had not realised how precise an opera orchestra had to be,” says Chris. “We might play a whole section as a professional orchestra and then the conductor will say ‘quieter’, ‘louder’, ‘do this’, ‘play it this way’ or ‘play it again’. And although the students do that of course with the college orchestras I think they suddenly realised the dynamic range of a professional orchestra and also the things that are unique to opera orchestras. That is things like not being too loud for the singers, trying to keep the pitch incredibly steady so that the singers know where they can pitch it, and also just the complication of all those different keys and the length of time that you have to play. I think those were some of the big things that they learnt.

“The success story is that some of the students who have been on placements and have now left the college are coming in as paid extras for us in the orchestra. And that is a real reward.”

Side-by-side has been so successful in Cardiff that this year WNO have launched a similar scheme with students at Birmingham Conservatoire.

“In this summer season Birmingham is the only place we tour to,” says Chris. “This is because the size of the Hippodrome Theatre is big enough to accommodate our large production of Wagner’s Lohengrin, unlike many other places we tour to. I am from Coventry originally and have contacts with Birmingham and it seemed to make sense that if we were going to be there for a week then we ought to be doing something operatic for the students at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

“So we actually started it with our last visit to Birmingham in March when we were performing Lulu, The Cunning Little Vixen and Madam Butterfly.

“We asked the Conservatoire to come up with their best players. And I felt it was right to let the college make the decision.”

“We did a wind and brass sectional on Madam Butterfly with Frédéric Chaslin, the conductor conducting it, which was marvellous. The students were just amazed that the principal conductor was conducting this sectional. He was wonderful with them.

“We had ten wind, four brass and eight strings. The brass had a workshop on Lohengrin for the first hour and then joined us for Madam Butterfly. The strings had a workshop the day before on the Dvorak Serenade for Strings. The students told us they really appreciated the technical standards that they have to reach.”

WNO’s summer season will certainly give the students an opportunity to flex their musical muscles. It sees the return of Puccini’s tale of doomed romance Madam Butterfly as well as Wagner’s epic Lohengrin and the first fully staged performance in England of Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream.

This work, which was first staged in Amsterdam in 2007, is a blend of biography and fantasy set to a dramatic contemporary score. It takes us to Venice to the end of the Wagner’s life where the composer is tormented by the fact he has never fulfilled his desire to write a music drama about the life of the Buddha.

“We are just talking about what we will do this summer and we are looking into doing something with Wagner Dream because the Conservatoire has such a strong contemporary music group,” says Chris. “They will be coming to Cardiff to observe a rehearsal and they will come and see Wagner Dream in Birmingham which will be interesting for them. It is so unusual to do and an extraordinary piece of writing.”

Many of those young musicians will also be playing at Wales Millennium Centre for the WNO Youth Opera production of Paul Bunyan in August, which features a voiceover by comedian and television presenter Stephen Fry.

“The band for WNO Youth Opera this time will be students from Birmingham Conservatoire, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and Cardiff University” says Chris.

“The new partnership between WNO and Birmingham Conservatoire got off to a tremendous start in March. Working with full orchestral sections, and lead by David Adams (WNO Leader) and maestro Frédéric Chaslin, it provided an inspiring and in-depth experience of operatic playing for our students,” says Conservatoire director of orchestral programme and head of brass department David Purser. “Tea and cake, with the opportunity to mingle informally after the workshop sessions, seemed to be enjoyed by students and WNO members alike! We very much look forward to taking the collaboration forward next year.”

Many of the students who took part in the spring project say they gained a real insight into the work of an opera orchestra.

“It was a first for me to personally sit in with an opera orchestra and the way that they play is very different to your typical symphony orchestra,” says clarinet student Tom Howells. “It was nice to be able to play some opera repertoire. For somebody who had never played in that sort of scenario before, I feel it would definitely have been an eye opener as the intensity is very high compared to your typical symphony orchestra. There are almost no rests in opera music and you need to be on the ball all of the time.”

Violin student Kathryn Coleman says it was a privilege to play alongside WNO’s strings.

“They made us feel welcome and encouraged us in the first violins to move around so we all had the opportunity to play in different positions,” she says. “The rehearsal was fun and productive. I came away with a new love for the WNO after being given the honour of rehearsing with them.”
Fellow violin student Daniel Peev added: “It was such a pleasure to have the opportunity to play with such a professional orchestra. Rehearsing one of my favourite pieces at such high standard was both pleasant and really useful. I thought the skill to develop that day was to learn how to play in a smaller section and I felt our hosts did extremely well to make us feel part of the section.”