Birmingham music graduates vying for UK title

Prom date prize for top orchestra.

Three orchestras that feature current students and graduates from Birmingham Conservatoire are among five ensembles battling in out to be crowned the UK’s most inspirational amateur group. After a nationwide search, current Conservatoire students and alumni in The People’s Orchestra, the North Devon Sinfonia and Stirling Orchestra join the London Gay Symphony Orchestra and Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra in the competition finals.

The latter stages of the competition will be screened as a four-part series – All Together Now: The Great Orchestra Challenge – on the BBC.

West Bromwich-based The People’s Orchestra is an independent charity delivering music-related projects across the West Midlands and features a diverse mix of musicians aged between 18 and 75. Alongside Birmingham Conservatoire students, their line-up includes a British Airways pilot, retired aeronautical engineer and a number of doctors and teachers

Conducted by Birmingham Conservatoire graduate Dan Watson, The People’s Orchestra also includes current student Rachael Kendall on saxophone, Edwin Podolski on viola, Dani Bianco-Albert on trumpet and recent graduate Joseph Smith on trombone.

Furthermore, Orchestra members Amrit Sohal (French horn) and Xhosa Cole (saxophone) will both be joining Birmingham Conservatoire as undergraduates next month.

Meanwhile, North Devon Sinfonia was founded by Birmingham alumni – and husband and wife – Dan and Emma Kent in 2004, and their orchestra performs an eclectic repertoire of symphonic music spanning the Romantic era, 20th century and the present day. Their line-up is rich and varied, and includes a cheese maker, lupin grower, postman, and a number of doctors and teachers.

Alongside conductor Emma and leader and violinist Dan, North Devon Sinfonia also features Birmingham Conservatoire graduates Tim Baker (clarinet), Jenny Baker (violin), Rebecca Betambeau (viola), Simon Robilliard (trombone) and Sandra Sutton (violin).

North Devon Sinfonia Musical Director Emma Kent graduated from Birmingham Conservatoire with First-class honours in 1999. She said: “I am delighted North Devon Sinfonia was picked to be featured in this new BBC series and the orchestra themselves have gained a great deal from the experience already, both in terms of friendship and collaboration, as well as more tangible musical improvements.

“I certainly drew on skills I gained whilst at Birmingham Conservatoire, where my sense of entrepreneurship was encouraged. I think those formative experiences of creating, rehearsing, analysing and marketing our self-styled chamber music groups helped me to learn the key skills needed to succeed. It was also great getting to watch all those great conductors whilst on the CBSO Training Scheme, including – of course – Sir Simon Rattle!”

Violinist Chloe Kirton graduated from Birmingham Conservatoire in 2011 and will be appearing in the BBC series with Stirling Orchestra.

Part of Birmingham City University and with a history dating back to 1859, Birmingham Conservatoire is one of the leading music academies in the country. Internationally renowned cellist Professor Julian Lloyd Webber took up the role of its Principal in 2015, as the Conservatoire prepares to move to a new state-of-the-art facility next year.

The Great Orchestra Challenge will be presented by BBC Radio 3 and BBC Proms presenter Katie Derham. The orchestras will be mentored by double-bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku, and judging the orchestras will be conductor Paul Daniel.

Conductor Paul Daniel said: “I’ll be looking for the orchestra that goes beyond technical excellence; they’ll have to capture the spirit and excitement of British amateur music, they have to really engage us musically and emotionally and connect with their audience. No matter where and how they start out, I want my ‘best’ orchestra to discover and really develop its potential.”

The series will visit the orchestras in their home-towns, meeting the players in their homes and in rehearsal, taking part in masterclasses and staging their own concerts. It begins on BBC Four at 9pm on Tuesday 30th August, with the winning orchestra crowned in the final episode on BBC Two.

The champions will perform on stage at BBC Proms in the Park, in Hyde Park, London, which will be filmed for broadcast in the final episode of the series.