A Cunning Blog

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Jolly good fellows

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the-lord-of-the-rings-the-fellowship-of-the-ring-lotrSydney Symphony Orchestra has just announced the fifteen young musicians who make up this year’s Fellowship. Over the next twelve months violinists Gemma Lee and Bridget O’Donnell, violists Martin Alexander and Joseph Cohen, cellists Nils Hobiger and Ruben Palma, bassist Alanna Jones, flutist Kim Falconer, oboist Joshua Oates, clarinettist David McGregor, bassoonist Christopher Haycroft, French horn player Alice Yang, trumpeter
Jenna Smith, trombonist Amanda Tillett, and percussionist Samuel Butler will take part in concerts, regional tours, masterclasses, lessons, workshops and pretty much anything else the orchestral life chooses to throw at them.

On Tuesday night they gave their first official performance, a concert on the stage of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall in front of an intimate audience of supporters and special friends. The musicians, who are all in their twenties, were put on the spot. Just a week into the program, they presented a program of solos and chamber music, culminating in a tutti rendition of three Hungarian Dances by Brahms.

As you’d expect, they were pretty bloody good. But not as good as they will be, says Head of Philanthropy Rosemary Swift, in twelve months time.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra is rightly proud of their Fellowship program. Most orchestras run various variations on talent development schemes, but the SSO’s is the most comprehensive in Australia and, according to an independent report by BYP group, it gets great results, in terms of training players for an orchestral career.

What interests me, though, is the SSO’s interpretation of what an orchestral career can be. Lots of Beethoven and a good dose of Brahms? Perhaps. But also performing in country halls, playing alongside school-age kids in the Playerlink program, and even presenting workshops in a high security prison. Not as lower-price-point stand-ins, making up the numbers for the main players, but as an integral part of a community.

Alex Ross describes a similar model in Listen to Thiswhere he writes about the L.A. Phil., and their legendary manager, Ernest Fleischmann. It was Fleischmann who really grappled with how orchestras could stay relevant in the modern world – how they could become more than just replicators of museum pieces, protectors of the flame of tradition. He conceived of the orchestra as a ‘community of musicians’. In the same way that universities become communities for knowledge, the orchestra becomes a community for music, which engages with many different kinds of audiences, with many different interests, from movie soundtracks to Beethoven to Boulez and beyond.

The SSO Fellowship certainly offers wonderful opportunities to its chosen few: lessons, mentors, experience on stage. But one of the most exciting things, for me, is how the breadth of experience the program offers is preparing musicians for a future.

Many thanks to the Sydney Symphony for letting me tag along at the Fellows first concert. And if you like reading about music, please support my book, Sanctuary, crowd-funding now with Unbound. 

One Comment

  1. Well, you could have just come along to the SSO Fellows concert at St James Church on Wednesday. Having followed the Fellows for a few years I wondered about the sense of expanding the program to include (OMG) brass and (my God) percussion. But while I was sort of convinced last year, this initial concert was quite extraordinary. The opening Stravinsky Fanfare joined Fellow Jenna Smith with SSO Principal Trumpet David Elton. It was a brief meeting of equals. Then the winds played some Francaix. Perhaps there were a few rough edges, but hell, they’d only been playing together a short while. It was musically sound and great fun. Then Sami Butler blew us all away with a fantastic display of virtuosity on the snare drum (and a few bits of wood besides). If this guy turned up at the door of the Australian String Quartet looking for a job they would surely have had to do some serious thinking about incorporating him into the team. Brilliant. The strings then got to showcase in Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances. Sure, we’ve all had a crack at these, amateur and professional alike, but this was a bit better than most. Bridget O’Donnell took the lead with an assured and folksy style that set the scene beautifully. but this was perhaps to be expected: she has form, first with AYO, then last year with both the SSO Fellows and the Verbrugghen Ensemble. But this work gave both Martin Alexander the opportunity to display a wonderful round tone in his viola interventions, and some great work by Alanna Jones high on the fingerboard of her double bass. It was a pity the two cellos didn’t have a chance to display their wares. Their parts were pretty ho hum for the whole event. Lets hope they get an opportunity to show off later in the year.
    After some competent brass and a solo Marimba work, everybody came together in a wonderful arrangement of two Brahms Hungarian Dances. While it would have been better in a dingy Hungarian dive, over a bottle of Egri Bikaver, the whole crew delivered a truly gypsy style that could only entrance. Bridget O’Donnell again shone through as Zigeunerboss, carefully adjusting the breathing spaces to suit, while of all the rest Kim Falconer on flute produced some memorable elements. Kim is this year’s AYO Principal Flute.
    Can’t mention them all, but these guys are excellent and inspiring musicians. We should all watch out for their concert through the year.

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