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Horsham Symphony Orchestra: Still Strong at Forty

Horsham has a Symphony Orchestra?
A very successful one at that, performing three concerts at the Capitol in Horsham every year. The concerts are often sell-outs. Only a handful of tickets remain for their performance on 24th March.

So they play Mozart, Beethoven and, you know, the other ones?
They play a variety of classical music, normally playing three pieces of work by different composers. There is normally a healthy mix of pieces that the orchestra have not played before that may develop their abilities, and of course music that the audience will recognise and want to hear.

Such as…
In 2007, the HSO performed Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which you may know as Der-Der-Der-Der, and at the same concert performed Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Sussex Folk Songs by Vaughan Williams.

How do they choose the music?
There is a democratic process. Rachel Ellis, who shares the role of orchestra leader with Barry Sutton, said: “Steve Dummer (musical director) has some really good ideas on what will be fresh and challenging, but you have to balance it with music that the audience is going to want to come and hear. We have a ballot to decide which pieces of music we are going to perform. Shostakovich, for example, was a very popular choice for the players, but may not be so well known for the audience.”

Is Shostakovich in the next concert?
Yes. We have Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 1, Mahler’s Rückert Lieder and Symphony No. 5 by Shostakovich. Heather Cairncross, mezzo soprano, performs the Mahler.

Is concert time a big deal for the orchestra?
They practise all term just for the one night. The moment one concert finishes, they pick three pieces of music and begin rehearsing for the next one. Rachel said: “The concert at the Capitol creates a real buzz. In rehearsals, Steve is very encouraging but also sets very high standards, so every now and again he will have a bit of a rant and we’ll all go away and practice harder.”

So when was the orchestra formed?
It was back in 1971 that Malcolm McKelvey, the Director of Music at Christ's Hospital, co-founded a small orchestra together with local viola player Christopher Herzig and Francis Phillips. A small amateur orchestra began playing concerts twice a year in school halls in aid of Horsham charities. Back then it was called the  Horsham Orchestra and its leader was Lionel Rose, who led the orchestra for 20 years. But things changed dramatically in the mid-1980s.

When Falco released Rock Me Amadeus?
No, as much as Falco no doubt shook the classical music world, it was the opening of the Capitol that allowed the orchestra to expand. Its first concert there proved so popular that it was decided to move the concerts permanently to the Arts Centre and to manage the Orchestra on a commercial footing. With a more attractive venue, good players were soon attracted to the orchestra.

When did the orchestra add ‘symphony’ to its name?
When Malcolm retired, Charles Hazlewood took over as Musical Director, and the Orchestra was renamed the Horsham Symphony Orchestra. It was his successor, Paul Hoskins, a Cambridge music graduate, who proposed that the orchestra should give three concerts a year. Paul handed over the baton to Benjamin Pope, who conducted the world premiere of 22 minute piece Symphonic Shelley by Martyn Harry in 1997.

So who’s in charge now?
The orchestra's current Musical Director is Steve Dummer, who is well known for his energy and enthusiasm. Tim Corbett-Clark, chairman of HSO and a violinist, said: “Steve is absolutely magic as a conductor. He is a nice guy, incredibly musical, and he drives us to new levels of performance. The energy shows in rehearsals and concerts, and once that happens the ball picks up speed and we attract new people to the orchestra. We used to have to hire about 15 people for a concert but now that figure is down to one and we’re trying to make in none.”

The orchestra is doing quite well at the moment then?
Numbers have increased in the last decade. Christine Elvin, who plays second violin, has been with the orchestra for about thirty years but says it is now very different to the one she originally joined. “It’s a much bigger group now,” said Christine. “It used to be at Christ’s Hospital, and about 20 of us would meet in a small round hut. Steve has brought new players and younger people into the orchestra.”

There are young people in the HSO?
There are a healthy number of young musicians in the orchestra, such as talented violinist Katy Ellis, the daughter of orchestra co-leader Rachel. Katy, who attends Tanbridge House School, said: “There are a few young people here – it’s very challenging and pushes you to the limit.”

A teenager into classical music?
It would seem that some have a more refined ear, and of course it does help when your mum teaches you to reach grade 8 on the violin! Katie confesses to not liking much mainstream music, although classical music has had more influence on popular music than it is normally credited with. There’s a YouTube clip of comedian Rob Paravonian making a convincing argument for claiming that pop music is based on Pachelbel's Canon in D Minor (see video above)

But is classical music all a little pompous?
It might surprise you to hear that the Musical Director of the HSO agrees with you. Steve said: “The rock and pop  industry has done so well at promoting itself. With classical music, there has been a lack of champions to shout about and it’s become old-fashioned. The cheerleaders encourage it to be elitist. It’s been allowed to become a fashion accessory for ponces! Take Nigel Kennedy, great man, great player, and at last someone who could excite a new generation. Yet still there were people shaking their heads saying ‘oh no, we can’t have this’.

Can classical music really get you excited?
Steve said: “Listening to the London Symphony Orchestra is simply an overwhelming experience. I defy anyone to sit and listen to them perform and then think ‘I’ll go and put my Take That album on now’. When an orchestra has learned the notes and everything is right, and you have that wonderful acoustic sound with 80 people playing in harmony, with the rhythm always shifting, it’s astonishing.”

But that is London, this is Horsham. Do we have a good orchestra?
Admittedly, classical music is not our specialist subject here at AAH magazine, and therefore Steve’s ‘what do you think this is – Johann Strauss!” joke when the orchestra were a little off time in rehearsals went over our heads. It was a waltz joke, apparently! But the HSO does have a good reputation. Tim said: “This country is very good at producing amateur orchestras, but a lot of them are not very good. We are, and that is reflected by the audiences we keep attracting. The standard is getting better and better and we pretty much sell out our concerts every time.”

And does Steve agree?
He does. Steve said: “The orchestra are really good and play to a high standard. My job is, in theory, to play as close to what is on the page as possible, and get the details right. In practice I have to decide if that can be done or not. Pretty much all of the orchestra could play nearly all of the notes in nearly all classical pieces in the right way, given time. Some of the things are technically difficult and you have to make decisions that mean a certain amount of covering up, as we don’t have time. The orchestra is becoming closer to a professional level every time we play, but I have to be careful not to expect too much of them.”

Does Horsham have a full orchestra?
Pretty much, although there is no harpist, and Rachel says they can always do with a few more violinists. Astrid Gale, who plays the oboe and is among the orchestra’s longest-serving players, said: “In the old days we often had to hire in people to fill the gaps in the orchestra but that is not so often the case these days. Now we have a bigger orchestra there is a wider spectrum of pieces available to us, so it’s still a challenge for us after all these years. In fact it’s increasingly challenging as we’re trying harder pieces of music.”

So when I watch the orchestra there are very few hired players?
Absolutely. Steve said: “We’re very close to having a full orchestra. We went to see Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, one of the closest professional orchestras, play the Shostakovich piece recently. They would have 16 first violinists and probably 14 second violinists. For our upcoming concert we have 10 and 10, so we are close. I think in this next concert we will be hiring in only one extra double bass player.”  There is even somebody playing the Timpani…

The what?
It’s a percussion instrument, also known as kettledrums. Matt Tallamy, who plays the instrument, said: “There are periods when I’m just sitting and listening and hope that I remember my cue! I work in IT, so this is my  release. It’s something completely different, and there is also a social element to it as you get to meet new people. We go to the pub afterwards and have a couple of pints.”

The social side is important, is it?
As with any club or group, it’s important that everyone gets along and there is a good dynamic in the group. Tim said: “I’ve been with the orchestra for eight or nine years now and it has changed tremendously in that time. It was a bit run down but over the years it’s really picked up. You have got to have a critical number of people that are positive, go down the pub, organise, and over the years this changes the dynamic of the orchestra. We are going on tour for the first time this year as well, to the Isle of Wight, and if that works well it may be that it’s something we do more of in the future.”

Is it hard to get new people in?
This is where H20 comes in…

I’m confused…
H20 is the name of the second tier of the orchestra. They meet on a Tuesday night at Millais, rather than with the HSO on a Wednesday night. Steve said: “There are a few youngsters, some people there who haven’t played for a while, people who have taken it up later in life and a few musicians from the orchestra who are learning a different instrument. The reason for starting the group was so that people who can’t reach the standard of the  orchestra have somewhere to play and maintain their passion. It is not quite so intense but is still really good fun. I hope in the future they may be able to perform pre-concert shows for the Symphony Orchestra.”

It’s still all a bit old-fashioned though isn’t it?
Not at all - there are some excellent contemporary classical musicians. Do have a look at YouTube and start with some pieces you may know by film score composers such as John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. You may find that you’re drawn towards contemporary classical by the likes of Phillip Glass. Then perhaps in time you’ll be ready to watch a concert by Horsham Symphony Orchestra.

I don’t think I’d like it...
Maybe you would. As Matt the timpani player says: “Horsham is not a huge place and a lot of people would be very surprised by the size of the orchestra and I think they would be impressed by the standard.”

Tickets to the next concert at the Capitol on 24th March cost £14 (Concessions (over 60) £ 12, Under 18’s £5) from the box office on 01403 750220. For more information on Horsham Symphony Orchestra visit www.horshamsymphony.org.uk

Steme Dummer, Musical Director

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