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Meet Bristol Symphony Orchestra

Feature by St George's Bristol

Meet Bristol Symphony Orchestra

This month sees the launch of a brand new orchestra for Bristol right here at St George’s, and what better platform than the High Sheriff of Bristol’s Concert? Starting as they mean to go on, the Bristol Symphony Orchestra performs a richly varied programme for this special night.  We caught up with conductor William Goodchild to learn more about this latest addition to the city’s musical landscape.

Why BriSO? And why now?

The idea to form a new orchestra for Bristol came from three
violinists: Pamela Bell (ex-Leader of Bristol Metropolitan Orchestra), Robert Tulloh and Aimee Cottam. I was delighted to be invited to conduct and the project quickly gathered momentum. Bristol has a number of well-established and excellent orchestras; this reflects the passion for live music events from those who live in and around the city. Why now? There was a passion for the project and an excellent team quickly formed around the idea.

What sets BRiSO apart from the city’s other ensembles?

We are committed to playing new works and collaborating with musicians from other musical traditions and styles, whilst also honouring our classical roots. Our aim is to take players and audiences on exciting and unexpected musical journeys.

What have been the greatest challenges so far in setting about this adventure?

Establishing a new orchestra is an adventure and, yes, there have been challenges: from attracting and bringing together the musicians, to finding a rehearsal venue and sorting a rehearsal schedule, to sourcing scores and parts, to creating a website, and starting to make connections and developing the orchestra’s reach in the city. After five months of hard work, we have wonderful musicians, a committed and skilled management team, and a vision to grow. Watch this space!

And the greatest joys?

Making music together.

What can you tell us about the orchestra members? Are they all Bristol musicians?

Bristol Symphony numbers around 65 players. Most of the musicians are from the City of Bristol, although we have some who travel from Somerset and Gloucestershire. We have one or two graduates from the Welsh College of Music, who travel from Cardiff. One violinist travels from York! The orchestra consists of talented amateur musicians, some semi-pros and one or two professional players. Many play in other ensembles, including jazz and world music groups.

You’re officially launching BRiSO at St George’s on 18 June at the High Sheriff of Bristol’s Concert; what can audiences expect from this debut performance.

An unfamiliar yet highly accessible and engaging programme. This includes the premiere of a work, Concerto for Kora and Orchestra, I have composed in collaboration with Bristol based Senegalese kora master, Mamadou Cissokho Also in the programme is Serenade in D by Dame Ethel Smyth, a British composer working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who was also a passionate suffragette. The concert opens with MacCunn’s romantic Scottish overture, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood.

A concerto for Kora & Orchestra! Who or what inspired this collaboration?

For her concert, Bristol High Sheriff, Helen Wilde, commissioned me to write a concerto. She did not stipulate the solo instrument, however – this was something for us to discuss. At the same time, Helen was very keen for the programme to contain music that had a connection with Africa. I had just completed scoring a television documentary series for PBS in the States called Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise, and very much enjoyed working with Mamadou Cissokho, master kora player, who played on the soundtrack. I put the idea to Helen of writing a kora concerto for Mamadou and the orchestra. Helen jumped at the idea. It became clear from the outset that this would be a collaboration, so Mamadou and I shared the commission.

Is the Kora a straightforward instrument to integrate into an orchestral setting?

I believe this is the first work of its kind. The kora or African folk harp as it is sometimes known has a very delicate sonority, rather like a lute. Balancing it with orchestral forces has been the greatest challenge and has called for at times a really delicate sound from the orchestra. The piece is very lyrical – many of the melodies included in the work have their origins in African music stretching back six centuries; it is also exuberant, highly rhythmic and textural, calling for very precise playing by the orchestra. Including two African drummers in the instrumentation was crucial for the sound to have the right feel.

You’re also playing music by Dame Ethel Smyth; she’s a composer not many will be familiar with, despite her fascinating story?

That’s right. Despite being prolific as a composer – Dame Ethel Smyth wrote six operas, several orchestral works, chamber music and songs – and highly regarded by luminaries such as Tchaikovsky and Dvořák, her work has been, since her death in 1944, sadly neglected. No doubt this was due to her close association with Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women Suffragettes between 1910 and 1912. She was known for writing The March of the Women and the political aspect of her life received much attention, overshadowing her position as an outstanding composer. The work we’re playing at the High Sheriff’s Concert, Serenade in D, was Smyth’s first major orchestral work and formed her London debut at Crystal Palace in 1893. It was well received and the public and press alike were astonished that a woman could write such muscular music.

What next for BriSO? What would you like to achieve with the orchestra?

We have a number of concerts already in the diary including An Evening of Film Music here at St George’s on 1st December. We are looking forward to working with violinist, Natalia Lomeiko next April in an all-Russian programme that includes Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto. Next summer we will be collaborating with London based jazz pianist Kate Williams and her trio in a concert of new orchestral arrangements of Duke Ellington’s pieces pitted against music by Ellington’s classical contemporaries, Stravinsky and Bartok.

With thanks to Will Goodchild.  Find out more about the Bristol Symphony Orchestra on the orchestra’s website


Michael Beek

St George's Bristol

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