Ten years after the launch of the LSO On Track programme, inspired by their work with music hubs from the ten London Olympic Boroughs, I went along to LSO St Luke’s to find out how the project was growing.
The LSO wisely have decided not to confine themselves to standard formats for their outreach and have been inspiring children with a huge range of opportunities all under the On Track umbrella working with more than 15,000 young musicians in East London.
This week I went along to a day of workshops with an orchestra of young musicians preparing for a concert on the Barbican Hall’s stage on Thursday 5 July where they will be performing with the LSO.
These young musicians are part of Next Generation – a three-year scheme, working over three years with LSO musicians and project leaders including composer and conductor Howard Moody who, every year, composes a brand new work especially for the forces of that year’s Next Generation musicians.
‘My first process is to find a theme then construct the piece around it’ explains Howard, ‘it’s been such a good framework for this kind of piece. We usually have a theme for the concert, such as the Napoleon theme from Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony, Paganini’s theme from his 24th Caprice, the Dies Irae of Berlioz, the South African National anthem and last year the Suffragette theme. This year we’ve taken the bass line from Bach’s Chaconne.’
In fact the orchestra’s session today started with a performance by LSO violinist Rhys Watkins of the entire Bach Chaconne (a mammoth 15 minutes of solo violin to frighten the bravest of soloists!) followed by a session understanding how to improvise over the bass line with John Surman, a world class improviser. After this incredible introduction to the piece, the musicians then work in groups with LSO musicians devising their own piece around it.
Why did Howard choose the Chaconne? ‘It is a theme which particularly haunted me. I first heard it when I was eight and it knocked me out. I then proceeded to try and play it for the next eight years…’ he grins. ‘I was particularly intrigued by the stories which surrounded it. Bach returned from a tour with Prince Frederick to find that his wife and child had died. There’s another story (I suspect just a myth) that he applied for another job while the Prince was away and got locked up in jail for a month because of it. There are many myths around this iconic piece but it’s perfect because by using the simplest strongest idea, the kids can learn to be musically creative without writing anything down.’
‘The kids here aren’t necessarily the ones who can play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. They’re the ones who are enthusiastic for music, who want to be spontaneous with their own instruments and take their music somewhere other than just learn other people’s.’
So what format do these sessions take? ‘In the process of one session, when the kids try something out and they hear it back, they decide to change it- this doesn’t work as well as that. It doesn’t matter if it goes right or wrong for the first few sessions, there is no one in the room judging it, that’s important so they have the freedom to experiment. By the time they get to the fifth session they really start to get an idea of what they want to put together then the improvisation stops as all that process channels into a structured piece, a three-minute variation for each section which fits into my piece.’
How do you see the kids change during the Next Generation process?
‘It’s incredible to see them suddenly enter a sound world where they’re playing on stage at the Barbican with the LSO , not just their school orchestra (if they’re lucky enough to have a school orchestra…). It’s confidence. Musical daring. The language of right and wrong is gone’, he beams. ‘I remember learning the violin and it was like a driving test. My teacher would stand facing the same direction, waiting for something to go wrong. Whereas here they spend most of the days going off into different random groups, something which is unpredictable but at the core of it it’s got a theme.’
Writing on demand must be quite stressful is it not? ‘All deadlines are stressful but that’s a composer’s life What’s great for me is that my task is to write everything that I don’t hear in the room. So that the set of variations is as varied as possible. Often I think when process led projects come together there’s this mindset that everything will “come from them” and then no one gives anything. Whereas in this case it’s a really great balance between writing something for the LSO who are at the top of their game – in one hour they learn and play it. That process is mixed with the kids who are sitting there with no music (which is the only rule of this project – that no one reads anything written down) who have worked over six months to prepare their own work.’
One of the wonderful things about this project is that the young musicians don’t need to be able to read music to take part. ‘You have to have a certain ability’, impresses Howard, ‘which is approved by the players, everyone auditions, but it’s not necessarily the value system of how many marks out ten they get. I think that’s so quickly the stultifying language of conservatoire music and also in the symphonic world. Orchestras tend to start at the point where composers got in control and wrote everything down. But before 1800 the whole issue was about variation and expression. Before 1700 it was a free for all! You can hear in the music of Bach, it was clearly music from the gypsy bands. We want the kids to hear the music from the inside out so that when they hear it they can feel the style. It’s not a complex, egocentric view of music, it’s something that’s living. But at the end of the day, they’re playing on the Barbican stage with the LSO – how cool is that?!’
Come and join the LSO and Next Generation musicians to hear their world premiere at the Barbican on 5 July.