Making Music

Sir Roger Norrington and previous BBC Young Musician of the Year Jennifer Pike, with Queens College

Sir Roger Norrington and previous BBC Young Musician of the Year Jennifer Pike, with Queens College Students who were invited along to watch the rehearsal for the inaugural performance - Credit: Archant

SARAH FORD discovers some of the country’s most celebrated musicians are receiving a warm welcome in Somerset theatres

Southern Symphonia

Southern Symphonia - Credit: Archant

The south of England’s most prominent chamber orchestra has taken up residence at the Brewhouse Theatre, with some declaring their arrival to be ‘the best musical development in Taunton for 20 years’.

Southern Symphonia’s sell-out inaugural performance was conducted by their patron, the world renowned Sir Roger Norrington, and was seen as a landmark event for the orchestra and the theatre itself. It’s all part of a new chapter for The Brewhouse which went into administration and closed in 2013. Following its reopening a year ago it is now a busy arts venue run by a team of professional staff and dedicated volunteers.

The orchestra will contribute to the expansion of The Brewhouse’s classical and contemporary music programme with three concerts a year; the first featured former BBC Young Musician of the Year, violinist Jennifer Pike. There will also be informal performances throughout the year, introducing classical music to a wider audience.

Southern Sinfonia Chief Executive Jonathan Manners says: “The support we have received both locally and nationally since announcing our relocation has been fantastic. Taunton is at the heart of the county and we are excited to help in building Taunton as a hub of cultural activity.”

Speaking to me in the bar of this buzzing little theatre, Jonathan explains how the orchestra chose Taunton as a base.

“Southern Sinfonia wanted to move its administrative headquarters closer to North Devon, home of Sir Roger and Lady Norrington. I heard Vanessa Lefrancois - The Brewhouse CEO - talking about her vision for an inclusive, high-quality, collaborative space for the whole community, it resonated with my own views and values of Southern Sinfonia.

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“I went to Taunton school and was brought up just outside Weston-super-Mare, so I know the area, and with the Brewhouse reopening it seemed like a positive and bold step.

“I appreciate the amazing music-making that already takes place in the area and believe Southern Sinfonia can add something different to strengthen the arts sector in Somerset”.

The professional chamber orchestra celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. It performs and records extensively in the southern half of England and is famous for its ability to play music from the 1600s to the present day play on modern and Baroque instruments.

The orchestra’s musical director is David Hill, Chief Conductor of the BBC Singers; he and Sir Roger are regular conductors for Southern Sinfonia, which tends to attract those with successful international careers to perform with them. So watch this space for events featuring Sir James Galway and Nigel Kennedy for example!

“There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be performing in a town like Taunton,” says Jonathan.

“The building has a very intimate acoustic - whether you’re sitting in the back row or front. The players love it here and enjoy coming down and going out to sample the local cider! The audience reaction at end of the first show was quite exceptional. I decided our first concert should be very main stream but a member of the audience told me they really want to be expanded and said: ‘Please do new music.’ So the chance for us to work with composers and get a commission is very important for us. I’m very keen that we challenge people’s perception of classical music.

“The most important work we’ll be undertaking will be in the community. We’ve seen the benefits of taking music into hospices, care homes and schools– there is no price that can be put on using music as a tool for education, inclusion or well-being. That’s what motivates us.”

World class artists

The Octagon Theatre in Yeovil has joined forces with acclaimed conductor Charles Hazlewood and one of Britain’s most celebrated orchestras – the Philharmonia.

The project is the first of its kind for the venue, bringing the London based orchestra to The Octagon and Somerset for the first time, as well as taking classical music to Yeovil primary schools.

The South Somerset District Council (SSDC) run theatre has been awarded £49,998 from Arts Council England and a grant from Yarlington Housing Group’s Community Fund. The Octagon Theatre will contribute £10,000 from its existing SSDC funding to the project.

Known as Strike a Chord!, the venture began at the start of the year and involves the world class artists delivering musical activity and workshops in nine schools. It will culminate on 7 June when the full Philharmonia Orchestra will be in residence at the theatre for a specially tailored afternoon schools concert and an evening public performance.

Octagon Arts & Entertainment Manager, Adam Burgan, says: “We are incredibly excited about this project; it is a big development for us as a theatre and brings world class artists to South Somerset. Seeing The Philharmonia on our stage under the baton of Charles Hazlewood will be a dream come true and introducing a new generation of children to the wonder of live classical music is a privilege.”