Music Director report to 2021 AGM

It’s terribly sad that we’ve not made music in person since our last string workshop on March 1st, or before that since 1st February when we presented the Planets concerts. I justifiably described that as APO’s best day, and despite not scheduling a May concert we had exciting plans for the rest of the year. We’ve tried to get by with online workshops which have been reasonably successful (albeit only with a disappointingly small proportion of members), but of course it’s not the same.

Our achievements on the day of The Planets as an organisation are noteworthy, significant and worthy of praise (as reflected in several Reading Cultural Awards nominations, though sadly of course the awards themselves have been postponed to summer 2021), but quite apart from the good that was done and all we learned through presenting the relaxed performances, we should reflect on an outstanding musical achievement. To have the gumption to put on three high-quality performances, in one day, of such a demanding work (plus the Strauss opening), was remarkable. It reflects the ambition, good humour and, most importantly, the musical prowess of everyone involved. What a treat it was to be at the front for all that!

During the hiatus in our music-making I have, I’m sure in common with many APO members, been reflecting on the supreme effort it takes on the part of everyone to achieve such high standards with an orchestra consisting predominantly of non-professional players. It is only through a strong personal belief in the value of music to both ourselves and society as a whole that we can pull off such feats.

The benefits our love of music brings us include essential positive effects on our mental health and well-being. Our drive to realise these benefits can be so all-consuming that sometimes we feel compelled to take on too much in pursuit of them. After 18 years of APO concerts and events, I must confess it has done me good to have a break, as with the upsides come the drawbacks – particularly the exhausting ‘behind the scenes’ organisation which goes into every event, loaded on to a small number of volunteers, including (but not limited to) the brilliant Emily and her equally brilliant committee. Their efforts are on top of the already tremendously demanding requirements met by ‘regular’ APO members in preparing, practising and rehearsing for concerts and events, which are on top of the demands of ‘normal life’. When you think about it, it’s quite something!

With all this in mind, I’ve been talking with Mel (who has quickly become indispensable as assistant music director, just like we all knew she would!), Emily (who continues to be indispensable as chair) and the committee about how to proceed once we start to return to some sort of normality. No decisions have been made, yet, but we will likely only present one big orchestra concert per year, probably in February, involving as many members as possible, subject to the existing playing membership standards. We hope also to do one ‘large’ orchestra event in the summer, perhaps an informal performance such as the ones we’ve done at Reading station. For both of these, we will vary the nature and length of repertoire played, such that rehearsal schedules can be tailored. A Mahler symphony will require a different approach to a shorter programme; a virtuosic orchestral showpiece will require a different approach to a commission, to a familiar work, and so on. If concerts with audiences are not an option due to restrictions, we may explore making a studio recording. New music will continue to be an essential component of APO programming and in addition to the lockdown commissions, we already have at least one additional piece being written for full orchestra and ideas for more.

We will transfer some of what we’ve learned through the online workshops into our rehearsal model, with online familiarisation sessions to explore the music without our instruments and optional online ‘note-bashing’ sectionals, prior to gathering in person. Doing these will make more efficient use of our precious time spent travelling to and taking part in normal rehearsals, as well as grading the learning process, making it possible to start preparing for particularly hard pieces further in advance, if the music is available.

The paused programme of informal string workshops was a great success and will continue in due course. We’ll also organise full orchestral workshops, either single day or full weekends. This will give us the opportunity to continue to work with professional tutors in a less pressured environment, in addition to sectionals during concert rehearsals. It will also offer opportunities to young players from Reading Youth Orchestra and Berkshire Maestros to join in, as well as other less-experienced orchestral players who may lack the capability and confidence to take part in our public performances.

Additionally, smaller APO ensembles, will present concerts and events, with players selected by me and Mel, in a similar way to the festival performances that were a feature of summer 2019.

All of this is for the future and subject to the restrictions caused by the pandemic easing. I hope that the newly available lockdown commissions will provide us with a route back to in-person ensembles of increasing size. They were a significant investment, so it’s important that we use them. The flexible scoring of the sextet arrangements presents an interesting challenge and I really hope that you enjoy getting your teeth into them!