Music Director Report to 2022 AGM

I want to start by paying tribute to Rudi Sheldon, who died recently at the age of 97. Rudi joined APO in its very early days, when he was merely in his late seventies! As a founder member of the Windsor and Maidenhead Symphony Orchestra, he had a special understanding of what it takes to run a leisure-time musical organisation. He was the model member: always punctual, well-prepared and, despite increasing frailty, determined to help set chairs out and put them away! When I communicated news of his passing to APO members, I remarked on how Emily and I had visited him after his wife, Ady, had died, a few years ago. We learned so much we didn’t know about a remarkable life. It was a privilege to know him, and we shall all miss him.

A report such as this usually sees me reel off a long list of musical achievements, or wax lyrical about our development as an ensemble over the past year. Unfortunately, I can’t do that this time, as we played very little music together in 2021. Nevertheless, we are on the way back and there is much to give us hope. And there was at least a little in-person playing to report.

Having had a go at some of Derri Lewis’s solo miniatures, based on material from the orchestral work ‘JOY!’ which will finally receive its premiere next week, we were able to come together in small groups to workshop the flexibly scored version, in May. Everyone who wanted to play in the sextet arrangement was able to, and it was a very good exercise in refreshing basic musical and ensemble skills. I really enjoyed hearing the different combinations of instruments and interpretations in each group.

Then, in October, we scaled up to a bigger orchestral workshop, again using the flexibly-scored arrangement of ‘JOY!’ and also the arrangement of the Mayer Faust Overture we commissioned from Samara Ginsberg. This enabled us to organise a workshop based on who felt comfortable to play, without the pressure of achieving a critical mass of players on specific instrumental parts. And again, it made for some interesting sound combinations, and the challenge of playing in a different position within the ensemble. A useful and very enjoyable experience, even if it did feel a bit odd with all the Covid precautions.

I’m acutely aware that the three other live musical events in 2021 only involved a small selection of APO members, and indeed for one of those I was the only one on the stage for the music! I’m still very keen to establish the model with a wide range of events that I outlined in last year’s AGM report. This will be centred around our main orchestral concert in February, with one (maybe two) larger events, like the ones we’ve done at Reading station. Players for these concerts must meet a certain standard to play, as has always been the case. If this is the mid-point of a scale, I want there to be events either side of it such as workshops which are open to all players, regardless of ability, and conversely events where a smaller selection of more confident players take on more advanced music, in shorter timescales.

The latter worked well for the two string instrument performances of the summer: the collaboration with Berkshire Maestros which saw us put together the Vaughan Williams ‘Tallis Fantasia’ in a very short time, before giving three live ‘in person’ performances and a live-streamed performance. This was meant to take place in the ruins of Reading Abbey and that would have been very special, but the work certainly suited the generous reverb of The Concert Hall in Reading Town Hall and we are grateful to Reading Borough Council for their support in securing this back up venue. The other small string ensemble was for a very special occasion when we were honoured to be invited to make a musical contribution to the Civic Memorial Service on the anniversary of the horrific knife attacks in Forbury Gardens. Performing outside is always a challenge, but I am very proud of our contribution to a very moving event.

And so we find ourselves in 2022, still getting used to the ‘new normal’ of testing, masks and ventilation. It’s hard enough trying to plan rehearsals, fix a band and bring it all together, but Covid adds much complication. Sirikorn, Tom and Caroline have risen to the challenge of coordinating the strings and wind brilliantly, in these trying circumstances. As assistant MD, Mel is another source of practical support, but as evidenced during rehearsals for our upcoming #APOjoy concerts, I am also amazed by her innovation, energy and the depth of her musicality. It was her who suggested APO apply for the Making Music ‘Adopt a Music Creator’ project, in collaboration with Reading Youth Orchestra, and I am very excited indeed to be working with Caitlin Harrison and mentor Fraser Trainer, the fruit of which will be a joint performance with RYO in our 30th anniversary concert at the end of October. With RYO as our guests in that concert, we have the opportunity to contribute as guests at their concert in April, supporting them in their performances and hopefully inspiring them with our own performance of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture.

I want to finish by saying thank you to Emily for her inspirational leadership as chair for the last six years. If you’ve ever watched ‘The Apprentice’ on television, you might think that a successful career such as hers involves being ultra-competitive, using any means foul or fair to get your own way, and being the big ‘I am’ to get to the top. This is rather like the outdated image of the all powerful, dictatorial conductor from the days of Toscanini or Karajan. But as Benjamin Zander says, ‘The conductor depends for their power, on their ability to make other people powerful’. This is Emily’s modus operandi, and although she claimed just this morning that ‘her brain doesn’t always like the sensible route’, it’s realised in beautiful simplicity through asking the right questions of the right people at the right time, deploying her quirky sense of humour when needed, but most importantly (particularly for dealing with a bolshy music director!), showing endless patience and selfless kindness. I’m so grateful to her and the fantastic committee, and look forward to working with her successor, who has big shoes to fill.