Music Director Report to 2024 AGM

In my report to last year’s AGM, I talked about the challenges presented by the post-pandemic world and how this is affecting the effectiveness of our rehearsals. To recap, people’s changed life priorities mean that we have fewer players and lower rehearsal attendance than before the pandemic.

To address this, we have implemented a change to the rehearsal model for our main concerts (the station event is already based on fewer rehearsals), starting in October and continuing for the current rehearsal cycle. This change consists of losing one day of rehearsals, reducing the overall time commitment, as well as consolidating the remaining rehearsals into two main tutti rehearsal weekends, down from three (in addition to the concert weekend). For the current rehearsal cycle, we also added a strings only day which can easily be expanded to accommodate specialist sectional days for other sections or instruments. It is probably too early to evaluate the impact of these changes, which will suit some members, but not others. However, the committee has perceived that rehearsal attendance has been more consistent.

This makes an enormous difference to everyone’s enjoyment of rehearsals, as we have to spend less time going over old ground, enabling us to really get into the music. The professional string tutor we engaged for last week’s strings only day, Susie Henwood, was complimentary about the section, particularly how engaged and hard-working they are. This came as no surprise to me, as despite lower numbers than previous years the strings, led by a team of inspirational principals, are sounding better than ever. In both our main concerts, last year, audience members remarked on the quality of the sound from the strings. Even more remarkable when you consider that the strings were not raised on staging for a concert including Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which places extreme demands on technique.

To consolidate this progress, we all need to keep working hard to recruit more string players who are of the right standard and willing to commit to our rehearsal model. Unfortunately, we have insufficient players to make May’s planned strings concert viable, but instead we will use one of the rehearsal days to have an ‘all-comers’ strings day. If everyone in the orchestra works hard to promote the day among their string-playing friends, we may find some new players to welcome into the band.

Another post-Covid hangover that was holding us back was uncertainty about the future which prevented us planning ahead as far as we’d like. We now have concerts and rehearsals on the website for 12-15 months ahead, but need to get better at communicating these dates out to players so that they can be put in diaries. I feel the other area that would help with our musical enjoyment would be if we can finish off the back end of the fixing process a little sooner. We’re good at getting fixing forms out in good time, but less good at finalising seating and especially part allocations for wind and percussion players. I will work hard with the tirelessly hard-working section coordinators, Sirikorn, Caroline, Tom, David and Andy, to make this happen. Obviously, this replies on prompt responses from members when fixing forms come out.

If we get this right, we’ll be able to arrange to distribute scanned music to players so that we can all be more prepared for the first rehearsal. With a scaled-back rehearsal model, it’s more important than ever that we come to the first rehearsal prepared, really familiar with the music from having listened to recordings, and well on the way to having the notes under our fingers, rather than looking at the music for the first time just three weeks before concert day. All of the above applies to other events, too. I thought, for example, that the rehearsal process for the station event, which was already tight, took a long time to get going and was less well-drilled than usual. This led to some scrappy performances on the day – at least until we’d heroically played the pieces several times for the conducting relay! Although that event was a lot of fun and a great success in lots of ways, we weren’t up to our usual musical standards.

That was the exception, though. Through hard work and sheer determination, we’ve pulled off some classy performances in the past year. I’ve already mentioned the epic Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony, in a concert that taught us that Liszt was definitely a pianist rather than a great orchestrator, but that Graham Ross’s Echo is one of the best of our many commissioned works, given a wonderful performance by soloist Caroline Owen.

October was an exceptional concert. There’s a special atmosphere of love and support when a soloist from the orchestra puts themselves under the spotlight. Not only did Chico do a great job, I think he inspired us as an ensemble. When we last played Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, I’d only dared programme it as a workshop piece. We gave a really dazzling concert performance as part of a programme that included enjoyable works by black composers, as part of Black History Month. I got a lot of positive feedback about the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor piece, which I’ll bear in mind for future programming.

Musically, APO is on the up and we should keep working hard to realise those little improvements in the way we go about organising ourselves, preparing and rehearsing that make a tangible difference to our collective experience.