Music Director’s report to APO AGM – 4th February 2023

2022 saw APO present its first full orchestra performances since the start of the pandemic. In February, we presented a 60-minute programme on the theme of ‘joy’, celebrating the culmination of one of our lockdown commission projects with the premiere of Derri Lewis’s piece of the same name, and generally being happy to come together and share music with audiences again. It’s easy to forget that many players and concertgoers were (and indeed still are) quite Covid-cautious. Despite the mental and physical stamina challenges required to present three concerts, I’m glad we did as it meant that audience members could be more distanced, and we could present another relaxed concert. Besides, I don’t think it affected the quality of our performances. In many ways, the last one of the day had the most energy.

February’s concerts were followed in short order by a guest performance in Reading Youth Orchestra’s concert in April, where to complement the English and Welsh folk song elements being played by RYO, we played MacCunn’s ‘In the land of the mountain and the flood’ and a dubiously arranged medley of Irish folk tunes. I am so glad that we got to support RYO in this way and am looking forward to doing so again in March, though we may have to adjust the repertoire to match the relatively small number of players who indicated they are available to play. This is partly our fault due to getting behind in the fixing process for this particular event.

Sadly, we had to abandon our intended summer performance at Reading station due to a similar lack of available players. For this event, perhaps the biggest factor affecting availability was another challenge posed by the pandemic: the difficulty in planning events as far ahead as we usually would. But it was also symptomatic of wider challenges that are emerging partly because of the pandemic, and partly due to the marginalisation of both music education and classical music over many years.

My perception (admittedly without much data to back it up) is that we have fewer players fixing and that of those who do sign up, rehearsal attendance is lower. Gaps in rehearsals, with different people missing different sessions, makes building momentum towards a performance more difficult. And while we’re all here to enjoy ourselves, a sense of getting past the technical challenges and unlocking the emotion in the music is surely the most important catalyst for enjoyment. It’s my job to ensure that happens.

There are a variety of factors affecting rehearsal attendance/commitment and in giving a brief exposition of some of them, I want to stress that I am not judging anybody’s choices. We all sign up for APO voluntarily and I have no right to expect anything more than the level of commitment that each individual is willing and able to give on their own terms. I know that APO means a lot to me; indeed, it’s my main musical outlet and music is central to my identity as well as my self-esteem. I am careful not to let these facts lead to an assumption that it’s the same for everyone else.

Many people have expressed that the pandemic has made them re-evaluate their life choices. This has led to them making changes in their life ranging from adjusting their work/life balance, spending more time with their family, moving house or job or simply reprioritising their leisure interests. The project-based nature of APO means we can tailor our rehearsal model, but it will always be a compromise. For example, our amateur musicians are required to meet certain minimum standards, but there is still a range of less confident to more confident and able players. Generally speaking, the former need more rehearsal time; the latter prefer less, particularly when there are other higher level ensembles they could also be playing in that clash with our rehearsals.

Another example involves the way we structure rehearsal weekends. Those travelling from distance need to be able to justify the cost, time and effort it takes to get here, so naturally desire more rehearsals per weekend, perhaps with fewer weekends overall. We used to have full weekends consisting of rehearsals on Friday night, all day Saturday and all day Sunday. Why not go further and have an evening session as well as a morning and afternoon? Fewer weekends means that players don’t have to sacrifice weekends away (or not) to attend the odd day of rehearsals. For others, though, more hours in the day may be too much in terms of mental and physical stamina. There are a significant number of players for whom family or other considerations make attending even one day per weekend a challenge. Adding more rehearsals days to make fewer weekends just isn’t an option for them.

As with so many things which fall under my purview as music director, there is no easy answer that pleases everyone. I hope everyone is still enjoying rehearsals. I think I am, overall, but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to make them enjoyable when so much ground has to be gone over again and again because of low rehearsal attendance. It puts a great deal of stress on me. I’m sorry to say I have been considering whether I can continue as music director, as I cannot continue to take such a heavy load on my shoulders. It’s easy to tell me not to worry, but when you’re the person at the front and the buck stops with you, it creates a lot of pressure. Furthermore, with fewer young players coming through thanks to the marginalisation of music education, I wonder about the long-term viability of the orchestra.

Of course, when you have two orchestras coming together for a joint performance in a cosy venue, there’s no shortage of players, but rather some other challenges. As well as the logistics of fitting both us and Reading Youth Orchestra on the Town Hall stage, we shared the task of learning our respective parts for Caitlin Harrison’s amazingly constructed work for the two orchestras, ‘From Dawn to Dreams’, separately. I thought we provided a warm welcome and supportive environment for the RYO players when they joined us for the last few rehearsals. The piece was composed as part of Sound and Music and Making Music’s ‘Adopt a Music Creator’ project. APO and RYO were selected to collaborate largely thanks to the vision and drive of Mel [Le Breuilly], who as well as being our assistant music director is RYO’s music director.

Working with Caitlin was a pleasure and she responded to the challenge of composing for two orchestras with considerable ingenuity. Having worked hard during rehearsals, we peaked just at the right time and I’m really looking forward to hearing the recording of our performance broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in due course. I’ve heard the recording already and I think we did Caitlin’s evocatively scored music justice.

I’m proud that we continue to commission and programme new music. It’s been part of APO’s identity for 20 years and I think most of us value the opportunities to broaden our musical horizons beyond a narrow definition of ‘tuneful’, surmount new technical challenges and embrace new musical languages, all while complementing our healthy offering of ‘standard’ repertoire. It’s certainly a reflection of my musical values, as is the continued effort to programme music by lesser-known composers, including female composers and those from ethnic backgrounds whose music has been unjustly neglected. We will continue to balance the desire to explore such music with all the myriad of other factors affecting programming. I’m always happy to discuss these with anyone who wants to know more about the thought process that goes into deciding what we play.

We were able to return to the Town Hall for our special 20th anniversary concerts thanks to an invitation from the Reading Fringe Festival. Part of the arrangement we came to was to present a family concert (else we’d have probably just presented a standard concert at the slightly less expensive Great Hall). I appreciate this made for a long day, but again I’m glad we did it as it aligns with our values in making music as accessible as possible. A lot of thought went into the way the family concert was presented, as although we’ve presented relaxed performances and regular concerts at ‘family-friendly’ times recently, it’s a long time since we’ve curated a performance specifically aimed at families. Mel Hopkin’s wonderful script, so brilliantly presented by Pippa and James, worked really well, especially the bit where we got the ingredients from the audience for the ‘Biscuits’ part of ‘Biscuits, Beer and Bulbs.’ By the way, I thought our performance of that in the evening was an improvement on the premiere back in 2014 – I wish we’d recorded it as I know that composer Michael Betteridge was delighted.

Another success factor in the family concert was the guest appearance by Frederike Möller from Reading’s twin town of Düsseldorf. I want to make special mention to the APO players who took part in her special toy piano recital prior to the concert, as they had the heaviest load rehearsing and performing a brilliantly far out contemporary piece with Frederike, on top of all the other rehearsals and performances on the day. So well done to Seohyeon, Stephen, Helen, other Stephen, Ruth and Sarah! I would love to perform with Frederike again, in the future (perhaps not wearing a tutu, next time!)

A blockbusting performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony was a great way to cap off a wonderful celebration of twenty years of APO. It was worth the slightly later finish to put on such a brilliant programme that I think few non-professional orchestras would ever conceive, let alone pull off. It was truly ‘APO’.

The same can be said of our presentation of Handel’s Messiah, the last event of 2022. I am conscious that smaller events like this where I invite players to take part may lead to some players feeling left out, but to make them feasible a shorter, more intensive rehearsal model is required, which means the more confident players are invited. Everyone worked incredibly hard to rehearse a huge amount of material and play with such wonderful Baroque style, complementing the wonderful singing of our friends in Tamesis Chamber Choir, as well as four super, friendly soloists. It was lovely to see lots of APO members in the audience – a contribution to the event much appreciated by those of us performing. Music is important and obviously central to APO’s purpose, but what keeps me going, despite the difficulties I’ve outlined, is the power of wonderful people coming together, supporting each other, creating something really special.