Sounds of Slaithwaite

Slaithwaite isn’t a big village but its orchestra punches above its weight. Now it’s aiming to be note-perfect in a national competition

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It was the English composer Gustav Holst who said that “music making as a means of getting money is hell”, and most musicians trying to make a living from their craft today would probably still agree with that statement. Yet amateur music making has always been a hugely popular recreational activity in this country and remains so today – amateur music groups promote approximately 48,000 events a year to an estimated 6 million audience members, according to the charity Making Music.

Ellin doesn’t expect any less from his amateur players than he does from the professional

This month, to celebrate the tradition of amateur music making in the UK, the BBC is launching a televised competition to find “the UK’s most inspirational amateur orchestra”. Five orchestras have been chosen to take part in All Together Now: The Great Orchestra Challenge – the London Gay Symphony Orchestra, North Devon Sinfonia, Stirling Orchestra, Birmingham People’s Orchestra, and Yorkshire’s own Slaithwaite Philharmonic.

The series will visit the orchestras in their hometowns, meeting the players in their homes and in rehearsal, taking part in masterclasses and staging their own concerts. It will be presented by BBC Radio 3 and BBC Proms presenter Katie Derham, and the orchestras will be mentored by double-bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku and judged by conductor Paul Daniel. The winning orchestra will be crowned the UK’s most inspirational amateur orchestra and will perform on stage at BBC Proms in the Park in Hyde Park.

The Slaithwaite Philharmonic, which celebrates its 125th anniversary next year, was set up by local men working in the textile industry. Despite some setbacks over the years, the orchestra has been operating continuously ever since, drawing members from the village and beyond to make music for pleasure and perform concerts in venues including Huddersfield Town Hall. Today’s line-up includes a painter and decorator, a social worker and a funeral director as well as a strong cohort of teachers and students.

Considering it is based in a village with a population of only 6,000, the Slaithwaite Philharmonic seriously punches above its weight when it comes to ambition and achievement. The orchestra has received some prestigious awards over the years, including a prize from the National Federation of Music Societies and two grants from the PRS Foundation. It also has a reputation for bold and adventurous programming, with recent performances including Verdi’s Requiem and Mahler’s gigantic Third Symphony as well as fully staged opera performances of Puccini’s La Bohème and Tosca, and Bizet’s Carmen.

Among the members who will appear in the series is violinist Chris Woodhead, the 52-year-old director of a local timber company who has been in the orchestra for more than 40 years. Woodhead studied music at Sheffield University and planned to be a music teacher but ended up working in industry, so joined the orchestra as a way of keeping his interest in music alive. He now lives in Golcar, about three miles from Slaithwaite, with his wife Fiona.

“In the last 40 years it has developed a lot,” Woodhead says. “When I first joined the level was fairly basic, and four years before I joined it nearly folded. Now we have some very good players, an inspiring conductor,and we play a very challenging repertoire. We live on the edge and it’s not easy, but you get out what you put in. Sometimes you look at the notes and think: ‘I can’t play this.’ But you put in the hard work and you end up doing it, and that is a real thrill.”

The standard of players in the orchestra varies widely, from retired professional musicians, such as the principal bassoon and principal clarinet, to people who learned an instrument at school and then stopped for a while but have now taken it up again. But whatever their level, all members must show the same commitment: rehearsals are every Monday night, with extra sessions on concert weekends (usually a Friday night and Saturday afternoon rehearsal, with the concert in the evening), plus occasional all-day Sunday rehearsals.

Woodhead says: “It is a big commitment but it is woven into the fabric of my life and my family understand it. It has enriched my life in many ways. To dive into the repertoire and play it, understand it, is a rich dimension to have in life. We are a very good amateur orchestra, but it’s not all about standards – it’s about making the best of what we’ve got. It’s about passion and drive and what you put into it. We all have a lovely cup of tea in the break and people always comment on how friendly the atmosphere is.”

Cellist Nareece Forrest, 39, agrees that the friendly atmosphere is one of the orchestra’s best assets. “It never ceases to amaze me,” she says. “From the first rehearsal I attended I was made to feel really welcome and I was blown away by the high standard. We’ve played in fabulous venues with world-renowned soloists and been fortunate enough to play wonderful music in front of very appreciative audiences. The members of the orchestra come to rehearsals every week bursting to play together. The friendships we share and our passion for trying to make the music shine is what, in my opinion, makes us special.”

“I’ve been introduced to so many wonderful pieces while playing in the Slaithwaite Philharmonic.”

Forrest, an optical assistant, was born in Lancashire, studied music at Huddersfield University and now lives in Slaithwaite. She joined the orchestra 15 years ago and has been principal cello for the past five. “I love the soundscapes and moods orchestras can create. You can feel a whole host of emotions when you perform in an orchestra or listen to one play – joyous, calm, excited and even a little scared sometimes! I’ve been introduced to so many wonderful pieces while playing in the Slaithwaite Philharmonic.”

The orchestra’s success in recent years has in part been down to the commitment of Benjamin Ellin, its conductor since 2008. Ellin, 36, grew up in Bolton but is now based in London, where he regularly works with professional orchestras such as the Philharmonia and London Philharmonic. But despite his flourishing career down south, he’s still prepared to make the journey to Slaithwaite every Monday night to take rehearsals.

“I wanted to find a home, an ensemble I could develop without too much pressure,” Ellin says.

“It is a big orchestra with a wide repertoire, they perform in a fantastic venue in Huddersfield Town Hall and that kind of opportunity doesn’t come along very often. The orchestra has got so much better and it’s great to make things happen. It’s music making at its purest – there is no financial gain or career ladder, and it makes you realise what an amazing thing that is.”

Ellin doesn’t expect any less from his amateur players than he does from the professional musicians he works with. “I don’t like to use the word ‘amateur’ because my approach is actually quite similar,” he says. “The main difference with an orchestra like this is that it’s about the process more than the product. You have to adapt the process – there are more rehearsals and they have to be enjoyable.

“It is a mixed group of people, and not everyone responds well to pressure, though they are all very dedicated. You have to work out the psychology of it.”

That focus on the process, rather than just the end result, also shaped the way the orchestra approached the BBC competition. “They gave themselves, had a laugh, enjoyed it and approached it with curiosity,” Elllin says. “They didn’t get too serious about it.”

For Forrest, one of the highlights of her 15 years in the orchestra was a recent performance of Holst’s The Planets. “It is brilliantly written for each section of the orchestra and huge fun to play. The first movement, Mars, the Bringer of War, was very aptly named. The sound was so epic I thought the roof of the concert hall was going to come off.”

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