Saturday, 12 October 2013

The hills are alive with the sound of Mahler: 50 years of Oldham Symphony Orchestra

In 1963, a young man from Oldham decided that the town needed an orchestra, so that local musicians and the public had the opportunity to play and hear challenging, interesting music. Oldham had been without an orchestra for more than twenty years after its orchestra disbanded during the war, never to reform, but 23-year-old clarinettist Tom Whittaker, then working for his family's long-established construction and joinery business in Oldham and travelling to play in an orchestra in Slaithwaite, West Yorkshire in his spare time, felt that it was an essential part of the cultural life of a town the size of Oldham, alongside theatres, cinemas, art galleries, choirs and amateur dramatic societies. And so Oldham Amateur Orchestra was born, recruiting an initial group of around fifteen local musicians to play concerts in schools, public halls and arts centres and growing from there. Fittingly, the orchestra started out with a programme that included Spitfire Prelude and Fugue by one of its patrons, the distinguished Oldham-born and bred composer William Walton.

Founder member Tom spent the next four decades on the committee of the orchestra and, fifty years on, is principal clarinettist, soon to be putting tongue to reed for his 123rd concert with the group (known as Oldham Symphony Orchestra since 1973). The concert, which takes place in the grand surroundings of prestigious Oldham Hulme Grammar School in November, will include a piece which is notoriously difficult for clarinets, George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, a glamorous, slinky, cinematic, jazz-age piece which changes tempo and dashes around as a piano dances a lively, teasing solo. Also on the programme, in complete contrast to bold, brash Rhapsody in Blue, is Gustav Mahler's brooding, slow-burning First symphony. Tom admits that “what's on the stand for the next concert is very tough”, but says: “I think it's wonderful music and it's important not to just play stuff like Eine kleine Nachtmusik. If we were playing Strauss waltzes and Mozart they wouldn't appeal to the orchestra so they wouldn't bother to come to rehearsals.” He elaborates: “We need music that is interesting and stimulating to play. I wouldn't still be playing in the orchestra fifty years later if I hadn't found it to be of great interest and enjoyment.”

Richard Waldock, Oldham Symphony Orchestra's conductor of 11 years, shares Tom's desire to attempt interesting, challenging music. “We don't stay with one particular type of music,” he explains. “We try and choose stuff because it's good.” A double bass player, teacher and composer, Richard has played with the Manchester Camerata as well as other orchestras regionally and nationally including the Halle, Liverpool Philharmonic and BBC Philharmonic, and first tried out his skills as a conductor with his peers while studying at the Royal Northern College of Music. Although he has conducted youth and student orchestras, Oldham Symphony Orchestra was Richard's first regular conducting job. “It's good fun,” he enthuses. “When you're a double bass player you don't get to flex your interpretive muscles very much. There's not much challenging music – no Brahms sonata, nothing by Mozart or Beethoven, so there's not much opportunity to get your teeth into really, really good music and really, really get into the structure and interpretation.” However, he acknowledges that conducting has its challenges, saying: “I know how much conductors are generally hated by performers so there is a need to keep integrity and not get carried away. It's an interesting art and it is hard to keep everyone happy. Sometimes you have got to work a lot with the strings. Sometimes with challenging pieces you have got to really know it inside out or you become a hindrance rather than a help.” On the flip side, he admits: “Sometimes it feels like the easiest thing in the world. After all it's the orchestra who has got to play the music – all I've got to do is wave my arms around.”
Richard also plays in noisy punk bands, and is passionate about trying to attract a wider audience for classical art music. “Classical music doesn't really reach out,” he muses. “It's amazing how much really mind-blowing music there is that most people in the world have no knowledge of at all, and it's a shame that classical art music is a bit of a museum piece. The stronger and more healthy it is the better people will find ways of keeping art music alive, but classical music as an industry is very much in a cul-de-sac of its own making. All the music I liked when I was younger seems so alien from classical orchestral music.” He gives an example: “Orchestras will always have an assistant conductor, who is straight out of college and very academic. Nine times out of ten they are kind of posh and kind of boring. There's no way in a million years they are going to compete with David Bowie or anything in the popular genres – they just aren't interesting enough.”

Richard sees Gershwin as coming from a very similar place to him, believing passionately in crossover, and describes him as “a jazz man who wanted to reach out to the classical world, and did it very effectively”. He explains: “Gershwin was a fantastic pianist who wrote fantastic, incredibly glamorous pieces which seem to straddle both worlds – jazz/music hall and classical concert hall. It's strange that since then there haven't been examples of people trying to do that crossover.”
For Richard, the orchestra is as much for its members as the audience, and is part of a musical education. Richard thinks that it can help both performers and audience gain a better understanding and appreciation of classical music. “One of the problems with classical music is it is on such a big scale,” he explains. “It is attention span-testing. When you play it you get hold of it a lot better and can understand the underlying harmonic structure, which gives it what it does to you. If you just listen to snippets on Classic FM you don't get that at all – if you are playing you expose yourself to it much more.” Richard wanted the orchestra to attempt Stravinsky for ages, a wish which was fulfilled at the most recent summer concert, which included a rendition of The Fairy's Kiss. “Stravinsky was doing things compositionally which people in popular genres started doing later on with samplers,” he argues. “Stravinsky opened a lot of doors for the way modern music is produced, and opened people's ears to the cut and paste style. He was a musical magpie who used lots of different genres.”

Richard is also a big admirer of Mahler, who he describes as a “mind-blowing, absolutely amazing composer”, and rhapsodises about Mahler's First Symphony. “Symphony No 1 really pushed the boundaries in terms of what you can do expressively with an orchestra,” he explains. “He goes through much more expressive acrobatics than what had gone before and uses a huge orchestra with the widest palette of colours and incredible variety. The dynamic range is incredible.” He adds: “Even though Mahler used huge orchestras lots of his most effective moments are very simple and intimately scored, building and building and building to apocalyptically huge endings. Lots of people think of Mahler as being very tortured but Symphony No 1 is quite triumphant and positive. Lots of the tunes are taken from Songs of a Wayfarer, which give you an interesting idea into what he was thinking about when composing and where he was coming from. It's traditionally Viennese with a natural way with melody. It's very engaging melodically and great to play – very complex music but simple at the same time.”

Mahler's Symphony No 1 is also one of orchestra leader Andy Marshall's favourite pieces. Andy, a former leader of Rochdale Youth Orchestra, who has now been playing violin for 29 years, joined the orchestra after attending a concert in 2001 and being impressed by its performance of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. He took over as leader this summer after the death of Ann Heeks, leader of the orchestra for many years who, together with her musician husband Ken, performed many solos. Ann lost her fight with cancer earlier this year, so Andy is keen to carry on Ann's legacy and see the orchestra grow for the future. “It's great to be a member of an orchestra which tackles challenging works,” he explains, “as this aids the educational aspect of all becoming better players.” He admits: “The Mahler in particular is going to be challenging, but I think its already coming together nicely.”

Today, around half the members of Oldham Symphony Orchestra are drawn from the town, with the rest travelling to rehearsals from the surrounding area including Todmorden, Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester. The orchestra plays three concerts a year, in Easter, summer and winter, including family concerts aimed at introducing the instruments of the orchestra and inspiring the next generation of musicians. The orchestra also supports young composers and players by performing new compositions and offering opportunities for up-and-coming musicians to perform solos. Many members regard playing with musicians who have gone on to do big things as a highlight of being in the orchestra.

An exhibition at Gallery Oldham celebrating the orchestra's fiftieth birthday, starting in October, will present panels on some of the soloists, players and conductors who have been associated with the orchestra over the decades, alongside a display of musical instruments and other artefacts relating to the orchestra's history. Second violin Ann Jones, the second longest-serving member of the orchestra after Tom Whittaker, who joined in the 1970s after living locally and having her arm twisted by Ann Heeks, has been busy rooting through the orchestra's archives, from concert programmes to newspaper cuttings to old tape recordings. Together with quotes and pictures from current members of the orchestra, the exhibition will give a sense of what the orchestra means to its members. Ann is also going to borrow a bronze statue presented to James Morrison, conductor of nearly thirty years, at his last concert before retirement in 2001. The statue has an important place in the collective memory of the orchestra, Ann reminisces, because “there was a fire alarm but instead of downing tools we carried on playing and then all trooped out and presented the statue in the car park!”
This fighting spirit is typical of the orchestra, which has stayed together for a half a century despite the problems facing amateur orchestras everywhere, from falling audience figures, declining interest in classical music and the cost of staging concerts, to the difficulty of striking a balance between what the orchestra wants to play and what the public wants to hear, the ongoing difficulty of attracting and maintaining members, and the challenges of pulling off difficult pieces of music. But for those in the orchestra, it's a part of life. The orchestra provides a weekly routine, a chance to socialise, to keep up and develop skills, to learn new things. Most importantly, it's a chance to get out for a few hours and play a small part in making one giant, collective noise. As Richard Waldock sums up: “It's important for people to be able to have these things.” And Tom Whittaker: “We have made a moderately good job of most things and I have found it to be a tremendously good hobby.”
Fifty Years of Oldham Symphony Orchestra is at Gallery Oldham from Saturday October 26 2013-Saturday January 4 2014. 
Oldham Golden Anniversary Concert takes place at Oldham Hulme Grammar School on Saturday November 16 at 7.30pm, featuring soloist David Daniels. Tickets cost £10/6/3.

Oldham Symphony Orchestra practises at Turf Lane Lifelong Learning Centre, Chadderton, Oldham, from 7.30pm-9.30pm each Monday evening during term time. For more information about current vacancies and concerts visit

Sort of related: I really enjoyed this recent Guardian article by Stuart Maconie about classical music and Manchester's radical music tradition.