BLOG – Peter Davis, cello

It’s now almost a year since I was picked up by Street Orchestra Live (SOL) for my first experience touring with a pop-up orchestra, as a last-minute addition to their summer tour of the North-East of England. I had no real idea of what I had signed up for, but as soon as the first performance was underway, I was hooked, and I could tell that this was something different.

Looking back, I remember the first outdoor pop-up I did – in the market of the small town of Stockton-on-Tees. There was a sense in the air of something a bit different, or something a bit electrifying, generated by the orchestra’s presence. Perhaps it’s down to the way the orchestra seems to appear out of no-where with a sudden flurry of seemingly-chaotic activity, or perhaps it’s an atmosphere that orchestras (even in concert halls) have always had, but we’re so used to seeing orchestras in the concert hall that we no longer take notice of the aura they create around them. 

The sheer variety of concert settings within a single day also struck me. I recall going from a school in the morning to a ruined castle before lunch, then surprising a group of health workers at the seaside by giving a performance for the 70th birthday of the NHS, to a pop-up in a playground, and then somehow joining the This is the Kit in their concert at the Whitley Bay Playhouse; three of their songs had been very quickly arranged for the orchestra, then rehearsed in the car park outside the Playhouse just before the band’s gig started, with us joining half-way through their set to play Wagner.

Since catching the street orchestra bug, I’ve become quite addicted, and  also found myself joining Street Orchestra Live’s Scottish relative, Nevis Ensemble, and Ricciotti Ensemble – the Dutch predecessor to both of these groups.

My first experience with the Nevis Ensemble was in December for the ‘Reawakening’ tour, in which the orchestra travelled up from Glasgow to Aberdeen for the re-opening of the music hall there, stopping off to perform in Perth, Dundee, and Arbroath along the way. It was particularly surreal for me as I used to live in Aberdeen, and it felt quite special coming back to the city after so long!

This tour was perhaps the coldest I’d ever done, being in December, in Scotland – though there is a certain sense of almost reckless energy within the ensemble which is quite exciting to be a part of, and whether we were playing Africa in the rain in Dundee, on the icy steps in front of the Aberdeen Music Hall, a freezing, windy square outside the Marischal College buildings, or an outdoor stage, shared by the likes of KT Tunstall and Eddi Reader during an all-night sleep out to raise awareness and money for homeless charities – the orchestra’s electrifying presence always made it easy to bare the cold, and draw a crowd.

Another thing that my experiences touring with Nevis had brought to light for me was how alive traditional music culture is in Scotland, especially in comparison to England. While there is an abundance of English folk music, you don’t really hear much of it in day-to-day life. With Nevis, no matter where in Scotland we went, and to whom we played for, people in every audience would know the dances or sing the words – there’s a great sense of pride in Scottish traditional music. Instead of being a thing of the past, in Scotland it is still living and breathing – the music is still very much as alive as the people who live there. 

Nevis has a medley of Scottish folk songs we regularly play; in it there’s a moment where the music goes very quiet, and a horn solo comes out, stating the melody of Loch Lomond. Almost every time you could feel a stillness in that moment among the audience, and after a few bars, people will often start to sing along. The whole thing builds up and segues into Auld Lang Syne, and it’s always such a fantastic moment – every time it sends chills down the back of my neck, and I almost start feeling patriotic for a country I’m not even from!

So finally, Ricciotti Ensemble. The third street orchestra I got involved with is pretty much an institution in the Netherlands, having been going on since the 1970s, and after spending ten days with them on one tour, it’s easy to see why it caught on. I went over to join them for their ‘Eternal Radio’ tour, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first public radio broadcasts from The Hague.

I certainly had more than a few friends who thought I was completely mad to just pick up and go to a country where I did not speak the language, or know anyone, all to tour with an orchestra where I also wouldn’t get paid. However, with Ricciotti you could really tell that it had been going on for years and years – the group has so many seemingly bizarre traditions that sort of force new members into Ricciotti’s own little culture, and this quickly creates a sense that the group is a huge family, and a resulting atmosphere of encouragement. I found very quickly that any nervousness I had about joining this group vanished very quickly.

Just as with the other two orchestras, Ricciotti seems to have a remarkable amount of energy and spontaneity. It feels as if the group knows just how far they can push things, and how much they can get away with, and seems to be able to approach everything with a much greater intensity of energy than any ensemble I’d been a part of before. But along with this intensity, there’s also a sense of organised madness – performances would often begin with a handful of members shouting “RICCIOTTI, OP!”, and the orchestra cheering, would flood the venue, and all of a sudden, the performance has begun – even if it is happening in a radio studio, barely big enough for five people, let alone an orchestra of 45.

Once the first day of the tour had got underway, the ensemble’s intensity of energy became even more apparent. We had travelled all over the country, and given eight performances – in one of which it was decided, almost upon a whim, that we would invite a member of the audience to come on stage and give one of the violinists a haircut during the Barber of Seville overture – and this rather set the tone of the days to come for all of the new members like me.

Among the repertoire for the tour was the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, by Ralph Vaughan-Williams – a lovely piece, but one I had for a while dismissed as being a bit overdone in the UK. However, I found that performing this piece to audiences in a country that hasn’t heard the piece ad nauseum, and are much less familiar with the work of Vaughan-Williams allowed me to hear the piece in a totally new way.

With almost every performance, the audience reaction was astounding, and the piece just got better and better. I was particularly moved when we played it at a Rememberance Day performance, running into a two-minute silence, and then into Dutch national anthem. The atmosphere during the ten-or-so minutes in which this happened was electrifying, and all I could think was that ‘something special just happened’.

I’ve found as a performer that there is a certain sense of pure joy in playing with these ensembles and a hugely encouraging atmosphere in which to play – something I feel is all-too-often lacking from regular performances, as if we forget that we also play music because we love it.

Surely, as musicians, if we can’t show a sense joy in what we do, then how can we expect new audiences to also find joy in it? Perhaps I am jumping to conclusions too quickly, but I feel the effort to open up classical music to wider audiences and to make it more accessible would be a whole lot easier if orchestras smiled more as they played!

I also find that what we do in these orchestras is quite special. Not only is it amazing to be able to take the considerable emotional power of an orchestra, and to unleash it in places it rarely gets to go, but when you take the staples of the concert hall such as Mozart, Rossini, or Mendelssohn out of the concert hall, and out of their comfort zones, you breathe new life into the works.

Even Beethoven’s music seems to gain a new harsh edge, and an exciting, sometimes even shocking brutality and immediacy to its sound that seems to me to be a little lost in the perfectly tuned spaces of the concert hall. The energy that these groups bring to the music too is hugely important and impressive – we attack every piece with the same enthusiasm and vitality, regardless of the venue we’re playing in.

This ability to present all kinds of music – be they ‘serious’ staples of the classical repertoire, jazz standards, pop music, or folk tunes – with a consistent energy is useful when presenting all these various styles within the same performance, which I believe helps break down the barriers between conceptions of what classical music is, and what it actually can be.

I think this is especially important as there has lately a lot of clamouring in the classical industry to find new ways to present and programme classical music; to attract new and wider audiences, and to help increase and ensure the longevity of the art of orchestral music.

If I were to paraphrase the words of Patricia Kopatchinskaja – a proponent of radical change among the world of classical music – I would say that Nevis, SOL and Ricciotti all manage to have audiences come out of a performance with different ears to the ones they came in with. I believe that is something we should aim for if we are to get more people to listen to classical music, and to come to concerts, and to see just how much power that music has to enrich lives.