Graham Bickley at Christmas


It’s going to be a cracker of a Christmas at Cadogan Hall on Saturday 19 December when the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Nick Davies, will be joined by two huge stars of TV and the West End stage: singers Anna-Jane Casey and Graham Bickley. They’ll be performing a festive concert of Christmas songs, duets and sing-alongs under the RPO Christmas tree as part of the Orchestra’s hugely popular Christmas Cracker concerts.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Graham says enthusiastically. “We’ll be singing a wonderful Christmas selection. Classics such as When a Child is Born and Mary’s Boy Child, moving into Winter Wonderland, I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm and Let it Snow. I’ll be doing some fab duets with Anna-Jane, too, including Baby, It’s Cold Outside.

“The Orchestra get to play their own festive pieces, too, but the audience won’t just be sitting there – they’ll be having a good sing-along as well. It’ll be a Christmas evening to remember.”

Graham’s name may be familiar to you from Bread, the smash-hit TV comedy series in which he played Joey Boswell. However, opera lovers may also recognise his surname as being shared by the celebrated mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley.

“She’s my sister,” the singer tells me proudly, between rehearsals for five different concerts he’ll be giving over the festive period. “Singing’s the family business!”

Graham got the singing bug from his father, the Deputy Head of a primary school, who was also a passionate member of the local am-dram group, and leader of the church choir.

Even before his teens, Graham knew he wanted to be on the stage and, fortunately for us, his parents encouraged it. At the age of eighteen, he joined the Liverpool Theatre School. “It was a fantastic place,” he says. “I never finished the course, though; I was working in the theatre almost from the day I joined.”

Graham learned his trade doing the summer seasons and pantos before moving to London in 1981 and getting more work in the West End. In 1989, he got his big break in Carla Lane’s hit TV comedy, Bread. “It was a fantastic series and great fun to make,” he says.

Graham made a triumphant return to the West End stage in 1992, and has been busy ever since in productions ranging from Les Misérables to Guys and Dolls and On the Town. He’s performed with some of the world’s biggest orchestras and starred in gala concerts dedicated to musical greats as diverse as Nelson Riddle and Stephen Sondheim. In 2010, he even found time to tour the UK with Anton Du Beke and Erin Boag in the hit show Steppin’ Out.

Reflecting on those years, his proudest moment was, he says, being nominated for an Olivier for his role in Ragtime in 2003.

Today, Graham is busier than ever, and just like previous years, Christmas promises to be his busiest time. “Between Boxing Day and New Year, I’ll be doing musical theatre,” he says. “From when I was young and in my father’s choir to being a professional, Christmas has always been busy – but I love it.”

However, on one day only, his stage outfit will be hanging in the wardrobe. “Christmas Day is family day,” he says. “Everyone will be around: my sister’s family and my mother.”

Perhaps, in the spirit of Christmas, they’ll be in the audience, too, at Cadogan Hall as Graham and Anna-Jane welcome in Christmas with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Written by John Evans

Graham Bickley performs in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Christmas Cracker concerts on Saturday 19 December 2015 (3.00pm and 7.30pm) at Cadogan Hall, London.

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STROKEstra at Hull City Hall


Photo credit: Nick Rutter

Since May 2014, RPO resound has been teaming up with Hull Integrated Community Stroke Service (HICSS) on a pioneering programme using group creative music-making to provide stroke rehabilitation for patients and carers in Hull. Over five months, six RPO musicians and Creative Leader Tim Steiner have been working with patients, carers and HICSS clinical staff to form the RPO STROKEstra, a musical ensemble created by, and for, stroke survivors.

The STROKEstra recently performed two original pieces ahead of the RPO’s season opening concert at Hull City Hall on Thursday 1 October 2015. Stroke survivor Tracy Jacobs shares a few thoughts about the programme:

“I have thoroughly enjoyed it all; it has been fantastic from start to finish. It gave me respite from my problems and I don’t ever want to forget this part of my stroke journey. It brought me a little bit of myself back. It was the first time I had done something on my own since my stroke.


“It has cleared my mind and now that it is over, I am ready to start afresh – out with the old and in with the new, and I’ll start by getting my hair cut on Saturday into a new style!

“I liked that I wasn’t pushed into doing it. It was always my choice to come. I really felt that the group grew into a little family, and it felt like I was going to see my family every day.

“My sister, who joined me at the last session and at the concert, said it was fantastic and she has never done anything as good as that before; she wished she had come from the beginning. For those couple of hours she was there, all her stresses went away.

“It was amazing.”

If you would like to see more of this project’s amazing work and view some videos of the performance, shared by members of the audience, please visit Tracy’s Facebook page, Life After Stroke.

This pilot programme was funded by the Hull Health & Wellbeing Board.

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Brian Wright on ‘the King Kong of requiems’


Brian Wright conducts Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts on Monday 30 November at the Royal Albert Hall.

There is no more thrilling place to be, says conductor Brian Wright, than standing in the middle of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts. So he’s in luck: on Monday 30 November, he and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will perform the piece at the Royal Albert Hall – a good place for it, according to Wright.

That’s because Grande Messe des Morts, written in 1837, is the King Kong of requiems. Berlioz, who intended it to memorialise the victims of the French revolution in July 1830, was never stingy with decibel levels. But in this work, he excelled himself, including, in addition to his enormous orchestra and gargantuan choir, four brass bands. Positioned around the other performers, these take turns to bludgeon the audience into submission; no wonder it’s rather a trial to put this piece on. ‘Trying to get all that lot together, as conductor, you’ve got to be very clear in what you’re doing and just keep the most enormously cool head.’ Then, of course, there’s the expense: ’I remember once doing it in the Albert Hall, when amazingly, we managed to get an audience of 3,000 in. I think we made £100 profit in the end.’

So why do performers keep coming back to it? Exactly because of its eccentricity. ‘In the middle of the piece especially, Berlioz lets his imagination go absolutely wild in a totally theatrical way,’ says Wright. ‘In one place there is this unbelievably bare sound of three flutes, right at the top of the flute range, with no harmony underneath, but then you suddenly have the sound of four bass trombones coming in from the brass. It’s haunting.’

As he points out, this is the sort of contemporary effect you’d associate with a mid twentieth-century composer rather than someone at the beginning of the nineteenth century. And it’s certainly not what you’d call reverential church music. But for all its originality, this piece didn’t spring from nowhere: ‘During the revolution, there were great open air celebrations with brass bands in four corners of a square, who would go out into the population and teach thousands of people the latest revolutionary tunes.’ What Berlioz essentially did, Wright explains, was to take this practice and put it in a religious context. ‘It’s a bit like somebody today taking the latest ideas from pop music and putting them into a classical context,’ Wright explains.

To deafening effect, some might say. But on this, Wright has his own opinion: ‘The interesting thing about this piece is that it’s not just about those enormous moments which almost have the feeling of growing out of the French Revolution. There are also these incredible moments of intimacy, for example in the Sanctus where the solo tenor comes in with this very ethereal line.’

But the diabolical shrieks also have their place, not least of all in the Lacrimosa: ‘It’s frankly a dance of death. The basic speed is a waltz, but it’s a manic waltz over the edge into the abyss. It’s the beckoning of death, Hell and all the rest of it,’ Wright says with relish. ‘And Berlioz really knew how to conjure that up.’

Written by Hannah Nepil

Brian Wright conducts Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts on Monday 30 November 2015 at the Royal Albert Hall.

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José Serebrier and the Golden Age


© Columbia Artists Management Inc.

Hollywood comes to the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday 4 November when the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performs some of the greatest film scores from the Golden Age of the movies, under the inspired direction of legendary conductor José Serebrier.

It promises to be a match made in tinseltown: the RPO, an orchestra with recording credits including The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Red Shoes, and Serebrier who, in addition to being an acclaimed, multi-Grammy Award-winning conductor famed for his interpretations of Glazunov, has composed for film as well as for one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. He is, therefore, just the man to create more than a little movie magic on this special night.

“My first film score was for The Star-Wagon starring Dustin Hoffman,” he tells me from his home in New York. “We were neighbours and it was just wonderful writing for this young man who, soon after, would become such a big star in his first major film, The Graduate.”

So, solid-gold Hollywood credentials established, what is it about film music that attracts this energetic (he seems far younger than his 76 years) but, otherwise, serious and hugely respected classical conductor?

“The power of the music, pure and simple,” says Serebrier. “Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by the power of music to bring a film alive. The best film music has this fantastic ability to create moods and enhance the visual experience.”

It’s a quality that wasn’t lost on some of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, including one of Serebrier’s heroes: Dmitri Shostakovich. Remarkably, he composed almost 40 scores, more than most established film composers manage in a lifetime. Needless to say, Serebrier has recorded many of them.

However, much as he loves the film music of Shostakovich, it is that other Russian composer, Prokofiev, whose film music intrigues him – and one score above all.

“It’s his music for the film Alexander Nevsky,” he says. “The film was directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Unlike today, when composers are given a couple of weeks to compose the score after the film has been shot and edited, Prokofiev and Eisenstein worked on the movie and the music simultaneously – frame by frame, bar by bar. It was unique, and the care and craftsmanship shows. It’s what I mean when I say music brings a film alive.”

Fortunately, audiences will experience exactly that when the conductor directs the RPO in their concert dedicated to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Ben-Hur, Taxi Driver, North by Northwest, Gone With The Wind, Psycho… Movie titles etched in our collective memory – but what do we remember next? The music, of course.

“The mark of a good film score is one that can stand on its own, without the film,” says Serebrier. “The music to these great films absolutely does.”

Among the roll call of great movie composers whose music he and the RPO will be performing is Erich Korngold. According to the conductor, Korngold’s work is proof that great film music, far from being some sort of poor relation of classical music, is a genre in its own right, deserving of equal respect.

“Film music is not a cousin of classical music,” he says. “It is unrelated and, yes, it is functional, there to enhance the film. But, as the music we will perform in the Royal Albert Hall will show, the best scores can stand on their own and stir the emotions as only the greatest music can.”

Written by John Evans

José Serebrier conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in The Golden Age of Hollywood on Wednesday 4 November at the Royal Albert Hall.

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Composer Robert Hartshorne talks Thomas & Friends™

©2015 Gullane (Thomas) Limited. ©2015 HIT Entertainment Limited.

©2015 Gullane (Thomas) Limited. ©2015 HIT Entertainment Limited.

Barely five minutes in, we’re already onto political correctness in Thomas the Tank Engine. ‘In the American version, you can’t have the ‘Fat Controller’ – he’s called Sir Topham Hatt over there,’ says composer Robert Hartshorne. ‘I think it’s the reference to the fatness that they don’t like. In Britain we’re a little less sensitive than that. We can take it.’

I consider admitting that I don’t remember the Fat Controller. It’s been far too long since I watched Thomas the Tank Engine, and even then I only did it to impress my ‘boyfriend’ at nursery school. For Hartshorne, however, Thomas the Tank Engine is a specialist subject. He is the man behind the music of the television series. And he can also count himself responsible for Thomas & Friends™: Sodor’s Legend of Lost Treasure, the latest film inspired by the grinning steam locomotive.

In two weeks, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will play music from the soundtrack in four concerts at Cadogan Hall, accompanied by a screening of the film. ‘It wasn’t designed ever as a single piece to be played by the orchestra,’ says Hartshorne, ‘so I’ve had to transform it.’ Does that involve a lot of work? ‘Yes,’ he says, in the voice of a man who is drowning, but trying not to show it. ‘Yes, you could say that.’

It’s a good job he likes Thomas the Tank Engine, though not to a worrying extent. ‘I can confirm that I’m not a trainspotter,’ he tells me. He got to know the books by reading them to his children. Though, at the time, he didn’t nurse dreams of setting them to music. His degree was in chemistry, and the extent of his musical qualifications he tells me proudly ‘was Grade 4 piano.’ But he had always loved music, despite not being allowed to study it at school (‘basically I wasn’t good enough’). So, after getting a ‘proper job’, as a Personnel Officer for BP, he taught himself composition, eventually getting commissions for corporate productions and cheap commercials. It was a happy, if terrifying day that he quit his job at BP – more than thirty years ago now – to devote himself entirely to music.

It wasn’t until 2003, however, that he began composing for Thomas the Tank Engine, a job that he now shares with his son, Peter. At that time, the music for the series was well and truly ‘stuck in the seventies and eighties,’ he says. Part of Hartshorne’s mission was to yank it up to date, which he did, by drawing on all sorts of musical influences: jazz, country, pop, rock, classical music and even Andrew Marr’s History of the World series, for which Hartshorne also composed the music. His opinion is that ‘there’s no such thing as children’s music. There’s just music. My wife led me to believe that, because she teaches four-year-olds and has played them things like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. They liked it.’

Thomas & Friends: Sodor’s Legend of Lost Treasure has allowed Hartshorne, more than ever, to put that philosophy into practice. For one thing, it was the first Thomas the Tank Engine movie to use a real orchestra, as opposed to synthesized sound. ‘Composing for orchestra is hair-raising if you’re not doing it on a daily basis. You think “is that going to work? Have I got enough strings?” Then you get in to the studio and you think, “Oh yeah, I got away with it”,’ he says.

What he particularly loved about the experience was the chance to play with ‘a broader palette’, as he puts it: ‘In the film, there are mountainsides falling down, trains escaping through valleys, rivers flooding. The disasters are bigger and longer than in the series, so we had the chance to build bigness into it.’

And he’s not afraid to push the sense of danger: ‘My own personal view is that you can go as dark and dangerous as you like, but as long as it ends on a moment of ‘phew’, then it’s alright. Kids will take being scared. And I don’t want to worry you.’ He adds, ‘It does all come alright in the end.’

Written by Hannah Nepil

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performs music from Thomas & Friends: Sodor’s Legend of Lost Treasure at Cadogan Hall on Wednesday 26 and Thursday 27 August, accompanied by a screening of the film.

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