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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Sali-Wyn Ryan (Second Violin) reflects on Celebration of the Sea

I feel thoroughly privileged to have been part of this highly successful project with RPO resound in Lowestoft. The week quickly evolved into an exploration of local history and nautical adventures which provided the foundation for our musical voyage. We soon found ourselves immersed in sessions of boat-related brainstorming, fishermen’s tales and instrumental challenges!

The participants were from a huge variety of backgrounds – ranging from experienced choir members to people that had never before played certain instruments – and had a wide array of skills. Focusing on stories, facts and faces from the Mincarlo Trawler and Maritime museum, we devised three pieces of music to be performed at the end of the week, alongside the work of local writer Dean Parkin. The group responded with amazing enthusiasm from day one and, encouraged by our fantastic workshop leader, Jason Rowland; my RPO colleagues and I felt fully confident we could deliver what proved to be a unique musical experience for all involved.

Our three pieces developed gradually as a series of stories, melodies, words and rhythms – influenced by interpretations of fishermen’s lives, boat names, lifeboat heroes and the 350th anniversary of the Battle of Lowestoft. We spent time working separately with instrumentalists and singers to create evocative songs in which maritime heritage inspired musical experimentation. The daily progress of the group was inspiring and we had a huge amount of fun with the people involved.

Finally, verses and choruses were written, chords and rhythms mastered, melodies memorised, a new world of musical terminology discovered and performance outfits discussed! Both performances went incredibly well (I even had a blue violin to play!) and I felt so proud of the participants and of what we, as a group, had achieved together. We managed, miraculously, to fit on the upper deck of the Mincarlo Trawler and played to an appreciative audience on the quayside. Later in the day, we gave a repeat performance outside the Marina Theatre, just ahead of our RPO evening concert. Projects like this are so important as a way of bringing people together – thank you Lowestoft for a fantastic week! I’ll finish with one of the choruses we wrote, inspired by the proud and humble lifeboatmen.

“Siren sounds
Duty calls;
Striving always strong.
Humble men, saving lives
At sea where they belong.”

Tweets on performance day…

This project is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Suffolk Community Foundation Michael Ben Howes Fund.

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The return of Top Brass with Allen Vizzutti


Written by John Evans

This September, fans of brass music are in for a very special treat when members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s percussion and brass sections, including its recently appointed Principal Trumpet James Fountain, are joined in concert by a true legend of the genre: Allen Vizzutti.

This is the trumpeter’s second appearance with the RPO in as many years, and in Top Brass 2015, he and the Orchestra will be performing two of his own compositions: Rising Sun, and a work composed especially for the occasion, called Quarks. In addition, they’ll be playing works by Watson, Bernstein and Bach, plus many more.

It’s sure to be a magical evening. Vizzutti is an exceptional performer – one who shines in all forms and styles of music. His amazing career has seen him rub musical shoulders with Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Frank Sinatra, and with orchestras including the Los Angeles Philharmonic; and he has performed on soundtracks for blockbusters, including Back to the Future and Star Trek.

All this and he’s a hugely successful teacher too, inspiring young players around the world with his masterclasses and tutor books, including the essential New Concepts for Trumpet.

And to think, it all started when his father handed him a trumpet and invited him to play. “I was seven,” says Vizzutti from his home in Seattle. “Of course, it was difficult at first, but dad never let up.”

Vizzutti Senior, who owned a music store, was a keen trumpeter and would give his son pointers each day, culminating in a weekly lesson. “He’d draw up lesson plans he didn’t think anyone could get through, but it didn’t set me back.”

He knew a good sound when he heard it and insisted his young son concentrate on developing beauty of sound and phrasing. “‘You’re Italian,’ he’d remind me,” says Vizzutti.

From lessons with his father, Vizzutti eventually won a full scholarship to the Eastman School of Music in New York, where he scooped most of the major awards. “Eastman School really fired my pants,” says Vizzutti.

It surely did. Within a few years of graduating, Vizzutti’s astonishingly varied career started to take shape with sessions as a trumpeter in Hollywood for movie and TV soundtracks, recordings with pop legends and, in later years, appearances with some of the world’s greatest orchestras and their associated wind ensembles.

“Shifting between musical genres has never been a problem for me,” he says. “You develop a conceptual shift in your mind that allows you to let certain musical and technical things change. It might be those playing aspects you need to maintain control of in classical music but let go of in jazz, or vice versa.

“I listen hard to people who immerse themselves in some specific musical niche – be it jazz, pop or classical. I notice things I want to emulate and I work them into my own music.”

Throughout his long career, composing has never been far away. For Top Brass 2015, Vizzutti and members of the RPO brass and percussion sections, conducted by Philip Harper, will be performing the trumpeter’s latest composition, Quarks. It’s named after the subatomic particle and is inspired by its six types, each called – bizarrely – up, down, strange, charm, top and bottom. Each gives its name to a movement in the piece and Vizzutti plays with the RPO’s musicians either in duo or trio. One movement is just for tuned percussion.

Vizzutti is looking forward to performing his new piece, but, above all, playing his trumpet for the RPO audience.

“I love playing the trumpet because of the communication it establishes between me and my audience,” he says. “I love the instrument because although I’ve worked hard at it, it seems to come naturally to me.”

Thank heavens his father thought to put the instrument in his hands all those years ago.

Allen Vizzutti performs with Philip Harper and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Brass and Percussion sections in Top Brass 2015 on Tuesday 22 September 2015 at Cadogan Hall.

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Celebration of the Sea: Day 4

Thursday afternoon saw the final visit of writer Dean Parkin to Coppice Court, a supported housing scheme for young families. Over three days, Dean worked with around 15 adults from the area to develop their own poems about the beach, a sea battle, and what it’s like living in Lowestoft today. While many of the participants had never written poems or short stories before, many participants expressed an interest in continuing writing after learning a few techniques from the professional.

day 4 cots image

One participant said: “I’ve been wanting to write a sitcom for years, and speaking to Dean and learning the techniques of just writing words down and not necessarily needing a specific place to start or finish was great, because that’s always the hardest thing – not knowing where to start.”

Another participant marvelled at how getting simple words down on paper allowed the group to mould and shape them into meaningful poems. “At first, I didn’t really think I was into writing, but after the workshops, I think I’d like to continue because it was just great.”

Coppice Court is one of the community groups that will contribute poems to the Celebration of the Sea performances on Friday 3 July, featuring local residents and professional musicians from the RPO performing new pieces of music and word, all about Lowestoft.

This project is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Suffolk Community Foundation Michael Ben Howes Fund.

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Celebration of the Sea: Participant reflection

At the end of a whirlwind week, Mitch, a music participant, reflects on what he will take away from Celebration of the Sea:

This week, as part of the Celebration of the Sea project, I have been learning and playing bass guitar. Before this project, I’d only ever picked up a bass guitar once and now in the space of 5 days, I know most of the chords. I’ve really enjoyed this project as it has not only enabled me to start on the road of learning to play an instrument, but also to unlock a passion for music that I never knew I had.


As part of the project, we composed our own piece of music from scratch, we did this by literally picking numbers from 1-4. This was then the tempo for the piece. We then made a tune by putting different chords where the numbers were. At the end of the week, we performed our set pieces twice. Once on the Mincarlo, a trawler, and the second performance outside the Marina Theatre.


Performing aboard the Mincarlo

I’ve loved this project. It has enabled me to meet new people and characters from all walks of life. At the beginning of the week, nobody knew each other and now we all get on like a house on fire! I’m going to miss this project now it’s over, but hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to do something like this again. Also, from this project, I’ve decided that I’m going to continue playing bass guitar. With a load of practice and some luck, I’ll be able to audition for the RPO in about 5 years time.

This project is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Suffolk Community Foundation Michael Ben Howes Fund.

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