Celebration of the Sea: project preview

This week, three RPO musicians, a creative music leader and a creative writing leader will spend a week at the beach working with local adults to explore and celebrate the maritime heritage of the historic marina town of Lowestoft, Suffolk.

We’ll begin on Monday with visits to the Lowestoft Maritime Museum and Mincarlo Trawler, the last surviving sidewinder trawler in the area, for guided tours of their historic collections and sites. The group will then have a brainstorming session to pick out specific themes, objects or stories that really inspired them during the visits, which they will use as guides during the next three days of creative workshops.

Tuesday through Thursday will see around fifty adults take part in either creative music or writing workshops alongside the professional artists. We’ll have a wide range of perspectives with participants from local community music groups, Access Community Trust, the 60+ Club, Flagship Housing and other Lowestoft locals joining together to create pieces in response to Lowestoft’s relationship with the sea.

The week-long project will culminate on Friday with two public performances featuring the original compositions performed by participants: first aboard the Mincarlo Trawler for a lunchtime performance and again outside the Marina Theatre, ahead of the RPO’s thematically linked concert, Celebration of the Sea.

Throughout the week we’ll be sharing our progress with posts by artists, participants and audience members, so check back here for updates!

Find out more about our project events on the RPO website.
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Day 1:

Monday was a busy day for the Celebration of the Sea group with special access visits to two local heritage sites and a brainstorming session bringing together participants from a variety of backgrounds for the first time to explore Lowestoft’s relationship with the sea.

Read more about Day 1.


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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An Insight into The Bach Choir

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Written by Hannah Nepil.

How do you sum up The Bach Choir in a nutshell? Answer: you can’t. Don’t let the title fool you – this 140-year-old ensemble reaches far beyond the works of Johann Sebastian Bach.

In June, The Bach Choir joins forces with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for one of the stalwart pillars of the repertory: Mendelssohn’s Elijah. In November, the ensembles celebrate John Rutter’s 70th birthday with the London premiere of his The Gift of Life: Six Canticles of Creation – conducted by the composer. Contemporary composers, from James MacMillan to Jonathan Dove, are regularly, and enthusiastically profiled. ‘The Bach Choir isn’t just about doing standard repertoire. It’s about doing new pieces that will extend the choral tradition,’ says Nick Cutts, the Choir’s General Manager.

Its members are similarly hard to categorise. ‘We have 260 people from all walks of life. From students to barristers and someone who’s in the House of Lords.’ But whatever their background or profession, ‘members come to rehearsals week in, week out, practise at home and reaudition every three years, so there’s a certain amount of dedication to being part of the Choir,’ says Cutts.

If that sounds gruelling, the perks are worth it. ‘For a lot of the singers, being part of the Choir means gaining something that they once lost. There are people who were singers in their early years, then had families and only found time to pick it up again later. One of our members has recently won a place on the Sixteen’s Genesis scheme, so The Bach Choir can lead to all sorts of things.’

Among them, rubbing noses with the Great and Good. ‘One of the most amazing concerts for me took place during Queen’s coronation anniversary celebrations at Buckingham Palace. We were there with Kiri Te Kanawa, Katherine Jenkins, Eric Whitacre and the entire household cavalry,’ reminisces Cutts, ‘and I’ve got some pictures of myself, Eric Whitacre and his wife all pulling silly faces at each other backstage. It just goes to show that you have that moment of absolute relaxation – then you hit the stage, and everything changes.’

Does Cutts ever perform with the Choir himself? ‘No no,’ he says. ‘I’m just a simple brass player. But organising a concert brings its own excitement: that feeling when something goes amazingly and the audience are loving it. For me, that’s what it’s all about.’

The Bach Choir performs Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 7 June; it performs the London premiere of John Rutter’s ‘The Gift of Life: Six Canticles of Creation’ at St Paul’s Cathedral on Thursday 5 November.

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An Interview with Freddy Kempf

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We Are Family – the 1979 hit song – could have been penned for Freddy Kempf and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The relationship between the concert pianist and the Orchestra goes back to 1985 when, aged just eight years old, Kempf made his concerto debut performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.12 in A major, K.414.

“I’d been spotted playing at various music festivals and it was suggested I give a concert with the RPO,” Kempf – now 37 – tells me, midway through a concert tour he is undertaking in Russia.

It was a life-changing event. The young Kempf had already begun to be noticed, but his RPO concert fanned the flames of his emerging talent. Within two years, he’d won the National Mozart competition, before two years after that, winning BBC Young Musician of the Year.

“Some years later when I was eighteen and in the US, I was chatting with some student friends about the UK music scene,” he says. “They were amazed that by that age I’d played the Tchaikovsky concerto twenty times. I told them it was all down to the UK’s unique professional and semi-professional music scene that gives young musicians an opportunity they won’t get anywhere else in the world.”

Today, Kempf really values his long relationship with the RPO. As a student at the Royal Academy of Music, many of the Orchestra’s current members were his friends and contemporaries. Now, as a soloist travelling the world often on his own, he says it’s wonderful to meet up with them for performances.

“There’s a chemistry between us,” he says. “A concert pianist’s life can be lonely, but it’s been nice growing up with the RPO and working with its players. They’re my friends, and the RPO is like a second family to me.”

And now we can enjoy the fruits of that relationship when Kempf and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra perform Grieg’s Piano Concerto at Hull City Hall on Thursday 28 May and at Cambridge Corn Exchange on Saturday 30 May. The pianist regards it as a very special concerto. Considering how many he has in his repertoire, he actually came to it later in life. He says, simply, that he loves it.

“It’s so well written and contains some of the most beautiful music you’re ever likely to hear in a concert hall. It’s fantastic and I always enjoy playing it.”

Written by John Evans

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An Interview with Tom Poster

Poster, Tom_credit Sussie Ahlburg

Written by Hannah Nepil.

By his own admission, Tom Poster struggles to understand ‘what it’s like for friends who are still making decisions well into their twenties and beyond as to what direction they want to take in life.’ For this 33-year-old pianist, who has performed with ensembles ranging from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to the China National Symphony, there was no such turmoil: ‘it never crossed my mind to think about doing something that wasn’t music related.’

Yet, he didn’t come from a musical background. ‘My dad did teach me a few notes on the recorder that was the extent of his contribution.’ How, then, did he develop this passion? ‘I think it was hearing music on the radio and being totally transfixed from the age of about three. My parents could see very quickly that they had to find ways for me to explore this love.’

And so began the piano lessons, the oboe lessons, and the cello lessons. In fact, it wasn’t until his mid-teens that Poster decided to focus on the piano. ‘As a kid, it was the music that I was drawn to rather than any specific instrument.’

Even now, he thrives on variety. ‘I’ve always loved sitting at the piano. But I wouldn’t want life to be just about me and a piano every day.’ That’s why he likes to mix up solo work and chamber music. It’s also why he prefers not to listen to too much piano music.

And it’s why he likes to juggle his piano career with other interests. He recently wrote a piece for trumpeter Alison Balsom, inspired by ‘very strange looking deep sea creatures.’ Now, he is working on a puppet opera inspired by the life of the eighteenth-century French showman and soldier Tarrare, a figure infamous for his pathologically huge appetite, who was eventually accused of guzzling a child. It might seem an unusual choice of subject, but according to Poster, Tarrare is a typically operatic character: ‘an outsider whom society thinks is a freak.’

You could say that Poster is thrilled by the unconventional. He certainly has a curious, searching mind. A Cambridge graduate with a Double First in Music, he has presented shows on BBC television and radio and given masterclasses at Dartington International Summer School and in Singapore. ‘The greatest works can stand on their own feet, but classical music is not an art form which always offers its richest rewards immediately,’ he says. ‘There are certain works that require concentrated effort on the part of the listener, so we should do anything we can to help people into that world.’

But with so many demands upon his time, does Poster never long for a stolen hour slumped in front of the TV? ‘I try to see friends and go for walks. But having such an overwhelming passion doesn’t always leave a lot of space for other things.’ For him, music is a much-needed outlet. ‘I often felt a bit of an outsider as a child. There was something that was very comfortable about sitting at the piano, and expressing myself that way,’ he says. ‘It’s an incredible solace – music.’

Tom Poster performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at G Live, Guildford, on Friday 15 May; and Mozart’s Piano Concert No.23 at Cadogan Hall on Monday 2 November. His new CD of works by Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin will be released on the Editions Classics label in June.

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Meet Alexander Shelley

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He’s the son of celebrated concert pianists, the grandson of a talented cellist and the great grandson of an equally talented organist, but Alexander Shelley, the newly appointed Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, is very much his own man – and poised to open a new chapter in the RPO’s glittering history.

He came to the world’s attention in 2005 when, aged just 25, he won first prize in the Leeds Conductors Competition. Even before then, however, he’d tasted success and demonstrated a passion for conducting and for musical collaboration that included being a cellist in the World Orchestra for Peace tour of 2003, and founding the Schumann Camerata, a chamber orchestra with whom he gave over 80 concerts. His success at Leeds, rather than encouraging him to take his foot off the accelerator and wait for the offers to roll in, simply spurred the young Shelley to even greater efforts.

BBC Proms engagements and numerous concerts as guest conductor of this country’s great orchestras followed until, in 2009, he was appointed the youngest ever Principal Conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, a position he holds to this day and which he has maintained despite numerous appearances around the world at the helm of many of its greatest orchestras. This year, in addition to his appointment as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Principal Associate Conductor, he becomes the Music Director of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra.

So what drives Alexander Shelley to devote himself so wholeheartedly to music? ‘There are no certainties in this life,’ he says. ‘You may be the most brilliant musician but it’s no guarantee you’ll get lots of concerts, and the less you perform, the more challenging each performance becomes.’

It’s an attitude instilled in him by his parents, both successful musicians, who were happy to let the young Shelley pursue his cello studies at school, but only to consider a musical career if, as he recalls, ‘it was absolutely all I wanted to do; if it was my passion.’

‘To get up every day and strive to improve in music, it needs to be the love of your life,’ he says. ‘My parents were acutely conscious of that, and wanted to be sure it was my decision and wasn’t being forced on me. I’m very grateful for that.’

At the root of his passion for conducting lies a clear understanding of the purpose of his job: to be, as he says, a ‘conduit’ for the composer’s music. ‘My modus operandi is to connect with the essence of every work I conduct. I break down the piece to its constituent parts and then reassemble it in my mind, so that while I have an understanding of the trees, so to speak, I can also see the forest.

‘And then it’s about trying to find that thread, the aspect of the music that speaks most eloquently and, through my conducting and the orchestra’s playing, present it to the audience. So if my job is about anything, it’s being the right representative for the piece, and bringing the orchestra with me.’

On that subject, he’s looking forward to conducting the members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Someone outside the Orchestra may be a little surprised to hear that for Shelley, one of its players’ many strengths is an exceptional sight-reading ability. Such a skill means that they can quickly move on in rehearsal from mastering the music’s technical challenges, to the essential business of interpretation. This leads to a sense of confidence, which in turn generates a musical energy both in rehearsal and in concert.

‘There’s a sense of urgency and excitement which is very productive, and gives a special edge to everything the Orchestra does,’ he says.

Clearly, Alexander Shelley is a huge admirer of the Orchestra, but the task of any conductor wishing to inspire his colleagues’ respect – especially one bearing the title Associate Principal – is to have that feeling reciprocated. Years spent working with some of the world’s greatest orchestras have given Shelley clear insights in how best to achieve this.

‘A position like mine is about making the relationship with the RPO official and a step towards saying “Let’s take this journey together, and see where it leads us.” It’s a little like dating. The relationship will develop and it may falter at times, but eventually you begin to feel there’s something there, a trust that you think could be mutually beneficial and interesting.

‘To be embarking on this phase where we say, “let’s see each other more regularly” is really special, because the more trust there is between a conductor and an orchestra, the more you can achieve. But like any relationship, it’s also important to keep the magic there; to not let things become routine. It is my job always to be challenging them, to be interesting and to respect them.’

On that score, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and, importantly, its audience, need have no concerns.

Written by John Evans

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