The orchestra hoping to strike a chord with ambitious inner-city symphony

Three brothers are setting up a new symphony orchestra in Leeds, but one with a difference. Chris Bond went to find out more.

The Hallam brothers, Richard Frank and Nick
The Hallam brothers, Richard Frank and Nick

IN less than six months time the inaugural concert of Britain’s newest symphony orchestra will take place in the beautifully refurbished Leeds Town Hall.

The grade I listed building has played host to countless virtuoso musicians during its 155-year history and is home to the city’s acclaimed international concert season, and next February it has been chosen as the venue for the Leeds Orchestra Project’s inaugural concert.

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This fledging symphony orchestra aims to establish Leeds as an internationally-renowned hub for orchestral musicians by dipping into the deep pool of talent pouring out of our colleges and music academies. It’s as bold as it is ambitious and although the people behind it, brothers Nick, Richard and Frank Hallam – a freelance arts consultant, a training and renewables expert and a lawyer – are, on the face of it, an unlikely trio to be spearheading such a grand scheme, they have the determination and business nous to make it succeed.

But why take on such a project in the first place? Richard’s son is a talented cello player and one of the 1,500 or so instrumentalists who graduate each year and then have to do battle for the handful of vacancies in Britain’s orchestras.

“They pour their childhood into this one aim of joining the youth orchestra, they then go on to college, but then these fantastic musicians come out and there aren’t any jobs,” says Richard. “So we thought we’ve got all these talented musicians, if we took the best one or two per cent of this year’s outtake we could form a fantastic orchestra.”

The aim is to give eager, young musicians fresh out of college the opportunity to hone their skills as part of a full-time orchestra based in the city. It will feature about 80 players who will have a contract of up to five years to ensure that the orchestra keeps renewing itself. “The acid test of whether it’s been successful or not will be 10 or 15 years down the road when our musicians are out there in orchestras around the country and across the world,” says Nick.

“We want this to be a place where musicians develop, so rather than just filling a gap here and there they can actually be in an orchestra and continue their development.”

February’s concert is being conducted by Garry Walker who says the orchestra can have a big impact. “It’s a real ray of hope to many young musicians leaving colleges at the moment. Not only will it give them some financial support, but it will also develop them as musicians, secure valuable experience and hopefully speed their path into the profession.”

Nick believes they are creating something unique. “The standard of playing by musicians coming out of the colleges and universities in this country is phenomenal, so it will be a spectacularly good orchestra.”

As well as being part of a fully fledged orchestra, he says the musicians who get selected will be expected to get stuck into community work. “This sounds very worthy but what we mean is we’ll rehearse this orchestra in shopping centres, in schools, in factories and we will take it out to places where they’ve never seen an orchestra before.”

The Hallam brothers, who all live in Yorkshire, are keen to make classical concerts accessible to a wider audience. “If you pick up a classical season brochure the vast majority will have an overture, concerto and a symphony, and if you go to a concert you will stop talking the moment the leader appears on stage and apart from the music there will be silence until the piece is finished. But we’re not going to do that,” says Nick.

“At times, even for seasoned concert goers, it can be dull if you don’t understand every single piece in the concert. We will be doing a standard classical repertoire, but we were talking with the conductor Garry the other day about working with jazz musicians and folk musicians. So the series of concerts we do will look like nothing else any other orchestra is doing.”

The city already has the Leeds Symphony Orchestra, which dates back to 1890, not to mention Opera North, Leeds’s only other professional orchestra, but the brothers believe there is room for them, too. “There’s no point whatsoever us creating something that’s just going after the same audiences as the other orchestras in town. We have to be going out and getting new people interested,” says Richard. “It’s great for the city but as a business model it’s something we have to do to survive and to create income.”

They have spent the past 18 months working on the project and have visited most of the major UK orchestras to canvas their opinion. “We’ve spoken to their principals and top end directors about our project and without exception they thought it was a fantastic idea, and they had no doubts it would be successful and that we’d be able to attract the right calibre of musician.”

They’ve received support and encouragement from big hitters like the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Society, but is there the public demand for what they’re doing? Nick believes there is. “There’s around 30 pastoral concerts here in a season, but if you go across the Pennines there’s just a short distance between Manchester and Liverpool but they’ve got more than 200 concerts.”

Richard believes Yorkshire is lagging behind other parts of the country when it comes to professional orchestras.

“There’s the CBSO (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) down in Birmingham and the Royal Philharmonic in Liverpool and neither of those cities would ever consider being without their orchestra in the same way they wouldn’t be without their football clubs.”

Orchestras are a costly business, however, and the Hallams are under no illusions about the challenges ahead. They estimate there will be an annual shortfall of about £2m and are turning to philanthropists and the private sector to help plug the gap.

“We’re very aware of the funding situation with the Arts Council and the city council and to make it work we have to sell the idea to people with big money that this is going to be exciting and good for Leeds,” says Richard.

Some people might question the wisdom of trying to launch an orchestra like this in the current economic climate, but the city’s music scene was boosted recently by the new First Direct Arena, which opened with a triumphant gig by Bruce Springsteen and was built during the recession. One thing the brothers want to get away from is the elitist and somewhat snooty image that some people still associate with classical music.

“We’re not going to alienate an existing concert-going audience, but also we want to put on concerts where people can bring a beer in and listen to the music,” says Richard.

Nick agrees. “It’s no good us going out to shopping centres and factories and giving people a taste of what an orchestra is like and then bringing them in to the sort of environment where you have to sit down and be quiet for 40 minutes, and expect them to go away and think ‘wow, what an amazing experience.’ There’s got to be more than that, there needs to be explanations and background about the music.”

There’s no doubt that classical music can strike a chord with people. Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana has appeared in numerous films and TV adverts, for instance, while Luciano Pavarotti’s rendition of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma is as much a part of people’s memories of the 1990 World Cup as England’s penalty defeat and Gazza’s tears.

“There isn’t a Hollywood blockbuster that doesn’t have a big orchestral soundtrack and there’s nothing quite like the sound of a full orchestra with 80 musicians playing together,” says Richard.

Rehearsals for the inaugural concert won’t start until the beginning of February.

“Finding the musicians isn’t going to be the problem, the hard part will be whittling them down to 80,” says Nick.

And they’re convinced that what they are doing will prove successful.

“It’s about developing the musicians themselves and creating this fantastic orchestra and a centre of orchestral excellence that is embedded within the community.”

“We’re spreading the name of Leeds nationally and hopefully internationally. Our focus is on musician development, audience development and music development and we really believe there will be nothing quite like this anywhere else.”

For more information about the Leeds Orchestra Project, or to share your thoughts about it, visit www.leedsorchestra.org

Leeds Orchestra Project Launches

The Leeds Orchestra Project was founded by three brothers: Nick, Richard and Frank Hallam, who all live in Yorkshire.

Its inaugural concert, conducted by former Leeds Conducting Competition winner Garry Walker, will take place on February 5, next year at Leeds Town Hall.

The programme will include Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Four Sea Interludes by Benjamin Britten and Symphony No. 5 in D Minor by Dmitri Shostakovich.

The symphony orchestra will include about 80 musicians with plans for its first full season in 2015.

They aim to attract new audiences by also playing in schools, shopping malls and factories.