Meet The Great Orchestra Challenge competitors!

Elinor Cooper meets the five non-professional ensembles hoping to be crowned Britain's best amateur orchestra in the new BBC TV series All Together Now: The Great Orchestra Challenge

Left to right: presenter Katie Derham, mentor Chi-Chi Nwanoku, judge Paul Daniel

The new BBC TV series All Together Now: The Great Orchestra Challenge follows amateur orchestras from across the UK as they compete to be crowned Britain’s most inspirational amateur orchestra. 

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‘There is nowhere else in the world that has as rich and devoted an amateur music scene as we do here in the UK,’ says conductor and series judge Paul Daniel. ‘All of the orchestras that applied were so different: their skills, what their audiences are like, what it meant for them to be in an orchestra.’

The five orchestras taking part in the programme were chosen from over 250 applications. Aided by mentor Chi-Chi Nwanoku they will tackle a variety of musical challenges over the four-part programme, culminating in a performance at BBC Proms in the Park on 10 September. But, each week, an orchestra will be eliminated from the competition.

The final five orchestras each has a distinct character as well as a strong opinion on why it is Britain’s best amateur orchestra. We met members of each of the orchestras to find out more.

Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra

The oldest of the finalists, Slaithwaite Philharmonic celebrates its 125th birthday next year. ‘Slaithwaite is a little village in the west of Yorkshire with a population of just 6,000 people,’ says Chris Woodhead, leader of the second violins, ‘yet today we’ve got an orchestra of 60 or so members!’ He also believes that the orchestra’s wide demographic gives the orchestra a real family spirit. ‘We are a family that achieve amazing things by playing music. Sometimes when we first look at the score it seems impossible, but then we do it, together.’

Stirling Orchestra

‘When you’re in an orchestra you’re part of an organisation,’ says Stirling Orchestra double-bassist Robin Kelsall. ‘It’s a very good social experience.’ Robin’s been a member of the orchestra for 20 years, and its recent growth spurt has had a huge effect on his playing. ‘For years I was the only bass player, but now we are five strong. I have to concentrate a bit harder, because I know full well that the others are going to be watching what I do – it’s very good for discipline!’

The North Devon Sinfonia

‘The orchestra draws members from an area of nearly 3,000 square miles,’ says music director Emma Kent. ‘One person drives an hour and three-quarters just to get to rehearsal!’ Emma and her accountant-violinist husband Dan set up the orchestra 12 years ago, after they moved down to Devon from Somerset. The orchestra comes together for just four rehearsals before each concert, though this isn’t just because of the distance travelled by some members. ‘I think meeting weekly encourages bad playing,’ says Emma.

London Gay Symphony Orchestra

‘We also wanted to demonstrate that the LGBT community have wide and varied interests just like anyone else,’ says LGSO flautist Peter Reynolds. ‘Our social lives don’t just revolve around bars and clubbing, which is often how it’s protrayed in the media.’ The LGSO was founded in 1996, born out of a desire to create a more inclusive environment than was on offer. ‘At the time the amateur orchestra scene was fairly stuffy – white, middle class, middle aged. A lot of LGBT msuicians didn’t necessarily feel comfortable playing in that situation.’ The orchestra now has an active membership of 150.

The People’s Orchestra

This is the youngest and least traditional orchestra involved in the competition. Sarah Marshall founded the orchestra in 2012: ‘We don’t restrict the number of instruments on each section, so we have 15-20 flute players; we even have a saxophone section!’ This doesn’t hold the orchestra back. ‘We play to a high standard even though we aren’t in a conventional setup. We want to show other people that it works.’

So, which orchestra is your favourite to win? Join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #GreatOrchestraChallenge, or comment below with your thoughts.

Catch up with All Together Now: The Great Orchestra Challenge on iPlayer, or click here to read a summary of the series so far.

The Great Orchestra Challenge will be broadcast at 9pm on Tuesdays on BBC Four, starting on 30 August. 

The full version of this article appeared in the September issue of BBC Music Magazine. Click here to order a copy.

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• The Great Orchestra Challenge so far…