Inside Southbank Sinfonia

An orchestra like no other, based in the heart of London


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Eugene Lee: Unconducted

Eugene LeeWhat happens when you perform without a conductor? At this year’s Anghiari Festival – and then again in a Free Rush Hour Concert in September – Southbank Sinfonia Associate Leader Eugene Lee takes charge of the orchestra for performances without a conductor.

What’s different when you’re leading an unconducted performance?

In essence, the job of the conductor suddenly lies on my shoulders – but I try to share that responsibility with my colleagues in the orchestra. I have to be aware of what’s happening, all the time, everywhere in the ensemble, but hopefully I’ll have colleagues who can fill in any gaps that I might have missed. It becomes even more of a collaborative endeavour.

Do rehearsals without a conductor have a different process or atmosphere?

Yes – personally, I still find it tricky to both lead and ‘conduct’. If I could choose, I’d let go of the playing part a little more and focus on listening for other things happening in the orchestra. It means I need to know my part inside-out, to be able to play it almost by muscle-memory alone, to free up my brain to concentrate on other elements during rehearsals.

EugeneLeeUnconducted

— Eugene directs Philip Glass’ Company at the 2016 Anghiari Festival —

In the same way that a conductor would study a score in advance, is this something you do too?

Absolutely, I’m constantly studying scores for the festival at the moment – and listening to recordings too. In part this helps to generate ideas to bring to the pieces, but it also means that when we come to play them in real-time, my ears will automatically know what they’d like to hear. In a way, that’s the rehearsal process: I have an auto-playback in my mind of what I’d like to hear, and if the live version doesn’t match it then I know that’s an area we need to explore further.

How do you communicate with the orchestra whilst playing?

Ideally, whether we’re performing with or without a conductor, the whole orchestra should be animated – depending on the mood of the piece, of course. Primarily, the communication between us happens aurally, but we do use little gestures to signal certain moments. A lot of eyes are on me as the leader, but I’m always looking for moments to bounce off everyone else too.

There’s definitely a different energy within the orchestra during an unconducted performance. I hope the audience feels it, because on-stage we certainly do. There’s an added challenge that collectively you know is achievable, but requires that much more work to overcome. By the end of an unconducted piece, everyone feels like they’ve contributed something individually, and it’s a great feeling to receive the applause as an ensemble together.

— Back in 2015, we looked at how an orchestra communicates without a conductor as part of a Family Concert —

How are you feeling about your concerts at the 2017 festival?

The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth is definitely scary unconducted – how do you even start it? It’s only four notes, but it’s a huge technical challenge to get it sounding tight as an ensemble. I’m still thinking about exactly what gesture I could give, or whether there’s some sort of new, secret formula to be found. There’s also a danger that it could sound like any other performance of the symphony, so we’ll try to find something to give it a freshness and new shades of colour.

With Mendelssohn, I’m curious to look deeper into his personality and his uncertainties. The Hebrides is so lonely, as though it’s searching for something… hopefully we can find it.

Eugene leads unconducted performances of works by Mendelssohn, Stephen Hough and Beethoven on Tuesday 25 July in Anghiari.

Back in London, he also leads a Rush Hour of Northern European string music in September. Find out more here

Eugene was part of Southbank Sinfonia’s 2009 fellowship. Now a member of the Philharmonia Orchestra, he continues to work with Southbank Sinfonia throughout the year as Associate Leader, coaching and mentoring members of the current fellowship.

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All the town’s a stage

The typical classical concert format is well known. It’s the result of hundreds of years of evolution, but essentially boils down to this: you arrive at a concert hall, you sit down, and you listen. For the next couple of hours, that’s the point from which you’ll experience the music, see the musicians and form your opinions. One view, one space, one acoustic.

But why not try something different? What happens if instead of a concert hall being your venue, you use an entire town as the stage?

As part of the Anghiari Festival in July, we presented a ‘Progressivo’ concert which weaved its way around the ancient streets and squares of a Tuscan hill-town. At every turn came a new chamber group and a new piece of music to experience, each setting offering a unique combination of sound, backdrop and character. There was Mozart snuggled beneath the rugged bricks of the bell tower, some Debussy where a turn of the head unveiled a vista of shimmering buildings in the valley below, and the charm of Strauss’ Til Eulenspiegel performed in front of a row of shops flanked by onlookers peering down from the terraces above. During the evening we traversed six venues, with the audience ambling from one to the next after each piece.

Anghiari Festival | Southbank Sinfonia

Crowds look on as an ensemble performs R Strauss’ Til Eulenspiegel in front of the local shops

Of course, in a concert like this you’ll never hear every detail of the music as you would in the Wigmore Hall. Church bells clang out on the hour, pans clatter from the kitchens of surrounding houses, and every so often the high-pitched drone of a Vespa climbing the neighbouring hills drifts its way into the performance. Each space also offers its own acoustic charm, with walls jutting out at unusual angles and sound drifting up into the ether above. The musicians have to adjust their playing to suit the space, and sometimes tweak the dynamics or tempos of a piece of music to make it as audible as possible for the crowd. The music is adapting to suit the spaces.

But to focus on acoustic imperfection misses the point. The joy of the Progressivo is that you experience sounds in entirely unexpected settings, as buildings, views and even the smell of the air influence your involvement in the music. The whole character of Anghiari infuses the performance, each stop adding unanticipated extra emotion and associations to the notes being played.

Anghiari Festival | Southbank Sinfonia

A string quartet plays Debussy in Piazzetta Poggiolino. Just to the left is a view over the Tiber Valley.

It works the other way, too. Walking through the town the following day, you’re aware the squares have taken on a new meaning. Where previously it was simply a picturesque space in a town, it now resonates with the memories and emotions of the performance you saw there. The remnants of the music hang in the air, as do the reactions of the dozens of people who shared the experience with you. Music has shaped space, and transformed your relationship with it.

Four months on, it’s still got me thinking. London offers its own additional challenges to open-air performances – sirens wail, aeroplanes roar overhead, trains rumble by – but where could we host a metropolitan equivalent? Perhaps a wander along the Southbank; perched atop the roof garden of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, under the concrete eaves of the National Theatre, finishing in the courtyard behind the Oxo Tower. Or maybe in the sedate squares of Bloomsbury, with backdrops of Georgian terraces, the British Museum, and the towering Senate House to set the mood.

Which spots spring to mind for you? Where could you imagine a chamber group appearing, and what might they play? There’s a whole world out there just waiting for music. Let’s go exploring.

Matt Belcher
Marketing Manager

Every July, Southbank Sinfonia makes its home at the Anghiari Festival in Tuscany. The festival is renowned for its friendly informality, spectacular setting away from the tourist trail and the chance to enjoy a great range of classical music up close every day. Find out more about the Anghiari Festival here.


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Bass on a Plane: Getting to the Anghiari Festival

Gatwick airport, 9.00am. Hundreds of people, luggage obediently dragging behind them, make their way through the North Terminal building. Some are there on business, others are holidaymakers. Check-in staff scan passports, porters move items from A to B, and an army of baristas serve sleep-starved customers with espressos.

And yet they all stare at the same thing. Towering above everything else, unmissable amidst the frenetic activity of Britain’s second busiest airport, is a white fibreglass monolith. A smidge over two metres tall, peppered with battle scars and remnants of stickers from years of adventures, it glides slowly across the concourse. From every group of onlookers you hear the same conversation begin: “Cor, that’s a big one isn’t it?”. And yet, this is only one relatively small cog in a machine – albeit a very visible one.

Bass on a Plane | Southbank Sinfonia

For scale, this is Orchestra Assistant Ali hauling stormtrooper look-alike Bertha around the airport.

An orchestra is a big and complex machine that requires lots of parts to keep it going. For Southbank Sinfonia, a typical concert in London will normally include 33+ musicians, a conductor, perhaps a soloist, pads full of music for each player, music stands, chairs of different types to suit instruments and playing styles, and – at the very least – a set of timpani. The players, instruments in hand, rely on the tube or buses to get to a concert, met there by a van full of percussion, bulky items, and the essentials needed for a public performance.

Imagine, then, the scale of transporting the entire orchestra to Italy for a week featuring 16 concerts, 15 venues, 49 pieces, 2 conductors and 10 guest artists. After months of planning and hundreds of phone calls and emails, nearly every eventuality has been thought through.

But despite this, it’s surprising how tense you are when you utter the following words: “Hello there, I’d like to check in to my flight. And this is my double bass.”

This is the story of just one instrument travelling to Anghiari, and its ginormous flight case we’ve affectionately named Bertha. It begins in the Southbank Sinfonia office, buried in the crypt of St John’s Waterloo, where a bass, cocooned in its fabric case, gets placed gently into its new fibreglass and foam home. The first hurdle is getting the beast upstairs to ground level, its 40+ kilos requiring three pairs of hands to inelegantly push and pull it up the stairs.

Next: getting it to the airport. With most of the orchestra having left the day before, the bass was a delayed straggler. Without a van, the only other option was a taxi – and a big one – though it turns out London cabbies are slightly more optimistic than us when it comes to believing what will fit into the back of their car. In something more akin to a game of high-stakes Tetris, with different combinations of seats flipped down and angles of instruments trialled, we watched and heaved with trepidation as the bass was squeezed in. The first car was too small, but the second? Would the boot close? Would we make it to the airport on time? Would we make it to the airport at all?

Bass on a Plane | Southbank Sinfonia

Bass Tetris round one – and we lose. Bigger cab needed. Cue phone calls.

We got it in. Just. And that’s where we found ourselves at Gatwick, receiving celebrity-worthy staring as we approached the check-in desk.

A flash of panic crossed the check-in assistant’s face as this obviously wasn’t a regular occurrence, but upon typing in our booking number and seeing the instrument was expected, followed by multiple phone calls to baggage handlers, special codes typed into the computer system, and stickers full of airport hieroglyphics pasted on, all was well. BA were happy for the bass to fly.

It obviously wasn’t going to fit on the conveyor belt that whisks bags from check-in to aeroplane hold though, and neither would you want a fragile instrument taking the same labyrinth adventure that our suitcases endure. Bertha was so big that she wouldn’t even fit through oversized luggage, so to get her onto the plane we were taken through the bowels of the airport to a special security screening area.

Bass on a Plane | Southbank Sinfonia

The bass just squeezes into the biggest car the taxi firm had – phew!

The giant X-ray machine here couldn’t even handle the bass’s bulk, so – after finding floor space big enough – Bertha was ordered to strip (no photos allowed, so you’ll have to use your imagination). Clunk, clunk, clunk went the latches all around as the intrigued security officers peered over with expectation to see what lay within. Apparently they only get something this big a handful of times a year. The staff were genuinely interested in seeing the instrument, asking questions about its role in an orchestra and its history. Flight case opened, swabs were taken and a machine buzzed and beeped in the corner as it searched for traces of anything suspicious. Cleared and security sealed, with multiple signatures confirming what it was and where it was going, a porter arrived to steer the bass straight to the plane.

The lift doors closed as it went airside and, aside from a glimpse through the departure lounge window as it was towed to the plane, that’s the last we would see of her until arrival in Italy.

Fastforward six hours, a long delay and an unexpected change of plane later, and we stood expectantly at Pisa airport watching the baggage carousel whirl round. Suitcase. Suitcase. Suitcase. Suitcase. Then a glimpse of white through the hatch, squeezing through with millimeters to spare, followed by a running commentary as Bertha passed clumsily in front of her audience, at one point inevitably getting stuck on a sharp bend and almost causing a pile-up of bags behind.

Bass on a Plane | Southbank Sinfonia

A glimpse of Bertha trundling across the airport to our plane.

“Who would take something like that on a plane?” asked one onlooker, and after lugging the bass into yet another taxi, then up and down Anghiari’s steep hills upon arrival at the festival, it didn’t seem like a daft question at all.

But when we heard the first notes of the orchestra performing under the stars in Piazza del Popolo on Saturday night, that question answered itself. Yes, it’s a logistical nightmare transporting an orchestra around the world – yet there’s no doubt that it’s worth the reward.

This blog was written during the Anghiari Festival in Tuscany, an annual week-long residency that sees music abound from every piazza, church and cloister of an ancient Italian hill-town. Visit our Facebook page to see more photos from the tour.


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Anghiari Festival 2014: Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Anghiari’s Door

One of the most remarkable things about Southbank Sinfonia is that every year another 32 musicians are welcomed to form an orchestra. Not only does that mean that each year’s band has its own nuances of personalities, nationalities and sound, but also that Anghiari is seen through new eyes every July.

Incredible views: The sun sets over the walls of Anghiari and the Tiber Valley

Incredible views: The sun sets over the walls of Anghiari and the Tiber Valley

The orchestra has been resident at the annual Anghiari Festival for over a decade now, and supporters who travel out one year invariably get hooked and return the next. So what makes this Tuscan hill town so special? Right from day one of being involved in Southbank Sinfonia, the town is talked about in almost mythical terms. Ancient buildings, divine food, stunning views and glorious sun (although it’s been a little shy this year) are mentioned time and time again. However, until you experience Anghiari in the flesh these are just hollow words.

On a grand scale, the vast vistas of the Tiber valley from the medieval walls are truly incredible. But the atmosphere within the town is so much more than just scenery. It’s a sense of centuries of history, of individual characters and stories shaping every single building perching in their uniquely hodgepodge way up the hill. It’s the smell of Italian cooking seeping through the windows and onto the narrow cobbled streets. And when Southbank Sinfonia are in town, it’s the sound of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, or perhaps the Ravel String Quartet, wafting through the air and reaching your ears in locations you least expect it. Before you realise it, you’ll have a huge grin on your face and goosebumps galore.

Words, pictures and videos cannot hope to do this place justice. But, to make a start, just one tiny element of this incredible collage are the door knockers, with every house’s different. Some are simple, some are extravagant; some have ornate faces, others a characterful handmade charm. Of course each is essential to getting into a house, but they also do so much more than that – they help give the town its collective charm. The sum is greater than its parts.

In some ways, the musicians and instruments of Southbank Sinfonia are the same (bear with us here…). Some are large, some are small; some are gregarious, others more subtle. A whole collection of personalities and sounds that are brilliant by themselves, and which become something even greater when performing as a whole orchestra.

And now the fun part! After much debate, prosecco and impersonation among the orchestra, we’ve tried matching up a few examples of ironwork to the personalities of our players and their instruments. Silly? Probably. But to begin to share the magic of Anghiari, you have to think outside the box.

Of course, to experience the bigger picture there really is only one way: make sure you join us in Tuscany in 2015.

Tom Wraith, Cello.

Tom Wraith, cello: The lion is a common symbol in Anghiari, mostly in docile form but – just like Tom and his cello in the Ravel String Quartet or the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony – capable of roaring at will.

Svetlana Mochalova, Cello.

Svetlana Mochalova, cello: Serenity, gracefulness and a calm intensity ooze from Svetlana’s playing.

Nicola Crowe, flute.

Nicola Crowe, flute: The flute creates a smooth, round sound but Nicky adds her own beautifully delicate and alluring detail.

Stefano D'Ermenegildo

Stefano D’Ermenegildo, violin: A larger than life personality with an enormous variety of facial expressions while performing, from cheeky smiles to pursed lips of concentration.

Oliver Patrick, percussion.

Oliver Patrick, percussion: No explanation needed. Sorry Oli!


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Anghiari Festival 2014: He ain’t heavy, he’s my orchestra

Imagine a Vespa weaving in and out of traffic. That’s the musical equivalent of a piccolo soloist.

A Fiat 500 might be a violinist, still nimble enough to park in small spaces; a bassoonist a Volvo Estate – surprisingly heavy, and getting trickier to manoeuvre.

Then at the larger end, a double bassist could be a clunky van with a dodgy clutch, and a percussionist with a set-up of timpani or a vibraphone is an articulated lorry.

Now imagine a whole orchestra. In our case, upwards of 32 musicians and their instruments to transport from venue to venue – a logistical supertanker.

Hauling an ocean-going oil tanker up the narrow and steep streets of Anghiari, plus the winding dirt-track hairpins of Tuscany, is certainly a good way to justify an extra pizza or two. With 23 events over the past week, as we move between rehearsal and concert venues several times a day, hundreds of calories are burned loading and unloading the van (we’ve called her Sonia) or pulling Veera the bass case (she’s unable to stay in a straight line) up the cobbled inclines of a hill-town. Led by the industrious Jo and Sam (Orchestra Managers), we’ve become quite adept at hopping between – and, thanks to the rain this week, quite often in and out of  – churches, piazzas, schools and castles on top of mountains.

So, just in case the photos of stunning views and beautiful ancient theatres were giving the impression we’re living the Italian high life, here’s our illustrated top five methods of Tuscan orchestral transport:

5) Bassman’s lift:

Mark shows off his bass carrying solution.

Over the head: Mark shows off his bass carrying solution.

4) Sonia the van:

Van

A midnight get-out from the theatre (L) and Sonia’s minibus sister navigating steep dirt tracks (R)

3) Old fashioned brute force:

Midnight timpani lugging

Who needs a gym when there’s late night timpani shifting between piazzas to be done.

2) The wheelbarrow:

Wheelbarrow

Clunky music stands that are difficult to carry? No problem, our fleet of wheelbarrows are at the ready.

1) The Ape:

1) Jen, our Creative Leadership Manager, goes ape

Jen, our Creative Leadership Manager, goes Ape while helping the locals with outdoor seating.


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Anghiari Festival 2014: Home from home

When you travel a thousand miles to a foreign country, there’s a good chance you’ll feel disorientated. With a different language, cars driving on the opposite side of the road, a completely different structure to the day (we vote for siestas to be brought back to London, by the way) and even unknown customs for ordering and paying for food, it’s possible to feel a little intimidated when abroad.

For Southbank Sinfonia though, Anghiari really does feel like a home-from-home. Yes, there are 32 musicians this year experiencing the Tuscan hill-town and its festival for the first time, but the orchestra is also sewn into the DNA of the place so it instantly feels familiar. On the window of the Pro Loco (the tourist information office), the hub where we print our programmes, a great sticker on the window reads ‘Southbank Sinfonia: Sede di Anghiari’ (Anghiari Headquarters).

Anghiari's Tourist Information office, complete with SbS logo

Anghiari’s Tourist Information office, complete with SbS logo

Then the menu for Bar Baldaccio’s features photos of the orchestra as well as the Baldaccio Quartet, made up of former Southbank Sinfonia members who took their name from one of our favourite eateries. The quote of recommendation for food from Sam Burstin, now a violist with the Philharmonia, is a review to be believed. Open the menu up and there’s even a South Bank pizza on offer – spicy salami and sun-dried tomatoes are the topping, in case you were wondering. Delicious.

Anghiari couldn’t be more different from London, yet we couldn’t feel more at home here. Thank you Anghiari!

The Southbank Pizza

The Southbank Pizza – highly recommended.

Bar Baldaccio's menu, complete with Southbank Sinfonia photos

Bar Baldaccio’s menu, complete with Southbank Sinfonia photos.


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Anghiari Festival 2014: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Rain

Southbank Sinfonia is the resident orchestra at the Anghiari Festival in Italy. Our blogs – both during the festival week and upon our return to London – hope to bring you a new perspective on our performances and orchestra life.

When you’re working long days in Tuscany, there’s one thing you should never forget: water. After even a few minutes basking in the glorious Italian sunshine, there’s nothing more welcome than a drop of the stuff to keep you at your peak for the day’s performances. In many ways, it’s the fuel that keeps the orchestra going out here; it’s your best friend. That and pizza.

Day one of the Anghiari Festival was brilliant, with hundreds of eager ears welcoming us in the Piazza del Popolo for the inaugural evening concert. All went to plan; more of the same for day two please.

With brilliant sunshine greeting us in Anghiari and the stunning convent of Cenacolo for an early evening chamber concert, things started out well. Next on the schedule was a late evening concert in nearby Monterchi.

Orchestra set up? Check.

MonterchiSoundcheck

All going to plan, the orchestra rehearses in the piazza ready for the concert an hour later.

Soundcheck completed? Check.

Audience in place? Check.

Then it happened. Our one time friend turned on us. Water suddenly became the enemy.

As drops of it started falling from the sky, our outdoor concert was suddenly not looking like such a clever idea. Almost as quickly as you could blink, the stage had been cleared, instruments brought under cover, and ‘the plan’ was a distant memory. But with the audience enjoying the cooling effect of the shower rather more than our wooden instruments, it was time to unleash Plan B.

It’s often the case in music that the most memorable performances come from unusual circumstances and here as the orchestra squeezed onto a covered balcony 20 feet above the piazza, the ingredients for something special were being inadvertently sewn.

Having not rehearsed or soundchecked in the space, nobody really knew whether Plan B would succeed. With musicians and audience venturing into the unknown, and an adjusted programme order to fit the new dimensions of our impromptu stage, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony awaited.

As the sound drifted down from the balcony, the packed piazza was instantly mesmerised.

First it was by Som Howie’s brilliant playing, then in the Shostakovich it was a spell-binding performance of incredible musical intensity billowing down and around the ancient town. The atmosphere was magical.

Southbank Sinfonia at Monterchi

It’s a snug fit as the strings and soloist Som squeeze onto their impromptu stage.

By the end of the piece the rain had stopped, it too exhausted by the music it had just heard. But with clear skies and a fair bit of running up and down steps by the admin team, within 10 minutes the orchestra had moved back to its original position and a second half now able to include the full band could commence.

In many ways, these kinds of concerts are the most exciting. Although it is hugely demanding, exhausting and stressful having to switch to a Plan B, there’s something about the extra adrenalin and musicians venturing into the unknown that helps bring the audience to the edge of their seats. And that’s what great music should always be striving to do.

That said, as for water? We’ll take it in the bottled variety for the rest of the week please.

p.s. This blog was written very late on Sunday night. Sadly the heavens opened just in time for Monday night’s concerts too. Plan B is proving very useful this week!