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Out and About with the BBC Symphony Orchestra ...

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Becky Dixon Becky Dixon | 15:42 UK Time, Wednesday, 14 July 2010

BBC Symphony Orchestra learning assistant Becky Dixon paints a vivid picture of last Friday's free event at a West London shopping mall

bbcso_westfield3_edited.jpgWhat do you get if you mix the full complement of players in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, 70 musically minded children, 14 talented teenage musicians, two operatic stars, a liberal handful of BBC Radio 3 helpers, members of the Proms team and the full BBC SO management team, and a huge stage, and plonk them all down in a major shopping centre? Last Friday at Westfield, we proved that this doesn't necessarily result in bulging shopping bags and roaming children (a problem solved by giving all the younger participants bright yellow t-shirts, not an item of clothing you can easily get lost in!), but instead this was a huge free public concert, a free pre-Proms treat, drawing in an estimated audience of 2300 people.

As learning assistant at the BBC Symphony Orchestra, I've been mainly working on the education projects that were part of the concert. This year, the plan was to get 70 children performing on stage with the full orchestra, and so we spent the past few weeks running workshops in primary schools and the Hammersmith and Fulham Saturday musiccentre, led by project leaders Rachel and Anna.

To help us on our way, I've been wielding bags of percussion and folders stuffed full of checklists, risk assessments and schedules, lugging all this up and down the Hammersmith and City Line to see our partner schools in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. Over the course of six workshops, the children developed short bursts of musical material based on Mark Anthony Turnage's piece Momentum (also performed last Friday).  Amongst other memorable moments, this involved a lot of moving percussion up steep staircases (thank you lovely John Lillie, school caretaker!) plenty of shifting chairs and a lot of detailed conversation about how to hold a tambourine without making any unwanted jingling.

There was also buckets of  enthusiasm and creativity from the children involved, and I got the opportunity to play a woodblock and stretch out my vocal cords (never quite hitting the high notes that class 6J reached, sorry Anna and Rachel), so it wasn't all ticking off lists and heavy lifting!


bbcso_westfield1_edited.jpgOn the Thursday before the concert, all the participants came to Maida Vale Studios, where they met the orchestra. It's easy for me to get a bit blasé about having the orchestra rehearsing practically in the office next door to me, so was a great reminder to see how excited the children were about hearing and playing alongside them. Mind you, that didn't stop one young lad seemingly attempt to deafen the double bass section through his enthusiastic pounding of the bass drum: I'm very grateful for the invention of earplugs!

As Friday dawned, I arrived at Westfield to take in the sight of the enormous stage that had been constructed in the main atrium. Earpiece in and radio on, and after an incredibly nail-biting twenty minutes when traffic jams meant 50 children and their teachers were out of telephone contact and not on stage for their rehearsal, my real work started: getting all 70 children on stage is less than two minutes flat during the concert!

The concert started at 6.30pm, when conductor Alexander Rumpf raised his baton to perform John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine, a piece which certainly had the effect of drawing people away from their shopping! As the audience swelled, we all nervously looked on from the fenced off areas the schools were sitting in. The children listened to the first pieces in the concert, but then mission 'get on the stage' was in instigated...Amazingly, with barely a tambourine jingle, they made it on in less than the allotted time, and whilst I could relax with a sigh of relief that they were on stage, they got on with the real hard work - playing the piece, quite brilliantly, mission accomplished!

  • The BBC Symphony Orchestra kicks off the 2010 BBC Proms on Friday 16 July with a performance of Mahler's Symphony No.8 ('Symphony of a Thousand') beginning at 8pm, live on BBC Radio 3 and BBC 2 TV.
  • The photos in this Blog are by Simon Jay Price


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