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Listen Up - Festival of Orchestras 2004Making Music and ABO
Alexander McCall Smith writes for Listen Up!
Listen to the Listen Up! story
Alexander McCall Smith
BBC Radio 3 has commissioned the hugely popular author - and keen amateur bassoonist - Alexander McCall Smith to write a serial about an amateur orchestra that will be broadcast during Listen Up!

' La's orchestra saves the world ' is a touching tale that tells how a Suffolk woman's determination to form an orchestra inspired love and hope during World War II. McCall Smith will read the story himself in 15 instalments on BBC Radio 3, beginning on Monday 2 October. 

The episodes will also be available for 14 days following broadcast. 

episode one - summary

La lived in a small town on the Suffolk coast. She arrived there in 1938 and founded an orchestra. She had married young and was widowed at the age of 32. La started the orchestra instead of inviting one from London as she felt there was an 'abundance' of local talent. She spoke to the editor of the local newspaper who placed an ad despite his misgivings.

episode two - summary

There was a surprising amount of local talent including retired professional players and competent amateurs. The orchestra carried on into the war years giving concerts for the forces as La knew 'music helps'. Their finest hour came playing for a VIP guest who waved a cigar at them before he left, agreeing 'music helps'.

episode three - summary

La could not play an instrument. Her main contribution was copying out missing parts. Sometimes she woke in the night and worried what would happen if the conductor could no longer conduct or worse still if the country was invaded. However no-one really thought that this would happen. As one Polish member of the orchestra put it 'because music is on our side'.

episode four - summary

This Polish exile, who was called Felix, had been invalided from the army and now worked on a local farm. He was a quiet, unconfident man who never spoke about what had happened to him. La had first met him when he came to one of the orchestra's concerts. He had confessed to her, over a cup of tea, that he played the flute.

episode five - summary

La went to Cambridge by train and walked to the shop. The man in the shop handed over the flute. La sat in a tearoom and examined the flute which she was going to give to Felix. She knew his cottage was dark, but having a flute would make it easier.

episode six - summary 

La rode her bicycle out to Felix's cottage with the flute. He was in and seemed surprised to see her. She handed him the leather case. 'I can not pay' he said. She listened as he played and asked him to join the orchestra. He agreed, it would be rude not to.

episode seven - summary

The following week Felix came for his first orchestral practice. During the break La saw Felix was standing on his own, but one of the female violinists spoke to him before La could. Why should she be jealous? He meant nothing to her, but she had bought him the flute. At the end of the rehearsal Felix came over and asked why La was cross with him - was it because he had been speaking to that violinist?

episode eight - summary

Felix came to her house. La wondered how he knew where she lived. He had brought the flute. 'I've brought it back' he said, he couldn't pay for it. La wanted him to have the flute and play in the orchestra. He could work in her garden to pay for it - it would be a fair exchange.


episode nine - summary He would come 3 days a week to work in the garden.  After he'd finished work La would watch him walk away and feel lonely - 'but I can never allow myself to fall in love with him' she told herself.  The orchestra prepared for a particularly challenging concert which was a great success.  After the concert she asked him what he would do after the war - 'I'm comfortable here' he said, I like your little orchestra.


episode ten - summary

Felix continues to work in La's garden, although he has already paid for the flute with his work.  La plans a Victory Concert. Felix asks for a piece by a Polish Composer to be included. The orchesra start work rehearsing but none say on what occasion the concert will take place. Victory is announced, the concert is long since no one wants it to end. La predicts that the orchestra will fold now the war is over. Felix volunteers to keep playing, but La says that times are now different and after their discussion she lets him wander away.

episode eleven - summary

La goes to Cornwall to stay with her cousin and her new husband. She is spoiled by her cousin's husband since he says she's been working so hard on her orchestra. On her journey home La thinks of Felix and brings back some cheese for him from Cornwall. On her arrival, she finds a letter from Felix saying that he has had to go immediately without saying goodbye, since jobs are hard to come by and he's been given one in Glasgow. Felix thanks her profusely in the letter for her friendship, the flute and the orchestra. She opens the French windows in her drawing room, remembering how she had opened them for Felix.

episode twelve - summary

La was right about the orchestra - the conductor said he needed a break but she knew the rehearsals wouldn't start up again.  La missed the orchestra, she even missed the war.  She started to work at the local stables and attended occasional concerts in Cambridge and London.  'I could still get married again' she thought, but there were no men and she was not prepared to look for one.  Having the orchestra seemed like the highlight of her life.  In 1959 La attended the Edinburgh Festival and during the interval she saw Felix unexpectedly.  He was now a manager in his company, divorced and with a young son.  She left him her number.

episode thirteen - summary

Felix didn't phone.  In 1960 La went to Italy and was robbed - but didn't mind very much, at least it was something exciting.  In 1961 the Cuban missile crisis struck and La reflected on the possible end of everything she knew and loved.  She decided to recall the orchestra for a Peace concert - it didn't matter if no-one heard, at least she would be doing something.

episode fourteen - summary

La telephoned the members of the orchestra - the ones she could still find.  She telephoned Felix last as she particularly wanted him there - and he came, bringing his son.  They had one rehearsal and the concert was a success, so many people came they had to stand outside.  La sat at the back with Felix's boy.  The orchestra sounded beautiful and at the end there was silence as everyone left.  La went out and looked up at the sky.

episode fifteen- summary

When La awoke the next day she found Felix and his son in the garden, which reminded her that he had planted some of the shrubs.  Felix took his son off to visit his old house.  While he was out the news came through - 'Peace'.  La wanted to tell Felix immediately.  When he came back she told him the news and he took her hands 'Your orchestra saved the world La' he said 'again'.  'Don't go' she said.  She would take them both on, him and his son.  She picked up the boy and kissed him.
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