In 1974, the Portsmouth Sinfonia sold out the Albert Hall. It was billed 'the world's worst orchestra' but among its members were Brian Eno and Michael Nyman. Was it just a joke?
In 1974 an provincial orchestra sold out the Albert Hall. But this was no ordinary band - it was the Portsmouth Sinfonia, billed as the "world's worst orchestra". In its ranks were some distinguished musicians, including Brian Eno, Michael Nyman and the composer Gavin Bryars. But under the rules of the orchestra they had to play an instrument they were unfamiliar with. Alongside them were amateurs with no musical ability whatsoever. The conductor knew nothing of conducting but had studied pictures of Herbert von Karajan.
The Portsmouth Sinfonia played light classics and rock arrangements, and the familiar tunes were just discernable through the miasma of wrong notes and unforced errors. It enraged some in the musical establishment who felt they were murdering good music, but got huge national attention, appearing regularly on TV programmes and in the newspapers, thanks in part to the fact that the orchestra signed a deal with a record company with a flair for publicity. Brian Eno was the producer of its first records.
The orchestra had been founded by Gavin Bryars while he was a lecturer at the Portsmouth College of Art, and most of the original members were art students. So was it all an art school prank? By no means, say former members. It was an important contribution to the experimental music scene. Michael Nyman says it was hugely influential on his own work. Some people have claimed that the orchestra was a precursor of the punk movement. Others say that's nonsense.
The orchestra never formally disbanded but stopped live performances in 1979. Portsmouth Sinfonia's recordings have never been re-released on CD and the vinyl recordings are collectors' items. In this programme Jolyon Jenkins talks to key former members of the orchestra, gives listeners the chance to savour those classic recordings, and tries to work out whether the Portsmouth Sinfonia had any artistic merit whatsoever.
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