We have been busy running Street Orchestra London, a flashmob orchestra that performs anywhere from an asylum seekers' centre to a hospice, a prison to between the trees in Regent's Park. Ahead of SOL's Music & Migration tour, horn player Rachael O'Brien takes us behind the scenes, and explains how this unorthodox orchestra turns her typical role as an orchestral instrumentalist on its head:
The first clue that the Street Orchestra of London would be drastically different to anything I had previously participated in was the odd mix of audition excerpts, and receiving the repertoire list only confirmed this. Beethoven, Puccini, and Bizet were all composers I was familiar performing, Snoop Dogg, Gershwin, and Bowie slightly less so!
The first time the orchestra came together as an ensemble, Gijs (the Artistic Director) set us a number of challenges, such as who could be the first to learn everyone’s names, so we could get to know each other. Rehearsals themselves were very intense, and so much of our socialising was done over tea (and cake!) breaks, or at dinner in the evening. It instantly created a relaxed, communal atmosphere that we later took to our performances.
Everyone in the orchestra was assigned roles, such as being in charge of the wake-up call (we had songs, improvisation, cups of tea…), presenting the concerts (knowing interesting titbits about every piece), being a ‘cargo chief’ (loading/unloading the coach) and tech set-ups (microphones, amp, speaker, recording devices, etc). This both created a great sense of camaraderie, and allowed us to be playing under five minutes after getting off the coach!
We performed at an incredible range of venues throughout the tour, however, due to the ‘street’ nature of the project, many presented problems for the orchestra rarely encountered in the classical world. Venues often differed drastically from one performance to the next: cramped/spacious, reverberant/dry, background noise/very quiet, inside/outside, to name a few. Performing outside was very different, and something we had to get used to very quickly. We all became avid weather watchers during the week, doing our best to avoid the rain, and there was more than one run to the shop to buy clothes pegs to stop the wind blowing music off our stands!
It was extremely touching and inspiring to see people’s reactions to our performances. For many of the private performances, such as those at Mary Seacole Nursing Home and Lewisham Music Hub, we were the focus of people’s attention, comparable to the concert hall experience most of us are familiar with. However, for more public performances such as those at King’s Cross Station, Leicester Square and North Greenwich Tube, we were very much in the background. Although there were always people who stopped and listened, it felt odd to see people walking past without giving us a second glance, to see people sat chatting whilst we played, and just generally not to be the sole focus of their attention – polar opposites to the concert hall.
Our performances had a visible effect on everyone we came into contact with, whether it was shock at seeing an orchestra perform Snoop Dogg, or an emotional reaction to hearing Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ performed at his mural in Brixton. SOL was an experience unlike anything else I’ve done, and I can’t wait to be involved in the next tour.
Make sure to join us for our next tour: 13-16 April 2017 around Brighton, Croydon and London.