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30 Jan 2019

12 Years To Act: Accelerating our Environmental Response

30 Jan


The Philharmonia Orchestra has been accepted onto Arts Council England's environmental sustainability-focused programme, 'Accelerator', in partnership with Julie's Bicycle. In this blog post about the project Jennifer Pattison writes about what the project means for the Orchestra. 

Being a part of the Accelerator programme is undoubtedly a coup. It is a great fit for the Philharmonia as we develop plans to curate a programme dedicated to the environment, which is timely given the UN’s latest advice that we only have 12 years left before climate change catastrophe is inevitable and irreversible. And it’s a comfortable match for an Orchestra led by an environmental champion in Esa-Pekka Salonen who co-founded the Baltic Sea Festival in order to raise awareness of the devastating impact of environmental degradation.

But three months into the programme, Accelerator is already forcing us to ask some difficult questions about the extent to which our mission, which drives our creative output, can complement an environmental focus; and about the operational realities of enabling that work. Our sector as a whole is grappling with complex issues that only serve to divert us away from facing up to our environmental responsibilities:

When Brexit threatens to undermine the financial and operational viability of our touring model; when costs inflate annually and our Arts Council England investment continues to decline in real terms; when the increasingly litigious environment in which we operate absorbs increasing amounts of time that would otherwise have been spent furthering our mission; and when we are focused on increased financial and organisational resilience and driving efficiencies, how can conversations around reducing our carbon footprint get a look-in?

Financial Targeting
And within the necessarily rigorous application of cost control, efficiency savings and financial targeting, there is a fundamental tension between making environmentally-friendly choices, and choosing the cheapest option. How can we progress purchasing FSC-certified paper, and moving to environmentally-friendly suppliers, when there’s an assumption that the net effect on the bottom line will be increased costs? How can we make the case for reducing our use of resources and switching over to carbon-friendly solutions to achieve a cost-neutral outcome, when the financial calculations necessary to inform decisions won’t be undertaken by colleagues whose priorities lie elsewhere? 

Carbon footprint
And – the elephant in the room – orchestras that tour internationally have a weighty carbon footprint. Transporting 80 musicians, instruments and support staff around the world regularly is not an environmentally-friendly activity, nor is driving a truck loaded with instruments around the UK throughout the year a happy bedfellow of initiatives that encourage us to choose public transport over the road. We are mission-led, and our mission is to create thrilling experiences in music, supported by a vision that we will have a transformative impact upon the widest possible audience. This vision, and the economic reality in which we operate, drives the carbon-heavy touring model, as does our steadfast focus on maintaining the highest-quality orchestra. We are as strong artistically as the calibre of orchestral musicians we retain, and a diary with reduced touring brings with it the risk of losing the players that collectively enable us to maintain our position as one of the world’s great orchestras.

And whilst we wrestle with these intractable issues, we sleepwalk towards environmental disaster. Whilst we champion for the rights of communities experiencing disadvantage to access the arts, devising audience development and engagement projects that move the culturally-disengaged to becoming active arts participants and consumers, we are complicit in not doing everything we can to halt environmental calamity that will hit those same disadvantaged communities hardest and first.

How can the Accelerator programme help?
Accelerator is already encouraging the small numbers of Philharmonia staff that have come into contact with it to find solutions to these issues, driven by the creation of an artistic response to climate change. The programme’s training residential in Gloucester encouraged us to carve out the time to consider how best we can use art to hold a mirror up to nature, highlighting the ability of orchestral music to be a vessel for the human experience, the enormity of nature, and human’s connection with the natural world. We have the opportunity to perform epic, transformative music on some of the most celebrated concert platforms in the UK. We’re going to challenge emerging composers to write music that speaks to these issues, and to devise immersive, mixed reality experiences that deepen our audience’s connection with the music and with environmental degradation. We will create participatory work with the community groups and participants we partner with across England that uses music to add depth to how respond to these issues.

But it is clear that however strong our artistic response is, it won’t be authentic if we’re operating in an environment that fails to prioritise reducing our carbon footprint and making environmentally-responsible choices. Thanks to Accelerator, what could have been an unsuccessful campaign to identify budget, amidst so many competing pressures, to engage experts in their field to educate Philharmonia staff and musicians about the environmental choices we should be making, is now guaranteed expert training. We will use the next phase of the Accelerator support package, delivered by Julie’s Bicycle, to educate and inspire staff and players on environmental issues and catalyse more creative thinking about our artistic contribution. Accelerator will help us navigate a course through the issues we’ve identified, and to ensure that our creative response is authentic, and devised from the most informed position.   

How do we ultimately address the conflict between the complex issues identified at the beginning of this piece and our moral obligation to become more environmentally responsible? Through embedding environmental consideration into the decisions we take, the suppliers we use, the products we buy, the work we produce, and the engagement activities we undertake. We have to move to a position whereby it’s not a choice; it’s a given.

Jennifer has worked for the Philharmonia in various roles since 2007, raising funds and helping take forward strategic initiatives.

20 Jun 2018

Garsington Opera: Falstaff

20 Jun


From 16 June until 22 July 2018, the Philharmonia Orchestra returned to its newest residency at Garsington Opera in Wormsley, presenting a new production of Verdi's final opera, Falstaff, to critical acclaim.

"In the pit the Philharmonia Orchestra is in electrifying form under Richard Farnes...You will rarely hear the intricate ensembles delivered with such rapport between pit and stage, nor the drama paced so effectively, nor orchestral detail spring out so vividly."

★★★★★ Richard Morrison, The Times

"The quicksilver intricacy of the score here brightly rendered by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Richard Farnes’s baton."

★★★★★ Michael Church, The Independent

"Garsington is lucky to have the Philharmonia Orchestra in the pit and Richard Farnes conducts with vigour. As befits the 80-year-old Verdi, the performance sprinted to the end with a teenager’s energy."

★★★★☆ Richard Fairman, Financial Times

"Exceptional accuracy from the Philharmonia Orchestra."

★★★★☆ Charlotte Valori, Bachtrack

"Richard Farnes and the Philharmonia Orchestra treated Garsington`s perspex theatre to a regal interpretation of Verdi`s last opera. The plush sounds emanating from the pit felt like a gift for being good, while as ever with this conductor the interpretation never wavered from the ideal. Farnes made light of the score`s intricacies and projected its energy with a tireless sense of joy."

★★★★☆ Mark Valencia, What`s On Stage

5 Jun 2018

The Wind in the Willows

5 Jun


In June, we present a new musical adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's timeless classic The Wind in the Willows, by composer and member of our cello section, Richard Birchall. Starring narrator Simon Callow, get to know our friends Ratty, Mole, wise old Mr Badger and, of course, the irrepressible Toad of Toad Hall, in our two afternoon performances on Sunday 17 June at Kings Place - perfect for a family day out (suitable for ages 5+)

In this blog post, Richard Birchall takes you behind the scenes into the world of a composer, and reveals how The Wind in the Willows came to life.

Music has always been a powerful storyteller, and composers throughout history have found inspiration in tales old and new - either preserving the text (as in opera & song) or purely as descriptive, 'programmatic' music. But the combination of spoken text with illustrative music is surprisingly underused. Prokofiev's Peter & The Wolf is the obvious masterly example; also Poulenc's Babar The Elephant and a handful of more recent works, but the list is relatively thin given the format's popularity with listeners. As a composer, and a lover of both words and music, I found the idea of partnering fresh music to a classic story quite irresistible.

Richard at a Philharmonia rehearsal © Camilla Greenwell

Irresistible, but not without its challenges! The choice of story is of course very important; The Wind in the Willows has the remarkable quality that it retains a genuine appeal for all age-groups, and it features a selection of unforgettable animal characters who lend themselves beautifully to musical description. (As in Peter & The Wolf, each character has its own identifiable theme.) The book itself is of course far too long, so one of the hardest parts was to reduce the story coherently to a manageable size, and to maintain a satisfying balance between the amounts of text and music. The music itself plays different roles though the piece: sometimes taking a supportive role, as the story continues across it; sometimes taking over the narrative. For example the fourth movement, The Wild Wood, is a purely musical description and replaces the text entirely.

Clip of the original eight-cello version of The Wind in the Willows

Once it was clear in my head how the structure of the piece would work, and how much music was required and where, there was the small matter of writing it all... but despite the hard graft it was really good fun! I feel I got to know all those characters - Ratty, Mole, Toad, Badger, the weasels and everyone - and spent a huge amount of happy time with them (even if we argued occasionally.) The Wind in the Willows was originally written for the unusual ensemble of eight cellos and performed by the octet Cellophony (as a partner piece to Alice in Wonderland, which I had written for them the previous year); the Philharmonia's performances at Kings Place on June 17th will be the premiere of this new orchestral version. It's a real privilege to have my music played by such a wonderful orchestra - though there is nothing more daunting than putting my music in front of my colleagues and friends! - and also a joy to work again with the incomparable Simon Callow, for whom the piece was originally written.

Richard's original sketches for The Wind in the Willows

My aim has been to write in a contemporary but accessible musical style, to reflect the truly universal appeal of the story. It was enormous fun to write, and I very much hope it will prove enjoyable and engaging for performers and listeners alike.


© Richard Birchall 2018

Get to know Richard and his work - read his player profile here.

2 May 2018

Philharmonia Audience Vote 2018

2 May


For the first time, the Philharmonia Orchestra invites you, the audience, to vote for the music you’d like to hear launch our 18/19 residency seasons in Bedford, Canterbury and Leicester this autumn. Explore the ten works on offer below, and vote for your preferred work here.

Voting closes Friday 5 October. The winner will be announced on the night.​


BEETHOVEN Overture, Coriolan (9 mins)

A regular go-to for opening concerts, Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture will be well known to many audiences, but how many will know the play on which it is based?  The story of a rebel Roman General invading Rome who is then persuaded to relent by his mother - only to meet his ultimate demise, possibly at his own hands.  Heard in this context, the drama of the music is enhanced, with the final notes dying away into a tragic silence.

Last performed: December 2012 (Bedford & Leicester: David Afkham, conductor) (not previously performed by the Philharmonia in Canterbury)

Bernstein’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, at times wielding his baton like a sword, captures all the drama:


BRAHMS Academic Festival Overture (10 mins)

An ever-popular overture by one of the 19 century’s great orchestral masters.  However, this is a work the Philharmonia hasn’t performed in residencies in Leicester, Canterbury or Bedford since November 2000.  Perhaps we’ve been worried about encouraging uncouth behaviour, given all the student drinking songs which Brahms wove into the music – a humorous response to the request for a work to mark the awarding of an honorary doctorate from the University of Breslau.

Last performed: November 2010 (Christopher Warren-Green, conductor)

Sir George Solti and the Chicago Symphony give a typically muscular performance of the overture, led from the front by the renowned Chicago brass:



American composer Jennifer Higdon is undeservedly little-known on this side of the Atlantic. A two-time Grammy Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, she is one of the most regularly-performed living composers in North America. This short work, Loco, written for the Ravinia Festival near Chicago, celebrates the train that famously interrupts concerts at the outdoor venue. Enjoy a piece of mechanical excitement that builds to a thrilling climax and exercises every muscle of the orchestra. 

Not previously performed by the Philharmonia

Hear the piece here.

It’s also worth listening to her most famous and frequently performed work, Blue Cathedral.


HANNAH KENDALL Baptistry (5 mins)

A work which lives and breathes through the Philharmonia - as we gave its world premiere in Newbury on 12 May. Co-comissioned by us, Newbury and Three Choirs Festivals from fast-rising composer Hannah Kendall, this summer we bring its jazz-inspired brass sounds to Hereford and The Virtual Orchestra's Philharmonia Orchestra: Live! concert in Bedford. Vote for it, and discover the sound of the 21st century.

Last performed: May 2018 (Edward Gardner, conductor)

Listen to Kendall introduce her piece and the touching inspiration behind it in our film:

Composer Hannah Kendall On Her New Piece, Baptistry from Philharmonia Orchestra on Vimeo.


MENDELSSOHN Overture in C Major (10 mins)

An overture right out of the Classical tradition - heroic melodies, warm woodwind and darting strings. Fanny Mendelssohn was the older sister to the better-known Felix but had an equally prolific and accomplished output of compositions. Such was the expectation of composers in the 19th century, however, that she often published works under her brother’s name – and this overture is one of the works which has been subsequently reattributed to Fanny.

Not previously performed by the Philharmonia

It is an upbeat and energetic work that shows highly accomplished orchestral writing and a keen understanding of how to show off each section of the orchestra (listen out for the undulating clarinet lines, bold horn calls and athletic string writing):


MOZART Overture, The Marriage of Figaro (5 mins)

If Mozart were alive now, he’d be one of those infuriatingly capable people that we all love to hate – able to pull off works of genius giving them seemingly little-to-no thought.  This overture is a case in point, composed a matter of hours before the premiere of the opera and yet speaking with all the clarity and beauty that defines Mozart’s music.

Last performed March 2011 (Bedford: Susanna Mälkki, conductor) (not previously performed in Canterbury and Leicester)

Masterful conducting from one of the 20th-century greats, Claudio Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic:


ARVO PÄRT Silhouette (7 mins)

Pärt wrote this work in 2009 for Philharmonia regular and Estonian compatriot, Paavo Järvi, to mark the beginning of his tenure as Music Director at the Orchestre de Paris.  In doing so, he took inspiration from Paris’s most famous landmark, the Eiffel Tower, reflecting “the transparency of the construction” in his music.  It is a piece which seems to expand beyond its seven minutes, at times feeling static and at times propelled forward by a cacophonous and unhinged waltz.  A great piece that deserves to become a staple of orchestral repertoire.

Not previously performed by the Philharmonia

Järvi and the Orchestre de Paris, for whom the work was written, perform it here:


SMYTH Overture, The Wreckers (10 mins)

Smyth’s third opera, written in 1906, is a tale of coastal misdemeanour and illicit love. The overture launches us straight into this seafaring world with its swashbuckling melodies and tempestuous orchestration.  The main theme is one you’ll go away humming for days afterwards.

Not previously performed by the Philharmonia

A fine performance here by the Scottish National Orchestra:


J STRAUSS Die Fledermaus (8 mins)

Why bother staying for the rest of the opera if the overture gives you all the tunes?  It’s a question that would be particularly pertinent with Strauss’s first operetta, for which his Overture has certainly gained more currency than the theatrical work.  It is packed full of wonderful Viennese tunes that can’t help but make you sway in your seat.

Last performed: December 2006 (Leicester: David Parry, conductor) (not previously performed in Canterbury and Bedford)

Carlos Kleiber conducting the work with great enthusiasm back in 1970:

If you’re a Tom & Jerry fan you can also hear bit of this overture, cleverly integrated into their appearance at the Hollywood Bowl): 


BOULANGER D’un Matin de Printemps (5 mins)

A particular favourite of our season-opening conductor, Clemens Schuldt, this is a work of lush French harmony and whimsical bird song. The orchestral version is, in fact, a transcription of an earlier chamber work and is remarkably mature for someone who was still only 24.  Alas, it also marks one of the last compositions she was to complete, as her life was tragically cut short by Crohn’s disease. One can only speculate of what glorious music we might have, had she lived longer.

Not previously performed by the Philharmonia

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra & Yan Pascal Tortelier perform the work here:

29 Jun 2017

Reaction: Pélleas et Mélisande at Garsington Opera 2017

29 Jun


Andrea Carroll as Mélisande, credit Clive Barda

This June the Philharmonia made its Garsington Opera debut in a new production of Debussy's Pélleas et Mélisande. Here are some of the reactions from across the music world:

"The Philharmonia`s playing is glorious"

Tim Ashley, The Guardian

Andrea Carroll as Mélisande and Paul Gay as Golaud, credit Clive Barda

"Under Jac van Steen’s baton the Philharmonia created exquisite soundscapes in the orchestral interludes and punctuated the vocal lines adroitly"

Claire Seymour, Opera Today

"Rarely has this extraordinary score revealed such exquisite beauty and yet equally hit home with such devastating power"

George Hall, The Stage

Andrea Carroll as Mélisande and Jonathan McGovern as Pélleas, credit Clive Barda

"Even those far from being ‘Pelléastes’ would relish Jac van Steen’s direction of the Philharmonia Orchestra"

Melanie Eskenazi, Music OMH

26 May 2017

Discover the MMSF Instrumental Fellowship Programme

26 May


The Martin Musical Scholarship Fund, administered by the Philharmonia Orchestra, has given invaluable support to countless young musicians since 1968.​ Ahead of the Young Artist Showcase Recital given by recipients of the Philharmonia MMSF String Fellowships on 1 June, cellist Yaroslava Trofymchuk describes her time spent as a member of the programme. 

Experience is one of the fundamental ways we learn. One can study the theory of how things work but nothing compares to the knowledge gained through a practical approach. This principle holds true for music just as much as in other aspects of life.

I feel incredibly privileged to have this opportunity to work with such an orchestra as the Philharmonia as part of my Fellowship scheme. There are so many things that you don’t learn at college and that are not written in books, things that you pick up just from being part of the ensemble - each orchestra has a different ‘set of rules’: a certain way of playing, of moving, even turning pages in a right way. As a result, with some groups you can feel restricted, worrying about following the rules rather than being free to enjoy the music.

What I find incredible about the Philharmonia Orchestra is that I don’t feel like this. It somehow works so naturally and all the energies from the different musicians flourish organically into a unique music making experience. As I am not currently a full-time member of an orchestra, it’s wonderful that I’m able to feel so comfortable here, playing side-by-side with such excellent musicians – I’m immensely grateful for all their support and for making me feel so welcome!

While the experience of being part of such an organisation is priceless, the Fellowship programme, in fact, goes even further. All of the Fellows have wonderful mentors from the orchestra and receive regular coaching sessions with them, with an emphasis on orchestral repertoire. This has been one of the most fascinating aspects of the programme, as it has given us the chance to gain in-depth knowledge on orchestral music, beyond the more soloist-oriented focus of typical instrumental teaching. We even had the chance to perform in a mock audition! It gave us both insights into the professional audition process at an orchestra, as well as giving us the chance to play through our audition pieces with immediate feedback from the panel.

As part of our Fellowship we perform in some fantastic recital opportunities as well as in chamber concerts. I’m really looking forward to our next performance, at the Royal Festival Hall, where we’ll be playing works by Kodály and Janáček - I’d like to give an introduction to one of my favourite works in the programme, 9 Epigrams by Zoltán Kodály. Originally written in 1954 for two voices (soprano and alto) and a piano, the composer wrote in the score that it could be performed on string or wind instruments, transposed an octave down or up and even performed in a different order, giving us lots of freedom to create our own interpretation of the music.

We transcribed seven of the Epigrams for cello and double bass with a piano and slightly changed the order, placing the lively fifth movement as an interlude between other movements.

Hazaszeretet (Love of my country)
Altató (Lullaby)
Tavasz (Spring)
Gyöngyvirág (Lily of the Valley)
Felho (Cloud)
Tavasz (Spring)
Bánat (Sadness)
Nyár elé (Approaching Summer)
Tavasz (Spring)

The rather unusual register of the lower instruments brings something very earthy and human into the sound. Each movement is about 1 minute long and has its name-character. In a very impressionistic manner the music draws pictures from someone’s very simple life in the countryside, with its dreams, love and sadness.  

31 Mar 2017

Principal Guest Conductors: Reaction

31 Mar


Yesterday we announced our two new Principal Guest Conductors: Jakub Hrůša and Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Here is some of the reaction we received from across the music world:


Classic FM kindly made a splash, featuring Hrusa and Rouvali in last night's #FullWorksConcert:


Finnish publications picked up the news, and Finnish Music Quarterly published a feature on Santtu-Matias Rouvali:

30 Mar 2017

Meet Jakub Hrůša

30 Mar



The Philharmonia Orchestra has appointed two internationally acclaimed conductors, Jakub Hrůša and Santtu-Matias Rouvali, as Principal Guest Conductors.

In this film, meet Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša, a regular guest conductor with the Philharmonia since 2011 and now part of our new-look artistic team.

Hrůša and Rouvali take up their roles at the beginning of the 2017/18 Season. Both artists will conduct several concerts a year – and contribute to the programming for the Orchestra’s major series – in the Philharmonia’s London Season at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, as well as in concerts across the Orchestra’s UK programme and internationally.

Hrůša (35), hailed in a recent Arts Desk profile as “a leading light among the younger generation of conductors”, has a wide-ranging repertoire, with the music of Central Europe a particular focus. He describes the Philharmonia as "one of my absolutely favourite musical ensembles worldwide. Every single concert we have experienced together since my debut in 2011 has been special in all aspects – the programming, the atmosphere and, most of all, the quality of the music-making." 

He Continues: "I feel truly honoured that I can become a member of this remarkable artistic institution under the inspiring leadership of Esa-Pekka Salonen. To become Principal Guest Conductor and to be in regular touch with the Philharmonia Orchestra’s musicians, and the whole team around, as well as with its public, is definitely one of my dreams come true.”

Jakub Hrůša next conducts the Philharmonia on 6 and 7 April, in London and Basingstoke. See details of all his concerts with the Philharmonia here

30 Mar 2017

Introducing Santtu-Matias Rouvali

30 Mar



The Philharmonia Orchestra has appointed two internationally acclaimed conductors, Santtu-Matias Rouvali and Jakub Hrůša, as Principal Guest Conductors.

In this film we introduce Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali, whom we met during a trip to Finland in February, and who gives us his thoughts on joining the Philharmonia as Principal Guest Conductor.

Hrůša and Rouvali take up their roles at the beginning of the 2017/18 Season. Both artists will conduct several concerts a year – and contribute to the programming for the Orchestra’s major series – in the Philharmonia’s London Season at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, as well as in concerts across the Orchestra’s UK programme and internationally.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali (31), is one of the most exciting young conductors working in the world today. He has conducted the Philharmonia in concerts across its UK residencies. In his debut with the Philharmonia at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall in January 2016, Rouvali conducted the Second Symphony of his Finnish compatriot, Sibelius, alongside Rolf Martinsson’s Trumpet Concerto, with Håkan Hardenberger as soloist. “He is the real thing: music unmistakably flows from him,” wrote The Sunday Times.  
Rouvali describes the Philharmonia as "a perfectly-shaped orchestra. Its players can pick up any music, are always prepared and technically very skilful. There are so few orchestras around the world who can get close to that. Now I can conduct them: what more could I wish for?"  

He is also looking forward to being a part of the Philharmonia's new-look artistic team: "To be in London with Esa-Pekka Salonen as Principal Conductor is something I can’t wait for. He is a very rich-minded artist, with lots of ideas, and I want to be a part of that. I am looking forward to many future adventures with the Philharmonia.”

Rouvali conducts the Philharmonia in a sold-out Sunday matinee on Sunday 23 April 2017. Following a pre-concert talk in which he speaks to the Philharmonia’s Principal Trumpet, Alistair Mackie, Rouvali conducts The Planets and Elgar’s Cello Concerto, with Alban Gerhardt the soloist. Looking ahead to 2017/18, Rouvali conducts Ravel’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition on 5 October 2017.

30 Aug 2016

Universal Notes

30 Aug


Bangalore, India, December 2015. A blog by Digital Producer, Marina Vidor.  

Things are not going according to plan. Catastrophic flooding in Chennai forced the change of our destination at the last minute to Bangalore. We’re in a beautiful hotel that has also suffered minor flooding and the conference room they promised us isn’t available. All 10 of us have to pile into a hotel room.

They have moved the king-sized bed out. I’m not sure how they did this, but it’s done. I have just about managed to set up two cameras and some mics without tripping over anyone. We have all left our shoes, bags and other belongings in the small corridor. The elegant Jayanthi Kumaresh, unfazed, has settled comfortably on the floor and is tuning her elaborate stringed instrument, the saraswati veena, while her pupil sits beside her attentively, ready in case she needs anything. Jayanthi is dressed in a stunning sari, the colour of plum, garnet and strawberry, alternating with gold thread that shines. We all group around her in a semi-circle, and so another workshop begins. The crowded, unusual surroundings melt away as the music starts. Everyone plays for each other and Jayanthi teaches the group a composition she and her husband, the violinist, Kumaresh, have written. The tune gets passed around and improvised upon, the musicians becoming more and more fluid on each turn.

I’m here to document (as an equipment-laden fly-on-the-wall) a unique trip for our musicians, a crash course in Indian classical music. Over eight days, Philharmonia members Samantha (Sam) Reagan (2nd Violin) and Samuel (Sam) Burstin (Viola), along with cellist Matthew Barley and composer Fraser Trainer will take part in a series of workshops with a dozen of India’s great classical musicians. We’ll meet flutists, vocalists, percussionists and players of a vast array of stringed instruments.

Conversation ebbs and flows naturally as the session with Jayanthi wears on. Matthew asks her if she ever gets tired when playing long pieces often at a very quick tempo. Tentatively she replies, “Yes… I do,” and she laughs. “That’s the spiritual angle,” she continues, and describes that when she is playing she is actually breathing at a different, slower rate, almost as if she were meditating. It’s a technique she learned so young that she doesn’t remember when it became second nature. “You ask me if my hand hurts. In that statement we made clear that my hand is not me. So my hand may get hurt, but I shouldn’t. Now what is ‘I?’ It’s not my hand, it’s not my body. My mind tells me my hand hurts, it’s distracting me away from the music. But I shouldn’t get distracted, so my mind is not me. And my body is not me. So then what is ‘me?’ That is the supreme consciousness, which is the breath. And that is why we breath slowly when performing, so that supreme consciousness makes sure that it’s all fine.” Discussions like this continue into the night over dinner.

The Philharmonia has partnered with Darbar, the UK’s premier festival of Indian classical music, to make this extraordinary project happen, with funding from Arts Council England and the British Council as part of their Reimagine India fund. Darbar’s director, Sandeep Virdee, is leading our tour of the finest Indian classical music can offer, with stops in Bangalore and Mumbai. Our musicians will learn about the Carnatic tradition from South India and the Hindustani from North India and learn how pieces are constructed and improvised. It will be a lot to absorb and probably quite overwhelming, but this is also a huge privilege and everyone knows it.

The big struggle is of course improvisation. Western classical musicians are not usually encouraged to improvise during their studies, which is why many find it difficult and even terrifying to try it. Sam and Sam have come on board because they want to challenge themselves to work outside their normal comfort zone of the daily orchestra rehearsal and concert. They’re highly experienced musicians, but neither has pushed themselves this way before, especially not in front of a steady stream of virtuosic musicians from a tradition where improvisation is central. Matthew Barley, a cello soloist who has worked quite a bit in India and well beyond the normal remit of Western classical music, will help our musicians navigate this new path, sharing his knowledge and tips and acting as a bridge between the two traditions. Composer Fraser Trainer, who has worked closely with Matthew for years, will gather material on the trip, eventually putting together a piece that will be premiered at the 2016 Darbar Festival in September at Southbank Centre. They are hoping to create a new style of music that doesn’t compromise the strengths of Western and Indian classical music. It’s a goal to move away from jam sessions and fusion styles and really push to create something fresh and meaningful. I admire this courage and I feel privileged to be on this journey with such an ambitious team.

The big struggle is of course improvisation. Western classical musicians are not usually encouraged to improvise during their studies, which is why many find it difficult and even terrifying to try it.

30 August 2016

As we approach the Darbar Festival, which our Universal Notes ensemble will open in a few weeks, I relish looking back to our trip to India. The colours, traffic, noise, food, music and amazing musicians we met stand out vividly in my memory and are being brought back to life as I trawl through hours of footage. (Keep your eyes peeled for a short film on our trip coming out in early September.) As I watch, it’s clear that everyone understands each other on a deep, musical level, but there is also a real appreciation among the group that they come from distinct musical worlds and traditions. I see furrowed brows as our musicians struggle to remember a melody they just learned, and laughs of surprise and relief when a group improvisation comes together beautifully as people start finding their musical voice. In one session sitar player Niladri Kumar nods in approval as Sam Burstin plays a Bach extract on his viola, deeply moved. Everyone gets it, and they are working hard to meet somewhere in the middle, to find those universal notes.

For the final performance we have added two more Philharmonia musicians: Michael Fuller, bass, and Jennifer McLaren, clarinet. Coming over from India for more workshops ahead of the concert are three musicians we met back in December: Rakesh Chaurasia, bansuri, Niladri Kumar, sitar, and Jayanthi Kumaresh, saraswati veena. Workshops in London ahead of the concert will bring this new piece together. We’re all excited to see how the final piece will emerge and hope you will join us on 16 September at Darbar.

Universal Notes, Friday 16 September 2016, 6.30pm, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London.

Marina Vidor is the Digital Producer for the Philharmonia Orchestra. She looks after the Orchestra’s prolific film programme. Watch more on our YouTube channel, and subscribe for the latest films: