How HSO succeeds with help of Hugo Speer

Actor Hugo Speer, right, with the HSO's musical director Bryan Western.
Actor Hugo Speer, right, with the HSO's musical director Bryan Western.
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By Bryan Western, musical director of Harrogate Symphony Orchestra

I have recently been guest conductor of the Buenos Aires - based Amadeus Chamber Orchestra and will be returning in November this year.

On Saturday, March 15 at 7.30pm HSO will be playing Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Violin Concerto (soloist Bartosz Woroch) along with Sibelius’s 1st Symphony in the Royal Hall.

There will also be a celebratory proms concert as part of the ‘Grand Depart’ programme on Saturday, June 7. Believe me, an evening with the HSO in the Royal Hall is worth all the effort and I guarantee it will be an experience to remember.

It is not everyone who has the fortune to work with talented, enthusiastic music makers.

In my case, Lady Luck has played a huge part. I am not deterred by challenging objectives but the task of creating exciting, stimulating programmes, often introducing wide ranges of styles to performers and audiences alike, is an awesome responsibility.

Fortunately a hard working committee and outstanding soloists make my life easier.

Coming to the end of my 29th year with the orchestra, I have witnessed such amazing changes: starting with the Chamber Orchestra of 30 musicians, rehearing in a music room in the Grammar School, to a full symphonic orchestra whose performing home is our wonderful Royal Hall.

Recent developments have been particularly thrilling. With a membership now of over 90 players, performances continue to improve and, along with this, so does our reputation.

The result: great interest from the professional world. Not many orchestras can boast of performing four world premiers in one year, including a commission in November 2013 by the incredible Aquarelle Guitar Quartet: a feather in our cap, especially as they were so delighted with the outcome!

Fortunately, most of these performances are now professionally recorded on CD or video, as in March 2012 with the St Aidan’s Community Choir performing Carmina Burana and the children’s concert in June 2013, featuring Wayne the Wolf from the Muppet Show, raising over £4000 for the No Strings charity.

What I always have to remember though, is that to exist, we need the support of our audience, so the balance between choosing music that the players want to play and the audience want to hear is delicate.

Get it wrong and it could mean the economic failure of a society such as ours.

One thing in our favour is that audiences enjoy the whole experience of a Royal Hall event. Being able to relax and be entertained in such glorious splendour is an obvious bonus.

I am constantly amazed by the support we have: attracting audiences not just from throughout the UK but also from America, Australia, Italy and Canada.

Full houses, however, appear to be a thing of the past and, although we were fortunate in 2011 and 12 with six or seven concerts that were full, it is difficult to predict attendees in these days of austerity.

There is no doubt that a full house does affect a performance: the atmosphere is somehow different and the performers react to this.

Anyone who has a foolproof answer to ensuring a full house should contact me immediately!

Another factor in our favour is the soloists that have delighted us over the years.

All without exception have been wonderful to work with and undoubtedly “raised our game” and what is particularly pleasing is that they all comment on the fact that Harrogate is lucky to have such an accomplished orchestra.

We often employ artists at the start of their career, such as Alison Balsom, Philip Higham and next year, the BBC winner Laura van der Heijden.

Local artists don’t escape our clutches either, with soprano Marika van der Meer, violinist Caroline Heard and pianist Julian Saphir.

For years we have also encouraged local students as soloists and involve over 300 children every year in our Family Christmas Concert with the Harrogate Choral Society: an event which has now established itself as a firm tradition.

If all this is not enough to whet appetites, the actor Hugo Speer, (of The Full Monty and current BBC TV drama Musketeers) along with over 100 patrons, was happy to celebrate his Harrogate roots by becoming a Patron of the orchestra and is a frequent attendee.

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