Band of the week: The British Rail Orchestra

We often fetishise innovation in music education – and the response in England to the report of Lord Laming and the Labour manifesto pledge to ‘normalise music education’ is encouraging. But the British Rail Orchestra is a refreshing treat. Instead of prescribing to an overworked sector, it manages to be both generous and informed.

One of the curious things about orchestra education is that there isn’t much improvisation – the repertoires have mostly been colonised by composers whose music has been carefully studied. The BRA used to play Mozart’s great keyboard suites on their first tour, but I always felt that the symphonies and concertos were not really their story. The orchestra then-co-directors gave the symphonies some general shape by making some predictions about contemporary orchestral styles, and using the arrangements of the charts (Warmth for example) as inspirations for shaping them. But in a way, what they’ve been doing in the last few years has been where most orchestral music would have gone without them – it’s taken them off the stage and left them in the audience.

The BRA are partly touring a 25-minute adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, where every musical element is sourced from the original; and they’ve put together some extraordinary compositions, from Iliad a transcript of Orpheus’s hymn-like lament An Orpheus Sympathising to Silmarillion, which is ably performed by composer and composer-in-residence Mark-Anthony Turnage and conductor Ciaran Phiri. The most striking is the Britten Sinfonia, two movements for Britten’s War Requiem, played on Stixis viola, performed with audience participation for the first time by lines of men removing their jackets to reveal balaclavas, the timpani casually lifting weights and glasnosty just inside the stage. This isn’t just an appallingly made extract – a reminder that this composer’s war memorials were made to be exploitative – it’s also a fine example of an orchestra responding to a risky project by putting it into action.

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