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 BBC All Together Now: The Great Orchestra Challenge 

2016.....a year which began with the submission of an application to take part in a BBC series looking to find the most inspirational amateur orchestra in Britain.  What did we have to lose?  As it turned out, it became the year in which the orchestra had the most amazing, and at times surreal, experience.

 

After a nail-biting wait, we were told we were successful in our application to be part of the series, with the format being that each orchestra was issued a series of challenges, culminating in a performance and elimination of one orchestra after each round, and the star prize of an opportunity to play at Proms in the Park.  Joining us in the selected final line up were The People's Orchestra, Slaithwaite Philharmonic, London Gay Symphony Orchestra and North Devon Sinfonia. The show was hosted by the lovely Katie Derham, with renowned conductor, Paul Daniel, as judge and Chi-chi Nwanoku as mentor.

For round one, the theme was 'The Symphony' and we were issued with an excerpt from the final movement of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 (From the New World). After lots of personal practice, we were sent on a train to London where we performed at at BBC Maida Vale studios.  With the orchestra in awe at being in this most spectacular building, we were buzzing and performed our challenge to our very best.  We were sent home and had a nervous wait until the next day where we gathered to hear the amazing news that we had made it through to the next round.

Round 2, the opera round, saw Paul issue arias to the remaining orchestras.  Our excerpt was One Fine Day from Puccini's Madama Butterfly - a challenge for our orchestra as opera is something we had never tackled before.  This time, we were bussed to Manchester for our performance in the beautiful Hallé St. Peter's, where we got to meet our soloist, Jennifer Davis from the Royal Opera House.  After a short run-through with our amazing soloist, it was performance time where we poured every emotion we could into the aria.  It paid off, as we were through to the next round.

For round 3, we were on home turf with the challenge being to organise, stage and host an evening of entertainment in our local area based around a concerto and soloist of our choice from the orchestra.  Some brave musicians auditioned for the concerto solo and Douglas was chosen for his brilliant performance on the bagpipes.  He wanted to play an excerpt from An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise by Peter Maxwell Davies and we chose Dunblane Cathedral as the stunning venue for our event.  Douglas did us proud, and we had a great evening of music, dancing and poetry with the Cathedral filled to the brim with family, friends and local supporters.  Paul and Katie seemed to enjoy the evening too, so much so, that we made it through to the final where we would face a challenge against North Devon Sinfonia and perform in the world famous Royal Albert Hall (eek!).

First, we were whisked away for a weekend in Malvern for a musical 'boot camp' where we were issued with four variations from Elgar's Enigma Variations to play in the final.  After some hard work and socialising with North Devon Sinfonia, making new friends, we went back home to work to ensure we did all we could to make this our best performance yet. For many of us it was challenging, fitting in personal practice in between jobs and family duties. I think most survived on caffeine for those few weeks!

 

Off to London we went again.  Entering the Royal Albert Hall for the first time was breathtaking, hardly believing we were seated on the same stage where many famous orchestras have performed before us.  Full of nervous energy, we gave this performance our all....we could do no more other than wait for the verdict.

The highlight was when both orchestras sat together, filling the stage and performed Nimrod under the baton of Paul himself.  It was truly an emotional experience to play such a powerful piece with the combined sound of two full orchestras, culminating in the rapturous applause of friends and family in the audience.

After what seemed like an eternity standing in the blistering sun, Paul and Katie appeared down the steps to announce the verdict, where North Devon Sinfonia were crowned the winners.  Not that we minded, as we all felt like winners that day having shared a momentous experience amongst friends old and new.

 

We learned a lot during our experience - how TV filming really works behind the scenes and that we have the most amazing support network who picked up the pieces at home throughout our trips away.  Most of all, we learned that playing and sharing music brings joy, adventures and friendships and every one of us is proud to be part of this great orchestra.  With huge thanks to the BBC, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes. This was an experience the Orchestra will never forget!