An unsolicited review.
This very special free concert has a number of amazing things going for it. Not only does it showcase a sampling of the various musical talent Berkshire, and Reading in particular, has to offer, and not only does it show how it’s possible to mix genres interestingly and successfully, but the fact that it has happened at all is astonishing in itself.
Readipop (Gavin Lombos, Russ Alsop and Phil Hopkins) had the idea one day to combine the skills of some of the young MCs and producers they’d worked with with a live orchestra. An ordinary enough idea, you might think, and one that we’ve all had I’m sure, but herein lies the difference between ordinary people and the Readipop guys – they went away with that idea and, well, did it. Combining forces with Berkshire Maestros they brought together a powerful group of musicians, capable, and moreover willing, to take part in an experiment which could have, quite easily, turned into an appalling shambles. But it didn’t, as this evening’s performance shows.
The first half of the programme is fairly straightforward: a few pieces performed by Berkshire Youth Brass; a couple of raps from a pair of local crews and some impressive beat-boxing from Beefbox; and finally the Berkshire Youth Orchestra take the stage with Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 in E minor. While it may be that this last choice is a little overlong for some of the audience, who are somewhat less respectful (read, silent) than a well-trained classical crowd, it is beautiful, vibrant and contains enough complexity to, hopefully, by itself convince a few of the new faces here that classical music is far from stuffy and unexciting.
The second half of the programme, however, is what everyone has been waiting for. Here is where the collaboration occurs, where The Urban Orchestra itself is unveiled. The piece, a symphonic tone poem, is called Any Given Saturday… and apparently describes a typical Saturday in the life of an average kid.
The three movements begin with morning, where the orchestra mixes standard dawn motifs and lyrical passages of waking, dozing, sleeping late with the musique concrèteof birdsong, street noise, alarm clocks, mobile phones. The weaving together of the real and the ideal works well, is bright, witty and intelligent and is clearly a step beyond being a gimmick, which is a trap it could’ve easily stepped into.
The second movement, the afternoon, begins with a bus ride into town, on which the first vocals appear – actual singing, mixed with spoken snatches of conversation, making the passage sound something like an interesting version of The Streets.
The final movement, which takes in the evening and the trip home, begins in the Forbury Gardens, evoked by a magisterial arrangement of Sumer Is Icumen In, this is overtaken and embraced by the electronic drums and we’re treated to some Mcing, which set over a melody and backed by the orchestra and given a context is remarkably fitting and more successful than I might have expected. Eventually a driving rhythmic heart-pounding climax is reached late at night, avoiding trouble, fights, and rather sadly, though not, perhaps, atypically, the piece ends with a police siren dopplering into earshot.
What is so remarkable about this very enjoyable piece is how, according to the credits that roll on the screen (which has, incidentally, been display still images to coincide with the programmatic nature of the score), it has been composed, arranged and performed by students and teachers from Highdown and Blessed Hugh Faringdon schools, the John Madjeski Academy, musicians from Berkshire Maestros and ‘Reading’s most open-minded young urban MCs’ – and yet, never for one moment does it seem a compromise has had to be reached about any aspect of it – it feels consistently dynamic, and unified both in aim and in content. To get so many people involved and to not end up with a beige blandish lump is a remarkable achievement for all involved – and the fact that it was a fascinating, witty and moving piece as well speaks well for Reading’s musical future on all fronts.