26 August 2012

Review of The British Paraorchestra at Snape Proms, 25 August 2012

By Rachel Sloane


With the Paralympic Flame arriving at Snape in the afternoon, expectations were high for this concert.  The British Paraorchestra was set up by well-known conductor Charles Hazelwood who, as a father of a six year old daughter with cerebral palsy, he realised that if sport could embrace people with disabilities then so should orchestras. Travelling the world, he realised that he came across few professional musicians with disabilities and decided, in the year of the London Olympics and Paralympics, to do something about it,

“The orchestra is deliberately called the British Paraorchestra,” he explained at the start of the concert, “because, just as the Paralympic movement began in this country, we want to throw down the gauntlet and show that if we can have an orchestra of people with disabilities, so can other countries.”

Few in the audience quite knew what to expect as thirteen musicians were led, helped or pushed on to the stage. They may have been dressed as orchestra members usually are, but they included two wheelchair users with computers (an electronic mac and a laptop). It was a rather strange combination of instruments that included a sitar and oud as well as a piano, harp, brass and strings.

As the lantern containing the Olympic Flame was brought on stage by Takashi Kikuchi, the blind viola player and Jonathan Reekie, the Chief Executive of Aldeburgh Music, there was a roar of applause and cheers from the audience, my stomach did a little lurch, and I knew that all was going to be well. The Flame is the symbol of the Paralympics… and this orchestra was at Snape to make an important point as they performed for us.

In the first half of the evening we were introduced to some of the musicians as they played and sung, alone or in pairs. Sitar and oud combined the sounds of India and Arabia, Celtic folk was played on harp and soprano saxophone and Gershwin on piano. Quickly we relaxed and enjoyed the music, forgetting the musicians were sitting in wheelchairs or were visually impaired. (Mind you, I am still baffled, as a non- pianist, at how a one-handed player can produce music that sounds as though he has two!)

The second half of the concert was the British Paraorchestra’s interpretation of Ravel’s Bolero.

As Charles Hazelwood explained, no composer had ever written or arranged music for such an unusual selection of instruments, so all the Paraorchestra’s work was developed by the musicians themselves from a chosen theme. They met, with ideas of how they could interpret this, and their ideas were combined and developed, through improvisation, until a musical narrative was arrived at that all were comfortable with. This was then rehearsed for performance.

The familiar rhythm of the central theme of Bolero grew gradually from a quiet, slightly discordant, murmuring of human voices, rhythmic taps on instruments and chairs, plucked strings, bells, and wind-like sounds. The first two movements swelled before ending in a flourish, which rather confused the audience who clapped and cheered enthusiastically each one. The final movement concluded the work with the familiar tune of Bolero (with its memories of Torville and Dean ice-skating to a Gold medal), ending as an echo of the opening.. .. gentle but strange sounds, fading away.    


This was Ravel as we had never heard before:  intriguing, pleasing and a musical and personal triumph for all involved, especially the profoundly disabled player who produced some of the haunting sounds with the slightest movement of her head, via an eye-level computer screen.

The British Paraorchestra then performed their version of Greensleeves which, although it began as the familiar traditional gentle English tune, joyfully went off-piste into jazz and then Klezmer! With a few jokes along the way, the inspiring, challenging and enjoyable evening ended with a rendition of the Paralympic Theme, the audience singing along, after a brief lesson on the tune from Charles Hazelwood.

The audience comprised children and adults of all ages, many with their own disabilities. We left, after a standing ovation, knowing that we had seen history made: Charles had thrown down the gauntlet to the world. Perhaps this really was the start of a huge movement to get more people with disabilities into learning music, performing and becoming professional musicians. 

Charles had used the example of women in orchestras – not many years ago, there were none.  In the future, his dream is that musicians with disabilities will perform in every orchestra in the world.  

Channel Four has made a documentary about the British Paraorchestra which will be shown on the evening of the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games 2012.


This review, and others, also appears on www.onesuffolk.co.uk