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CLASSICAL: Kevin's all grown up; CULTURE In association with The Art Lounge The longestestablished amateur orchestra is thriving, writes Christopher Morley.

Byline: Christopher Morley

Question: why do 50-odd heads of university departments, other academics, Birmingham Conservatoire students, architects, headteachers, solicitors, medical practitioners and business leaders assemble every Monday evening at a primary school in Handsworth?

Answer: they are all enthusiastic members of the Birmingham Concert Orchestra, the city's longest-established amateur orchestra, which rehearses there weekly.

The numbers have swelled over the years as the reputation of the orchestra for friendly acceptance of players of all ages and levels of ability has spread. All that is required (there is no audition) is loyalty and commitment to music-making with a group of like - minded individuals.

Founded in 1934 under the City of Birmingham Adult Education programme, the original title of the orchestra was the Kings Heath Evening Institute Orchestra, KHEVIN Orchestra for short, and inevitably eventually answering to the name of Kevin.

Kevin had various locations in the Kings Heath area over the years, spending several decades at the Wheelers' Lane School Evening Institute before moving to Swanshurst School, then Baverstock School and finally the Polish Millennium Centre before moving across to the north of the city to its current base at St Michael's School, Piers Road, Handsworth.

And by this time "Kevin" had long been dropped, especially as the enterprise had ceased its links with the City Adult Education Programme. Instead the name Birmingham Concert Orchestra was adopted.

There has been a colourful roster of conductors over the years, many of them associated with the CBSO, others have been local teachers or ambitious young students from UCE Birmingham Conservatoire and the University of Birmingham.

Perhaps the most fondly remembered is Roy Lehrle, who originally joined the orchestra as a piano and viola player in 1975 and took up the baton in 1976. He retired through ill-health in July 2005, at which time James Cunningham, a recent Conservatoire graduate, was appointed musical director and conductor.

"It is very difficult to establish yourself as a conductor, and many colleagues have to travel great distances to ply their trade," he says.

"I am thrilled to be directing a great up-and-coming orchestra virtually on my doorstep. Our concert on December 9 represents the first concert in my second season at the helm of BCO."

This enthusiastic young man finds musicians many decades older than him under his controlling baton.

"Our oldest member stopped playing last summer aged 90, and I'm sure that my second bassoonist will not mind me telling you that she is enjoying the early years of her 80s decade.

"However, we have a large variety of ages and abilities in the orchestra and welcome any new players regardless of age, without audition. Recently we have had a large influx of young people who are attracted by the ethos of the orchestra, and our average age is therefore between 30 and 40. We all work hard to ensure the quality of performances and balance this with a relaxed atmosphere in rehearsals."

Saturday's concert in St George's Church, Edgbaston, mixes festive favourites with staples of the classical repertoire, including Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and Mozart's Clarinet Concerto.

James believes there will be great successes for the Birmingham Concert Orchestra in the future.

"The orchestra is going from strength to strength and we are very excited about the future. All the proceeds from every single concert we do, and have done in the past, are donated to charity. This particular concert will see the proceeds donated to Birmingham Children's Hospital."

Gordon Griffiths, chairman of the Birmingham Concert Orchestra, further explains the ethos of the organisation.

"Our purpose is to give fundraising concerts in aid of local charities and good causes.

"Players from all social and ethnic groups are welcomed into the orchestra. The abilities of the individual members range from those of soloist standard to those taking up their instruments again after a long break."

There is a remarkable number of players in the orchestra who are deeply involved in the professional musical scene in Birmingham. Among these gamekeepers turned poachers is Rachel Ormston, development assistant with the CBSO.

"I have fairly recently graduated from university where I studied music," she says.

"Since then I haven't really done much playing and I was keen to join a group to stop me getting too rusty. After a suggestion from a work colleague, I went along to a BCO rehearsal to see how I got on. As well as keeping up my playing, I wanted this to be a social occasion' a place to meet new friends with similar interests. I'm pleased to say BCO have provided all this and more since I started attending rehearsals this September."

Sara Thomason, until recently one of the CBSO backroom girls and now Friends' Administrator at Symphony Hall, is also a member of the orchestra.

"The great thing about the orchestra has to be the diversity of its members - from music students to those who've started learning an instrument as an adult, everyone is welcome and the atmosphere is really positive. Our term of rehearsals is hard work, but there's a real buzz from performing a great concert and knowing we've helped a charity at the same time."

Birmingham Concert Orchestra plays at St George's Church, Edgbaston, on Saturday at 7.30pm. Details on 07855 766152.


The string section of the Birmingham Concert Orchestra in rehearsal
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 7, 2006
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