Triumphing over Adversity – The Story of an Orchestra in Lockdown

The introduction of lockdown restrictions has put paid to many social and community activities up and down the country, and as a result the members of Ealing Symphony Orchestra have keenly felt the absence of their weekly ‘fix’ of music-making combined with social interaction.

The orchestra –which is two years away from celebrating its centenary– is one of the leading amateur orchestras in London. In normal times up to 60 members meet weekly to rehearse at Ealing Green Church, and the orchestra performs six concerts a year (in the Ealing community). Musical standards are high, matching the ambition of Musical Director, John Gibbons; and the orchestra is well known for its thriving social activities.

When all of this came to an abrupt halt on 23rd March, it left the orchestra committee puzzling over how to keep the spirit of the orchestra alive whilst physically apart.

Using video conferencing technology to discuss some of the immediate challenges faced, such as cancellation of concerts, venues and soloists, the committee members quickly realised the emotional benefit of being virtually connected to the people they were accustomed to seeing each Thursday evening; and so the ‘ESO Virtual’ meeting was introduced.

The first gathering at the start of April saw nearly 50 members dialling in, and the event was such a success that it has continued every week since, with a consistent level of participation from across the full age range of the orchestra. The virtual gatherings have even seen some ‘alumni’ members dialling in from the Netherlands, Singapore, Florida and Brazil.

Each week is ‘hosted’ by a different volunteer who picks a theme and develops the content. So far this has included Pirates, The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz and Egypt – Ancient and Modern.

23.APR: Pirates
30.APR: The Sound of Music
07.MAY: The Wizard of Oz
14.MAY: Egypt

Orchestra members have shown themselves to be extremely creative with finding ways to dress up according to the theme; and each week includes a singalong – with the time lag over video conferencing demonstrating quite emphatically how unsuitable it is for ensemble music-making, but leading to much hilarity.

Sadly not all members of the orchestra have been able to participate – there are a number of key workers in the orchestra who have been kept rather busy; but the reaction of those who have been able to join in has been heartwarming for the organiser, Jo Boswell who said: “I was overwhelmed by the comments I got from members after the first meeting, describing it as the highlight of their week. I thought the number joining might start to dwindle after the novelty wore off, but it hasn’t. I think it highlights just how important this kind of social interaction is for our emotional well-being, and I’m delighted we’ve been able to facilitate that for our members.”

Despite enjoying the weekly social interaction, however, the players inevitably were missing the opportunity to play music together.

Having seen how other music ensembles had made clever use of technology to create a virtual performance, the orchestra decided to attempt its own ESO version.

A couple of volunteers with the requisite technical skills stepped forward to coordinate the project, and an ambitious plan was hatched to create a lockdown performance of Elgar’s ‘Pomp & Circumstance March No. 4.’

A call for players was issued; music and a click track were distributed; and players were encouraged to submit their recordings by the end of April.

As not all members of the orchestra were able to participate, some players recorded multiple parts; and in some cases even played different instruments.

Overcoming fear of performing solo; the use of inferior recording equipment; and the strange sensation of playing with headphones to keep in time with a click track; a total of 51 players submitted recordings. As 79-year old viola player, Janet Robinson put it: “It was one of the most challenging things I have done since my year at Guildhall! The more angry with myself I got the better it became, although each time something different went wrong.”

As soon as the recordings started coming in, volunteers Alan Garriock and Martin Jones got to work on synchronising the sound and videos, with the final version completed within a week and ready to be shown at that week’s virtual meeting.

The reaction amongst orchestra members – whether or not they were able to participate – to the finished product has been one of sheer delight. As violin player Emily Gardner (who plays both 1st and 2nd violin parts in the recording) put it: “The finished result is magnificent! I’m prouder than ever of the ESO.”

Viewing the video proved to be quite emotional for many members – with some even moved to (happy) tears – as it is a powerful reminder of all they are missing about playing together as an ensemble in the ‘real’ world.

ESO Chair, Jo Boswell, said: “This video is testimony to everything that is so wonderful about this amazing orchestra – our musicians have all risen to the challenge with gusto and verve, to create a little piece of ESO history – our very first lockdown performance. There is already talk of what our next recording should be, although I think we need to allow our sound engineers to recover from this first effort before attempting another one.”

At a time when so many news stories focus on what we can’t do, it is heartwarming to hear how one community organisation has adapted its approach in the current environment to continue to serve its members.


Past concerts

Saturday, 5 October 2019, 7.30pm

Malcolm Arnold Peterloo Overture
Respighi Adagio con variazioni (‘cello: Rachael Bucknall)
Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet
Shostakovich Symphony No. 5

St Barnabas Church, Pitshanger Lane, London W5 1QG

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Concert for Dave Humphreys, in memoriam

Doreen Carwithen The Men of Sherwood Forest Overture
William Alywn Pastoral Fantasia (viola: David Way)
Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet
Mascagni Intermezzo, from Cavalleria Rusticana
Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2 (piano: Rhythmie Wong)
Holst Jupiter, from The Planets

Avenue St Andrews URC Church, The Avenue, Southampton SO17 1XQ

Saturday, 30 November 2019, 7.30pm

Doreen Carwithen The Men of Sherwood Forest Overture
Howard Blake Piano Concerto (piano: Julian Trevelyan)
Mahler/Cooke Symphony No. 10

We are grateful for the generous support from The Gustav Mahler Society. Their financial help contributed to the cost of our percussion section and harpist in this performance.

St Barnabas Church, Pitshanger Lane, London W5 1QG (Map)
Nearest: UndergroundNational_Rail_logo Ealing Broadway (E2/E9), Underground Hanger Lane (226)

Saturday, 14 December 2019, 5.30pm

Christmas concert, to include carols and fun for all the family!

Free entry with retiring collection.

Ealing Green Church, Ealing Green W5 5QT (Map)
Nearest: UndergroundNational_Rail_logo Ealing Broadway

Saturday, 15 February 2020, 7.30pm

An Ealing Music and Film Festival concert.

Rachmaninov The Miserly Knight (prelude)
Rachmaninov The Isle of the Dead
Rachmaninov Francesca da Rimini

Anna Gorbachyova, soprano
Talmon Guzhevsky, tenor
Vladislav Chursin, baritone

St Barnabas Church, Pitshanger Lane, London W5 1QG (Map)
Nearest: UndergroundNational_Rail_logo Ealing Broadway (E2/E9), Underground Hanger Lane (226)

Saturday, 7 March 2020, 7pm

Members of the ESO and the Voice Section are joined by friends for an evening of chamber music in Brill.  The programme includes a selection of popular songs, Schubert’s Serenade, Saint-Saëns’s The Elephant and The Swan, Poulenc’s Sonata for Brass Trio, Grovlez’s Sarabande et Allegro, Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio, and Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring.

All Saints Church, Brill

Saturday, 14 March 2020, 7.30pm

Elgar Introduction and Allegro
Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3
Schumann Symphony No. 3, “Rhenish”

Bella Tang, piano (2019 ESO/Ealing Festival Award Winner)

Tickets available online now.

St Barnabas Church, Pitshanger Lane, London W5 1QG (Map)
Nearest: UndergroundNational_Rail_logo Ealing Broadway (E2/E9), Underground Hanger Lane (226)

Saturday, 14 March 2020, 4.30pm

Children’s Concert
Duration: approx. 45 minutes

An opportunity for younger children to experience a live orchestra performance in an informal setting and learn something about the music from our engaging musical director.
It’s fun, it’s educational, and it’s something different to do on a Saturday afternoon!

Free entry with retiring collection

St Barnabas Church, Pitshanger Lane, London W5 1QG (Map)
Nearest: UndergroundNational_Rail_logo Ealing Broadway (E2/E9), Underground Hanger Lane (226)