Reflections on Britten Sinfonia Academy's rehearsal with Sir Mark Elder

Reflections on Britten Sinfonia Academy’s rehearsal with Sir Mark Elder

On Saturday 19 January, the young musicians in Britten Sinfonia Academy had a day to remember when they worked with legendary conductor Sir Mark Elder. Sarah Rennix, Britten Sinfonia’s Creative Learning Director, was present at the rehearsal and recorded her thoughts. The Academy are currently looking for young musicians to join them in 2019-20 – apply here.

One of my strongest beliefs working in this role is that young people should have the same access to world class musicians as the professionals that play in our orchestra. So I was thrilled that this January our Composer Hub had a full day workshop with Sir James MacMillan in Norwich, and the Academy orchestra had a session under the baton of Sir Mark Elder at Saffron Hall, where Britten Sinfonia is Resident Orchestra.

I wondered how our young musicians would react. Would they comprehend how great an opportunity this was now or would they look back in years to come and realise in retrospect? Either way I wanted them to make the most of their time with these legends and I think that they did.

Sir Mark talks to Britten Sinfonia Academy

Preparing the Music
Our current Academy season has a thread of folk running throughout. We’ve been working on music by Milhaud, Ligeti, Mendelssohn, Fauré and Coleridge-Taylor, but Sir Mark threw us a curve ball with some challenging Glinka that most of us hadn’t come across before. Kamarinskaia is based around a traditional Russian folk dance, in fact, it was the first orchestral work based entirely on a Russian folk song. The strings were particularly challenged in this piece, and if you listen to it you’ll hear why! Sir Mark contrasted this with ‘Cakes and Ales’, the first movement from Britten’s A Time There Was, (which Britten Sinfonia had performed on that very stage with Sir Mark the previous night). This time it was the wind and brass whose brows were furrowed, navigating various cross-rhythms. We rehearsed for three full days with conductor Tom Floyd to ensure we were ready to present these pieces to Sir Mark. We had two hours with him and didn’t want to waste time figuring out the basics.

On The Day
The day finally arrived. I sent my usual nagging email the day before telling everyone to be on time, warmed up, on stage and tuned fifteen minutes before we started. It actually happened, so much so that we had fifteen minutes of twiddling thumbs and hushed chatting on stage before Sir Mark arrived! I have never felt this atmosphere in the orchestra before – nervous anticipation, excitement and a dash of fear.

Sir Mark Elder conducting Britten Sinfonia Academy at Saffron Hall

I knew Sir Mark would not treat us any differently from a professional orchestra and that was one of the things I appreciated most about his time with us. He prepped by asking our professional players how rehearsals had gone, he learned the names of our young players, he singled people out to help them understand what sound he wanted and he didn’t move on until that was achieved. He demanded more energy and commitment from every bow on a violin and every blow of a flute. I can honestly say I was proud at how well the orchestra rose to this challenge and how wonderfully they played.

Saffron Centre for Young Musicians

SCYM sat on cushions inside the orchestra

Sir Mark was beyond amenable when I asked if some young players from the Saffron Centre for Young Musicians could join us in the last half hour of the rehearsal. ‘Get them on stage’ he suggested, ‘put them inside the orchestra, it will help them understand where the sound comes from.’ So we went on a hunt for rugs and cushions all over the building and scattered them on the floor amongst the players. In the end we had almost the whole centre join us and he gave an impassioned speech about the importance of music and music education in our society. I truly couldn’t have asked for more as an experience for our young players, and I was touched to see them ask for autographs, photos and advice from him at the end.

It’s experiences like these that set BSA apart and I truly believe it is one of the best programmes any aspiring chamber musician can take part in.
Sarah Rennix, January 2019

Britten Sinfonia Academy and the Composer Hub are accepting applications for the 2019-20 group until Friday 1 February – find out more.