Looking Back to London 2012

On Sunday 17 July we celebrated ten years since the young musicians of LSO On Track performed at the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony with a special commemorative concert at LSO St Luke's.

The concert, which was given to an audience of parents and recorded for broadcast as part of the 10th anniversary celebrations, featured current LSO On Track participants and seven alumni from 2012, returning for the first time in ten years, several of which are now embarking upon their own musical careers.

LSO Principal Flute Gareth Davies was one of the LSO players who coached and played with the orchestra of young people which appeared in the Olympic Stadium on that day in 2012. We asked him for his memories of that special performance.

There was something about London during that never ending summer of 2012. There was a palpable sense of joy, excitement and optimism around. Flags of all nations flew, and the rain stayed away. The only downer for me was that despite spending hours in a queue online, like many people, I hadn’t managed to get any tickets for any of the events. Demand to be involved in the Olympics in any way was huge. But as it turned out, I had one of the best seats in the house.

Part of the LSO Discovery programme, LSO On Track, which began in 2008 with the announcement of the Olympics coming to London in 2012, involves working with young people from the East London ‘Olympic’ boroughs. The brand-new Olympic Park being built in Stratford, in the London borough of Newham, meant it was an ideal opportunity for some of these kids to have a chance to perform at the opening ceremony alongside players from the LSO. We had been asked to play ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations in the very opening part of the show which depicted England’s ‘Green and Pleasant Land.’

LSO On Track rehearsing for the Olympics Opening Ceremony, 2012 
Credit: Alexander Newton

First, we had to record the piece – for several reasons we were going to be miming on the day to our own soundtrack. For many young (and not so young) musicians, recording Nimrod at the legendary Abbey Road studios would be the culmination of an extraordinary experience. For this lucky group of players, it was just the beginning.

LSO On Track recording Nimrod at Abbey Road Studios, 2012
Credit: Alexander Newton

After rehearsals at various places in East London as well as LSO St Luke’s, the time came to visit the Olympic Park for the first time. After much queuing at a pop-up village somewhere near Stratford where we were all issued with various passes to access the site, we met up for the first time at the Stadium.

Pic shows young people wearing passes walking across the path in London Olympics park

We walked miles!

Image shows the LSO truck in the foreground and London Olympic stadium behind

I think this was a couple of weeks before the opening and the site was still full of scaffolding and builders putting the finishing touches to just about everything. I remember the sense of anticipation as the LSO players and young musicians shared the same levels of excitement. After being shown our holding area, a grey room somewhere in the bowels of the stadium, we were walked out through the players tunnel called VOM 1 onto the playing field. I can still hear the giggles of the group of boys I was walking alongside every time one of the organisers said VOM 1, usually followed by them all pretending to be sick. This joke was repeated every single time for the next two weeks…

Image shows people waiting in a dark tunnel walking towards the light

The notorious VOM 1

Walking out onto the field of play, which was covered with grass, and a hill, and a few sheep and… well, it was just jaw dropping. The seats all had small lights on which could be controlled to show images and patterns which were being checked as we came in. There was music playing. I don’t think anybody said anything, it was just so overwhelming.

image shows empty green chairs set out for an orchestra

Photo: Mario De Sa

Most of the rehearsals over the next few days involved little playing but a lot of logistics. We all had earpieces where a friendly voice gave us cues about when to walk and play and sit down. I can remember being told to stop walking to “make way for the NHS”. It all seemed a bit weird as no group rehearsed together until the actual dress rehearsal, so at that time I just assumed it was the ambulance crews waiting around in case somebody fainted. We had to pick up our chairs after we finished playing and walk back through VOM 1 (snigger) to the dressing room.

Eventually the day of the dress rehearsal arrived. We had an audience of friends and family who came to watch and the whole show became a bit clearer. My kids came to watch and loved it, and that was without many of the surprises… like the Queen parachuting into the stadium. She only did that once on the day obviously.

On the day of the Opening Ceremony itself, I couldn’t believe how many people seemed to be on site. We all sat backstage wearing our tails and brightly coloured trainers we’d been given. 

Image shows a group of young people dressed in black sitting together

Image shows a group of young people with a girl giving a thumbs up in the centre

Image shows three children and one adult sitting together on a sofa dressed in DJs

Photo: Elie Gussman

Image shows four musicians and sitting on a bed holding instruments, one showing his orange shoes

Image shows five shoes in a circle each wearing a different coloured shoe with flutes resting on the toe

The orchestra was split around the stadium, and we walked to our places from all corners of the field. It was surreal. We walked past cows and sheep and ‘peasants’ working the fields, but the noise from the now full stadium was unbelievable. As we walked to our seats, I sat down with the flute players who were all grinning from ear to ear. I realised I was too.

Images shows musicians with instruments walking across the grass in the olympic stadium

Photo: Olivia Troop

Image shows orchestra in the foreground with actors dressed in country clothes behind

Photo: Mario de Sa

Francois Xavier Roth stood in front of us to conduct and we could hear the voices talking over the stadium speakers. Then in our ears, the voice we had come to know during rehearsals began.

“Orchestra stand by. 30 seconds”

We raised our instruments to play Nimrod.

“Orchestra stand by. Just remember this is now live and 5 billion people are watching.

3 - 2 - 1 GO!”

I remember very little about the performance, but I do remember one of the flute players turning to me as we sat waiting for our cue to pack up our chairs and leave and saying that it was the best day of his life. It was very special. I just sat and looked around and tried to take it all in.

Image shows musicians on chairs sitting in the Olympic stadium

Image shows orchestra members backstage watching a TV with a performance

Photo: LSO members watching the LSO On Track orchestra on TV backstage, while waiting for their own appearance. Mario de Sa

“Orchestra. Ready to exit. Stand and pick up your chairs…and GO!”

We picked up our chairs and walked towards VOM 1 and disappeared into the darkness to enormous cheers. We walked through one of the warrens of corridors and reached a crossroads…

“Orchestra stop for the NHS…”

We stopped just in time to see hundreds of NHS beds being pushed by nurses go flying past us into the field of play! Fortunately, if we had been run over by a bed, they were real nurses.

Image shows musicians waiting as beds and nurses pass in front

I had to continue round the stadium to join the rest of the LSO for the section with Mr Bean and our soon-to-be-announced music director Simon Rattle. The only instruction we had from the voice in our ears was, try to keep a straight face or this won’t work. It proved almost impossible.

When I look back on 2012, I have nothing but feelings of happiness. The sense of everyone coming together to celebrate being alive. For those young musicians playing with us, it was a life changing experience. If I’m honest, it was for me too. I’m really looking forward to seeing some of the 2012 young musicians all grown up!

Image shows four young flute players in a line with Gareth Davies in the centre

Gareth Davies with his 2012 flute section (Daniel Swani second left)

Image shows two people standing amongst a sitting group, the figure on the right holding a microphone to talk to the other on the left

Gareth with flautist Daniel Swani at last week's recording.
Credit: Kevin Leighton

Find out more about LSO On Track

The LSO On Track London 2012 Anniversary Performance was recorded and will be broadcast on the big screen on Hopkins Field at the northern side of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, London during the week beginning Monday 25 July. Please check here for exact dates and times, as they are subject to change. You can also relive the whole of Danny Boyle's ceremony and enjoy a range of activities for families.

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