Take 120 musicians and put them in Trafalgar Square...

Nicole Wilson, violinist, broadcaster, journalist and founder of Musical Orbit, has been following our young musicians from LSO On Track and the Guildhall School as they get ready for a busy and exciting few days.

Last Sunday (1 July) 70 musicians sat side-by-side with the London Symphony Orchestra at the BMW Classics concert in Trafalgar Square, and this Thursday (5 July) we will be celebrating a decade of working with the music hubs in the ten East London former Olympic Gateway boroughs with a huge celebration concert at the Barbican Hall. 

Nicole went down to Trafalgar Square to see how they got on.

Outside concerts are an event most classical musicians dread, with either driving rain or stifling heat, sun in people’s eyes as they try to read the music as it blows off the stand and a good dose of mosquito bites by the end of the day. However, as I emerge from Charing Cross underground station on a baking hot July morning, I’m aware of a buzz of excitement in the air and sense of pride as young musicians walk next to members of the LSO, carrying their cases to a temporary stage erected in the middle of Trafalgar Square. And I mean right in it – two of the lions at the foot of Nelson’s Column are rising up through the stage keeping a watchful eye on the orchestra and the square is filling up already at 11am with an audience keen to see what’s going on.

Lion in Trafalgar Square

BMW has brought the LSO back to Trafalgar Square for the seventh annual free open air concert, and this year the Orchestra is joined by musicians from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and young musicians from the LSO’s On Track programme to play with them in a specially commissioned piece by composer Kate Whitley, Sky Dances.

Usually the concert is in mid-May but this year it’s been moved to 1 July, which of course makes the chance of good weather much better (a decision which has paid off admirably!) but this also brings problems you probably wouldn’t think of – such as the angle of the sun.

‘We became aware the sun was going to be an issue when the date was changed’, explains Alan Goode, the LSO’s stage manager. ‘With the concert usually being around mid-May, we had worked out when and where the sun would shine and moved the musicians on stage accordingly.’ But with a later summer sun they knew that the sun would be shining on instruments worth hundreds of thousands of pounds and melting their varnish as well as the players. ‘Thankfully we found a bit of software into which we could upload our stage diagram. We geo-located it on Trafalgar Square and then we input the date and time and it shows the exactly where the sun is going to be and where the shadows will be on the stage, right down to the individual instruments and the stage furniture - it’s quite an amazing bit of kit.’

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After seven years of coming to Trafalgar Square for the BMW concert the LSO team have the construction of the stage and the planning of the day down to a fine art, but it still requires high precision planning. ‘Everything needs to be planned – every nut and bolt. In concert halls all the infrastructure is there but for this concert we have to plan everything – the size of the stage, the risers, everything. On Monday of this week we start with the four lions and Nelson’s column and we build this behemoth on it’ grins Alan ‘and it’s just for one day!’

The LSO is no stranger to outdoor concerts but not in the kind of venues you would imagine. Last year they were in Lý Thái Tổ square in Hanoi, Vietnam, bringing sound technician Richard Knowles with them. ‘Every time we do amplified concerts around the world he comes with us. He’s amazing’ admits Alan. ‘We’re going to Cusco in Peru up a mountain to play Mahler 5 with Sir Simon Rattle later this year. Richard’s coming with us – he’s our go-to guy, no one does it better.’ And indeed the sound is impressive. With an orchestra of 120 amplified so that everyone in the square can hear the balance correctly, it could become a noisy blast but Richard has managed to give it the acoustic of a proper concert hall, with evenly balanced sections and no excessive reverberation. A real skill.

It’s important that all the individual parts can be heard properly especially in the newly commissioned work by Kate Whitley written for the LSO On Track musicians, Guildhall students and LSO which will be premiered at the concert. Kate had a particularly hard job, writing a piece which showcases and challenges but doesn’t defeat all three groups.

Kate Whitley and Sir Simon Rattle

So how did she structure a piece like this? ‘I’m a pianist and I wrote a lot of this at the piano’ admits Kate. ‘I wanted it to be built using the parts that the kids play as the basic structure so that it didn’t feel like it was a complicated piece where we had to pick the easy notes the kids could play. I’ve done a lot of arranging of other pieces doing that and it always feels frustrating – I thought I wanted to start with something where the core material was playable by the kids which then means the professional parts can add sparkle and colour on the top. It feels amazing to hear it all put together today.’

Has she changed it since rehearsals started? ‘We’ve had three rehearsals with the kids already and it has been great to work on their parts with them. There were somethings we changed – it's really nice to be able to do that. You don’t often have that chance as a composer.’

Belinda McFarlane with LSO On Track violinist

LSO On Track and Guildhall trumpets

And what about the Guildhall students who are that much more experienced than the younger LSO On Track musicians, but who are not quite professionals yet? ‘It’s great for the Guildhall students to come in and play their own part with us’ Gareth Davies, Principal Flute and Chairman of the LSO, tells me. ‘We often have them come in and sit beside us and play in the loud bits but today they are here in their own right. It’s one of my favourite moments when they step on stage and see thousands of people staring back at them. It’s exciting for us but it’s really even more exciting for them and they’re great with the LSO On Track kids – they’re not nearly as old as we are and they bridge that generation gap.’

One could forgive the young musicians for feeling overawed by the LSO and the day in general. What are the orchestra like to work with? ‘They’re great!’enthuses Sam, a Guildhall horn player who’s been mentoring some of the LSO On Track musicians as well as playing alongside the formidable LSO horn section. ‘It’s really cool to work with them, they’re all so accomplished and play at such a high level and they have such good insight into the music.’

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And the LSO, do they like playing outside for a home crowd? Is it worth the sweat? ‘Well it’s 29 degrees today’ sighs Gareth. ‘On stage it’s really hot and later we have to dress up in our concert attire. Hopefully it’ll be a bit cooler by then... we do play outside abroad but it’s usually around 9pm in Italy or in Spain and you’ve had a siesta. This is 5pm on a Sunday in central London. However we are in the shade. It’s the audience who are in full sun. I hope they’ve brought refreshments and hats...’

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> Watch the whole BMW Classics concert on YouTube

> Celebrate ten years of LSO On Track at the Barbican Hall on Thursday 5 July

> Find out more about LSO On Track

> See more photos here

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