These were no ordinary auditions. Hundreds of hopeful young musicians from all over the world commandeered kitchens, bedrooms and basements to film themselves performing set orchestral excerpts and a solo of their choice, before uploading the footage to YouTube. Then – some things never change – they waited anxiously to hear if they had made the grade.
In July, the 124 that did will assemble for the first time and perform at Snape Maltings, home of the Aldeburgh Festival in eastern England. The Aldeburgh World Orchestra will be born. Formed especially for the London 2012 festival, part of the Cultural Olympiad, it comprises high-calibre 18-29-year-old instrumentalists from all over the world. It also embodies the ethos of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, founders of the Aldeburgh Festival, who saw the nurturing of talent in young people as part of its purpose.
Although not the first self-styled global ensemble, the AWO is arguably the most far-reaching. Its members are drawn from more than 30 countries and five continents. As well as performing under the baton of Sir Mark Elder, they will also be coached by principals from orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus and the London Symphony Orchestra. While players from Europe and North America make up a significant proportion of the intake, less prosperous areas also feature: the Palestinian territories, South Africa and South America among them.
Ahead of the orchestra’s summer launch, several of its members spoke about their reasons for applying. For Mathisha Panagoda, an Australian cellist, it was the chance to work with tutors to whom he would have no other access; for American viola player Omar Shelly it was the appeal of the place. “I heard the word ‘Aldeburgh’,” Shelly explains, “and I thought, that’s in England. Where in England? OK, east – like the farthest east you could go. Then I heard that Britten and Pears lived and worked there, and I thought, ‘I’m going.’”
For others, the benefits extend further. “Coming from the Middle East, I don’t always have the chance to play in orchestras of such a high level,” says Naseem Alatrash, a Palestinian cellist. His words are echoed by several others, not least Guilherme Ehrat Zils, a Brazilian double bassist, for whom the AWO provides an opportunity to enjoy ensemble playing for its own sake.
“Although we do have orchestral workshops in Brazil, the emphasis tends to be on the individual, not the ensemble,” says Ehrat Zils. “Young Brazilian musicians try to stand out in orchestras so that they will be noticed and sent abroad to study. So the ethos is ‘I want to be the best’, not ‘we want to be the best’.’’
Whatever “the best” might signify, the AWO is certainly aiming high. Following an Aldeburgh residency, the orchestra will perform at Germany’s Ingolstadt Audi Festival, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and finally the BBC Proms.
A giddy rise to the top? Perhaps, but it is one based on firm foundations. The project was conceived four years ago by Jonathan Reekie, chief executive of Aldeburgh Music, and it results from two motives. One was to produce an idea for the Olympics. The other was to breathe new life into the Young Artist Programme that Britten and Pears founded in 1972. “The programme was one of the first in Europe for emerging professional musicians,” says Reekie. “But since it was set up 40 years ago, a lot of others have emerged and the competition for talent has increased.”
Having spent a year planning the project, Reekie and his colleagues embarked on a three-year-long publicity campaign, reaching out to conservatoires, festivals and youth orchestras abroad. The efforts were rewarded with 650 applications – all, Reekie tells me, of a very high calibre.
The task of sifting through the submissions fell chiefly to Marie Bennell, the orchestra’s manager. For Bennell, this proved an illuminating experiment. “It’s interesting where we sourced strength from,” she says. “UK brass players, for example, just wiped the floor with everybody else. We had some beautiful woodwind players from France. And Canadian string players – God knows what they’re feeding them.”
Sound quality varied widely. But Bennell insists that this did not cloud her judgment: “The visual element became very important,” she says. “I could see, for example, if somebody was not coping with string crossings, or how nervous somebody was.” She also saw a lot besides: the dimensions of a player’s kitchen; the look of anguish as a flatmate walked in.
The orchestra slots neatly into Aldeburgh Music’s expansive framework. The AWO grew directly out of the Britten-Pears Orchestra, Aldeburgh’s resident ensemble that similarly provides a stepping stone to a career in music. If the Britten-Pears Orchestra provided the AWO with a template, in return the AWO has shared its new members with its predecessor, boosting standards in the process.
As Bill Lloyd, Aldeburgh’s director of artist development, explains: “What Aldeburgh offers is the chance to mix the opportunities to learn and the opportunities to perform. And if you mix emerging professionals with their musical icons, then you get a chemistry that works both ways.”
“The Aldeburgh festival has always been about new relationships between more established musicians and less established musicians, so there has always been a sense of discovery and renewal,” says Reekie. “From the very first festival there was a strong community element to it as well. Britten was anxious about that a long time before the Arts Council started [talking about] education.”
Reekie accepts that it will not be financially feasible to do an AWO project every year. Nevertheless he has high hopes for the ensemble’s future: “This country ought to have an orchestra of emerging talent that can compete with the best. And Aldeburgh’s the obvious place for it.” After all, he reasons, “For a brand new orchestra to be playing in three of the world’s biggest concert halls – it’s not bad.”
The Aldeburgh World Orchestra plays at the BBC Proms on July 29