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Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra prepares for 40th anniversary concert

19 Jun 2022 5 minutes Read
Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra

Peter Collins

Michael Bell, founder and conductor of the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra, sounded remarkably calm and collected as we began our telephone interview on the 40th anniversary of his band of amateur musicians.

I had expected him to be perhaps just a little ruffled, given the twists and turns of fate in the run-up to the orchestra’s special celebration at its spiritual home, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, on Friday (June 24). But no. He was as serene as a Mozart adagio.

The orchestra had planned the anniversary concert at the hall on June 18. But the rescheduled Stereophonics concert, and the attendant disruption in the city centre, forced its cancellation. Fortunately, June 24 became available.

All seemed to be back on track until the talented pianist Martin James Bartlett, who was to have played Gershwin’s Piano Concerto at the concert, was forced to pull out at almost the eleventh hour due to illness.

Thanks to the assistance of the Young Classical Artists Trust, Mr Bell was able to engage the brilliant 22 year-old Italian pianist, Gabriele Strata to play the concerto at the concert.

“We engaged Martin James Bartlett over a year ago,” said Mr Bell. “Then he had to pull out. Ah well, these things happen. The show must go on.”

Spontaneity and excitement

Mr Bell, who was awarded the MBE in 2018 for his services to the orchestra, said: “We won’t see Gabriele until the night before the concert. There will be a full rehearsal then and another run-through on the day.

“We done it all before. We all know the piece and so it’s just a matter of fitting the two halves together.

“There will be a lot of spontaneity and excitement, which is how it should be. We’ll all be on our metal. It’s always a challenge, but also a great joy for us and, hopefully, the audience.”

Mr Bell, who graduated from Cardiff University School of Music in 1981, formed the orchestra in March of the following year, bringing together former music students who wanted to play the music they loved.

The first concert was at St David’s Cathedral, Cardiff, on June 19, before St David’s Hall had even opened.

” We thought it would be a one-off concert,” recalled Mr Bell. “Then we said we’d do one more, then one more and just one more. We’ve continued doing just one more and now we’ve performed some 400 concerts.”

Wide repertoire

The orchestra has a wide repertoire and is not afraid of tackling challenging works like Mahler’s first and second symphonies, Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, as well as works by Shostakovich.

It has also performed world premieres, including Mr Dahl, by Welsh composer Bernard Kane. It was narrated by Newport-born Hollywood actor, Micheal Sheen.

The orchestra has also worked with Sir Bryn Terfel and Sir Karl Jenkins.

Although St David’s Hall is the orchestra’s “spiritual home,” where it plays four concerts a year, it has performed at venues in Zurich and Nantes, and at the Salle Pleyet, Paris’ premiere concert hall.

It has also played in that city’s imposing Eglise de la Madeline, where Faure’s Requem was first performed. The orchestra also performs at the Miners Institute in Blackwood.

Mr Bell, who has never had a lesson in conducting but has honed his skill by watching the likes of Sir Adrian Boult and other great conductors, said the main strength of the orchestra was that it drew amateur musicians from all walks of life and socio-economic backgrounds.

“We have members of all ages and professions, including teachers, those who work in industry, and office workers,” said Mr Bell, who has spent his working life in administration with Cardiff council.

“We get together every Friday evening to rehearse at the Bishop of Llandaff School Hall. It’s always great fun and very rewarding.

“We like to stretch ourselves, playing challenging repertoire as well as some lighter music. Our regular Night at the Movies concerts are always popular with audiences.”

International attention

As well as the Gershwin Piano Concerto, Friday’s anniversary concert will include Rachmaninov’s towering Symphony No 2, and a work by Welsh composer Gareth Wood called Cardiff Bay Overture.

Mr Bell said: “The overture is ideal for our anniversary concert. It’s a vibrant reflection of the industrial and cultural history of Cardiff Bay.”

The orchestra recently attracted international attention and some criticism after scrapping a programme of Russian music in the light of the war in Ukraine. It was another interesting episode in the 40-year history of the orchestra.

“We did it with the best of intentions and never expected it to develop as it did. It was the right thing to do at the time but, of course, we will include Russian music in future programmes.”

Mr Bell, who is also music director of Abergavenny Symphony Orchestra and conducts Brecknock Sinfonia and Hereford Symphony Orchestra, was optimistic about the future of classical music in Cardiff and beyond.

“We hope to carry on providing varied programmes which we and audiences will enjoy,” said Mr Bell. “It’s encouraging that we are attaching young players who will ensure the orchestra is fresh and vibrant.”

Here’s to the next 40 years!


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