A world full of music: Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra celebrates its 75th anniversary

Robert Hodge admits that he sometimes lives in a bubble where everybody is a musician.

However, he’s never one to dwell too much in that world – the musical director of Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra (SYO) said some of his biggest professional thrills come from connecting with audiences who have never realised how much they enjoy the experience of a live orchestra.

“It’s fine to listen to something in a classroom, but it doesn’t have the same impact as seeing it being performed live. It’s such a visual thing to witness. Classical music has a lot of connotations, but most people can be won over when you explain to them how much of their world is full of music – film, video game, TV and advert music.”

The orchestra celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2019. Since 2003, it has been based in Wimbledon rather than Stoneleigh, but it still caters for a catchment area across Surrey and London, with a training orchestra for grades 4-6 and a main orchestra for grades 7 and above.

Robert Hodge, musical director of Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra, studied in London, at Royal Holloway and the Royal College of Music
(Image: Simon Ballard)

This season, with winter, spring and summer concerts, including the SYO’s debut performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall as well as a summer tour to Palencia in Spain, is a perfect year to showcase music that Robert says is “either epic, celebratory or both.”

Robert only took over as musical director in 2013, but six years can be a long time in music making. Not only is it a key period of growth for the seven-19 age range that the orchestra caters for – 14-year-olds when he started would now be in their early twenties – but the orchestra has expanded from a grand total of 101 to starting the new season with 162.

For all the demands of facilitating players, the advanced size of the orchestra opens up a range of new opportunities.

Robert said: “Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, for example, I never would have done it when I first took over, because we had no trombones.”

He also mentions Janáček’s Sinfonietta as a highlight of the upcoming season, a “massive brass festival” with a fanfare of nine trumpets, two bass trumpets and two tenor tubas.

Robert says there is a culture of loyalty within the SYO. Susan Gritton, a former violinist, is returning to sing soprano in an upcoming performance of Ravel’s Sheherezade.
(Image: Belinda Lawley)

He explains that as well as familiar works such as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, featured in the December concert, they are champions of newer works, including a piece by Ben See, written for the orchestra through a scheme called Making Music – Adopt a Composer, where they performed on BBC Radio 3.

Providing musical opportunities to people across all walks of life is never easy, but it is always something that the SYO is aware of.

He said: “It would be lovely to connect with more disadvantaged young people. But it’s very difficult to do that, because we’re not involved in providing music lessons in schools. We’re always thinking about things – We might buy rarer instruments and see if we can offer a term of free tuition.” 

Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra perform across Europe. This picture is from a concert in Slovenia in July 2017.
(Image: Petra Hajske)

Robert is also keen to emphasise that playing in a large group can make music so much more of an experience. “With young people, emotions are so visceral, an excitement that we lose as adults. There’s a connection between us all which is being driven by the music,” Robert says, recalling a performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 on a residential trip to Prague.

“At the end of the performance, lots of the musicians were in tears. Part of that was because they were leaving Stoneleigh, but we performed other pieces and there weren’t really many tears.”

Inside or outside of a bubble of musicians, SYO is a group that has a big impact on people.

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