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Christmas by Candlelight


West Park Church in the centre of Sunderland was filled to capacity last Saturday afternoon for a touching orchestral concert for Christmas by Sunderland Symphony Orchestra (SSO), supported by St Anthony’s Senior Choir.

Under the baton of Musical Director David Milner, the orchestra opened the concert with the rousing Christmas Festival by the American light orchestral composer Leroy Anderson, compiling some of our best known popular Christmas themes from the secular and religious celebration of the holiday.

Touching moments of peace and passion followed in the packed, candle-lit and decorated church with Mozart’s exquisite composition for the short C14th Eucharist chant Ave Verum Corpus.  It is sometimes the quieter and more simple orchestral pieces that move an audience the most, and I wasn’t the only witness of this beautiful and delicately stirring sotto voce ensemble performance to find a tear welling up.

We all joined in to sing While Shepherds Watched, before St Anthony’s Senior Choir treated us with Elgar’s The Snow; Martin and Blane’s Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; and O Holy Night by Placide Cappeau (lyrics) and Adolphe Adams (melody), arranged by Laura Dudley, the Choir’s dedicated Musical Director, and accompanied by Graham Brown. 

St Anthony’s Girl’s Catholic Academy was established as a grammar school by the Sisters of Mercy in 1902. 

Laura Dudley has worked at the Academy over the last eight years as Subject Leader of Music, “leading this fantastic bunch of students and showcasing their talents”.

SSO Conductor David Milner returned to the podium to invite Laura Dudley and her Choir to sing with the orchestral performance of Boswell’s Little Donkey, arranged by SSO 1st trumpet player and composer Phil Jackson. 

O Little Town of Bethlehem preceded Stephen Bulla’s lively Christmas Calypso, before conductor David Milner introduced two delightful Russian folk songs from the collection by Anatoly Lyadov.  We joined in to sing Caswall and Goss’s See, Amid the Winter’s Snow, with Laura Dudley conducting St Anthony’s Choir once more, followed by SSO’s charming orchestral renditions of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, and Anderson’s Sleigh Ride.

Sunderland Symphony Orchestra is close to completing its two-year Arts Council England funded ‘Coming of Age’ project, and Musical Director David Milner really has developed the players’ consistency and scope over the past eighteen months since his appointment. To emphasise this achievement, our evening drew to a close with a passionate and uplifting performance of G.F. Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from the Messiah oratorio. What a great way for families to start the holiday celebrations leading to Christmas Day!

Standing Ovation for  Choir, Orchestra and Cellists

Proms at The Point 

A capacity audience rose to applaud a spectacular night of both original and traditional orchestral, ensemble, and choral entertainment at The Point in Sunderland on Saturday night. As we took to our seats, the atmosphere was set with a full-wall backdrop of black-and-white film, set to SSO’s own soundtrack, showing extracts of the orchestra’s achievements in performance over the last year. 

With no trepidation, SSO Musical Director David Milner launched the large orchestra - assembled for the first time at The Point - into Giuseppe Verdi’s The Force of Destiny Overture, a challengingly powerful piece, played with the imaginative skill and maturity we are learning to admire and respect from Sunderland Symphony Orchestra’s players, led by Judith Thompson. The stirring mood continued with a passionate yet concise performance of Johannes Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5, evoking even the aroma of goulash suspended over a brazier and encircled by whirling dancers.

Sunderland Symphony Orchestra has been celebrating its 18th birthday through its ‘Coming of Age’ project, funded by Arts Council England and supported by Sunderland Music Hub - and has certainly risen to the challenge over the last year, supporting the creativity of local schools in partnership with Sunderland Youth and Community Orchestra, and selling out its performance of Peter and The Wolf at the Empire Theatre in the summer.

Emphasising the important role of the orchestra and its partners in providing routes of progression in bringing on new musical talent, SSO Chairman David Mills announced the presence at The Point of new young orchestral players, and introduced Andreas Poupazis, winner of SSO’s orchestral composition competition, held in partnership with Sunderland University. Musical Director David Milner continued the impressive programme with the orchestral première of Wearmouth Stories, Andreas Poupazis’ winning entry. Reflecting the flow of the River Wear through a history of industry and ship building, the orchestra stepped delicately through the excitingly original composition, widening conceptions to the horizon of what it is possible for orchestral music to achieve.

Six cellists, including four from the orchestra, stepped out as Flaming Tutti Celli, a group established to promote cello playing in schools led by Ros Barton-Gray, to perform imaginative arrangements of the popular Bad Romance; Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This; and a wistfully passionate rendition of Oblivion by the late and great nuevo tango composer Astor Piazzolla.Jarrow Choral Society joined the soirée with touching arrangements of traditional North Country Folk Songs, evocative of lost memories of the innocence and ardour of times past.The interval was used to effect with a second short full-wall film of black-and-white seascape images set to Roker Pier by the young flautist and composer Lawrence Chiu who played with the orchestra before graduating from Sunderland University and returning to Malaysia last year.

The programme resumed with the introduction of Sunderland, another original work this time by SSO trumpet player and composer Philip Jackson. The ambitious piece set a narration by SSO Chairman David Mills of the history of Sunderland to orchestral and choral evocations of the city in six parts. 

Beautifully played by SSO with Jarrow Choral Society, the immediately popular themes  received rapturous applause and is likely to prove an important and prestigious work for Sunderland in the future. 

Sunderland’s ‘Proms at The Point’ continued with Aaron Copland’s lively Rodeo Hoe-Down, played with great joy, followed by Sir Henry Wood’s Tom Bowling and Hornpipe, played in unison to an increasing tempo beyond imagining, even for Lynne Dakers’ phenomenal piccolo playing. Bravo! 

The audience came to full voice for a stirring Jerusalem by Charles H. Parry, turning Musical Director David Milner to conduct them, which he continued to do for Sir Malcolm Sargent’s Rule Britannia, the solo part admirably performed by the thirty-plus strong Jarrow Choral Society, as the audience’s Union Jack waving became a mirthful flurry.

The stirring finale was Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, with the audience on its feet, swaying to the powerfully smooth strings theme, flag-waving arms outstretched in passionate joy. The standing ovation continued until Musical Director David Milner returned to the podium for a final bow of thanks to all, and a fantastic night of orchestral and choral entertainment was complete. 

Taking their orchestra to The Point, encouraging new and younger players and a more diverse audience, experimenting with premières of not just one but two important new compositions, and sharing the stage with the Flaming Tutti Celli ensemble and the Jarrow Choral Society demonstrate the self-assured maturity of an orchestra now playing to a standard of consistent excellence.

Creative Schools join Orchestral Triumph at Sunderland Empire

Peter and the Wolf and Friends at the Sunderland Empire, Sunday Matinee, 14th July, 2019

Sunderland Symphony Orchestra (SSO); Sunderland Youth and Community Orchestra (SYCO); six Sunderland Primary Schools present sell-out programme of creative performance

A truly special ‘sold out’ orchestral music and primary schools performance programme for a family audience of all ages was presented at the Sunderland Empire on Sunday afternoon to rapturous applause and wide acclaim. Promoted for “families and young people of all ages - from 3 to 103!”, the ambitiously creative programme celebrating culture and community featured the creative work of six Sunderland primary schools; the Sunderland Youth and Community Orchestra performing ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ from Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg; and Sunderland Symphony Orchestra with a very highly accomplished performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s symphonic fairy tale for children, ‘Peter and The Wolf’.

As a feature of its ‘Coming of Age’ programme, funded by Arts Council England and Sunderland Music Hub, Sunderland Symphony Orchestra (SSO) delivered preparatory orchestral workshops introducing the instruments of the orchestra alongside the story of ‘Peter and The Wolf’ to six Sunderland primary schools in April and May. 

“The idea was to encourage creative participation from the schools, and the opportunity for pupils and their teachers to develop their own creative performances for our concert at the Sunderland Empire”, said SSO Development Manager, Matthew Burge.

The first act of the programme featured creative performance work by the six primary schools.

First on was Southwick Community Primary School narrating the story of Peter and The Wolf with stunning life-size willow puppets made and expertly animated by the pupils themselves under the guidance of their teacher Claire Beresford. 

St Mary’s RC Primary School followed, with a passionate rendition of ‘A Thousand Years’. The choir was accompanied by their teacher Elizabeth Paget on piano, and a small string section of fellow pupils on violins and cello, led by peripatetic music teacher Emma Mapplebeck. 

St Paul’s C. of E. Primary School amazed the audience with their flawless rendition of all choruses of the regional tale of ‘The Lambton Worm’, led by music teacher and SSO cellist Jane Boyd, illustrated in performance with engaging choreographed storytelling of the battle with a giant dragon. 

Wearing masks of their own creation, Grangetown Primary School had composed their own song for their choreographed performance. The small choir, led by teachers Victoria Stell and Sarah Bryant-King, performed their composition with delicacy and imagination to a very appreciative audience. 

Beautifully choreographed and effortlessly performed, East Herrington Primary Academy, supported by Head Teacher Nicola Hair, presented ‘Into the Woods’, their own dance piece narrating and animating the story of a little girl befriending animals in the woods.

The audience was amazed as 40 violinists aged 5-6 years entered the stage to play en-masse. Led by music teachers Jane Boyd and Emma Mapplebeck, the pupils of Hill View Infant Academy wowed the audience with their confident playing and up-beat and inspiring performance of a beautiful musical journey entitled ‘The Yellow Balloon’.

All the schools, SSO, its partners, partnerships, and funders were thanked by Louise Farthing, Sunderland City Councillor and Portfolio Holder for Children, Learning, and Skills.

The second act began with a dramatic and stirring performance of Edvard Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ by the highly accomplished Sunderland Youth and Community Orchestra (SYCO), numbering more than 40 players of mixed age, experience, and level of ability, and led by Musical Director Emma Mapplebeck. 

“The voluntary Sunderland Youth and Community Orchestra is of key importance to the development of orchestral talent, presenting intermediary opportunities and routes of progression for players from varying musical backgrounds and schools. Sunderland Symphony Orchestra is very keen to continue developing our partnership, collaboration, and co-operation with SYCO for the benefit of orchestral music in the region”, said Joy Lowther, Secretary of SSO.

Having compèred the full programme of creative school performances and orchestral music from SYCO, SSO Musical Director David Milner took up the baton to introduce Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and The Wolf’ with musical introductory notes on the sections and instruments of the orchestra. 

The lights dimmed and softened to an appropriately atmospheric moon-lit setting by Sophia Pearson for Sunderland Symphony Orchestra’s performance.

Musical Director David Milner’s lightness of touch immediately captured the engaging detail of Prokofiev’s ‘orchestral fairy tale for children’. The clarity of narration, expertly timed by Diana Bebby; the precise, sing-song ensemble of the string section led by Judith Thompson; and the virtuosity of SSO solo instrumentalists Sheila Rayson (flute) - bravo!, Diana Whaley (oboe), Lucy Beckmann (clarinet), and Paul Judson (bassoon) became immediately apparent as the delicate and engaging story of Peter and The Wolf was brought out from the woods and into the light, Sophia Pearson’s shadow puppets animating the story against her set design featuring a full moon lighting the orchestra. The expert  trumpet of Philip Jackson, ensemble horns of David Tallent, John Harding, and Rebekah Vickers; and the bold timpanis of Brian Naisby were also commendable. 

Altogether, a fantastic showcase of established and emerging creative talent and skill performed voluntarily, with imagination, clarity, and virtuosity for the benefit of the people of Sunderland.

Commending the concert, the Lord Lieutenant of Tyne and Wear, Mrs Susan Winfield, OBE, wrote: 

“I thoroughly enjoyed Sunday’s concert and would like to congratulate all involved”.

SSO also thanks the primary school pupils and their teachers who put in so much of their time and and passion to their excellent performances; Sunderland Empire Theatre; Northern Productions; Sunderland Music Hub, who co-fund SSO and who did so much to help with organising the school performers; Arts Council England, who fund SSO’s ‘Coming of Age’ project; SSO volunteers who helped out with infrastructure, the prize draw, and front-of-house organisation; the Honorary Parton of the Orchestra, The Right Worshipful, the Mayor of the City of Sunderland, Councillor David Snowdon; and the Patrons and Friends of the orchestra.

Spring Into Jazz

West Park Church, Saturday, 23rd March, 2019


The concert opened with a little lesson in Swing rhythm from Musical Director David Milner before launching into ‘Salute to the Big Bands’, arranged by Calvin Custer and featuring the the orchestral verbalisation of “Pennsylvania 65000”.  Suitably in the mood, the orchestra performed an arrangement of the classic Sing Sing Sing (Louis Prima) made famous by Benny Goodman.

But in this unusual arrangement by Dean Marshall, adapted by Bob Phillips the brass were allowed a breather as we enjoyed a strings  performance led by the accomplished Judith Thompson, supported by able pianist Alan Cooper, and the excellent percussion of Steven Moore.

The very talented young flautist Megan Robinson treated us to a quite astonishing solo performance The Carnival of Venice by Giulio Briccialdi, supported with a sensitive accompaniment by the symphony orchestra, not forgetting that of SSO’s own flautists Sheila Rayson and Anna Lockey. The audience were noticeably moved by Megan’s performance, returning prolonged applause, and were delighted with her encore of Georges Bizet’s Minuet from L'Arlésienne Suite No. 2.

Duke Ellington and Irving Mills’ ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing’ brought us back to swing with lively rhythm and brass performances before the interval - followed by a rendition of Sir John Dankworth’s Tom Sawyer’s Saturday, dryly narrated by Ken Matthews, Musical Director of St Andrew’s Operatic Society, and received with great mirth. Alan Frazer’s arrangement of Scott Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’ gave us a relaxed taste of rag time as an influential component of the US Jazz mix. In contrast, James Curnow’s arrangement of Dmitri Shostakovitch’s Waltz No. 2 from the Second Jazz Suite, for a Variety Orchestra, added a bohemian flavour to the evening as we swung together for the waltz. Finally, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, arranged by Jerry Brubacker, rounded off an evening of very accomplished performances of varied jazz-related compositions by an increasingly versatile orchestra. Bravo Sunderland Symphony Orchestra, yet again! 

MB - March, 2019

A beautiful Christmas concert by Sunderland Symphony Orchestra

Sunderland’s West Park Church - Saturday matinée, 15th December, 2018.


An annual family attraction


Once again, Sunderland Symphony Orchestra doesn’t disappoint, performing for an inclusive and family-orientated audience of over two hundred an engaging programme of diverse Christmas music appealing to all tastes. Performing under the baton of the orchestra’s new Musical Director David Milner, and led by virtuoso violinist Judith Thompson, the orchestra was joined this year by the acclaimed East Herrington Primary Academy Choir under the accomplished leadership of Musical Director Nicola Hair.

The programme began with delicate interpretations of selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite: Trepak; Dance of the Mirlitons; and The Chinese Dance. The audience joined the orchestra to sing a rich rendition of Hark! the Herald-Angels Sing, before hearing a wonderfully gliding performance of Émile Waldteufel’s The Skaters’ Waltz.

East Herrington Primary Academy Choir has an impressive history of success including reaching the finals of the Barnado’s School Choir of the year at the Royal Festival Hall (2016), and the Music for Youth regional festivals (2017 and 2018). Led by Musical Director Nicola Hair, the choir took the stage for touching performances of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in harmony; the delicate Voice of an Angel; and, heralding Christmas in fine style, pealing ding, ding-a dong harmonies for Carol of the Bells.

The orchestra’s powerful string section led by Judith Thompson provided gloriously sonorous under-pinning to oboist Fiona Cudlipp’s and flautist Sheila Rayson’s excellent solo performances of Ennio Morricone’s Gabriel’s Oboe from the 1986 film The Mission, written by Robert Bolt and directed by Roland Joffé. 

Frederick Delius’ Sleigh Ride preceded more audience participation for Once in Royal David’s City before the centre-piece of the concert, The Snowman Suite by Howard Blake to the story by Raymond Briggs. 

It’s easy to think that we know very well such a famous piece as The Snowman, but a performance of the entire suite with narration by David Mitchell proved how much we had to learn and to appreciate. Interestingly, a single piano keyboard shared the four hands of Barnaby Blacker and Alan Cooper as the touching melody began. Over 26 minutes in length, the orchestra performed the entire suite flawlessly, with East Herrington Primary Academy Choir joining in to sing and dance the story through the extraordinary “flying in the air” to the poignant string accompaniment to “a little heap of melted snow, an old hat, a tangerine, a scarf, and a few lumps of coal”. The delicacy, precision, and timing of the pianists and all the solo and ensemble instrumental performances was quite remarkable, and reminded us of the importance of orchestral music and the developing achievements of Sunderland Symphony Orchestra “coming of age” in its eighteenth year.

Generous prizes donated by orchestra members and others were won in the orchestra raffle, and the concert continued with two more snow-themed pieces - Prokoviev’s Troika from Liutenant Kieje; and Leroy Anderson’ famous and playful Sleigh Ride of 1948, so evocative of the Christmas season.

The programme ended with a rich orchestration of the wistful Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Martin and Blane) first introduced by a young Judy Garland in the 1944 film Meet Me in St Louis.

What more could anyone have asked to put us in the spirit of Christmas? Congratulations to Sunderland Symphony Orchestra!

MB - December, 2018

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