Suffolk orchestra aims to make spirits soar with more performances

Suffolk philharmonic performing at the Apex
Suffolk philharmonic performing at the Apex

In a few weeks time, the soaring beauty of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending will lift the spirits of music lovers at a concert in Suffolk.

The much-loved work has been chosen by Suffolk Philharmonic Orchestra to open its programme of English music at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds on May 26.

Suffolk philharmonic - conductor Leslie Olive

Suffolk philharmonic - conductor Leslie Olive

It was the piece that launched the orchestra at its first concert in Bury Cathedral five years ago.

Suffolk Philharmonic was founded with a very definite aim ... to spread the joy of music to as many people as possible.

It is doing just that with everything from full-scale concerts to school visits.

But founder and conductor Leslie Olive, and his team of top-notch musicians, are keen to up the tempo.

Their ambition is to stage more big performances, more free community concerts, and introduce more children to the magic of classical music.

But to make that happen, the orchestra needs help. “Putting on a typical symphony concert costs over £20,000,” said Leslie.

“To keep ticket prices as manageable as possible for most people, we need more donations and sponsorship, especially from businesses.”

Help is also needed with administration, which, at the moment, is mostly done by a small group of volunteers.

“My passion is getting people involved in music,” says Leslie. “That’s why I’ve spent almost half my career as a teacher.

“I moved to Suffolk in 2000 and thought what a lot of great music was happening here.

“But what there wasn’t was a fully-professional orchestra dedicated to the people of Suffolk.

“I hesitated at the start because there were many challenges, one of which was money.

“Then I met someone I once taught, and told him about my dream. He said he could offer me a little bit of finance.

“Later, I was chatting to a member of the philharmonia, who said they would come to play for me if I got an orchestra going.

“Within a week, he’d spoken to eight or nine top London professionals who also said they would play.

“I was – and still am – conductor of Eye Bach Choir and Stowmarket Chorale, and had 130 people there who would spread the word around.

“So I thought, if ever there’s a time to start something, it’s now.”

But he already had a huge amount on his plate – not least a full-time job as head of music at Colchester Royal Grammar School, where he started a hugely-successful boys’ choir.

He was also artistic director of three choirs and still involved with the festival in his former home town of Reigate.

So he dipped a toe in the water by getting some players together for a concert in the new pavilion near his home in Rattlesden.

It confirmed his vision was well worth pursuing.

“The feedback was astonishing, and we now try to do as many of these free community concerts as we can – taking music to people where they are,” said Leslie.

“We’ve done them all over the county, including in Stoke-by-Nayland.

“We also take musicians into schools. Sometimes children bring their instruments and play alongside our professionals before they hear the orchestra.”

Major concerts usually take place in Bury or Ipswich. The orchestra has also performed in St Peter’s in Sudbury, and in Long Melford.

The number of musicians depends on the type of performance. “We have a pool of players,” says Leslie.

“For a Mahler symphony, there would be 80 of us, while, for a school visit, there might be four.”

The orchestra has eight trustees, led by chairman Felicity Golding.

Its main sponsor is St Edmundsbury Financial Services, owned by Andrew Speed.

“The orchestra wouldn’t be here without him,” says Leslie, who has conducted many of the country’s top orchestras, and is renowned for his choral work. “Conducting is a compulsion.”

As a child, Leslie remembers standing on a chair in front of the TV set conducting music with one of his mum’s knitting needles.

But his first public performances were playing the piano for scout troop productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, and accompanying hymns at Sunday school.

“It was very good training and gave me a fluency with the keyboard I still treasure,” he says.

“I started getting people together to play and sing under my direction as soon as I could, which was at school.”

Leslie, now also a keen yachtsman, found it was not always plain sailing.

“In one conducting exam, I raised my arms dramatically, which sent my bus fare change flying out of my pocket all over the floor,” he recalls.

He became known for church music, which led to him becoming the first music director of the new-style daily service on Radio Four.

In addition to two Suffolk choirs, he also still directs the Surrey-based English Arts Chorale, which he founded.

He has now added Wattisham Military Wives to his choral portfolio, while their regular conductor is on maternity leave.

“I’m out rehearsing choirs four out of five nights of the working week,” he says.

Leslie’s wife Jane is an accomplished choral singer. They met through Stowmarket Chorale ... she was in the front row of the altos when he became conductor.

To find out more about the orchestra, and how to become a sponsor or Friend, go to www.suffolkphil.org