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Feature: Why Ben dropped the trumpet and picked up the baton instead

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When Ben Palmer steps forward to conduct a concert in Suffolk next month he can expect to see familiar faces on both sides of the rostrum.

And among the musicians waiting with bated breath for the now internationally-known conductor to raise the baton will be some who remember a different Ben Palmer ... a teenage trumpet player with a rebelllious streak.

Ben, who was brought up in Bury St Edmunds, is at the town’s Apex theatre on February 11 with the Wolsey Orchestra.

In its ranks are former teachers – including some who helped guide his early musical progress – and a number of his fellow youth orchestra players.

At previous concerts with the orchestra, fondly-remembered faces have included bassoonist Pam Bailey.

“Pam, I still want to call her Mrs Bailey, used to conduct the West Suffolk Youth Wind Band,” said Ben.

“When I joined I was the naughtiest young trumpeter you can imagine, and used to mess around in rehearsals.

Ben lived in Bury from 1990 until he went to university in 2000.

“I’m looking forward to coming back to Bury. I really love what I do, and it’s a bonus to do it in a place where you have friends in the audience and the orchestra.

“And the Apex is an astonishing concert hall ... the acoustics, the facilities – it’s a world-class venue.

He comes from a family of music-lovers. “There was always music in my house as a child.

“Probably my first musical memory is watching The Sound of Music and Oliver with my parents, and singing along to tapes on long car journeys.

“I started learning the trumpet at the age of seven but didn’t take it that seriously till I was 15, when I really caught the bug and it became a bit of an obsession.

“My real passion for music was ignited playing in Suffolk Youth Orchestra.

“When we played Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony at Snape Maltings I was so excited I couldn’t sleep for two nights.

“It was so exciting playing in a really massive orchestra. From that moment on I was hooked.

His childhood ambition to be a cartoonist melted away. “That was it, I never looked back,” he said.

Ben studied music at Birmingham University, graduating with first class honours in 2003, then did a masters in composition.

“It was while I was there I started to do a little bit of conducting and found it pretty addictive.

“I’ve always found playing the trumpet quite terrifying and I was starting to find it increasingly stressful.”

The trumpet is not an instrument that can make a modest, unobtrusive entrance into a score.

“One famous player said you are either bored to death or scared to death,” said Ben.

“There will be a lot of bars of rest, then when you come in you are very exposed.

“I’m not nervous in the same way when conducting. It’s exhilarating and exciting but I’m not scared.

“I feel very lucky to do what I do for a living. I’m really busy now. It takes quite a lot of time to build up a career.

“It might seem that mostly you’re being paid to stand in front of people waving your arms around.

“But that’s only the public face of it. A lot of work goes on behind the scenes, studying scores, and rehearsing with the orchestras.

“I live in London now, but work all over the UK and in Europe. Recently I’ve been doing some work in Germany, and with the BBC Singers for Radio 3.”

Ben’s frantic schedule includes being artistic director of the Orchestra of St Paul’s and the Syred Consort chamber choir.

He is much in demand as a guest conductor and has recently appeared with the Royal Philharmonic and the London Mozart Players.

He also conducts live performances of film scores to accompany a screening of the film.

“It’s one of my new obsessions. I’ve done Casablanca at the Royal Festival Hall, and Psycho, complete with the ‘stabbing’ sounds, at the Roundhouse.

“The film plays on a massive screen which I face, but the orchestra can’t see. I have headphones on, which keeps me in time with the film.

“The mix of different things I do is one of the things I feel very lucky about.

“Above all it’s important to honour the music, and to respect the musicians sitting in front of you.

“Together, an orchestra represents thousands of hours of individual practice.”

The Wolsey Orchestra has over 50 members from all over Suffolk.

Its programme at the Apex consists of works by Borodin, Dvorak, Sibelius and Carl Nielsen.

Ben is particularly looking foward to conducting Nielsen’s First Symphony.

“It’s a work that’s new to me and I imagine may be new to many in the audience.

“It’s dramatic and fiery, and builds to a really thrilling heroic conculsion,” he said.

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