Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra celebrates its 40th anniversary this month and mark the occasion with a concert at St David’s Hall on Fri 24 June. Neil Collins speaks with CPO Conductor Michael Bell MBE about his many fond memories of performing with the orchestra over the last four decades.
After completing a degree at Cardiff University, you set up the orchestra in 1982 to continue performing. You must be pinching yourself that the orchestra is still here 40 years and almost 400 concerts later!
Absolutely! There was no opportunity to conduct after leaving university, so I formed an orchestra and called it Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra. I thought there would be one concert… and then after the success of the concert, I thought, perhaps we’ll do one more. Which has now become almost 400 one more time!
CPO celebrate this landmark at St David’s Hall on Fri 24 June. What have you got in store for us?
We will begin by performing a brilliant piece of music by Welsh composer Gareth Wood, his Cardiff Bay Overture, which portrays the sights and sounds, the industrial and cultural heritage of Cardiff Bay – or Tiger Bay in its heyday as one of the world’s most important ports.
This is followed by Gershwin’s jazzy and endlessly tuneful Piano Concerto. We have a fantastic young soloist, 22-year-old Italian pianist Gabriele Strata, who has stepped in at short notice after our original soloist withdrew because of illness. The programme concludes with the most heartfelt and romantic symphonies of all, Symphony No 2 by the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov – a work that the orchestra loves playing.
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CPO’s inaugural concert was held at St David’s Cathedral on Sat 19 June 1982. What are your memories of that performance?
I remember the day very vividly beginning with the delivery of a grand piano at 8 am at St David’s Cathedral. I remember the rehearsal in the afternoon had to be divided into segments to allow for services and confessionals at the Cathedral. I remember feeling so nervous beforehand that I thought I was going to be sick in the font… but luckily wasn’t!
I remember Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2, with soloist Richard McMahon, being terrifying because the piano was situated on a different level to that of the orchestra. We couldn’t hear the piano and Richard couldn’t hear the orchestra, but somehow we got through it together. The main work was Mahler’s Symphony No 1: extremely ambitious for what was meant to be a one-off concert, but it was a very exciting experience for us all.
The orchestra started performing at St David’s Hall in 1983 where it continues to perform several concerts per year. It must feel like a second home to you!
It is like a second home, particularly as I worked for three happy years at St David’s Hall from 1987-1990. CPO first performed at St David’s Hall in December 1983 as part of a charity concert, sharing the programme with other performers – including a very distinguished oboe player named Nicholas Daniel, who had won the 1980 BBC Young Musician Of The Year Competition. At this concert, our timpanist fell ill and had to go home in the interval. Luckily, Nicholas Daniel had played the timpani at some point in his life and stepped in to save the day!
Over the last 40 years, CPO has been joined by special guests including Michael Sheen, Sir Bryn Terfel, Charlotte Church, Bonnie Tyler, Sir Karl Jenkins and even the likes of Neil Kinnock, Brian Blessed and Sebastian Coe. It must give you an enormous feeling of pride that such big names want to perform with the orchestra.
When you work with people famous on the television and in other public spheres there is always tremendous anticipation. What will they be like? Will they be divas? But everyone with whom we’ve worked without exception has been a joy.
We’ve been fortunate to perform with a wide range of distinguished soloists and presenters, including the young Bryn Terfel (who rehearsed with us at Dalton Street Day Centre) and the great Sir Geraint Evans. Neil Kinnock narrated Jeff Wayne’s The War Of The Worlds; Brian Blessed was a force of nature in Peter And The Wolf. I amended the script for him, naming the duck Gordon, so Brian could end the piece by bellowing his famous line “Gordon’s alive!” Michael Sheen was our distinguished guest at the world premiere of Mr Dahl in October 2016.
CPO has performed the A Night At The Movies concert since 1994, and it’s now more popular than ever. Do you still get butterflies performing in front of such a large audience?
I always tell the orchestra that it doesn’t matter if we perform to a capacity house or a handful of people, we must be at the top of our game and that is what the orchestra does. Having said that, there is nothing like the thrill of performing to a full house. As also in the Family Prom, it is great to see so many young people in the audience, many of whom may well have been attending their first concert. I’m always nervous before concerts, but it’s important never to let nerves get the better of you and not to show it to the orchestra or the audience. Luckily, the nerves seem to vanish when we get underway.
Since 2000, CPO has also performed the Family Prom at every year of the Welsh Proms. How important are concerts like these in introducing people to classical music from an early age?
I remember the thrill of hearing a live orchestra for the first time when I was in school and a group of us were taken to a concert at Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall. After that, I just wanted to keep going to concerts, and I did, and I hope that we can provide the same experience for our young audience at the Family Proms.
The theme of this year’s Family Prom on Sunday 10 July is animals. We are performing pieces ranging from Elgar’s Wild Bears, a selection from The Lion King and the theme by John Williams to Jurassic Park. We will also perform one of the most beloved works written to introduce young people to an orchestra, Prokofiev’s Peter And The Wolf.
What have been your absolute favourite moments over the last 40 years?
There have been many memorable moments, some of which I’ve mentioned – like the orchestra’s inaugural and first St David’s Hall concerts, and the unforgettable concert at L’Église de la Madeleine in Paris.
I am so proud to have been appointed an MBE in 2018, having been nominated by the orchestra itself. Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra has been in my life for 40 years, and I am extremely proud of what we have achieved together.
There are just four members of the orchestra here now who played in the inaugural concert – Jill Francis-Williams (the leader), Gill Edwards-Randle (cello), Lesley Clarke (clarinet), and Dai Williams (horn). Many, many others have played with the orchestra since that first concert in 1982 – some perhaps for one or two concerts, some for a few years while living in Cardiff, but there are others who have played and stayed and have become the heart of the orchestra. Their enthusiasm and commitment enable Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra to rise to the challenge of performing diverse, popular and ambitious programmes to our audiences everywhere.
Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra 40th Anniversary Concert, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, Fri 24 June. Tickets: £6.50-£25. Info: here
Michael Bell also conducts the Family Prom at St David’s Hall on Sun 10 July. Tickets: £12.50/£8 under-16s/free under-5s. Info: here
words NEIL COLLINS
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