Ipswich: It’s about what you hear, not what you see says the town-bound British Paraorchestra

The British Paraorchestra comes to Ipswich this week. Pictures: Wayne Savage

The British Paraorchestra comes to Ipswich this week. Pictures: Wayne Savage - Credit: Archant

“The great thing is, at the point of performance it’s not about disability - it’s just about kick-ass good music,” says co-founder and conductor Charles Hazlewood as we chat in a London church during a break in rehearsals, musical instruments everywhere; some I recognise, others I don’t.

The British Paraorchestra comes to Ipswich this week. Pictures: Wayne Savage

The British Paraorchestra comes to Ipswich this week. Pictures: Wayne Savage - Credit: Archant

He came up with the idea seven years ago when his youngest child was born with cerebal palsy.

The British Paraorchestra comes to Ipswich this week. Pictures: Wayne Savage

The British Paraorchestra comes to Ipswich this week. Pictures: Wayne Savage - Credit: Archant

“I’ve been conducting orchestras around the world for about 20 years and found myself thinking ‘where are the disabled musicians’. I can remember three musicians with a disability that I’ve encountered in any of those orchestras and I’m thinking ‘this is absolutely nuts, there must be millions of brilliant musicians with disabilities in the UK alone, let alone elsewhere in the world’.

The British Paraorchestra comes to Ipswich this week. Pictures: Wayne Savage

The British Paraorchestra comes to Ipswich this week. Pictures: Wayne Savage - Credit: Archant

“I started looking at the Paralympics, thinking what an amazing model that was, how there was no longer an intelligent person anywhere on the planet who doesn’t absolutely believe in the power of paralympian sport. It’s not about therapy, it’s not about ‘oh, didn’t they do well’, it’s about world beating sport.

“Sport’s fairly universal, music is much more universal than that so why on Earth are there no brightly lit platforms for brilliant musicians even if they’re disabled so I decided to bring about some change and the orchestra was born.”

At this point the Paralympics were fast approaching and Charles decided to stop at nothing to get a platform for the orchestra, co-founded with TV director Claire Whalley, at the games.

“Suddenly the eyes of the world were on the British community and we’re saying ‘here’s our first paralympian orchestra; Spain, Portgual, Japan, where are yours?’.”

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The orchestra went on to play with Coldplay and on their own at the closing ceremony, played for the Queen at Christmas, released a single and plans are under way for a major album for EMI where they’ll be joining by guest artists including Philip Glass, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Elbow’s Guy Garvey and many more. The goal for the next Paralympics in Rio 2016 is to form a Europe-wide, super-paraorchestra.

There are currently 30 members, 18 of who will perform at this year’s Ipswich School Festival of Music. Their disabilities range from hearing and sight loss, various forms of paralysis and everything in-between.

“There’s a huge tub-thumping element, the whole mission of the organisation is about calling on all sorts of musicians with all manner of disabilities to realise they absolutely have a valid and viable place beside all other musicians,” says Charles.

“That’s what needs to change, we see the paraorchestra as a link in a much bigger chain and at the end of that chain are literally a multitude of brilliant musicians with a disability rising up through the ranks so they can take their rightful place alongside all the non-disabled musicians as it were who play in all the great orchestras, bands, ensembles around the world.”

Having had a sneak peak at their preparations, the Ipswich audience is in for a treat.

“We have a wonderfully broad palate of music, anything from virtuoso baroque lute players and virtuoso slide guitarists through to drum and bass producers and a Lebanese oud. It’s the most eclectic orchestra that’s ever been assembled I would say.

“They can expect a wonderful, immersive experience from 18 phenomenally talented musicians having a joyous funfair ride through a whole bunch of different bits of musical narrative.”

It’s not about what you’re watching, it’s about what you’re hearing says memebers of The British Paraorchestra, looking to level the playing field for disabled musicians.

“It’s the loudest way of saying ‘get involved isn’t it’? Play just play, don’t mind any of the other nonsense, have a go,” says bassonist Sonia Allori, one of the newest members.

Answering a Tweet from the paraorchestra asking for more players, she auditioned back in March. This is the first thing they’ve done since and she’s quietly terrified. “The musicianship here is off the scale, there are no egos; it’s just everyone sharing and improvising. When you improvise it opens everyone up to yourself,” says Sonia, who lives just outside Edinburgh.

“I’m learning loads already, just because it’s different to your traditional orchestras. The first thing is they don’t forget about me during the interval and leave me on the stage surrounded by tippany and harps.”

She’s looking forward to opening this year’s music festival.

“I think it’s going to be great for us and hopefully for the audience.”

Everybody’s enjoying lunch after splintering into small groups earlier in the day to workshop ideas which they’ll share later. There’s a definite buzz in the air.

“It’s our first gig actually since the end of last year, so we haven’t met for a little while. We had a fantastic first year in 2012, it’s really nice to get everyone back together again,” says clarinetist Lloyd Coleman, from South Wales, who is visually and hearing impaired.

A composer by day - he’s going into his final year at the Royal Academy of Music - he was one of the first to join.

“I remember back in 2011, there were four of us in the room with Charles and we spent the day jamming, trying to create music and see if the idea had potential. Most of my performing is now done through the paraorchestra, it gets me out of the house and away from the desk.”

In a perfect world, says Lloyd, the need for a paraorchestra wouldn’t exist.

“For too long, musicians with disability have not had the same platform on which to perform and engage with audiences. Putting the disabilities to one side, as an ensemble I think it is truly groundbreaking because it mixes together all sorts of musical cultures, instruments and identities. You can actually completely ignore the para element of it and it’s still a tremendously exciting musical group that has been developed here.

“I think the audience can expect surprises; I think that’s very much at the heart of what the paraorchestra is all about - taking the familiar and doing the unfamiliar.”

Looking forward to returning to Ipswich School is pianist Nicholas McCarthy.

“Rehearsals are going really well, it’s so nice to be back in kind of touch with all the paraorchestra. We’ve got some exciting projects coming up and exciting new repertoire for the festival, which is great.”

Born without his right hand, he’s one of a few left-handed pianists worldwide. Playing at the Paralympics remains one of his fondest times with the paraorchestra.

“I don’t think the orchestra could have a better launch actually to put us on the map. It was fantastic, especially as a classical pianist and someone who’s used to doing their own concerts and concertos. It’s also nice to be in quite a glitzy pop ceremony - we were playing alongside Coldplay, that never comes across for any classical artist.”

Nicholas is very excited about the paraorchestra coming to Ipswich.

“I think the festival is fantastic with its programming, it’s been so varied over the years. By programming the paraorchestra to come I think again it’s challenging audience perception as well. I pretty much guarantee they’re going to love what the paraorchestra has to offer.”

For more information about The British Paraorchestra visit www.paraorchestra.com. For more information about this year’s Ipswich School Festival of Music click the link above.