If someone asked you where on campus a member of staff from the History department; a dentist; the Head of the Unit for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning; a primary school teacher; a peripatetic string teacher; a Senior Lecturer in Biosciences; a member of the Registry team; and a cross-section of undergraduate and postgraduate students, all led by a second-year reading Law, come together to tackle ambitious projects, you might scratch your head.
And yet, each week, this is exactly what happens when the University Symphony Orchestra comes together in Colyer-Fergusson Hall to rehearse for its termly concert, often meeting head-on the challenge of twentieth-century repertoire or titans of the late Romantic Period. The orchestra comprises students, staff and members of the local community who, each week, sit down and get to grips with works such as Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique or, in the case of the current term, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no.6, the Pathetique. And that doesn’t include the works that the orchestra learns to accompany the University Chorus, either…
Such communal music-making offers the opportunity for students (and, it must be said, quite a few staff as well…) to escape the stress of their course commitments, and embark on a shared creative endeavour as they work towards a termly public performance. Each spring term, that performance is unveiled in the sonorous surroundings of the Nave of Canterbury Cathedral, always a highlight of the University’s performing calendar, and which regularly sees alumni making their own musical pilgrimage to the Cathedral to participate, and to relive the heady excitement of standing at the very top of the choral risers to sing, or of navigating the steps to the Crypt in the gloom clutching highly fragile musical instruments at various levels of expense.
The wonder of it all is that everyone gives up their free time to attend weekly evening rehearsals, and, as concerts loom, additional rehearsals and workshops at weekends. No-one is obliged to take part – excepting the Director of Music, who arrives in the concert-hall each Thursday clutching oversize scores, a selection of conductor’s batons and the fierce determination to master that term’s repertoire – and when concerts are in the offing and more rehearsals are taking place, time-management (or, in the case of some of the players, parental child-management) skills are called in to play, as everyone makes time for them on top of their coursework or vocational commitments.
The orchestral repertoire which they have embraced over the years has ranged from epic monsters of the Romantic Period – the Berlioz in 2016 being a memorable example – to energetic orchestral showpieces including the Symphonic Suite from Bernstein’s West Side Story, or Verdi’s Requiem. It’s hard work, particularly at the end of a long working day, especially for those students who have the additional task of commuting from Medway on a Thursday evening as well, where they have been studying Fine Art or Business and Management; and yet the enthusiasm with which the players embrace the works which the Director of Music hurls at them is wondrous to behold.
This year, the Symphony Orchestra will be led – for the first time for the entirety of the Cathedral concert – by Lydia Cheng (picture right), a second-year Music Scholarship student from Canada, who came to Kent for the strength of its Law degree as well as for the extra-curricular music-making opportunities that it offers. Elsewhere in the orchestra, a former member of the National Youth Orchestra sits amongst the woodwind, and a current member of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra lurks in the brass section. There’s an international flavour to the orchestral members, too, including players from Malaysia, America and South Africa.
International in its make-up, ambitious in scope, hard-working in ethos and bringing students, staff and local community together from all walks of life – the University Symphony Orchestra really does epitomise all that the University is about.
Images: Molly Hollman © University of Kent