With sell-out concerts and international tours all within its first season, the London Firebird Orchestra is providing exceptional opportunities for young professionals, writes Phil Sommerich
The step between graduating from music college and getting a secure seat in an orchestra is a gap that seems to be ever widening as decreases in arts funding tightens orchestral purse strings. It is one that pianist and conductor Marc Corbett-Weaver has been aware of and has set out to rectify by setting up, in partnership with Austrian conductor Achim Holub, the London Firebird Orchestra. With its first season behind it, the fiery creation does seem to have lift-off: all four of the initial concerts were sold out and the diary for 2012-13 is already satisfyingly busy.
Even more satisfying is the regular professional experience this busy schedule will provide for the orchestra’s members, who Corbett-Weaver describes as ‘hand-picked from the leading British conservatoires’. He adds: ‘We felt it was important to create an orchestra that supports young musicians.’
Dwindling job opportunities and tight budgets have made orchestras increasingly conservative in filling vacancies, he says, often opting to choose experienced players rather than unknown quantities. ‘It is hugely competitive now and you get this pitfall between music college and a professional orchestra. Many young hopefuls are just not going to survive.’
But it is not just altruism that fuels the London Firebird Orchestra. The youthful composition of the orchestra, which ranges in size from 25 to 85 members, also adds to the orchestra’s audience-pulling potential, says Corbett-Weaver. ‘What we are really interested in is encouraging and creating performances that inspire audiences. These players have the get up and go and zest that we need and that goes with youth.’
That energy – symbolised by the choice of the orchestra’s name – is what it hopes will make it stand out in the crowded symphonic scene of London. ‘After all, in this city people can go and listen to any number of orchestras with world-class reputations,’ says Corbett-Weaver. ‘With a young orchestra, we can offer energy and passion.
‘We also tend to play in smaller venues which means the audience is close to the action and can feel that connection.’
Holub agrees: ‘This is a very young orchestra, but we have here some of the best young players in London. We have people here whom play second oboe, second clarinet or horn with some of the permanent London orchestras. The quality is absolutely amazing.’
Underlying the altruism is both conductors’ experience in orchestra-building. Corbett-Weaver founded the Orpheus Sinfonia in 2005 and directed it until last year; Holub has worked with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras as well as with John Eliot Gardiner.
For the launch season, the focus was on popular works grouped under themes: on 20 March at St George’s church, Hanover Square, it was avian, with The Lark Ascending and excerpts from The Magic Flute, plus Holub’s name is German for dove. A second warm-up date in May at St Paul’s, Covent Garden, had a Russian theme with music by Glinka, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, while the official launch event, at the same venue in June, featured, unsurprisingly, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.
An opportunity to expand beyond the core classical audience came early on though, thanks to Corbett-Weaver’s friendship with comedian Rainer Hersch. A Comedy Meets Classic event at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 1 April sold out rapidly and Hersch and the band have booked the Royal Festival Hall for the same date next year.
The new season began for the Firebird Orchestra on 27 September with a special concert that reflects another of Corbett-Weaver’s charitable concerns. He is chief executive and artistic director of The Christmas Story, which raises funds for capital projects to assist homeless and deprived young people in London.
Its focus is a seasonal performance of the Nine Lessons and Carols at St George’s, Hanover Square, but this year – the charity’s 35th anniversary – the orchestra provided an additional fundraising opportunity with a programme of Mendelssohn, Dvořák and Bruch.
The orchestra’s annual schedule has settled into five London concerts and three in Bath, plus touring in Germany and Austria. On 6 November, there is another charitable venture. In partnership with the Unicorn Theatre, the orchestra will present a selection of Mozart works to an audience of children from deprived backgrounds. ‘It is vitally important to provide children with an insight into the orchestral world,’ says Corbett-Weaver. ‘It’s amazing when teachers say, “None of my kids have ever seen a classical concert, let alone been to one.”’
The administrative basics of the orchestra are also well in place. A friends organisation has been launched and attracted 40 members, while a chair endowment fund has already filled four of 12 sponsorship slots. It also has an enthusiastic patron in Dame Judi Dench, who confirms the ensemble’s distinctive quality: ‘I am thrilled to be patron of such a fantastically energetic orchestra of talented young players.’
The London Firebird Orchestra will venture boldly when it tours Austria and Germany next autumn, performing in Stuttgart, Berlin, Vienna, Holub’s home town of Graz and smaller venues in southern Austria, with programmes of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Holub is not daunted about how audiences will react to incomers performing works written by local heroes. ‘The orchestra performed around Graz last year when it was being formed and it is almost a family affair between the local community and the players,’ he says. ‘And the British players are so good, they are the best in this repertoire.’