With the hope of providing valuable playing experience for young musicians, Simon Over set up an orchestra specifically designed for musicians fresh out of college. Ten years on and the orchestra has helped some 300 musicians step into the professional world, writes Christopher Walters.

Bright future: the Southbank Sinfonia in rehearsal

Back in 1999, Simon Over, a busy pianist and conductor, noticed how many talented young orchestral players seemed to be giving up on the profession during the first challenging years of their careers. What was needed, he decided, was a graduate training orchestra to help bridge the gap between music college and the profession. Three years later Southbank Sinfonia (SbS) was launched, and this year the orchestra celebrates its tenth anniversary.

From the start, SbS set out to provide its members with a varied diet of advanced orchestral training, outreach projects and, of course, a broad range of performance opportunities. And because it recruits new players every year, 322 musicians have now passed through its doors. ‘Many of our alumni have jobs in the major British orchestras as well as orchestras all around the world, including as far away as the Hong Kong Philharmonic, Sydney Symphony and Auckland Philharmonia,’ says Over, who has been the orchestra’s music director and principal conductor since the beginning.

I ask Over how he went about transforming his original idea into a viable proposition. ‘I was working in the music department at Westminster Abbey at the time as director of music at St Margaret’s, the Parliament Church in the grounds of the Abbey. Michael Berman, father of two of the choristers there, told me that music was his lifelong passion, and having had a successful career in the business world he had decided that he wanted to focus on music. I told him about my idea, and he said he would be glad to help me get it off the ground and was interested to see how his business acumen would transfer to the arts.’

Over and Berman set about finding a base for their new orchestra, which ended up being the church of St John’s, Waterloo. ‘Our offices are in the crypt of the church, and we rehearse there throughout the week as well as give free rush-hour concerts in the church itself each Thursday,’ says Over.

‘It seems inevitable that SbS will flourish’ &#8210 Simon Over

What about funding? ‘It’s really tough. We have to raise £800,000 every year with less than a quarter of that coming from concert income. What has been extraordinarily rewarding is the family of Friends (individuals and families who support SbS financially) that has come together around the orchestra &#8210 hundreds of music lovers who come to the rush-hour concerts and follow the orchestra wherever it goes. For example, 120 Friends accompanied us to the festival in Anghiari, Tuscany, where we are resident, this year.’

The first ten years have been full of highlights, says Over, including some particularly poignant outreach projects. ‘The first project we did in Hull involved six players working in schools all week and then the whole orchestra coming up to do a concert at the university,’ he says. ‘The children we had worked with were so excited and were asking the SbS players for their autographs!

‘Then there was a War Requiem project we did in Coventry Cathedral leading to a broadcast performance, marking the 70th anniversary of the bombing of the old Coventry Cathedral. I was keen that the young people of Coventry might own and cherish this extraordinary work. They spent the week exploring it, led by Neil Valentine, an ex-SbS player who is focusing on education work. The day before the main performance, having looked at the poems, explored the music and talked to some people in Coventry who remembered the cathedral ablaze, they performed their own War Requiem, which was quite remarkable.’

James Murphy, managing director of SbS, is proud that the orchestra has ‘gone from strength to strength’ at a time when many arts organisations are facing pressure. ‘As I see it, SbS isn’t just here to replenish the profession,’ he says. ‘Every year, we have the opportunity to send a new batch of outgoing, open-minded players into the field who are not only exceptionally talented but who also want to push boundaries, make new connections, truly inspire children and be champions for classical music’s enduring power.’

Over also believes that the future is bright. ‘We had a wonderful celebratory gala concert recently, and so many people were excited about the future that it seems inevitable that SbS will flourish. We had over 500 applicants for 33 places this year, and we have 17 different nationalities in next year’s orchestra.’ It seems that after ten years, SbS is more determined than ever to provide young orchestral players with a springboard to success.