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The Harmony Interviews: MD Lindsay Ryan On How To Start An Orchestra

Our concert celebrating the 10th anniversary of Harmony Sinfonia's founding is coming up this Saturday, featuring The Planets by Holst as well as his lesser known work, The Perfect Fool. If you're coming along, make sure you get your tickets at the advance price here!

For our final post in our 10th birthday celebrations blog series in which we interview members of the orchestra, it made sense to go to the beating heart of Harmony Sinfonia itself: Our MD, Lindsay Ryan. 

Lindsay founded the orchestra ten years ago, and it has grown in strength and numbers ever since. We are all proud of what it has become, and it seemed like a good moment to pick Lindsay's brain on the challenges and rewards in creating a brand new orchestra!

So, the first question must surely be: What were you thinking?! Why found an orchestra, and what was your goal?

The aim was a combination of creating a platform for me as a female conductor to really be able to stretch my wings, as well as recognising that the wonderful amateur orchestra scene, although flooded, didn't necessarily programme brave works or reach out to the local community. I had a lot of experience conducting orchestras before starting Harmony Sinfonia, of players of all ages and standards. I also had experience of other amateur orchestras including Bromley and Dulwich and I knew that there was a performance niche there that we could fill, but also expand the music-making community within Lewisham, without having to travel outside its borders to find a quality orchestra. That first crazy meeting in a pub to make this happen, has led us on the most wonderful journey!

What were the first steps you needed to take to kick the project off? How did you decide on where to base Harmony Sinfonia, and how did you manage to find your first rehearsal/concert venue?

Advertising on social media was in its infancy, but as a keen FBer I reached out to musical colleagues and found a warm reception. We soon filled woodwind chairs, without really trying, as well as a few fabulous brass players. I recognised the need for a quality leader from the outset and recruited a student's mother who was a wonderful professional from Hungary, Zsuzsa Berenyi. Our string section was really difficult to fill, as quality string players are constantly in demand and have already committed to many other groups. We still have vacancies in the string sections, ten years on!

The core members, Sharon, Jon, Isobel and I decided upon the name of the orchestra, and as Jon's daughters attended Prendergast School, we arranged to have our rehearsals there. Our first concert venue was decided as All Saints in New Cross, but after that, we decided that it wasn't really suitable.

What have been your favourite pieces that Harmony Sinfonia has performed? There has been such a huge variety which is part of our ethos! I think our most incredible concert performance was Shostakovich 12 where we, as a team of focused musicians, literally gave everything to the piece. The atmosphere was incredible, and the audience were very appreciative! Other favourites of mine have been Tchaikovsky's 5th, our first Women's concert where we had audience in the rafters it was so full, and the Roald Dahl concert with Mitra Djalili narrating with our puppets! What's been your favourite rehearsal "moment" with Harmony Sinfonia? All of the moments where we laugh. It is one of the most fun, friendly and enjoyable places to be on a Wednesday evening.  And your favourite concert moment? I think the most unforgettable concert would be our most recent one, when we incurred "organ failure" at THAT MOMENT in the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony. Wow. Keep calm and carry on has never held such meaning! Huge thanks to our previous leader Paul Weymont for playing a lovely Meditation from Thais during the saga. What is your overall favourite Harmony Sinfonia memory?   I think creating and delivering the outreach work through Harmony Sinfonia! We started by applying for local funding and more recently used crowdfunding successfully. This work has become even more important as fewer children than ever are getting the opportunity to hear and play orchestral instruments in this age of austerity and looming Brexit. We've had some wonderful young people work with us, create compositions and performed their own self-expression beautifully. I'm so passionate about giving people the opportunity to make music and immerse themselves in this potential soundworld, as players of the future aren't going to materialise without some serious grass-roots interventions. What pieces are on your dream list to programme for Harmony Sinfonia, if you didn't have to consider things like budget and mad instrumentation? Well, another Mahler symphony or two would be definitely be high up on the list! I'd also love to do some more 20th century repertoire like Lutoslawski, and modern works by fab people like Anna Meredith. 

And what aspect has been most rewarding for you?

The opportunity to develop and hone my conducting craft has been very rewarding. I've grown in confidence, in ability and clarity in my personal music-making adventures. Conducting is a silent and completely bewildering art of energy transference, meaningful body language and communication in a team environment. I'm so proud of what we've managed to create at Harmony Sinfonia; the vibe of rehearsals is always fun and encouraging, enabling people to really give it their all for performances in a supportive atmosphere. The sheer variety of repertoire we've tackled (some more successfully than others!) has meant that our ethos of "slightly left-of-centre" is constantly being challenged and realised in ever-changing ways. The orchestra has become a vehicle for many to pursue life-long learning in music, and positive feedback from members and audiences alike keep us going, and rising to each new, generally financial, challenge. 

I'd like to thank everyone who has had a part in this journey to get Harmony Sinfonia, my first baby, to double digits. Let's celebrate appropriately with fabulous music, a wonderful atmosphere with lots of laughs, and most importantly bubbles and cake at interval!


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