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> > > Review: the British Paraorchestra
photo of disabled musicians on stage at Glastonbury

The Britsh Paraorchestra on stage at Glastonbury. Photo by Trish Wheatley

DAO Director Trish Wheatley saw the debut performance of the British Paraorchestra in the impressive grounds of Glastonbury Abbey on Sunday 1 July. World-renowned conductor and Somerset resident Charles Hazlewood introduced the ensemble to the crowd on the final day of his Orchestra in a Field festival.

Oozing passion and enthusiasm Hazlewood explained what inspired him to form the Paraorchestra: ”My youngest child was born with cerebral palsy and  aside from the fact that she’s an incredible human being, she has introduced me to a whole community of people who were up until that point invisible to me, in other words the disabled community.”

This direct link into the world of disability caused him to assess his own 20-year experience of working with orchestras across the world to find only three disabled musicians working in this arena. He claims that: “because of the lack of attention on this community there hasn’t been the funding infrastructure, education, training so that these musicians can emerge and play with leading orchestras and other kinds of musical institutions around the world.” Hazlewood has been so moved by this inequality that he has acted upon it to form the group.

We joined the Paraorchestra near the beginning of its journey, a technically challenging debut performance at this outdoor festival. An introduction to the less familiar electronic instruments provided the foundation for an improvised version of Ravel’s Bolero. Following the form of the ballet in which a lone dancer begins, followed by another and another, the piece built up in tone and texture.

Despite difficulties with sound levels and feedback monitors the Paraorchestra played through the technical issues to produce some stunningly beautiful sections, which showcased this unusual collection of instruments. With only two rehearsal days as the full ensemble they lacked cohesion and momentum in places, but it was clear from the skill and proficiency of the individual players that as they get more performances under their belt, they will achieve fluidity and consistency as a group.

Through the improvisational nature of the performance each musician was given the opportunity to shine. Of particular note were clarinettist Lloyd Coleman, pianist Nicholas McCarthy and recorder player James Risdon each of whom showed levels of excellence and professionalism Hazlewood expounded in his preamble.

The Paraorchestra concluded its two-piece debut with a rendition of Greensleeves, which began very traditionally with a gorgeous duet between harp and lute. The familiar and quintessentially British melody of the popular folk song gave the audience time and space to appreciate the fusion of world, electronic and western classical instruments and the collective timbre. They brought new life and vibrancy to the piece, injecting exciting changes in tempo that impressed, particularly given there was no conventional conductor directing them.

The Paraorchestra aims to be a 'highly visible platform for brilliant musicians to show how extraordinary they are in order for the world to take them seriously and to create more space and more uplift for them.' With Hazlewood behind the initiative it has a fighting chance to make this a reality. 

The Paraorchestra received a standing ovation from an appreciative audience. It may take people a while to throw away social and musical preconceptions and give this group a chance but they certainly should because the Paraorchestra is gaining momentum and deserved recognition.

One to watch!

Concert dates
14 July - Paralympics GB Launch, London
25 August - Snape Maltings, Suffolk
28 August - Paralympic Team Welcome Ceremony at Olympic Stadium, London
31 August - Unlimited Festival, South Bank Centre London
10 September - O2 Stadium, London

To find out more about The British Paraorchestra please visit their website