West of England Youth Orchestra ‘Dahl’ up the music

Dahl has been called “one of the greatest storytellers for children of the 20th century”. So it’s no surprise that he translates well to music. In April the West of England Youth Orchestra (WEYO) tunes into his genre of storytelling magic with two relaxed family concerts at the Wiltshire Music Centre. We talk to conductor Karen Ní Bhroin and clarinettist Drew Bloss.

Roald Dahl’s whimsical stories have captured the imagination of adults and children alike since James and the Giant Peach was published in 1961. His flair for telling stories from a child’s perspective, and of finding justice for them in the face of grotesque villains such as Miss Trunchbull and the Fleshlumpeater, is legendary. It’s not surprising, then, that his stories have found many musical outlets, not least West End favourite Matilda.

Well, The West of England Youth Orchestra (WEYO) is catching some of the Dahl magic in its relaxed family concert, described as ‘a family adventure through the whizzpopping stories of Roald Dahl’.

Karen Ní Bhroin is one of Ireland’s leading young conductors, having played with orchestras such as the London Symphony Orchestra in London, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Karen first performed with WEYO in December last year as a guest conductor and is picking up the baton again for the April concerts.

Credit: John Soffe

Karen explains that this orchestra has a special character. “Usually when you have a youth orchestra it’s a residential course where everybody stays in accommodation and rehearses all day. But at the Wiltshire Music Centre children travel from all over the west of England every day, and the energy they bring is incredible.”

On 12 April there will be 40 young people playing in the orchestra, ranging in age from 12 up to 21. As well as the songs from Matilda, and the setting of Roald Dahl’s Little Red Riding Hood, there will also be a musical setting of Roald Dahl’s Crockywock poem, music from a recent Moomins film, and excerpts from classical pieces that demonstrate storytelling, including Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King and Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Tom Redmond (the brother of the orchestra’s regular conductor Timothy Redmond) will be presenting the concert and will be also narrating Little Red Riding Hood and Crockywock.

A relaxed, family concert, Karen tells me, is designed to appeal to all ages. “In this instance we’re looking at the music of Roald Dahl and creating stories around that for parents with young children, or those with learning or physical difficulties. It’s just that there is space and freedom given for you not to feel overwhelmed by what you might think a classical music concert is. The gist of it is that this is accessible for everybody.”

Every time Karen starts work with a new orchestra, she is often meeting a new set of musicians, but with WEYO it’s more variable who takes part for each performance and the average time for rehearsal is three to four days. Karen, though, is used to managing different people dynamics. “If you don’t know them well there are a few more variables and you just have to approach it in an open manner. It is a privilege for a conductor to be there and to be able to build the music with the musicians. Most of the time with me it has worked, but sometimes it doesn’t and that is OK.

Credit: Frances Marshall

“The fact that these young people choose to go into music is amazing. For me it’s being able to give young musicians something really tangible to hold on to – we want to make this area of the arts sustainable for the future.”

Karen says that the programme is a real mixture of pieces, not only Dahl-inspired, which are all about storytelling through music. “We are also doing some existing pieces of classical music called programme music, such as the Grieg and Beethoven pieces, where the composers wrote music with their own story in mind, so the narrative is easy to visualise.”

Does Karen have to adapt her method as a conductor dealing with different kinds of orchestras? Karen says that she doesn’t: “I approach it in the same way. The end goal is the same – somebody is paying to come and hear you, so your job in those days of rehearsal is to make the music better and make it an enjoyable experience. Of course the goalposts change according to the level you are working with, but you aim to achieve the highest possible level with the musicians sitting before you.”

Drew Bloss, age 18, clarinet player

How long have you been playing the clarinet?
I chose the clarinet because, to me, it has such a warm and velvety sound to it, especially in its lower range, as well as the fact that clarinets work played in so many different styles – it’s amazingly versatile! I have played the clarinet for 11 years.

When did you first encounter music?
From a young age, my parents would take me to toddler groups where music was a key part of the sessions, so I’ve always believed that this placed the foundation for becoming the musician I am now. I think the single event that first got me actively interested in music was when one of the toddler group leaders brought her guitar in and played some pieces for us. It was my first experience of live music, and it was such a vivid memory.

How does being a musician contribute to who you are?
Being a musician has massively shaped me. I think it’s made me more observant to the sounds around me – I often magpie away any noises and melodies I hear while I’m out and about to add them to compositions.

Have you had proud moments as an orchestra member?
I’ve had so many amazing moments that I can’t choose just one! However, having the guts to play solos in concerts that I’ve sometimes been in has always felt like a proud moment for me.

How long have you been playing with WEYO?
Seven months. And, honestly, playing in an orchestra is extremely uplifting and satisfying when working together, creating a good sound.

Do you ever get nervous when preparing for a performance?
I absolutely do get nervous preparing to perform, but then I remember that the audience is here to enjoy the performance, and not to listen out for any mistakes or to criticise it.

Which piece from the programme on 12 April is your favourite?
This is a very tricky decision as they’re all super fun to play and to listen to! If I had to choose one, it would be Greig’s In the Hall of the Mountain King because of how the piece gradually and dramatically intensifies throughout.

West of England Youth Orchestra Relaxed Family Concert, Wiltshire Music Centre, 12 April, 3pm and 6pm. wiltshiremusic.org.uk