ONE down, eight to go! The York Beethoven Project is under way with its vow to perform all of Ludwig Van B’s symphonies.
“The first event at Acomb Methodist Church was a huge success,” says organiser John Atkin, the York musical director and White Rose Theatre stalwart. “Fifty-six musicians put themselves forward to take part in the come-and-play workshop, so we closed registration in advance.
“Those players came from a variety of musical organisations in York, as well as further afield, which was the aim, and 54 attended on the day – September 23 – hosted by York Light Orchestra.
“They rehearsed Symphony No 1 in C major Op. 2, and it was then performed to an audience at the end, where there was standing room only.”
Atkin led the inaugural day, aided by fellow musicians Marcus Bousfield and Jonathan Sage. “It was very well organised and ran like clockwork through five sessions of rehearsals,” says John.
“The second one was a sectional rehearsal where the wind instruments were directed by Jonathan. Following these sessions, we performed our debut concert. There were ample breaks between each session with a couple of hundred cups of tea and coffee being consumed.”
Acomb Methodist Church is the regular rehearsal venue for York Light Orchestra, the day’s hosts. “They gave us access to their equipment and music library,” says a grateful John.
Although musicians came predominantly from York, “a few friends and colleagues travelled in from Sheffield, Hull, Harrogate, Thirsk and Northallerton”. “The longest distance travelled was by a couple from East Sussex, who picked us up online. They can’t do Symphony No 2 but have the date for No. 3 in their diaries,” says John.
“There was a pretty even split between men and women, ranging in age from 20s to 70s, with a mixture of full-time players, keen amateurs and a few people ‘getting back into playing’ after a number of years.”
Explaining his reasons for setting up the project, John says: “I get typecast at times as ‘the man that does shows’. Well, yes I am, but I also love classical music and have looked to spend more time doing this and some other projects as I get older.
“I started playing Beethoven as a young piano student. Then he was on my set works list at A-level, and we did a large piece of work on him at university, where I first had the opportunity to conduct his orchestral works.
“Over the years, life has got in the way but completing the full cycle of symphonies has always been an ambition. After discussing it with colleagues at gigs and in a number of theatre pits around Yorkshire, it become evident that people would be supportive of the idea, so we launched York Beethoven Project in June and the response was great. Not only did we have 54 players at the first event, but we also have eight others on the waiting list.”
Outlining what he is seeking to achieve with the York Beethoven Project and assessing what the first day delivered, John says: “The plan was for it to be inclusive and fun while performing the work to a good standard. The concert was informal and introduced a number of people to Beethoven for the first time.
“All of our aims were achieved, as well as players rekindling friendships with people they hadn’t seen for some time. Playing Beethoven for fun all day with 50 people – what’s not to like?!”
Instruments were spread evenly with 32 string players, 21 wind players and a percussionist. “That made the sound well balanced,” says John. “All instruments that Beethoven wrote for are welcome to sign up for the next event at Millthorpe School, hosted by York Arts Education, where I lead some Saturday ensembles.
“Here we hope to join up with a number of senior students and expand the orchestra even more for Symphony No. 2, which is one of my personal favourites. We’ll be doing it in the same format of a one-day workshop on Saturday, February 10.
“The sessions for Symphony No. 3, Eroica, will take place in September 2024 with two performances, hosted by the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, and the Welsey Centre, Malton. These concerts will feature revolutionary music from musicals too, including Les Miserables, Carousel and Sondheim works.”
The concert series will end with Symphony No. 9 in D minor No. 125 in 2027, just in time for the 200th anniversary of Beethoven’s death (on March 26 1827, at the age of 56). Each concert will take place in a different York venue and will be performed by York-based musicians and those from “not too far away”. Even Sussex!