Buxton International Festival: Northern Chamber Orchestra’s 50 years of ‘playing the greatest music’

Northern Chamber Orchestra artistic director, violinist Nicholas Ward.
Northern Chamber Orchestra artistic director, violinist Nicholas Ward.
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Not only is the Northern Chamber Orchestra (NCO) celebrating its 50th anniversary but it is also marking 20 years of being associated with the Buxton International Festival.

For 2017, as well as taking part in two of the festival operas, Macbeth and Albert Herring, the orchestra is putting on three concerts in St John’s Church.

Artistic director Nicholas Ward joined the orchestra in 1984.

Artistic director Nicholas Ward joined the orchestra in 1984.

The concerts will include a brass and organ extravaganza featuring music by Gabrieli, a programme of Grieg, Mozart and Massenet and, fascinatingly, an evening raising awareness of mental illness.

This last includes works by Schumann, who ended his life in a mental asylum, Mendelssohn, who had nervous problems, and Ravel, who suffered from dementia.

NCO artistic director, violinist Nicholas Ward, observes: “People near the end of serious Alzheimer’s still get a lot of pleasure out of music.

“It seems to communicate where talking has long ago disappeared.”

He feels that for concert-goers, the act of listening quietly in a big group to wonderful music can even have a “spiritual element”.

His own passion for music began early, though he had a false start as a child when he tried to learn the piano. Instead he took up the violin.

A love of playing in string quartets led to the Royal Manchester College of Music for the Chorlton-born violinist.

He eventually joined the NCO as leader in 1984.

Two years later, following a financial crisis, he found himself taking over as music director, leading performances without a conductor, then an unusual step.

Nick explains: “We had to totally revise the programmes we were doing to save money, and one of the things that went out the window was conductors, so I had to direct from the violin.”

He admits that when it came to communicating with the wind instruments this was a “steep learning curve” but since then the orchestra has mainly enjoyed life without conductors.

“One advantage is that if you have a leader who you feel is a very good musician, they don’t need to talk a lot about it.

“They just demonstrate, whereas with a conductor you have to translate the conductor’s gestures.

“There are some very great conductors that I see on TV and I think: ‘how on earth do they follow that?’”

With Buxton Festival’s artistic director conducting them for Macbeth and Albert Herring, he is quick to add: “We really like Stephen Barlow - he is a very good musician and he’s very pleasant to work with.

“We’ve had a few in the past who have obviously come straight out of Oxbridge and they see this orchestra from the provinces... and try to teach us in a somewhat patronising manner, but at Buxton there have been very few of those.”

After 30 years with the NCO, Nick obviously knows his stuff but he recommends that young musicians develop confidence in their own opinions as well.

“I think it is so important that you feel you are with the right teacher,” he enthuses.

“In that respect I would say loyalty can be misplaced.”

Meanwhile the orchestra will continue to plough its own furrow, concentrating on “playing the greatest music”.

He adds: “We are not just experimenting - playing dozens of new things out of which only one might have any merit at all.

“We let other people do that and then we cherry-pick the really good stuff.”

To book tickets for the Buxton Festival, visit www.buxtonfestival.co.uk or call 01298 72190.