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Music

The orchestra determined to thrive in a Covid world

Claire Jackson enjoys a unique recording session where an orchestra tackles 
a varied host of classics

A shoeless engineer pads around Saffron Hall’s wooden floors, titivating microphones. He rejoins the technical team sat in the adjacent foyer; one colleague fiddles with the sound desk, another pores over scores.

The Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS)’s manager uses a two-metre pole to ensure that chairs are appropriately spaced, systematically wiping stands with disinfectant. In order to allow the necessary space between each musician, the ground-floor seating has been cleared in the Essex concert venue.

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It’s one of the few places large enough to facilitate an orchestral recording session under the new conditions, which is why the ensemble – usually based at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Play House – has chosen it as the site to record the next instalment of its innovative mixtape series. Created by artistic director David Le Page, the mixtape albums and streamed concerts combine music from across the centuries, pairing Rameau with Radiohead and Piazzolla with Pink Floyd.

Saffron Hall opened in 2013 and was made possible by a gift from an anonymous local donor. The philanthropist gave more than £10m to Saffron Walden County High School, in whose grounds Saffron Hall is built.

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It’s thought to be the largest ever private direct donation to a British state school and has meant the town now has a professional space for visiting international ensembles – and a top-tier facility for pupils. The (ordinarily) 740-seat venue has a no-frills aesthetic and a magnificent acoustic.

All present – myself included – were asked to take a Covid test before arriving at the session

As conductor Daniele Rosina leads the OOTS through Jessie Montgomery’s punchy new piece Starburst, there is a bristling excitement to the start of what will be two long days of recording.

The situation is far from ideal: the spacing initially throws everyone off course and there are a few late entries. But there is collective determination to make the most of this opportunity.

All present – myself included – were asked to take a Covid test before arriving at the session. The music has been specially arranged by Le Page to suit a smaller ensemble, with a core string orchestra augmented by occasional woodwind and various soloists. The red light fades; another take is in the can.

The pieces recorded today will feature on Labyrinths, due for release later this year. The medieval melodies of La Rotta sit alongside Nico Muhly’s Dog and Frog and instrumental versions of Joy Division’s New Dawn Fades and Brian Eno’s An Ending. Tenor Toby Spence arrives on the second day for Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. The words ‘The shadows now so long do grow, that brambles like tall cedars show; molehills seem mountains, and the ant appears as a monstrous elephant’ feel particularly weighty. They sum up the theme behind Labyrinths, music conveying, according to Le Page, “isolation, distance, and a longing for human connection”.

Labyrinths follows on from Timelapse, which similarly brought together poignant, diverse music from Schubert to The Smiths. Its success has surpassed expectations – the recording has attracted two million streams since it was released in January and it was named album of the week by both Classic FM 
and Scala Radio.

At the Association of British Orchestras’ recent (digital) conference, ensembles, venues and leaders explored ways in which the sector might do things differently in order to broaden appeal and embrace diversity. Industry chatter doesn’t always translate to action, but, as OOTS closes the recording session with Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight, and the gentle swelling of violas and cellos is accompanied by a glowing sunset, it is clear that this is one ensemble that is determined to play on – and thrive.

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