Tony Haynes, composer/director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.

58: What a Result!

No, I don’t mean the UK general election (although strangely that may have helped!), but the performances of Song of Contagion at Wilton’s Music Hall.

By common consent, this was probably Grand Union’s best show ever. The venue was ideal, the 25 performers one of the most varied, focussed and accomplished ensembles we have assembled, the subject serious and contemporary but not solemn, the music among my strongest and most effectively structured. But above all it was the response of the audiences which was so remarkable and memorable…

Never in my entire career, and that of the Grand Union Orchestra, have I/we ever encountered such overwhelmingly powerful and emotional audience reactions. Although clearly connected with the content of the show, I am still at a loss to understand it completely.

People have suggested it has something to do with the current public mood – touching that nerve of uncertainty and apprehension, and a concern for inequality and injustice, that seems to be in the air at the moment, fostered by the election at the beginning of June and events that followed (terrorist attacks, hate crime, Grenfell Tower, the Brexit negotiation shambles…). An unintended consequence, perhaps, it’s one of those unexpected things art can engender, but not preempt or force to occur. For me, it has made this show particularly special: in some mysterious way we have produced the right piece at the right time.

It also suggests that the public mood is becoming more hopeful, offering a great opportunity to reflect political change in a cultural renaissance. Older artists (who like Jeremy Corbyn have never deviated from serious but sometimes unfashionable principles) can make a powerful creative relationship with a younger generation, sharing their experience and firing youthful imaginations in similar ways. That is certainly the strategy the Grand Union Orchestra – which in Song of Contagion combined three generations of extraordinary performers, drawn from across the whole of the UK’s diverse demographic – will continue to pursue over the next few years.

We have therefore collated the many written responses we received (nearly 300!), although they cannot convey fully the reactions and the atmosphere each night – verbal comments were still more vivid, and some people were even in tears. The few negative remarks only serve to enhance the unusually powerful and generous response – for the vast majority, any technical shortcomings in no way diminished the impact of the show, and for them what was well done far outweighed what might have been done better!

They can be found here, part of  a full update on the show here. The performances were filmed, and in the next few Posts I shall describe the work in more detail. Meanwhile, as a taster, here is the first section dealing with the subject of cholera in nineteenth century East London and India today:

Watch this space and come back to this blog soon! I’ll explain more about this piece, adding notated musical examples illustrating how it’s based on an Indian rag, which can also generate such rich harmonies – and how these in turn represent  ‘infrastructure’ (a sewage system, water supply), basic essentials still lacking in India today…

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