I’ve always found this ancient, mysterious fringe of Essex alluring, but my recent visit was to a new and surprising addition to the landscape; Saffron Hall, a high-end multi-purpose auditorium now joined on to Saffron Walden County High School. The funding for this immensely useful building came from a philanthropist living within the local community, and continues to support local groups using the Hall, such as Saffron Walden Symphony Orchestra. However the quality of the space and acoustics have also encouraged some very famous artists to appear here – names mentioned to me during my visit included Nicola Benedetti, Tom Ades (as conductor) and Christoph von Dohnanyi.
It might sound as if this particular community has won the music lottery, but the big question remains - where is the next generation of instrumentalists going to come from? We’ve recently reached another ground zero of county music funding cuts – each time when it seems impossible these services could be cut further, they are, again. So, step forward the heroic 45-strong Saffron Walden Children’s Orchestra,aged 7-12, and particularly their local music teachers who spend their holiday weeks organising a 4-day orchestral workshop and then teaching it.
As you might expect, the orchestra has a solid clarinet, sax and trumpet section, but also an able of posse of strings and even a rarely-occurring pair of bassoons, all looking very much at their ease and up for a week of orchestral playing under conductor Richard Hull. With this varied lineup, the ensemble were able to tackle an exciting mix of titles stretching from ‘YMCA’ to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (this music for this piece being freely downloaded from the quite miraculous page of flexible arrangements available on the BBC’s Ten Pieces website).
When so much public discussion about teaching young instrumentalists is understandably downbeat, seeing this cheerful group working together was inspiring. It surprised me that there actually was such a number of primary schoolers living locally and playing grown-up instruments. The spaciousness and clean sound of the Hall was another inducement – the norm for community music is to rehearse, if you’re lucky, in a dilapidated room several sizes too small. Twenty, ten, or even five more Saffron Halls situated in schools around the country would soon revolutionise local music.