The Darwin Ensemble Chamber Orchestra

To confirm that the Civic Society's interests touch on a wide range of environmental, social and cultural issues, our April meeting welcomed three members of the Darwin Ensemble Chamber Orchestra to talk about the Orchestra's role in not only performing, but in education and the promotion of music locally. Alex Laing, the Orchestra's leader, introduced two colleagues from the string section, Neil Clarke (viola) and Peter Wilson (cello), before giving us a fascinating talk about the trials and tribulations of an orchestra leader.

The Orchestra emerged only three years ago, following the desire of the Cathedral School (where at that time Alex taught) to put on a performance of Handel's Messiah. To pull together an orchestra for a one off event is one thing; then to consider establishing it on a firm footing is a very different challenge. But that is what Alex has done, and most successfully, too. That success comes partly as a consequence of a close working relationship with the Dean and Chapter at the Cathedral, which host the Orchestra's regular concert programme. In return, the Orchestra is available for special or seasonal services.

So what does Alex see as the role of the Orchestra? The performance of accessible music, locally, for Lichfield residents is a high priority. The greater ease of access to a range of music for smaller orchestras helps to introduce live music to a wider audience and promote involvement, especially amongst younger people, a specific target for Alex's work. This leads to the need to encourage and support the next generation of musicians, both professional and amateur. This encouragement comes through teaching (many professional classical musicians are teachers too) and by affording up and coming musicians the opportunity to experience the discipline of playing in an orchestra. This latter benefit brings with it the social interaction of both participating in and joining others to listen to live music, an experience very different from sitting at home listening to a music CD.

The Orchestra is small (with a maximum of 34 musicians) but flexible. Alex described it as an umbrella, sheltering a wide range of musical skills from which smaller groups can be formed for specific tasks. This enables it to reach a wider audience and play a wider repertoire of music. So what does this mean for Lichfield? We have a highly professional orchestra on our doorstep, whose musicians wish to interact and support our community, whether through performance, the schools (difficult at the moment admitted Alex), teaching, or at one off special events for smaller ensembles. We are lucky in Lichfield to have a well established range of cultural activities for a relatively small city. The Chamber Orchestra is one of our hidden gems, which is now taking its place in the limelight. We are lucky to have Alex with his enthusiastic commitment to the Orchestra.

The meeting ended with Alex being joined by Peter and Neil to play the opening movement of an unfinished composition by Schubert. Sadly, they performed for a very small audience. Their next performance at the Cathedral should be better attended. It takes place on 14th May and tickets are available from the Cathedral Bookshop. Their website is

Roger Hockney
April 2011