Leicester Symphony Orchestra will bring its centenary celebrations to a climax with a special Gala Concert on Saturday 22nd October at De Montfort Hall, Leicester (7.30pm start). The concert is being staged just two days away from the actual centenary of the orchestra’s first concert in the same venue with founding conductor Malcolm (later Sir Malcolm) Sargent, which was held on October 24th 1922. Tickets are on sale now.

The programme will include a range of favourite pieces from over the orchestra’s history, and a specially commissioned piece “Happy Birthday Variations” by Leicester composer Kirby Spencer. 

Leicester Symphony Orchestra“I was asked to write this piece by the Chair of the Orchestra, after a rehearsal of another piece of music I had written for a film. When planning this piece, I knew that I wanted to showcase the Orchestra for what it is and has been for the past 100 years: a collection of the best musicians that the region has to offer. I also wanted to include you in the audience – a crucial part to any show, I’m sure you’ll agree – in this celebration, by implementing something familiar to you. Something that could help form a connection between you and this prestigious group of musicians on this special occasion. With these two things in mind, ‘Happy Birthday Variations’ for the Leicester Symphony Orchestra began to take form.

It is often easy to forget that the Orchestra is not one living breathing organism, but many individual instruments that work together in groups or ‘sections’ within the Orchestra. Each of these sections has its own strengths and colours and in order to showcase these, and the quality of the musicians in front of you, I chose to split the piece into five parts. Each of these parts is dedicated to a particular section of the Orchestra, and within it I aim to show you one or two strengths of the family of instruments and one or two excellent individual musicians therein.

In order to bind these parts together, I chose to set the music to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday to you’, that as far we currently know was written by sisters Patty and Mildred J. Hill sometime in the late 19th Century. The setting of this well known tune will I hope create a sense of togetherness as we share in celebrating the Orchestra’s birthday – however, to keep things from perhaps getting a little stale, I have conducted a composer’s game upon it. For many decades, a compositional form has existed named ‘Theme and Variations’ whereby a composer would take a tune, or ‘theme’, and change, or ‘vary’ it in a number of ways throughout a piece of music. The changes can come in many different ways, from a melodic change to a rhythmic change, from harmonic to a timbre or an orchestration change. Many of these techniques are employed here to keep your interest and to show, without tooting my own horn too much (pun intended), a bit of skill on the part of the composer.

We begin with the Woodwinds – Flutes, Oboes, Clarinets and Bassoons, these instruments are some of the most agile in the Orchestra, able to pack a lot of notes into a very short space of time. We then move to perhaps the most underappreciated of the members of the Orchestra, the Percussion section. Many of the unique colours in Orchestral music are produced by the subtle addition of a few percussive instruments, often going consciously unnoticed until they are no longer present to add their particular spice. From the percussion, we journey to the Brass section of the Orchestra. Trumpets, French Horns, Trombones and a personal favourite – the Tuba. The Brass provide the Orchestra with its power, being among the loudest of the instruments on offer. They can however also provide deft precision in contrapuntal passages that require accurate articulation, and I hope to offer some of that here. We move next to perhaps the most well known section of the Orchestra, the Strings. Two sections of Violins are joined by Violas, Cellos and warm Basses, and here I begin to have some fun showcasing styles reminiscent of the light music of the 1940’s and 1950’s – from Pizzicato (from the Italian ‘Pizza-cutto’) playing techniques to smooth Errol Flynn-esque Legato (From the french ‘Le Gateau’). Finally, we end on a big finale, with all of the sections working together as they have done for the past 100 years.

For the musically astute audience member, I have included a ‘secret message’ within this piece, and if you can tell me what the message is and where it is present – there will be a prize for you from me at the Orchestra merchandise stand. Don’t go asking the musicians, they don’t know either!

I hope you enjoy the piece, and the evening as a whole. The Leicester Symphony Orchestra is truly a ray of light in the ever dwindling art music landscape across the Midlands, I wish it a Happy Birthday and I hope that you agree with me when I write –- May it last another 100 years!

Kirby Spencer

Kirby Spencer Music