Matthew Parris

Why do amateur performers still flourish?

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Chesterfield is a medium-sized town just off the M1, near what were once the coalfields of north-eastern Derbyshire. Not without history (and a lovely old market square) and not without character (a church with a splendidly warped spire, positively Van Goghian, is its most famous feature), the town is nevertheless an unassuming, formerly industrial north Midlands community which earned its living until recently from a steelmaking and coal-mining regional economy. The posher parts of Derbyshire consider Chesterfield a spirited if sometimes hard-bitten place, a popular joke about the twisted spire being that it got stuck when, centuries ago, the spire saw a virgin entering the church to be married and — astonished — bent down to take a closer look; and that if the spire ever sees another virgin bride in Chesterfield, the shock will jolt it straight again. But so far it never has. Chesterfield is no Harrogate.

Yet the town supports a full orchestra. Funded overwhelmingly by its members and patrons, the Chesterfield Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1982 during a decade when the town saw the comfort blanket of subsidised industry torn away. And to judge by last Sunday night’s performance in Matlock, it is steadily lifting its sights and its stature. A tireless supporter of the CSO had leafleted all the car windscreens at the station, including mine, so I thought I’d go.

The Members’ Room in County Hall in Matlock is a magnificent, Italianate, mid-Victorian auditorium which was once the great reception room of a huge and fashionable spa: Smedley’s Hydropathic Hotel, a favourite of Sir Thomas Beecham’s. Both Edward Elgar and Sir Charles Parry visited; and for Sunday’s concert the orchestra performed an English programme: John Ireland’s Epic March, Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Parry’s ‘Cambridge’ Symphony No. 2.

The CSO played to a big and enthusiastic audience, all local. The cello soloist in the Elgar, Dan Bradley, was pretty much up to the huge challenge, the Epic March was a gorgeous and disciplined noise, and the Cambridge Symphony (new to me) was a discovery. There were of course times when the sound went ragged, but long, sustained and glorious passages when everything came together and held together. It was good enough to let an audience enjoy the music itself rather than be distracted by rough edges; and with these demanding works, that’s saying something. I saw what strides the orchestra have made. Orchestra and audience had a great evening.

It brought home to me a reassuring but to me surprising truth. In the arts, sport, drama and every kind of private passion, instant, cheap and universal access to the very best does not seem to be killing amateur performance. ‘Why bother?’ is not proving fatal.

I always thought it would. The argument for the demise of ‘local’ performance looks so strong. Before broadcasting, before the internet, and before easy transport to the nation’s great venues, you could see why local performance flourished. This was all most people could get; and all most people even knew. The percentage of the population that had heard or seen the world’s best will have been tiny.

Now everyone can. The West End is within easy reach. Live or on TV, the world’s greatest football can be seen by millions. I’ve heard scores of recordings of Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Doubtless I could find and download within a couple of minutes — and free — a faultless rendering of Ireland’s Epic March.

Yet the Chesterfield Symphony Orchestra flourishes. People who do not hope to be top professional musicians join others who may one day be so, none of them discouraged from devoting hours to practice, to perform a piece of music as beautifully as they can — but less well, they fully realise, than you could hear by switching on BBC Radio 3. And people who do switch on Radio 3 troop out on a frosty night, and pay £10 to hear them.

People who know they will never put in the performance in The King and I that (say) Deborah Kerr or Yul Brynner achieved, still devote winter evenings to rehearsing productions, and get Elaine Paige in her BBC Radio 2 showtunes programme to wish their show luck on its opening night; while people who can hop on a coach and see the West End’s finest — or download it — still venture out to the church hall to watch them.

I know that you, Spectator reader, or Elaine Paige, or the Chesterfield Symphony Orchestra, may not care to hear karaoke mentioned in the same breath as serious and proper artists with serious amateur ambitions, but the spread and persistence of karaoke is evidence of the same human instinct to take pleasure in doing something as well as you can and for a limited audience, even when you know you’ll never be up there with the greats.

I know, too, that local music groups, local teams, local performance, is where many start who do finish by achieving greatness — and for them the amateur may be a rung on the ladder to the professional. But many who have no such ambitions are no less enthusiastic for treating local performance as an end in itself, and all they ever want to do. I know that in my running club as a young man, the Herne Hill Harriers, most of us never hoped to beat any records other than our own.

I know, finally, that that American tract Desiderata (which was most assuredly not ‘found in Old St Paul’s Church in 1692’ but written by Max Ehrmann in 1926) is considered naff, but I have never tired of its advice, nor found its truths less moving for being expressed simply. ‘If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter,’ Ehrmann wrote, ‘for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.’ Why bother? I remind myself of Ehrmann’s answer every time I reflect that I am not, after all, going to be Prime Minister.

I shall look for and order a CD of Parry’s Second Symphony. I shall play it, enjoy it, and acknowledge that the professional performance I own is likely to be among the best available. But I will never derive quite the pleasure I found in hearing it for the first time, played by the Chesterfield Symphony Orchestra at County Hall in Matlock on a freezing winter night.