On Thursday night I attended a fundraising concert featuring a terrific performance of William Walton’s Façade but, far from a regular seat amongst the audience, I watched in between fulfilling my duties as a volunteer wine waiter and sous chef.
I was invited to be part of the evening’s serving team by my old university friend Amy who is now a hypnotherapist. I suspect she may have used her professional skills in talking me into it – that conversation is a bit hazy. But once in, I found a highly qualified backstage team, just not necessarily qualified in backstage team types of things. Apart from myself and Amy, the marvellous chef usually plays the cello in Matilda The Musical, the kitchen manager is a senior nurse managing a 1,000 bed hospital, the head wine waiter is a distinguished architect, and I am sure the rest of the volunteer army contained other secret talents.
We were all there to help raise funds for the Orpheus Centre, an independent specialist college in Surrey that increases the confidence and skills of young disabled adults through the performing arts. It is the creation of Sir Richard Stilgoe, known to those of my generation as the charming host of kids TV show Finders Keepers, and who is an extraordinary renaissance man as musician and librettist, and featured as host and performer at Thursday’s event.
He created the Orpheus Centre in 1998 for 5 young people; it now works with over 40, helping them live independently but also – and this is central to their work – engaging them in artistic pursuits from music to stained glass window making.
Indeed the concert kicked off with four Orpheus students singing, with Sir Richard at the piano. Their performances had an extraordinary commitment and musicality that belied the performers’ physical and learning impairments, and were truly moving. Received rapturously by the audience, who later reached deeply into their pockets to support Orpheus, this was a tremendous advert for the work of the centre.
The musical centerpiece was Walton’s Façade, narrated by Richard Stilgoe and Patricia Hodge, and accompanied by the Mondfleck Ensemble, a startlingly good ensemble of students and recent graduates of London conservatoires. The reciters’ parts are virtuosic, but were dispatched with élan, only derailed by a brief power cut which killed the lights (although the band played on). The Mondfleck players were led with minimal fuss and clear authority by Finnegan Downie Dear, who is a rising force as both conductor and piano accompanist. The ensemble was razor sharp and rose to the challenge of the character pieces, in particular the jazzy inflections which were brand new at the piece’s 1922 premiere. It would be invidious to pick any particular players out of the six, but trumpeter Chris Hart’s juggling act with about five mutes was a brilliant achievement in itself.
The evening raised a lot of money for a worthy cause, and was also artistically of the highest standard. I’m not sure I have much of a future in the hospitality business – I was just relieved to get through the evening without dropping a tray of glasses or taking someone’s eye out with a stray champagne cork. That was my own minor contribution to the evening.