We Chat to Michael Bell, Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra

As the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra celebrates its 35th birthday this month and will mark the occasion with a special anniversary concert at St David’s Hall on Saturday 15 July, we spoke with CPO Conductor, Michael Bell about his many fond memories performing with the orchestra over the last four decades.

After completing a degree at Cardiff University, you set up the orchestra in 1982 to continue performing the music you had studied. You must be pinching yourself that the orchestra is still here 35 years and 332 concerts later!

Absolutely! I only ever planned one concert…and then after the success of the concert thought…perhaps we’ll do one more…which has now become 332 “one more times!”

CPO will be celebrating this landmark with a special concert at St David’s Hall on Saturday 15 July. What have you got in store for us?

We’re performing works by composers Richard Strauss and Sir Edward Elgar, huge admirers of each other’s music. By Strauss, we have one of his most extravagant and overwhelming works, An Alpine Symphony. It features a huge orchestra and tells of a day’s climb in the Alpine Mountains. It’s very cinematic in many ways and completely wonderful. The orchestra loves playing this work.

The programme begins with Strauss’ joyous and magnificent Festival Prelude that will prominently feature the great St David’s Hall organ played by Jeffrey Howard.

The other work is Elgar’s sublime and moving Cello Concerto, written in the aftermath of World War I, and our performance features the brilliant Welsh-born cellist Steffan Morris.

CPO’s inaugural concert was held at St David’s Cathedral on Saturday 19 June 1982. What are your memories of that performance?

I remember the day very vividly beginning with the delivery of a grand piano at 8 am at St David’s Cathedral. I was there! I remember the rehearsal in the afternoon had to be divided into segments to allow for services and confessionals at the cathedral. I remember feeling so nervous beforehand that I thought I was going to be sick in the font, but luckily wasn’t!

I remember Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2 with soloist Richard McMahon being terrifying because the piano was situated on a different level to that of the orchestra. We couldn’t hear the piano and Richard couldn’t hear the orchestra, but somehow we got through it together! The main work was Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, extremely ambitious for what was meant to be a one-off concert, but it was a very exciting experience for us all.

The orchestra started performing at St David’s Hall in 1983 where it continues to perform four concerts per season. It must feel like a second home to you!

CPO first performed at St David’s Hall in December 1983 as part of a charity concert sharing the programme with other performers including a very distinguished oboe player named Nicholas Daniel, who had won the 1980 BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition. At this concert, our timpanist fell ill and had to go home in the interval. Luckily, Nicholas Daniel had played timpani at some point in his life and stepped in to save the day!

It is like a second home particularly as I worked for three happy years at St David’s Hall from 1987 to 1990.

Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra (photo credit Gareth Bull)

Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra (Photo credit Gareth Bull)

What other venues CPO have performed in at home and abroad over the years?

I feel that St David’s Hall is the orchestra’s spiritual home but we’ve played in a number of Welsh concert halls including Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall, the Gwyn Hall in Neath (my hometown!) and Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon.

The orchestra has performed in Europe in Zurich and Nantes, and most memorably twice in Paris at the Salle Pleyel, Paris’ premiere concert venue (our concert was sandwiched in between concerts by the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras!) We have also performed at the Eglise de la Madeline, the imposing Paris church where Faure’s Requiem was first performed; where Faure succeeded Saint-Saens as Director of Music and where Franz Liszt performed. The place is steeped in musical history and the concert we performed there (including Elgar’s Symphony No. 1) was an unforgettable experience.

Over the last 35 years, CPO has been joined by a huge array of special guests including Michael Sheen, Sir Bryn Terfel, Charlotte Church, Bonnie Tyler, Sir Karl Jenkins and even the likes of Neil Kinnock, Brian Blessed and Sebastian Coe. It must give you an enormous feeling of pride that such big names want to perform with the orchestra?

When you work with people famous from the television and in other public spheres there is always a tremendous anticipation. “What will they be like? Will they be divas?” But everyone with whom we’ve worked, without exception, has been a joy.

What are your memories of these collaborations?

We’ve been fortunate to perform with a wide range of distinguished soloists and presenters including the young Bryn Terfel (who rehearsed with us at Dalton Street Day Centre!) and the legendary Sir Geraint Evans; Neil Kinnock narrated Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds; Brian Blessed was a force of nature in Peter and the Wolf. I amended the script for him, naming the duck Gordon, so Brian could end the piece by bellowing his famous line “Gordon’s Alive!” Michael Sheen was our most recent distinguished guest in the World Premiere in October 2016 of Mr Dahl.

CPO have performed A Night at the Movies concert since 1994, and it’s now more popular than ever. Last December, more than 1,800 people bought tickets to the show, which was the highest attendance at an orchestral concert at St David’s Hall for nearly 12 years! Do you still get butterflies performing in front of such a large audience? The thought of freezing onstage must be terrifying!

I always tell the orchestra that it doesn’t matter if we perform to a capacity house, or a handful of people, that we must be at the top of our game, and that is what the orchestra does. Having said that, there is nothing like the thrill of performing to a full house as we experienced in A Night at the Movies last year. Great to see so many young people in the audience, many of whom may well have been attending their first concert. I’m always nervous before concerts but it’s important never to let nerves get the better of you, and not to show it to the orchestra or the audience. Luckily the nerves seem to vanish when we get underway.

Karen Woodham
Karen Woodham is the founder and owner of the Blazing Minds. She is also a Cinema reviewer, based at the Scala in Prestatyn and also works with RealD 3D reviewing the latest 3D releases, she has also had several articles published in various publications. In 2015 she became an Award Winning Blogger and also has her website listed as one of the UK's Top 10 Film Blogs.
Karen Woodham

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