With the Paralympics only a month away, and Wimbledon’s Para Championship starting today, I remembered Paraorchestra, an ensemble I heard of recently for the first time, and thought I would focus my blog post on this.
Paraorchestra was founded ten years ago by Charles Hazlewood, with the goal of integrating disabled musicians further into the world of music and the performing arts. Ever since then it has gone on growing, and earlier this year signed on 12 new players. Still the world’s “only large-scale virtuoso ensemble of professional disabled and non-disabled musicians”, Paraorchestra now has almost 40 disabled musicians in its ranks.It is this cooperation of disabled and non-disabled musicians playing side by side which is key to Paraorchestra’s commitment to integration.
Integrating disabled musicians is far from Paraorchestra’s only innovation, however. It refuses to be limited by musical style, so that it combines traditional and contemporary repertoire & instruments alike, with considerable use of electronics. The orchestra performs at a wide range of events, from festivals to more formal occasions. Looking through some recent projects demonstrates the diversity of Paraorchestra’s sound: from Minimalism Changed My Life (September 2019) to a project on the music of Barry White (June 2019) to the most recent, Death Songbook (March 2021). One of Charles Hazlewood’s priorities is to “prove that you can love rap, folk and Sibelius!” Paraorchestra absolutely embodies this.
The Barry White project’s full title was The Love Unlimited Synth Orchestra: Celebrating The Music Of Barry White, and it premiered at Glastonbury in 2019 with special guests. Death Songbook once again featured special guests. This was a one-off performance broadcast online by BBC Cymru Wales, focusing on acoustic music by Suede, David Bowie and others.
Founder and artistic director Charles Hazlewood is a well-known conductor who works with different orchestras across the world. His commitment to diversity in musical styles sees him perform at classical concerts like the BBC Proms as well as such highlights of the rock calendar as Glastonbury. Earlier this year Paraorchestra’s Beethoven And Me project (featured on a Sky Arts programme) focused on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The programme also explored Hazlewood’s belief that Beethoven’s powerful music reflects the composer’s response to the abuse he endured as a child: maybe the only way he could express his trauma. Hazlewwod connected this with his own childhood experience of abuse, which he revealed recently to highlight the importance of expressing and talking about abuse and mental health. His involvement with musicians who have disabilities is also personally rooted, as the youngest of his children has cerebral palsy.
Paraorchestra says it is “Re-inventing the orchestra for the 21st century”, and it seems to me to be all about liberation and opportunity. The Paraorchestra story illustrates the many ways music opens up life – for people with disabilities and for those without.
Would you like to share any thoughts or comments – maybe on Paraorchestra itself, on opportunities for disabled musicians, or on music and trauma – on Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002? Thank you.