Blog: The Street Orchestra of London

Explosion of Happiness at Wyggeston’s
“Music for everyone, everywhere”

“The happiest day of my life for a very long time” said one resident, describing the recent visit of the Street Orchestra of London to Wyggeston’s. “Fabulous!  They were all so happy”, said another. I have never seen our residents so enthused after a concert”, wrote Tony, Master of Wyggeston’s.

Yes, the 41 young orchestral musicians, 18 to 30 years of age, radiated such happiness as they trouped into the chapel (about 40 minutes late!) lugging their violins, bigger cellos, and even bigger double-basses; brass, wind and percussion instruments of assorted sizes; music stands, musical scores and themselves, with beaming, radiant smiles. I think we would have clapped and cheered them in if they had been an hour late;  such was the inescapably infectious nature of their joy.

(I wonder if they realize that the initials of the orchestra – SOL – is the Latin root of so many words to do with sunshine!)

We were the sixth performance that day, so no wonder they were a bit late. They had already spread their musical magic at Welford Road Prison, outside the cancer clinic at the Royal Infirmary, then on to Jubilee Square, Market Place Square, and finally, Wyggeston’s!

Within less than ten minutes their music began. Can you recognize the rhythm of one of the best known of all operatic songs? (I’ll give the answer lower down the page.)

                                    DA DA de-DA DA, DA-de DA-de DAH
                                    DA DA-de DA,  DA DA-de DAH…  (etc)

But my favourite piece was the Waltz from Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No 2.   The warm mellow sound from about 14 violins, in unison and in our chapel acoustic, was breath-taking.

Then it happened…  The conductor needed a comfort break and suddenly disappeared. One of the musicians, I think with a slight German accent, and female (as it so happened) announced hopefully: “Please would anybody like to take his place and conduct the next piece”.  Partly because she was, well, irresistible. And partly because I was on a high dose of steroids that week to fight a prolonged chest infection – I rashly volunteered. (After all, I had had some years of experience encouraging small village church choirs!)

Stumbling on to the podium, I had the good sense to ask what the time signature was: “Three-four waltz time?” I asked. “Or four-four time?”

“No”, said one violinist, “double time”. I knew this to mean two beats to the bar. So I tried to look confident: “Here we go then – after the count of four:one, two, three, four”. And away we went. I wished I had also asked the tempo:  At first I had to slow my beat down to match their slower pace – not exactly the idea of conducting. Later in the piece they clearly decided to follow my tempo, slight pauses, emphasis, crescendos etc. This was really great.

To stand in front of a medium sized virtually professional orchestra – and get a response was about the same as asking a small boy (or a bigger one) to drive a steam engine over the Glenfinnan viaduct.

But I wish I had known what the piece was called. Two days later I was told it was the Wallace and Grommit tune by Juilian Nott. But it wouldn’t have helped much, I confess to not knowing that tune anyhow.

The finale of the concert was nothing short of fantastic. They introduced  Jean-Paul Samputu, who by his name and complexion must have originated from somewhere like French Equatorial Africa. (Later I was told it was Rwanda). He sang his soul out to a kind of African Jazz rhythm while the orchestra accompanied, fully up-beat and double forte.  This wasn’t enough – next it was dancing in the aisles and with an attempt to copy the traditional African movements. I saw the orchestra’s Project Director draw into the dance our Chief Executive Officer Dennis Cooper.

One of our residents spoke to Jean-Paul afterwards, and discovered that although he wasn’t a pastor, he did sing for God. Significant this, as one or two of us had prayed that morning a simple prayer that the concert might be a happy really enjoyable time, and that a good number of residents might respond. This was a prayer so generously answered.

I told a few of the musicians about this. “Thank you SO much,” I began, “that was truly wonderful. You know, we were praying for you this morning”. They seemed so grateful.

To one young lady I said: “I think you are doing God’s work, making people happy with your music like this”. She thought for a moment and then replied:  “Thank you. I hope so”. 

I believe that because of our morning prayers, and because of my 20% skill as a conductor, (which I think they latched on to and appreciated) an opening was prepared for a small number of happy, brief, but clearly appreciated ‘meetings’.   And the Ministry of Encouragement is one ministry still left to those of us who are the more ancient members of the Christian family.

Here was Bishop Martyn’s Pray and Party motto, all mixed up into one glorious crescendo of happiness and hope!  Surely music is one of God’s greatest gifts to us all? And whenever in the Bible we get glimpses of heaven, like with the angels on the first Christmas night, ‘up’ there they are always singing!

I hope this simple story may encourage others.

            (We were grateful to the De Montfort University for sponsoring this tour, and to Melissa of Learning for the Fourth Age for recommending Wyggeston’s. Oh yes, the operatic song represented above is (of course!) The Toreador Song from Bizet’s Carmen. Now I do know that tune!)

                                                                                                JOHN SEYMOUR