SUSAN NICKALLS reports on the surprising success enjoyed by
an amateur orchestra that promotes itself as one of the world’s worst
(reproduced by kind permission of CLASSICAL MUSIC, 28 April 2007)

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Delivering the best performance possible is something every orchestra strives towards, even amateur groups. However, the pressure to be good can often spoil the enjoyment of simply playing music. With this in mind, a group of selfconfessed ‘really terrible’ musicians in Edinburgh have established an orchestra which is unapologetic in its ‘commitment to lowering standards’. Such brazen honesty has led to unexpected success and fame as (probably) the world’s best known amateur orchestra. Not only does the Really Terrible Orchestra (RTO) boast a cult following and an ability to sell-out concerts faster than most established ensembles, but it is also inspiring like-minded

Leaders of the Pack (from left): Conductor Sir Richard Neville-Towle and Chairman Peter Stevenson

imitators. Looking back on how the RTO has developed since he cofounded it in 1995, chairman and clarinettist Peter Stevenson is still somewhat stunned at the impact it has made. Stevenson and his friend the best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith were fed up with their children getting all the enjoyment from music making and decided they would set up a fun ensemble for grown-ups. After numerous informal rehearsals of simple primary one arrangements, the RTO’s first concert took place on 21 June 1995 with conductor Sir Richard Neville-Towle in the Robertson Music Centre of St George’s School for Girls, where the RTO now rehearses. ‘There were 13 of us sitting in a semi-circle around the conductor and we played six pieces including the National Anthem, Tie a Yellow Ribbon, El Condor Pasa and Lazy Waltz – a piece composed by Edinburgh music teacher Jean Alison for percussion and associated plinkiplonks. Even though we were performing mostly for friends and family, the concert had a huge impact on us as we realised there were notes we could play and that the sound was not too bad. We could make music. We also discovered there’s a place in the market for a really bad amateur orchestra. After all who wants to go to a concert by a good amateur orchestra when you can hear a professional orchestra, especially in Edinburgh? Most amateur orchestras also make the mistake of playing pieces that are too difficult.’
Certainly the RTO could never be accused of that. It only chooses pieces with notes members can play, says Stevenson. Part of the RTO’s winning formula is that it sticks to wellknown classics, pop and show tunes rather than trying to play esoteric music. Neville-Towle says finding suitable repertoire is an ongoing problem, particularly as the orchestra has a huge number of clarinets, more brass and fewer strings than most orchestras. Arrangements for school orchestras are frequently used and over the years various composers have written for the RTO. The most prolific and successful of these was the late Douglas Mackay, a former band master. ‘Dougie was an elder at Canongate Kirk where I’m organist and music director. He used to come up to the organ loft on a Sunday morning with a brown envelope of A4 sheets of music of his latest arrangements. He was enormously fond of the idea of music-making being a happy experience and used to chuckle away at the fun we had in rehearsals. To start with he was somewhat bemused and couldn’t get his brain around the fact that people were so bad at playing, as a lot of his early pieces were far too difficult. However, in a sense he did get under the skin of the orchestra and the capabilities of the players. Now we’re revisiting some of the pieces and playing them properly, there’s more fun to them than we previously supposed.’ The RTO’s forthcoming concert in May is a special tribute to Mackay and will take place at Edinburgh Castle where his son Andrew is currently serving as brigadier. It will include Mackay arrangements of King of the Road, Scottish Suite, All at Sea, Highland Cathedral with pipes from the New Regiment of Scotland and Mma Ramotswe – a tribute to the colourful African heroine of McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels. The RTO will also play the Dam BustersMarch and Gilbert and Sullivan’s I am the very model of a modern Major General. In something of a coup, Neville-Towle has arranged for this to be sung, to newly commissioned words, by Major General Euan Loudon, the former general officer of the commanding 2nd division and now chief executive and producer of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
Other highlights of the RTO calendar are the fringe festival appearance in August, usually a sell-out, and the Christmas party. In November, they are due to make their London debut at the Cadogan Hall as part of a book launch for McCall Smith’s latest novel. He is more surprised than anyone at the popularity of the RTO and takes his role as ambassador seriously, taking every opportunity to promote the orchestra on his book tours abroad.
‘The RTO often comes up as people are tickled by the notion that by our own admission we’re pretty dreadful. In the US in particular, people love the idea of admitting to failure as their culture doesn’t encourage that, so they find that entertaining. The only thing they can say is you’re not as useless as you say you are.’
McCall Smith originally started learning the saxophone 15 years ago, then went on to clarinet and brass, passing Grade 4 on the euphonium. He has a large collection of wind instruments, but now plays the contrabassoon in the orchestra.
‘It’s a beautiful instrument and makes a gorgeous sound in the right hands, not mine, and I like the plumbing on these big wind instruments. I’m not playing enough so I’m not improving but many of the other RTO members are making tremendous progress. It’s fair to say the orchestra is a little better, the audience wouldn’t want it to sound too good, they love the slightly shambolic, ragged performance of the RTO and appreciate the joke greatly.’
Indeed McCall Smith jokes that if it was not for the RTO most players would never have the opportunity to play in front of an audience, and he regards the orchestra as a form of therapy. That is exactly what violinist Alison Cook had in mind when she joined the orchestra with her father Jim. ‘Not only is it a good bonding activity but I felt Dad needed to lighten up as he takes things too seriously. It’s great to look over at the viola section and see him looking confused.’
There are quite a few family links in the orchestra, but the one Stevenson is most proud of is the RTO wedding between Pippa and Hugh Lockhart whose romance blossomed when they met in the trumpet section. Then there is double bassist Dorothy Leeming who only started lessons when she joined the RTO and finds herself, like Atlas, ‘holding up the whole of the orchestra’.
Colin Smith joined the RTO as a flautist because when he first approached Stevenson and said he had played percussion with the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra, the chairman retorted ‘We don’t like your sort.’ Only after admitting to playing the flute badly was he accepted. Ironically one day the orchestra needed a snare drum and Smith is now the RTO’s percussionist, although he is keen to take up the flute again. Despite being wooed by other amateur orchestras, he says he would rather ‘stick pins in my eyes’ than play with anyone other than the RTO. Although violinist David Maxwell does play in other orchestras he enjoys the friendship and fun of the RTO. ‘A lot of amateur orchestras could learn a lot from the RTO about not taking themselves too seriously.’
Stevenson admits that many amateur orchestras think the RTO are giving them a bad name and regard the orchestra with disdain. However, he is constantly turning away five to ten people a month now that the orchestra is almost at capacity and is having to introduce a ‘filter’ system for admission. Previously people were usually signed up on the basis of a conversation in a pub.
But word of the RTO is spreading fast as it captures people’s imaginations. A woman in Australia wants to set up something similar and closer to home there was a brief contretemps with a group in Cornwall who rather rudely declared they would set up their own RTO. After heated email exchanges, they decided to call themselves the SAS – Seriously Awful Sinfonia. They could provide serious competition for the RTO given that as yet most of them cannot actually play an instrument, having only just purchased tutor books.
Both Stevenson and McCall Smith would be delighted if part of their legacy was a network of orchestras, or a movement, says McCall Smith. ‘We’re probably going to get our imitators or followers and that’s wonderful. As the world becomes a more anonymous place, an orchestral network is a marvellous thing for people as it provides a lot of social opportunities.’
Stevenson thinks it would make a fantastic epitaph to be able to say: ‘He spawned 2,000 RTOs throughout the world.’
The RTO performs on 19 May at Edinburgh Castle, and 3 November at Cadogan Hall, London.

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