Friday 5 November 2021

Going local: an orchestra like no-other, Brixton Chamber Orchestra has big plans

Matthew O’Keeffe - Conductor, photographed at Leys Court, Angell Town Estate by Michael Wharley
 Matthew O’Keeffe - Conductor, photographed at Leys Court, Angell Town Estate by Michael Wharley
Born and raised in Brixton, Matthew is the founder, director and conductor of Brixton Chamber Orchestra. There for the first gig to a crowd of 20 in 2018, this summer he conducted performances for audiences totalling more than 800. Previously part of a vocal group signed to Mercury Records, he’s no mean singer to boot, and on occasion will step behind the mic for a Sinatra standard.

My local orchestra, the Brixton Chamber Orchestra (BCO) has had a busy time of it in the last year. Under founder and artistic director Matthew O'Keeffe, the orchestra gave 24 performances, many of them outdoors. That is was able to do so was thanks to the local support the orchestra has and to thank supporters, as well as to launch a formal supporters scheme, the orchestra held and event at Downstairs at the Department Store in Brixton last night (4 November 2021). There was music, of course, ranging from Beethoven's Ode to Joy to Rap based on Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (with rapper Megamikes), the usual imaginative and eclectic mix that we expect from the orchestra. 

Events during the last year have included a series of pop up performances in and around the high street, courtesy of Brixton BID, as well as the orchestra's now annual tour of local estates. The Summer Estates Tour is often the way people come to discover the orchestra, and perhaps even hear a live orchestra for the first time.

The orchestra came about in 2018 because Matthew O'Keeffe, who lives in Brixton, realised that he and many other young colleagues were travelling in to the centre of London for work, and he decided to try and create an orchestra based in the area that he lives. Brixton Chamber Orchestra was born, it functions rather differently to many ensembles, performing everything from Rap and Grime to Blues and RnB to classical music. The players are young and many live in Brixton, and their performances bring thrilling live performances to areas that don't see a lot of orchestral action.

Teigan Hastings - Tuba, photographed on Cressingham Gardens Estate by Michael Wharley
Teigan Hastings - Tuba, photographed on Cressingham Gardens Estate by Michael Wharley
A self-taught player and remarkably assured young man, Teigan joined BCO for the Summer Estates Tour 2021, age just 15, after seeing the roving band performing down his street and asking to audition. He hopes to join the Navy and become an engineer.Teigan Hastings - Tuba, photographed on Cressingham Gardens Estate by Michael Wharley

There are big plans for group, they are about to start fundraising for their first disc, Grime Orchestrated, which will combine rappers with classical beats. Matthew O'Keeffe describes the inspiration, "When I was a kid people were freestyling over beats on the phones in the playground” If we do this right, millions of kids could be listening to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Handel in playgrounds up and down the country, bringing classical music into their lives on their terms."

The orchestra would also like to create a youth programme, so children and parents can get regular access to a live orchestra. There are other ideas too, from live music at films to secret garden concerts, all they need is     

The photographs in this article are from a project by Michael Wharley, who describes his first encounter with the orchestra, on a marching band fundraiser in early 2021, "They were so talented and energetic as they passed down the street – people were coming out of their houses to watch them," he recalls. Lambeth is one of the most demographically diverse boroughs in the country, and, he adds, "the vision of this diverse group of musicians just seemed to fit Brixton streets - I immediately wanted to take a series of portraits."

On April 1st 2021, to celebrate the lockdown beginning to lift, the start of the Easter holidays, and to bring a bit of fun to the community for April Fools Day, Brixton Chamber Orchestra woke up the neighbourhood on Railton Road to the sound of a marching band. At 8:30am, unbeknown to the local residents, BCO marched from Herne Hill Station to Brixton up Railton Road, bringing some much needed music, joy and entertainment to an otherwise quiet pedestrianised residential street. The march was a huge success with people leaning out their windows and lining their doorsteps, many following the band all the way down the street, Brixton Chamber Orchestra raised some much needed funds for musicians, whilst raising everyone else's spirits.

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