Saturday 13 April 2024

No boundaries or rules: Yorkshire-based Paradox Orchestra is reinventing the orchestral concert whether it be bringing a string orchestral sound to Pink Floyd fans or disco to music festivals

The Paradox Orchestra - Fifty Years of Pink Floyd - Leeds Minster
The Paradox Orchestra - Fifty Years of Pink Floyd - Leeds Minster

The Paradox Orchestra is a relatively new professional ensemble based in Yorkshire. Founded in 2020 by Michael Sluman, a young professional oboist, the orchestra consists mostly of graduates of Leeds Conservatoire.

Created to fill what Michael perceived as a gap, the orchestra provides work for young professional musicians in Yorkshire and in three years has developed into an impressive group with educational and charity work alongside its sold-out concerts in historic venues. Describing itself as reinventing pop, rock, and dance hits with a classical twist to help re-energise classical music, the orchestra supports classically trained musicians whilst bringing classical to new audiences.

When I spoke to Michael recently, the orchestra was in the middle of its current tour, performing its 50 Years of Pink Floyd programme in Grange-over-Sands, Hebden Bridge, Selby Abbey, Sheffield Cathedral and Huddersfield Town Hall.

Michael founded the orchestra partly because there is so little professional orchestral coverage in Yorkshire, just the orchestra of Opera North, Skipton Camerata and the relatively new Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra, and there is uniformity between them. Michael had been freelancing around Yorkshire as an oboist and saw a gap. Also, he wanted to create something different, what he felt that a 21st-century orchestra could be. Beginning after the pandemic felt like a new starting point with no boundaries or rules.

There are no limits on the orchestra's repertoire, encompassing historical classical alongside more popular and commercial styles, but establishing the orchestra in a more modern genre. So, for the current tour, the orchestra is performing string arrangements of classic tracks from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album. The album itself is iconic and Michael points out that much of the music is instrumental and theatrical, with a huge following. With the right collaborators, the orchestra was able to create a new experience, reimagining Pink Floyd's music as well as selling out venues. Also, the concerts expose audiences to a new full string orchestra sound, something that many Pink Floyd fans have not experienced before and the results have been touching. They have been attracting an audience that mixes both Pink Floyd fans with those who enjoy the orchestra's more classical approach. The Pink Floyd concerts have sold well, often selling 600 to 700 tickets across the board.

The Paradox Orchestra - RnB Classics - Stylus, Leeds
The Paradox Orchestra - RnB Classics - Stylus, Leeds
The orchestra gives concerts across Yorkshire often at historic venues, working in Sheffield Cathedral, Huddersfield Town Hall, Halifax Minster and The Piece Hall, Leeds Minster, and Selby Abbey as well as in Hebden Bridge and Molton.

Other programmes include their amplified RnB show which explores the most influential RnB tracks using an orchestra and singers alongside improvising jazz and pop musicians. They also have a very popular drum 'n' bass programme which has had a big reaction, especially with their youngest demographic, and this programme will be visiting festivals across the country, presenting a classical orchestra in a different way. But in contrast to this, they have events such as performing at Sheffield Cathedral with the choir. And the orchestra has developed a significant education arm too.

All this in three years. Michael studied at Leeds Conservatoire and whilst there he ran a regional symphony orchestra for the students as there was not much opportunity for students to play large symphonic repertoire, and the orchestra was deliberately designed to bring different university departments together. He has also run a contemporary music ensemble. Still only in his early 30s, running ensembles is something he has always done, even organising a jazz orchestra for his 18th birthday. Michael explains that organising ensembles grew alongside playing. And now, with the Paradox Orchestra, this has opened up the world of marketing, PR and charitable events, and he admits that it rather makes playing the oboe feel creatively restrictive.

The orchestra's educational and outreach work revolves around its Inspire Days; every concert they do has Inspire Days attached, providing a way for local charities to attend the orchestra for free. Many of the venues they play at have charities associated with them, such as the Archer Project at Sheffield Cathedral. The charities can access the orchestra on concert day, so the charity's clients such as the homeless can view the orchestra and other charities are encouraged to join in.

Sometimes the orchestra presents extra events such as free lunchtime wind quintet concerts which are relaxed and encourage the performers to engage with the audience. There are also marketing partnerships with charities, with bucket collections and a percentage of ticket sales going to charity. As Michael sees it, these activities also have the advantage of bringing charities together, and the orchestra has a big fundraising event at the end of the year for a group of charities.

Paradox Orchestra - Angie's Disco Orchestra - Electric Garden Festival
Paradox Orchestra - Angie's Disco Orchestra - Electric Garden Festival

They also have an education service which they are able to sell to universities and music education hubs, including Inspire Nottingham. Presenting their Angie's Disco programme side-by-side with students at Leeds Conservatoire has let to their creating a session orchestra at the conservatoire, fully side-by-side complete with a public concert. There are also links with Primary Schools around Sheffield providing motivational talks.

Currently, all this educational and outreach work is established via partnerships, the various charities apply for grants to fund Inspire Days, but the orchestra is working towards applying for funding themselves. A lot of their outreach work is in disadvantaged areas and areas that are not affluent. The orchestra's members are generally young with the majority of players under 30, 60% of the standard line-up is LGBTQ and 40% is BAME. From the beginning, it was important that the orchestra be fully professional, and Michael feels that it has reached a point of balance, with external organisations wanting to buy their services.

There are 20 concerts planned for the remainder of 2024, with three Pink Floyd shows in May, Selby (11/5), Sheffield Cathedral (16/5) and Huddersfield Town Hall (17/5), and there is a Fleetwood Mac orchestral tribute programme which will be at Halifax at the end of June, Sheffield in July and will tour in September, plus the Angie's Disco programme coming up at the end of July.

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