“Boots on the Ground!” – The RHUL Symphony Orchestra, The Student Body, and Rebecca Miller

The Royal Holloway Symphony Orchestra kicked off the new term in September with a concert that filled the Windsor Auditorium beyond its own doors. People squeezed into every last head space, perspiring in the heat, to get a glimpse of the Orchestra in its first event of the year, under the baton of RHUL’s new Fellow in Music Performance; BBC Proms 2014 accredited conductor, Rebecca Miller. With an audience pushing maximum capacity and an orchestra to match, swelling with fresh enthusiasm and pushing its own size limits, the year’s musical calendar began with a show of great skill that we are accustomed to seeing year-in-year out; only with a difference! Skill and success aside, it is unheard of to see Royal Holloway’s largest auditorium and concert hall filled out for a musical event. It has not happened, in the four years I’ve been at Holloway at least, that students, staff and members of the public alike have craned their necks, and pushed into any space available. Audience hopefuls were even faced with no option but to walk away, and unashamedly I can say that I smiled at their hard luck. The sight of empty seats has for too long been a haunting sight for any musician at Royal Holloway, and now the Symphony Orchestra has finally glimpsed at the attention and acclaim that it is so very capable of attracting.  I find myself asking then,

What’s different?

Enter Rebecca Miller, an energetic and powerfully driven conductor fueled by Wagamamas and a dangerous desire for world domination (granted, only three of those are true). Her appointment as Royal Holloway’s new Fellow in Music Performance comes atop an exciting year in which she has been Musical Director of the Royal Tumbridge Wells Choral Society, and conducted not only the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, but also the BBC Concert Orchestra during the 2014 Proms season at the Royal Albert Hall. During the past five years Rebecca has fluttered between London and the USA, working at posts in both Houston and Louisiana, and before then she was even at the helm of her own orchestra with which she performed for a decade. Now Egham… My interview with Rebecca could have at this point taken a completely different path, characterised by my confusion and questions of her sanity (though this would have been a great disservice to the outstanding quality of our resident musicians who, after all, were formally commemorated and visited by the Queen this year). Instead I discovered a new force and excitement set to change Royal Holloway’s Symphony Orchestra, and the place it holds in campus life.

“I want this to be the Orchestral Laboratory in the UK”

Holloway’s Music Department has largely been an exclusive institution; detached from the rest of the world on the far side of the ‘Great’ A30. Speaking from experience, the participation of non-music students in performance groups was a rarity, and even then concerts received no publicity. You would certainly be forgiven for overlooking the very existence of the Symphony Orchestra! This isolation has done no favours for music on campus, or for the greater reputation of Classical music itself as a genre. Nonetheless, I think it was Rachmaninov that said ‘The times, they are a’ changin’’, and so far with great success. The Symphony Orchestra behind Rebecca is now largely student run, with numerous elected positions; a decision that comes on the back of an initiative to make on-campus classical music much more inclusive of the wider student body through greater publicity and outreach. When interviewed for her position here at the University, Miller put forward the idea of getting “the students to run it” claiming that then “they’re invested in it, and they care about it.” Passionate students, studying music or not, can now seek out positions as Orchestra Manager, Stage Manager, and as Press Secretary. Current Manager of the Symphony Orchestra, 2nd Year Alana Grady has already shown in a very short space of time what can happen when you look outwards and are inclusive of the student body. The support both within the instrumental body and the audience was outstanding in September, but this emphasis needs to be maintained. Just as well then that Miller and Grady already have an exciting programme of events already scheduled; including November-Fest, a four day extravaganza that will book-end the year along with the Summer Term’s Play Festival. Otherwise the Orchestra have their usual termly concerts in December and in the Spring, when third year music student and cellist Carwyn Jones will be adding Shostakovich to a ‘russky’ programme, in solo performance. There is no word as yet to a tour, though I poked the fire and found some excitement at the idea! All things considered the orchestra have an exciting new year ahead of them, and if their support base continues to rise…well we might need a new concert hall! #RHULPrincipal?

For more information on Royal Holloway’s Symphony Orchestra, keep up to date with the Music Society facebook page, or see the RHUL website for event and concert details.