By Jeremy Crump

Popular memory has it that the Dulwich Symphony Orchestra was founded as an adult education class in 1951, although the orchestra’s archive goes back only as far as the 1970s. DSO is now a charity with over 50 playing members, meeting weekly for rehearsals in James Allen’s Girls’ school. Over the years, DSO has performed at various venues around Dulwich, including St John’s Goose Green, St Barnabas Church, St Paul’s Herne Hill, the Vaughan Williams auditorium at JAGS and the Great Hall of Dulwich College, and with many soloists, often young professionals at an early stage of successful professional careers. DSO currently plays three concerts a year at All Saints Church, West Dulwich.

In January 2023, DSO appointed Chris Stark as its musical director and conductor in succession to Leigh O’Hara, who had held the post since 2014. Chris conducts two other amateur orchestras and is Principal Conductor of the Multi - Story Orchestra, a professional ensemble based in a former car park in Peckham (Peckham Levels) and with a commitment to community engagement and outreach.

DSO bassoonist Jeremy Crump asked Chris about conducting, music making in the community and his aims for DSO.

JC: Chris, what interests you about conducting, and how did you get into it?

CS: My uncle, Peter Stark, is a conductor and I had a couple of lessons with him whilst I was still at school. I studied music at Cambridge, sang in choirs and played the cello in orchestras. Conducting was a way to get challenging projects going. Conducting is about persuasion and if the projects were exciting and the music was rewarding, people would find time to play. I had more formal training, on courses with Martin Brabbins and others, but getting better at conducting is mostly about learning by doing. I have learned a huge amount from being an assistant conductor for opera companies such as Glyndebourne, the English Touring Opera and the Aurora Orchestra.

JC: Do you see your future as principal conductor of an opera company?

CS: What interests me is high - level music making with a community focus. When I finished at university, in 2011, a group of us decided we wanted to put on big orchestral music in a car park somewhere, to present the music in a new and accessible setting. It was a coincidence that we ended up in Peckham since I had grown up nearby, in Forest Hill. Our first performance was ‘The Rite of Spring’, which has about 100 players. The core were people from Cambridge and people we knew from the National Youth Orchestra and elsewhere, but we also had to ring up musicians we didn’t know to ask if they would like to play for three days in a car park in Peckham without getting paid. A surprising number said yes. The audience we attracted was younger than the usual concert hall audience, and very enthusiastic.

As time has gone on, Multi - Story has transitioned from the focus being on our players, who are all now professionals, to collaboration with local schools and community groups. There are fewer concerts and more projects, and we have hubs in Gloucester and Portsmouth as well as Peckham.

JC: Outreach work has been around in the classical music world for a while. Is it making a difference?

CS: The idea was once that the aim was to increase the audience for the traditional concert hall. I don’t think that’s the right approach. Classical music is at a crisis point now, trying to work out what its value is. I love projects where the music making is serving a function in society. People who like classical music feel as though their life is enhanced by it in some way, that’s what we want to share. We are all at risk of putting up barriers against things we haven’t had experience of. Our job in classical music is to be advocates of its value. It takes a small amount of positive experience in something to lose that feeling that you are going to be alienated by it.

JC: Why did you choose to come to the Dulwich Symphony Orchestra?

CS: I grew up round here and I don’t live far away. I really love the feeling of being part of the community. I had worked a lot with the leader of DSO, Paula Tysall. I really like her approach and she’s a great musician, so it was great to have the opportunity to work on another project with her. I also knew some of the players from other contexts. I did a trial concert last year and really enjoyed it. The level of music making was very high, and I could tell that people were really committed to getting better and better. Now it’s very exciting to begin thinking about the longer term with the orchestra and how things can pan out over the next few years. The London amateur orchestral scene is something special. Even if we are behind France and Germany in classical music in other respects, this aspect of it is very healthy, and let’s hope it stays that way.

JC: How do you see the orchestra developing over the next few years?

CS: We should think of DSO as an amazingly valuable thing, and we should want it to be shared and valued by the community. I like to look for opportunities when people are brought together in other contexts to be a part of that. We should make sure that our doors are open to a wide community. I’d like to explore how we might engage with the Dulwich Festival and local choral societies. I know that with amateur players, who have long days at work and domestic responsibilities, you have to balance what you would ideally like to do against what is feasible for the orchestra, but if you can make engagement something that people really want to do, they will turn up and play.

More than specific repertoire, the thing that really excites me is there being an atmosphere of music making where there is real electricity, a real sense of collective responsibility for the sound, a very physically alive experience. I’m really interested in the journey to get to that state, and for it always to be increasing. The challenge that I set myself in rehearsals and in thinking of how the orchestra can progress is to keep that feeling of electric charge.

DSO welcomes new members. www.dulwichsymphonyorchestra.org.uk