Lawyers' Music: Knowing the score
3 March 2008
In the basement of a Welsh chapel near Oxford Circus, a 40-piece orchestra is rehearsing Mozart's double piano concerto. It's a tricky piece - the orchestra needs a combination of airy touch and Enlightenment bravura, while the pianists have to execute any number of coordinated runs and cadenzas. The placement of the rehearsal pianos - in this case an electric keyboard and a ramshackle upright - doesn't help matters, but the communication between the two performers is instinctive.
As well it might be. The pair are Field Fisher Waterhouse corporate partner Andrew Blankfield and Stephenson Harwood shipping partner Sean Gibbons, who have - out of hours - worked together for years running Lawyers' Music, comprising the London Lawyers' Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. This year is its 25th anniversary, and on 5 March Lawyers' Music is performing a programme in Christ Church, Spitalfields. Luckily for the duettists, they'll be performing on two Fazioli grands on the night, rather than the rackety rehearsal instruments.
Bankfield and Gibbons are adamant that making music balances out the lives of the participants.
"It's very important for people to do something like this," says Blankfield. "It puts things into perspective. When they go back to their offices they can function better as lawyers because making music requires complete concentration and is quite a stress-buster."
The level of experience ranges from grade six to diploma level - the more exposed wind and brass players tend to have attained grade eight. Given the intensity of lawyers' workloads, the turnout is impressive. Indeed, one bassoonist, Sarah Hadland, still turns up to central London rehearsals every Tuesday despite now working at Pitmans in Reading.
"It's my musical fix," says flautist Melanie Wiseman, whose day job is senior legal adviser at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. "It makes sure I play my instrument every week and I'm playing with a really great bunch of people who may not be brilliant technically but they're very intelligent and can understand what the conductor is trying to do."
Conducting the orchestra for its performance this week in Spitalfields is Ben Pope, who has been involved with Lawyers' Music since 1991 on graduating from the Royal Academy and who has since become the regular conductor at Covent Garden for the Royal Ballet Orchestra. Last week he was heard on Radio 3's Performance slot leading the orchestra in Delibes' music for the ballet Sylvia. (Pope has handed the baton to up-and-coming conductor Matthew Willis.)
For Pope, conducting lawyers rather than professional musicians presents special challenges. "When you're working with people who are very successful and intelligent you want to challenge them," he says, "but you also want to give them something different from what they're doing during the day - they want to relax and do something that's fun."
Choosing the right repertoire for an amateur orchestra and choir, however ambitious, is always difficult. Gibbons and Blankfield have their own preferences. Gibbons, a cellist, likes 19th century works, while Blankfield, an oboist, inevitably has a penchant for Handel. Conversely, Gibbons admits to not enjoying much music written after 1960, while Blankfield dislikes the saccharine certainties of John Rutter.
"The big Romantic stuff tends to work better," says Pope. "You can get the essence of a piece even if you won't get it all perfect note for note like a professional symphony orchestra would. But you can get the style and a big performance out of them. A lot of repertoire is very exposed and difficult - Haydn symphonies and early Beethoven are very difficult. And other modern pieces I wouldn't want to do - Prokofiev for example - because it's a different kind of technical approach."
The Romantic symphonic canon also has the advantage of using plenty of wind and brass, while Pope's involvement with the orchestra (he is a Russophile) has brought Rachmaninov and Borodin firmly into the repertoire.
The trickiest piece in recent times, though, was Debussy's La Mer, performed in 2003. "It was challenging," says Gibbons ruefully. "We had to draft in some extra strong players for that. And Mahler 5 was challenging, but we did that well in the end. Technically Mahler is difficult to play, but it's about getting the feel of the composer - putting a performance together."
Although many amateur bands shy away from modern classical works, Lawyers' Music has handled a number of 20th century pieces such as Stravinsky's Firebird and Shostakovich 5 and 10, while Tippett and Britten are often programmed with Purcell. It has even made regular forays into contemporary music, in particular Arvo Pärt. In 1993 composer Judith Bingham was commissioned to write The Uttermost, a work for choir and orchestra, while the choir has also performed modern works by Jonathan Dove and Michael Berkeley.
The choir's repertoire tends to encompass the signature pieces such as the Brahms and Fauré Requiems, the Mozart Mass in C Minor and densely textured sacred works such as Bruckner's motets. This June it will be reprising the evergreen Carmina Burana. Choir members tend to be more vocal about the repertoire they want to do, reveals chorus master Chris Oakley, a real estate associate at Nabarro. "People who are singers tend to be more outspoken than those who play the violin," he jokes.
Hardest to pull off are the unaccompanied choral pieces, says choral director Blankfield, citing Bach's Jesu, Meine Freude, performed last year. In similar vein, the choir tends not to attempt much early music, although in 1994 it did perform Allegri's Miserere - a breathtaking Renaissance polyphonic work which requires the soprano line to hit a top C - again and again.
Increasingly, though, the pressures of work in the legal profession are taking their toll on the orchestra and choir.
"We've seen it over the past 20 years, in that trainees, especially from magic circle firms, seem to be more reluctant to join," says Blankfield. "They're either working harder or they're more nervous about being seen to leave the office."
It's a huge shame, he laments. "Music has an awful lot to offer someone in a profession as challenging as ours."
Hear more from Lawyers' Music at www.thelawyerpodcast.com or download The Lawyer podcast from iTunes.