The Really Terrible Orchestra of Edinburgh

When really bad turns out to be really good – and successful. The Really Terrible Orchestra of Edinburgh is the last refuge for hopeless musicians. With some last shrieks and awkward noises the pie­ce which is supposed to be Scott Joplin’s “The En­tertainer” fades out. Were the American composer around tonight, he probably wouldn’t be […]

When really bad turns out to be really good – and successful. The Really Terrible Orchestra of Edinburgh is the last refuge for hopeless musicians. With some last shrieks and awkward noises the pie­ce which is supposed to be Scott Joplin’s “The En­tertainer” fades out. Were the American composer around tonight, he probably wouldn’t be too enter­tained. The four dozen men and women rehearsing at the Robertson Music Centre in Edinburgh’s West­end are a really terrible orchestra. At least, they have the decency to call themselves The Really Terrible Orchestra (RTO).

It doesn’t require its members to have any musical skills. Just buy an instrument and join! The Edinburgh based troupe is home to all those who have never managed to play properly, the “last refuge for the musically disadvantaged”, as current chairwoman Pippa Lockhart puts it. Some members are just here for the fun, others take it more seriously and want to improve. Most of them played an instrument as a child, but stopped at some point. Then, after a few years or even decades, they found it in the attic, blew off the dust and joined the RTO. But some have never even had any musical experience whatsoever. Take, for example, Dorothy Leeming. “I asked our conductor if I could join if taking some lessons before.” To which he replied: ”Forget the lessons, just come”. And he made Dorothy learning 1st double bass immediately. Conductor Richard Ne­ville Towle, actually Sir Richard Neville Towle – there are still rumours if and why he has been knighted – stands in front of the musical crescent, swings his arms heavily and puts great effort into instructing the musicians. But hardly anyone seems to take notice. Most members are too occupied with the contrarieties of their instruments. Mr Neville Towle is the only professional mu­sician around here and has been hired by businessman Peter Stevenson and novelist Alexander McCall Smith who founded the RTO in 1995.

“It started out of envy for our children play­ing in school orchestras”, Mr Stevenson re­calls. The two wanted that for themselves, but were way too bad for real orchestras. And so the RTO was born. Soon after they had their first concert at the Edinburgh Fringe. Yes, they have public appearan­ces. And quite succesful at that. They pro­mise bad music, and they deliver reliably. So far, the RTO has had concerts in Lon­don and New York, all of which were sold out. Which is puzzling, especially for for­eigners. Why do people pay to attend aw­ful performances? Out of schadenfreude? For the same reasons they watch horror movies? The horror of music, if you will?

Music critics from German television to the New York Times have wondered about the phenomenon. In a strange sense of irony, the RTO has a music critic in its ranks, as well. By day, Susan Nickalls reviews bad musical performances for the “Scotsman”, by night, she gives, well, bad musical performances. Her colleagues at the newspaper find her hobby “quite funny”. “It’s really eccentric, really British”, says Felici­tas MacFie, the self-announced “quota German” of the RTO. “You couldn’t do something like that in Germany.” Mrs MacFie doesn’t consider herself to be a really terrible musician, having had lessons for several years. But as a hotel owner and mother of six, she doesn’t have the time to practise. “Besides, I feel welcome around here.” Probably everybody does. The relaxed atmosphere within the RTO puts a stark contrast to the tenseness and competitiveness of ordinary orchestras. Rehearsals are as often interrupted by sudden laughter as by the conductor.

Before each concert, both the audience and the musicians receive a glass of wine, “be­cause it’s more fun then”, Mrs Lockhart smiles. At times, there would also be audience participation of some sort, or a guest speaker would recite verses between the songs. “People come to see a variety show”, Mr Stevenson sums up.

Not all pieces tonight are actually terrible. The longer they perform, the better they seem to become. So does the RTO undermine the basis for its success by too much rehearsing? Will it have to be rebranded as the “Quite Decent Orchestra”? Chances for that aren’t high. The orchestra as a whole has probably improved 20 percent since the beginning, Mr Stevenson fi­gures, starting from a very low level. “So there isn’t any risk that we might become too good one day.”

The RTO regularly performs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. For further information see website www.thereallyterribleorchestra.com
MB

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