As it celebrates its 75th anniversary, we also welcome Benn Cunningham and Charlotte Ansbergs of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, to reflect on the role of music in our lives and communities. Chair and double bassist Benn, and director and second violinist Charlotte, are at the heart of the RPO’s work today and talk about how the cultural icon that is the orchestra has evolved in its 75 years, the importance of taking their music to diverse communities, and what the future has in store for the RPO as it continues to wow audiences across the country and the world.
The mission of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) is to enrich lives through orchestral experiences that are uncompromising in their excellence and inclusive in their appeal. Performing approximately 200 concerts each season and with a worldwide audience of more than half-a-million people, the Orchestra embraces a broad repertoire that enables it to reach the most diverse audience of any British symphony orchestra. The RPO is unafraid to push boundaries and is equally at home recording video game, film and television soundtracks and working with pop stars, as it is performing the great symphonic repertoire. As a respected cultural ambassador, the RPO enjoys a busy schedule of international touring, performing in the world’s great concerts halls and at prestigious international festivals. The RPO aims to place orchestral music at the heart of contemporary society, collaborating with creative partners to foster a deeper engagement with communities to ensure that live orchestral music is accessible to as inclusive and diverse an audience as possible. In 1986 it was the first UK orchestra to launch its own record label. The RPO has gone on to embrace advances in digital technology and now achieves nearly thirty million downloads of its recorded music each year.
Benn: ‘How to Survive a Plague’ by David France. It’s an incredibly powerful account of the AIDS pandemic and how gay and trans men and women stood up and literally fought for their lives in a world that simply didn’t care, against authorities that were content to let hundreds of thousands of people die without taking action, because they believed those people to be less than human. It’s a powerful reminder of what a community can achieve when it stands tall and takes action and, as a gay man, I found it hugely moving to learn more of the battles that were fought on my behalf by people who may well not have lived to see the result.
Charlotte: I love reading, and this is such a tough question. No one book has changed my life, but Middlemarch is such a wise and thought provoking book that it has stayed with me over the years.
Benn: Succession. I wouldn’t say I’m watching it, I’m more devouring it. It’s the most brilliantly written, brilliantly acted portrayal of some of the coldest, cruellest, most seductive narcissists I’ve ever seen. It’s usually true that the devil gets all the best tunes.
Charlotte: Little Dorrit (the 2009 BBC version). Dickens’ theme of money, having it, losing it, being able to earn it (or not), seems particularly pertinent at the moment. All the twists of fate that life can come up with are still with us today. I find this very reassuring.
And Wimbledon Rewind. Tennis is, for me, a fascinating sport to watch. It reminds me of musicians at the top of their game performing live. Years of dedicated training combined with concentration and flair in the heat of the moment.
Benn: An anxiety-laced, amorphous period, interspersed with practise, exercise, food, alcohol and an ongoing attempt to do what I can for the future of my organisation and the wider performing arts.
Charlotte: A completely unexpected pause from normal life that sometimes seems a blessing and other times seems anything but.
Benn: Hard to pick one, as all sorts of people inspire me in different ways, but I seem to have a bit of a thing for powerful female tennis players! Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova both did so much for representation whilst being the most incredible sportswomen and I truly believe that Serena Williams is some kind of deity that has taken human form. I find her a breathtakingly powerful role model.
Charlotte: My wonderful Grandma. She died last September aged 98 and I think of her a lot, particularly at the moment. She was an unstoppable person in her own quiet way, and rarely indulged in self-pity. She also took a lot of trouble to be kind.
Benn: I constantly come back to the serenity prayer and, as such, aim for the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
Charlotte: Goodness what a question! Never say no to a cup of tea?!
Benn: I’m such a fan of Desert island Discs on BBC Radio 4 but I’ve always thought how excruciating making a decision as to what my music selection would be. There’s just too much, of all genres! Still, here goes…
Sibelius Symphony 7: I can’t believe Sibelius was an actual, real-life human being who sat down with a blank sheet of paper and a cup of coffee in the morning and just invented this music. It seems far more likely to me that he somehow turned up the volume of some corner of the Universe where this music has always existed and just transcribed it. It’s insane!
Brahms 2nd Symphony: The first movement is pure sunshine and happiness and the slow movement is one of those rare moments in life I want to be a cellist, just to play that opening theme.
Loreen, Euphoria: You need a dance floor in lockdown and this is one of the great Eurovision bangers. Plus, the opening sound effect is exactly the sound my coffee machine makes when you turn it on, so it makes me smile every morning.
My Baby Just Cares For Me, Nina Simone: She was the most remarkable artist and the world treated her so appallingly. I know she hated this track, but it brings me joy.
Beethoven String Quartets Opus 132: It includes the most exquisite slow movement, which Beethoven wrote as a thanksgiving to God after recovering from illness. Spine-tingling.
Saint-Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso: Preferably played by Kyung Wha Chung or Maxim Vengerov. This is such an unashamedly violinistic show-off piece. Fantastic stuff. I was given a Decca cassette tape by my Mother when I was about eight called The World of the Violin and I longed to play all of the pieces on it. The Kyung Wha Chung recording (with, co-incidentally, the RPO) was track 3. (The only one left to learn is Le Vent by Vecsey. It sounds difficult…)
Mozart Violin Concerto no.5 in A major: Sadly not live in concert with Pinchas Zukerman and my RPO colleagues at the moment, but I love Anne-Sophie Mutter’s 1978 Von Karajan recording. The slow movement of this concerto is sublime.
Mendelssohn Piano Trio no.1 op.49: First learnt with my sister Elizabeth and a lovely pianist called Kate Feldschreiber many years ago on a summer school. Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis and Jeremy Denk have recorded a beautiful performance of the second movement in their own homes during lockdown.
Strauss Ein Heldenleben: (It was this or Elgar Symphony no.1.) An exhilarating piece to listen to and to perform.
Händel Aria Silent Worship from Tolomeo (with adaptation by Arthur Somervell): I can’t really articulate why I find Händel so satisfactory, but I want to listen to Händel or Purcell Arias when I am tired and nothing else will do.
Have a listen to the Change Makers Lockdown Playlist here