Redressing the Balance

Written by: Colin Anderson

John Boyden on the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra: “There’s increasing acceptance in what we do. We have a Patron, Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles, and we have American Friends. We make records, give concerts, we’re for hire, and we’re even on a Hollywood film, Master and Commander – we’ll soon be in the same position as the LSO!”

John Boyden believes that “culture comes from within communities and individuals; we need passion, people who take risks and push beliefs, even to lunacy – that’s what the arts is about.”

For his part, John launched the popular record label Classics for Pleasure and was the first Managing Director of the London Symphony Orchestra. He’s now Artistic Director of the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra, a band returning us to an earlier era of sounds and playing styles. But it’s not a period orchestra; it’s what the original Sir Henry Wood-founded Queen’s Hall Orchestra, symphony orchestras generally, sounded like up to World War II.

John explains the re-birth. “In the early seventies I started recording orchestras and I discovered that the simple microphone technique I used for smaller groups no longer functioned because the brass and percussion were too loud. I then realised that the modern orchestra really wasn’t much like the orchestras that Brahms and Elgar knew. I listened to old 78s and the playing there was rather fay, not the ruthless approach that has become the functional norm. It’s only recently that people have realised that orchestras play louder than EU regulations allow.

“In 1991 I had a meeting at Decca when I outlined an idea for reviving the Queen Hall’s Orchestra. It got taken up; maybe it wasn’t such a potty idea if an executive was willing to risk his company’s money? We formed the orchestra at the beginning of 1992. The first rehearsal of the wind, brass and percussion was really funny; it was in a freezing-cold room over the old Sadler’s Wells Theatre and the players turned up with stuff that looked as if it had been nicked from Steptoe and Son. The sound was awful! The first full rehearsal, though, was a transformation, and the instruments already knew the music.” Those instruments include “bassoons that make a nasty, dirty sound which I adore, English wooden flutes and French oboes and horns.” And the gut, rather than today’s steel strings yield a softer, warmer sound, which helps give “more natural balances. Elgar had these sounds in his ears.”

And it is Elgar with which the NQHO makes its Royal Festival Hall debut, on February 23: the great oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. “The Philharmonia Chorus has invited us and its conductor Robert Dean likes what we’re doing. Our brass doesn’t drown. But it’s not just the dynamic, it’s also the sound; the modern trombone makes a big, thick sound. What you get from the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra is the braying of the brass but not the volume. Bruckner’s idea of brass was not Stan Kenton’s band; the modern symphony orchestra is Kenton’s band meets Mantovani. The whole point about our orchestra is that it plays long lines but the sound doesn’t continue. Our cymbals are ten inches across; modern ones have to be played by men with long arms or they dismember their private parts, a clash of interests, and the sound-tail of a modern cymbal lasts for seconds and obscures things; musically it’s daft. You need cymbals that give a sharp sneeze; you hear them on recordings that Richard Strauss and Elgar conducted. As an old recording man, I’ve spent my life telling people they play too loudly. Bigness is not better. The NQHO has the right instruments and people with the right attitude who can place their chords like chamber music.”

John Boyden explains that “we’ve been going 13 years and are still trying to establish ourselves in a marketplace that is rigged in favour of those orchestras that existed just after the war when the Arts Council started sponsoring them.” John sees 2005 as the year for “bringing home the message”, and the NQHO’s CD label is launched this Spring. “There’s increasing acceptance in what we do. We have a Patron, Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles, and we have American Friends. We make records, give concerts, we’re for hire, and we’re even on a Hollywood film, Master and Commander – we’ll soon be in the same position as the LSO!”


  • The Dream of Gerontius, Royal Festival Hall, 23 February
  • South Bank Centre
  • The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 16 February 2005 and this revised version is reproduced here with permission

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