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The Portsmouth Sinfonia

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An orchestra
They insist they do try to play properly... it's just that they don't succeed.

The Portsmouth Sinfonia is unusual among orchestras in that it does not require members to display any particular proficiency in their instrument of choice. Of course, there are talented members, some of whom even play their regular instruments. The result is a - how should we put this? - unique sound. The genius is that there are sufficient players with sufficient mastery of their instruments that the resulting sound is recognisable. Just.

The Agony and the Ecstasy and uh... more Agony of the Sinfonia

The Sinfonia started out as an experimental scratch orchestra and would have languished forever in the obscurity which musical purists can only believe it deserves, were it not for their visionary recordings of popular classics, most notably a medley entitled Classical Muddly, a spoof on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's abysmal Hooked on Classics.

Classical Muddly is doubly blessed. Where Hooked on Classics was an inexplicably atrocious record by an excellent orchestra who should have known better, this was a predictably atrocious record by an atrocious orchestra. It is, quite frankly, sublime. To recreate in your mind the experience of listening to this legendary work, imagine an under-rehearsed school orchestra playing the bits they can remember from the popular classical repertoire, joined by segues whose subtlety and finesse could be compared with, say, changing into reverse whilst travelling at 70mph and seeing your engine land in an oily lump 50 feet in front of the car. Magical.

What is even more remarkable is that their recordings (of which there have been a disappointingly small number) have been produced by former member Brian Peter George St Baptiste de la Salle Eno1. Hard to say what a few crafty guitarists would do to this ensemble. Ruin it, probably.

The Sinfonia was founded by, among others, Gavin Bryars. Their first concert (in 1970) set the tone; the conductor, John Farley, wandered out, dressed in shirtsleeves and asked 'Do you want me now?'. Receiving nods of assent, he then wandered off, only to run back in full evening dress and take the podium. A legend was born.

On 28 May, 1974, the Sinfonia staged a concert at the Albert Hall. This was without doubt their finest hour. From the 1812 Overture, starring the Albert Hall's canons, to their unforgettable rendition of the 'Hallelujah Chorus' complete with 350-strong choir, and including Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1, the evening was a triumph. Hardly anybody walked out.

But Why?

The idea behind the Portsmouth Sinfonia was apparently to reclaim classical music from the tuxedo-nazis, and place it in the hands of people who loved the music for its own sake. Or something. Hence, many talented musicians have been members, the 'Hallelujah' concert included Michael Nyman, Simon Fisher Turner (on clarinet), Brian Eno and Kate St John. But, eager as always to misinterpret experimental music, a grateful public seized instead on the huge comedy potential of the Sinfonia.

Happily, the Portsmouth Sinfonia now rejoices in its place as 'The World's Worst Orchestra'. Their versions of classic rock tracks show the serious orchestras how contemptible their puny efforts are, and their version of 'Bridge over Troubled Water', with flugelhorn, is a classic in its own right.

There is an Unofficial Website devoted to this fine band of musicians. The site gives details of when the official site will be launched.

1Yes, that Brian Eno, of Fripp and Eno and the League of Craft Guitarists, producer to the Penguin Café Orchestra and friend of Michael Nyman.

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