Wigan orchestras and choirs back in tune and making music

The performing arts have had a torrid time these last 18 months and many musical organisations have failed to see out the pandemic.
Rehearsals have resumed for the orchestraRehearsals have resumed for the orchestra
Rehearsals have resumed for the orchestra

But Wigan’s famous jazz scene is now emerging, blinking into the sunlight after enforced hibernation - and the picture is looking encouragingly good.

The award-winning youth jazz orchestra is back in rehearsals and has concerts planned, what used to be called Wigan Jazz Club and now reborn as Sunday Jazz in Wigan is back up and running and plans are already being made for next summer’s international jazz festival.

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And the Really Awful Orchestra - formed only a few years ago for people returning to instruments learnt earlier in life and nowhere near as bad as the name sounds - is also looking forward to new engagements.

Wigan Council head of instrumental music Dave Little, who conducts Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra, couldn’t be happier in the circumstances.

He said: “These have been incredibly difficult times for anyone making music over the last year and a half.

“However, I’m very happy to report that music is alive and well locally.

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“WYJO, against all the odds, has got a full band and is very much looking forward to a number of concerts towards the end of the year and next year. It’s great to be enjoying those rehearsals at Hawkley Hall High School - our home for the last 15 years - on Monday evenings again.

“We also now have a Wigan Youth Training Jazz Orchestra, run by my colleague Sharon Darby, and there are 25 members of that too. So to have two full bands after all we’ve been through is wonderful.

“That said, I think there has been so much pent up enthusiasm during lockdown that now things are easing up, there has been a sudden surge. Such is the demand for children wanting to play instruments that we are running short of them!

“We are starting up three new choirs this term. We have a new vocal lead, Alison Home, who came to us at the beginning of lockdown. She has been showing how to sing Covid-safe such as through ventilation, social distancing and singing at a lower volume. At the same time schools are becoming more confident about embracing musical performance again.”

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The three new vocal ensembles are the Wigan Youth Show Choir which will focus on hits from the musicals; Wigan Children’s Choir; and Wigan Youth Chamber Choir and all have been starting up in recent weeks.

Just to ensure that all vintages are catered for, Age UK Wigan Borough is now running a Silver Choir, again conducted by Sharon Darby.

And the Wigan Community Choir, while not a Wigan music service choir but still with strong links to it, has resumed rehearsals at the Deanery High School on Wednesday evenings.

Dave’s predecessor as Wyjo musical director, Ian Darrington, is also pleased to have plenty on his plate again now.

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He and business partner Peter Fletcher formed The Music Continuum several years ago which runs the jazz festival and they are optimistic of a big come-back next summer after a couple of frustrating years.

Ian said: “We had a couple of very good festivals. The most recent was 2019 and the first at the Village on the Green in Aspull which has proved to be an excellent venue.

“As has long been the case with festivals, the biggest obstacles are often financial ones but we have had some good sponsors. Edge Hill University made a great contribution one year and Manchester Airport have been faithful for longer than we can remember.

“But the money means nothing if you are unable to perform and that is what happened last year.

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“We had the finance, the programme and the performers and the plug just had to be pulled.

“And this year it was looking like things were easing but that was only in June and there wouldn’t have been time to sell tickets for the festival the next month so we had to cut our losses.

“Now, however, were are making plans for the 2022 festival, are on the look out for sponsors and artists - some of whom might be among those we had lined up for 2020 - and know that it will take place at the Village on the Green between July 8 and 10.”

WYJO and its training orchestra will be featuring and the Durham University Big Band has also been signed up.

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Meanwhile the consortium has the more pressing issues of organising its Sunday Jazz in Wigan concerts which take place on the last Sunday of each month and resumed at the end of August.

Ian said: “To all intents and purposes the arrangements are the same as the old Wigan Jazz Club.

“Performers appear at Whelley Ex-Servicemen’s Club on the lunchtime of the last Sunday in the month. We just decided to get rid of the word “club” because we were getting feedback that it suggested you had to be members and that was the wrong impression. All are welcome.

“It’s so good to have the concerts back. People have been so deprived of the chance to perform together and meet people.”

And so to the Really Awful Orchestra...

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Ian said: “It’s not a very flattering name, I know, but it’s stuck and the project has proved a huge success.

“It’s not really jazz - virtually any instrument is admissible - although we haven’t had any bagpipes yet and there’s not really room for ukuleles who are already well represented in other local groups!

“The orchestra was established for all those people who learnt an instrument and then let them drop. Which constitutes a potential musical force of almost one in five of the population. It seems like an ideal escape route from the pressures of everyday work and life to revive interest in a neglected pursuit.

“We have got some strong, advanced key members who pull the quality up and others who are less experienced but who are coming on in leaps and bounds. There are about 40 members and when they did their first concert it was a sell-out!”

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Ian said the RAO is a pops orchestra which plays the classics, popular music, TV themes and jazz tunes.

And he added: “There will inevitably be the odd slipped note but people don’t mind and, overall, the playing is amazingly good.

“They have a big concert coming up at Swinley St Michael’s Church on October 29 and everyone is really looking forward to it.”

It may take a bit longer than some institutions to come back to life, but Wigan Music Society is still very much alive and kicking.

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The organisation, which hosts chamber music, instrumental and vocal recitals, would have celebrated its 80th anniversary this last year but its programme was completely wiped out by Covid.

And the Wigan Observer was misinformed that custodians had decided to call time on its operations. In fact they have been in talks only in recent weeks about staging recitals next year.

Subscriptions secretary Pat Roscoe said: "I don't know where someone got the idea that we had folded.

“Far from it. We have, admittedly, been in a state of hibernation since the pandemic began, and there has been a reluctance to get things going again now with Covid still quite prevalent and the nights starting to draw in.

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"So we have decided that we will wait until the spring when the days are getting longer again before resuming activities.

“We were speaking to the Royal Northern College of Music only the other day about the performers they might be able to send when concerts are back on track.

"It would only be a concert or two to start with - nothing too ambitious - but we are looking forward to a new era."

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