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Big Read: Spencer Down, bringing Docklands Sinfonia to a crescendo

PUBLISHED: 15:35 03 June 2011 | UPDATED: 09:47 06 June 2011

Spencer Down is the conductor for the Docklands Sinfonia.

Spencer Down is the conductor for the Docklands Sinfonia.

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»There’s a host of canonical classical music on Docklands Sinfonia conductor Spencer Down’s iPod, but you might find some S Club 7 lurking on there as well.

“I listen to absolutely everything,” says Spencer unflinchingly. A small chuckle follows. “At the moment I’m forced to listen to a lot of Disney with my daughter – she’s into princesses.

“But I love groups like The Killers. And Christina [Aguilera] is also on my iPod.”

Spencer, founding member of the Docklands first orchestra, in 2009, repels the symphony of conductor stereotypes I had composed in my mind before we met at a riverside Limehouse pub.

Difficult – nope. Arrogant – certainly not. Self-obsessed – well, he asked almost as many questions of me as I of him.

Born in Grays, Essex, Spencer is unassuming yet confident, almost apologetic that he’s “taken up” my time.

I imagine he’s very much a product of his humble upbringing, in which one man, his docker grandfather, George Busby, seems to have played a crucial role – particularly on a musical note.

“My dad left, so my granddad took over quite a lot of the parenting. We used to spend quite a lot of time with my nan and granddad, sitting up in the evenings to play music.

“He played the trumpet and saxophone and sang in a dance band.”

LEARNING CURVE

When Spencer was seven his grandfather, who died 20 years ago, began taking him to the local brass band at Tilbury.

“They had a load of instruments and they’d let you take them away. You’d go along on a Friday night and one of the players would give you a lesson. My granddad would also be teaching me.”

After going to school in Romford, Spencer moved into the Docklands 17 years ago, first in Island Gardens and later Limehouse.

He has since moved to west London with his wife, Daily Mail political journalist Kirsty Walker (who helped set up the orchestra), and his two young daughters. Despite the west-east divide, Spencer insists the Sinfonia’s heart is firmly rooted in the Docklands.

The orchestra rehearses as St Anne’s, Limehouse, surrounded by a concentration of council estates and smothered with inner city edginess – probably not the natural hunting ground for a traditional orchestra.

“I was just looking in the area thinking why there isn’t an orchestra here – you’ve got thousands of workers, lots of locals who live and work. You’ve got two music colleges, I work at the Guildhall Music Hall, and you’ve got Trinity.

“When you say amateur orchestra, a lot of people imagine elderly people sitting around and I suppose there is a lot of orchestras like that in the country. But here there’s the vitality of the members – they’re young and very spirited.”

Spencer took advantage of the techo-savvy demographic early on, creating his ensemble digitally.

“When we launched, people could apply over the internet, through the website. It’s just so happened that we ended up with a very young orchestra. We got the word out there using Facebook and Twitter.

OVERWHELMING

“And the response has been overwhelming, from an area apparently crying out for some musical culture.

“People are coming to concerts, we’re getting three or four hundred to a concert.”

And the talent is local by the strictest definition, with most members living within a 10km radius of the docks.

“Now we have a waiting list of people queuing up to get into the orchestra. It was amazing the number of applicants we had for the unusual instruments like the bass trombone or the tuba – we had something like 10 applicants for the tuba, which really surprised me.”

Curiously Spencer’s first choice of specialist instrument was a little unusual, as was the reason he decided to become a conductor.

“My first instrument is a euphonium,” he says, reading my quizzical look, “a small tuba.

“I started learning the cornet, but it didn’t suit my lips – so I made an absolutely awful sound on it. The instruments got bigger to find one I could make a decent sound on.

“So I ended up on the euphonium – and I love it. But unfortunately there are only a handful of pieces written for it. So I looked for other things to do and conducting was something I specialised in at music college.”

Aside from the Sinfonia, Spencer, who recently turned 40 (and, yes, the orchestra did play him Happy Birthday) conducts, teaches, plays and adjudicates. He’s also musical director for the Kew Musical Festival.

“Music is my life – it is what I do. You don’t earn bundles, but it keeps me out of trouble.”

PALACE

Every personal question I ask Spencer he turns back to the orchestra.

Besides his family, and the house he is building, he seems blinkered towards the Sinfonia.

Recently the orchestra played for the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

But conductorship was wrested from Spencer on this occasion – the legendary Mike Batt (Watership Down and The Wombles) taking charge.

“He was asked to put a show together and needed an orchestra so he rang up. It was a little disappointing [not being conductor] – but I was the orchestral director. And I got to meet the Queen twice.

“It was all kept fairly secret and we didn’t appreciate the whole gig until after. We knew it was for the Royal Family, but we turned up for rehearsal and, suddenly, you’ve got an opera singer coming in from the Royal Opera House.

“The English National Ballet was there, and then Joe McElderry turns up to sing a song. We didn’t know these people were coming in.

“The orchestra was sitting on stage.

“And it was celeb-spotting as the audience came in too – Dame Helen Mirren, Jools Holland, Jamie Cullum, Ellie Goulding, Goldie. There was a lot of double-taking going on.”

A slightly “surreal” experience for the grandson of a docker, but one that Spencer, and the members of the Sinfonia, may well have to get used to.

OH BROTHER!

Spencer Down’s brother (only 11 months apart) would sit up of an evening and play music with their grandfather.

Matthew Down now plays with the Sinfonia. Is it difficult conducting a sibling?

“I can be hard on him but it’s more of a discussion,” says Spencer. “He can be hard on me too.

“But it’s all for the greater good if we can get a better result.”

JUST STICK WAVING?

For the uninitiated the frantic stick waving of a conductor can look like a case of pure theatre. Is it just an ego trip or does the conductor need to be there during a performance?

“Yes and no - it really depends on the piece,” says Spencer. “Smaller chamber orchestras can play on their own and direct it between themselves but certainly when you get to the bigger orchestral works you do need a conductor.

“It can feel different on the day – acoustics change when people come into the hall. Even musically, you may have had a big lunch and the whole emotional feel, how you feel that day, will affect how you conduct the piece and how it’s presented that night. “There are 60 or 70 players, who all have their own ideas on how they want the piece to go, so it really needs one person up there who’s in charge.

“Hopefully it brings the music to life.”

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