Who were the Portsmouth Sinfonia?

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Conceptual artists – or the world’s worst orchestra?

Discover the history of the ensemble whose musicians quite literally couldn’t play

Though dormant for the past 36 years, the Portsmouth Sinfonia have achieved lasting fame (and internet notoriety) with the spectacular viral success of their recordings on Youtube and other social networks. Mention the words ‘the world’s worst orchestra’ or ‘orchestra fail’ in a group of musos and most people will reach for their smartphones faster than you can say ‘please stop making that noise’. But how much do you really know about the Portsmouth Sinfonia and their unique sound?

In the beginning

  • The Portsmouth Sinfonia was founded in 1970 by composer Gavin Bryars. Its first members were mostly students at Portsmouth College of Art, where Bryars was a lecturer. There was no audition process: the only formal entry criterion was that musicians had to play an instrument with which they had little or no experience.
  • Despite the inevitable chaos, Bryars was adamant that the musicians shouldn’t play for laughs – they honestly had to play to the best of their ability, and attendance at rehearsal was mandatory. Footage of the orchestra in action shows an incredible level of concentration and focus (if not results).
  • Some people – its founder included – felt that the Portsmouth Sinfonia had a valuable role to play as a bona fide conceptual art project rather than purely a comedy turn. It’s certainly tempting to compare their sound – and process – to that of avant-garde composers. Whether or not you feel this is giving them too much credit, there’s no denying that the ensemble challenged preconceptions around how classical music should be performed, and by whom.

The musicians

  • The original line-up boasted some big names from the world of contemporary music. Brian Eno joined in 1970 as a clarinettist, despite never having learned the instrument before; luckily, incompetence was a pre-requisite. The Piano composer Michael Nyman attended a Portsmouth Sinfonia concert in the early 1970s, got chatting to Bryars in the interval and found himself playing cello in the second half. Possibly he proved too good for the string section, because he ended up playing euphonium.
  • The orchestra’s regular conductor was John Farley, who proved a gifted, if occasionally erratic leader. According to one source, he once counted in The Blue Danube waltz – a piece that by definition has three beats in a bar – by shouting ‘One, two, three, four’, throwing the entire group into even more chaos. Some players claimed that looking at him during performances put them off, so they didn’t.
  • Because the Portsmouth Sinfonia contained many genuinely talented musicians, their hits – Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ and Rossini’s William Tell Overture, to name but a few – were always recognisable, if not edifying.

The debut

  • Following an improbable London debut at the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room, the orchestra secured a deal with Transatlantic Records to record their first LP in 1973. 21-year-old junior publicity executive Martin Lewis was given the task of making the album happen; he remains the orchestra’s manager to this day.
  • The Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics was released in 1974. It has not been available to buy for over 35 years, although the occasional copy surfaces on eBay. Plans to produce a ‘Worst of’ CD are currently on hold.

Plans to produce a ‘Worst of’ CD are currently on hold

  • Following the success of their first LP, the orchestra capitalised on their new-found mass fame by putting on a concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. This historic gig took place on 28 May 1974. Media attention was intense and thousands of tickets were sold. Footage from the queue outside showed that while most people knew what to expect, not everyone was aware of the Portsmouth Sinfonia’s reputation. At least one group of bewildered American tourists walked out after five minutes.
  • The orchestra kicked off, in every possible sense, with Also Sprach Zarathustra and a performance of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy’ that sounded more like a route march. Also on the programme was the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus from Handel’s Messiah and a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture that witnesses said ‘conveyed the full horror of war’.
  • The Albert Hall concert also saw the ensemble break controversial new ground by engaging the services of a professional pianist to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto (from 4’15 in the video above). The heroic Sally Binding not only played the concerto capably and correctly amid the chaos, but also transposed the whole thing down a semitone so that the players – who were already struggling to play their instruments – wouldn’t have to deal with too many flats in the key signature.

The controversy

  • Later that year, a scheduled concert for the inmates of Wandsworth Prison faced opposition from the Howard League for Penal Reform on the grounds that it constituted a form of ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. It went ahead.
  • The publishers of Also Sprach Zarathustra allegedly threatened Portsmouth Sinfonia with legal action, accusing the orchestra of having rearranged the piece without authorisation. The orchestra, however, argued that they hadn’t so much rearranged the piece as performed it very, very badly. The case never came to court.

The end?

  • The Portsmouth Sinfonia’s last public performance took place at the University of Paris in 1980. The precise reasons for their disbandment are shrouded in mystery, although it’s rumoured that the players simply got too good at their instruments.