This July, school-aged musicians from New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania gathered at Strathfield’s Santa Sabina College to immerse themselves in the world of historically informed performance. They spent a week in rehearsals and workshops for a showcase concert in Kenthurst, which saw them tackle challenging pieces like Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Reicha’s Second Wind Quintet and Haydn’s ‘London’ Symphony. Presented by the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra and run by co-artistic directors Nicole van Bruggen and Rachael Beesley, the Young Mannheim Symphonists Winter School is an invaluable opportunity for young players to get to grips with Classical and early Romantic style. The seed for the YMS was planted in 2014, when approximately 60 young musicians came together to play through the first movement of Mozart’s Haffner Symphony under the guidance of the orchestra’s late Artistic Director Richard Gill.

Young Mannheim Symphonists with tutors. Photo © Nick Gilbert

Limelight spoke to two of the Young Mannheim Symphonists about their experiences in this year’s Winter School – 17-year-old cellist Rory McClelland and 19-year-old flautist Kristie Mui. Both were involved in Sydney Youth Orchestras, who recommended that they audition for the program. Mui was particularly intrigued.

“HIP has always fascinated me, but I’ve found it quite difficult to access in the past,” she says. “So I immediately signed up and auditioned for the program!” Prior to her participation in the program, Mui had picked up some basic Baroque and Classical playing style tips through textbooks, and had tried to incorporate them into her performance of pieces from those eras. “But I had never even seen a period instrument until the Winter School,” she admits.

Nicole van Bruggen and Kristie Mui. Photo © Nick Gilbert

Like Mui, McClelland had little experience with historically informed performance practice. “I did know a bit about gut strings and early performance ensembles,” he says. “However, I didn’t even know how to put on gut strings let alone understand what skill is required to play with them.”

Their exposure to the world of HIP was a thrilling one. “I found the demonstrations and education about period instruments the most exciting part of the experience,” says Mui. “It was engaging to hear both the instrument and the performer – allowing the instrument to speak for itself and get that behind-the-scenes commentary on what it is like to use one. Seeing as I haven’t had much real-life experience with period instruments before, I found such an in-depth workshop very interesting.”

For McClelland, discovering little-known composers like Eberl was especially rewarding – the Young Mannheim Symphonists prepared and performed his First Symphony in their showcase concert – and part of the reason why he believes the program is so valuable. “I loved learning about forgotten composers that we never get to hear because their music is not widely played by current professional orchestras, hence why the orchestra is awesome,” he says.

Mui describes the rehearsals as “slightly intense”, but “enlightening and informative” as well. “I thoroughly enjoyed it,” she says. “There were more nuances to [pick up] every session and it was rewarding to hear ourselves progressing throughout the week. The workshops were highly inspiring, they certainly broadened my horizons [in terms of] music knowledge, and also gave me a valuable insight into the professional music industry through listening to the tutor’s testimonies.”

Rory McClleland and members of the Young Mannheim Symphonists. Photo © Nick Gilbert

McClelland is similarly full of praise about the program’s set-up, stating how much he dislikes playing a piece without knowledge of its context. “YMS is unique in that we learn about the world in which the composers would have written their works. There is a great balance of theory and research of the music and the actual practice performances. Most groups struggle with these two concepts. Plus, it’s also ensemble based and there are tutors that sit in and play with you so you learn more than you would just by listening.”

Interestingly, they also took part in listening and singing exercises. “We had a vocal workshop a workshop on recordings during the week,” Mui recalls. “In the vocal workshop, we sang two pieces by Haydn and Beethoven. It was rather an odd experience to see everyone singing instead of being on our instruments. But I found myself a lot more aware of other voices while singing, and that awareness is undoubtedly required when playing orchestral and chamber music. We listened to recordings of the pieces we were rehearsing during the recording workshop. It was refreshing to listen to a different interpretation after spending days working on the piece, and it enabled me to notice some minute differences in the treatment towards interpretation.”

“I learnt a lot about the importance of communication and listening this year,” Mui adds. “Through playing in the orchestra and the Reicha Quintet, it made me realise the importance of listening to each other and the huge difference that it brings to the sound that the ensemble produces.”

Both Mui and McClelland love that their time with the YMS has introduced them to fellow musicians, and don’t hesitate to recommend the program to any young players curious about it. “It was great fun and you’ll get to experience HIP which is not easily accessible for [young musicians],” says Mui. “Not to mention you will get to make some friends and just have a great time making music!”

More information about the Young Mannheim Symphonists Winter School here. The Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra performs New Constellations in Sydney, Newcastle, Melbourne, Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast, August 16 – 25