Leveling the Playing Field
Paraorchestra is redefining what an orchestra should be.
Conductor Charles Hazelwood’s youngest daughter, Eliza, has a beautiful singing voice. She also has cerebral palsy. And that became an inspiration.
"For 20 years I have been conducting orchestras around the world, and having a child with a disability started me thinking," he said.
"This community was invisible to me before, but in all that time I realized I have seen only three disabled musicians playing in them. It seems baffling, illogical, wrong. Fifty years ago, how many women were there in orchestras? None. It would be laughable, absurd, now. It should surely represent all parts of the community, just like a healthy mix of gender. The Paralympics has achieved miracles in sport. Music is universal.”
And so, in 2012 he began Paraorchestra. It was time, thought Hazelwood, to redefine what an orchestra is. And not only who plays in the band, but what the group was playing, how the music is presented, and who was attending concerts.
He held auditions, and put together a core of 17 disabled and non-disabled musicians, including Nicholas McCarthy, a one-handed pianist who graduated from the Royal College of Music, blind pianist and violinist Abi Baker, 15-year-old deaf viola player Tilly Chester, and Clarence Adoo, a jazz trumpet player who was paralyzed below the shoulders after a car accident in 1995 and now plays an instrument controlled by breath and head motions called "Headspace."
Paraorchestra got a heady start, with a Channel 4 documentary and a performance at the closing ceremonies for the 2012 Paralympics in London (check out the video below). Since then, there have been tours, festival appearances, and multiple projects that have redefined the classical concert, and challenged the boundaries of what an orchestra is. And an all-star roster has stepped up to work with Paraorchestra, including composer Steve Reich, violinist Nigel Kennedy, percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, and superstar rock band Coldplay.
Artistic Director Charles Hazelwood had long envisioned breaking through the traditional walls of classical music and creating a new, inclusive language. Says Hazelwood, “I wanted to take it out of the concert hall and bring the sheer awesome joy of orchestral performance to all music lovers wherever they are. To prove that you can love rap, folk, and Sibelius!...These incredible musicians opened my mind to a whole new set of musical possibilities. My work expanded from developing a new audience for orchestral music to re-imagining what an orchestra is.”
Intrigued? Paraorchestra will be releasing The Unfolding , a collaboration with Emmy nominated Northern Irish composer Hannah Peel. The eight-part CD was recorded during the pandemic, and explores the evolution of music. Says Peel, “The Unfolding is almost a life form in itself, taken from the muddy cells of the earth and taking flight into the air then returning to the elements...It’s a new way of seeing.” The album will be available on April 1, 2022.