Grand Union Orchestra: Musicians coming together for performance in Leeds

The Grand Union Orchestra has teamed up with musicians from Leeds for a special concert this weekend. Yvette Huddleston looks at the power of music to bring people together.

Monday, 23rd November 2015, 4:00 pm
Leeds University Choir and Orchestra rehearsing with Grand Union Orchestra's composer/director Tony Haynes.

PERHAPS more than any other art form, music has the ability to transcend linguistic and cultural barriers and over the past few weeks Leeds has been at the centre of a unique project which exemplifies that perfectly.

This Sunday, 120 musicians from a variety of musical and cultural backgrounds will take to the stage in the Grand Hall at the University of Leeds for two performances of Undream’d Shores, an innovative world music orchestral and sung piece that offers an in-depth insight into the migrant experience, a subject which has particular current resonance. The collaboration brings together for the first time London’s Grand Union Orchestra, who tour nationally and internationally, Leeds-based SAA-uk Academy of Indian Music and the Orchestra and Choir of the University of Leeds School of Music under the artistic direction of Tony Haynes, composer, director and co-founder of the Grand Union Orchestra.

“The Orchestra has been going for over thirty years and is made up of professional musicians from around the world,” says Haynes who composed the work which was originally performed at Hackney Empire last year to great critical acclaim. This is the first time the piece has been performed outside London and will go on to tour around the country.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“We do these large-scale shows with amateur and student performers and whatever we do it requires performers from lots of different musical cultures. The music is original, written by me – my compositional aim in life is to enable me to work with musicians from other cultures – and the shows tend to be about the experience of the musicians. As there are many migrant and migrant-descended musicians in the orchestra, migration is a natural subject.

“I have always been fascinated by why people have made that decision to travel to an unknown country where they may have no friends or family and they have no idea what it is going to be like – it is an astonishingly brave thing to do. We are seeing this of course very much now – and this is what often happens with our shows, although we don’t necessarily intend it that way, they end up having a contemporary significance.”

Undream’d Shores is partly inspired by a line from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale spoken by a character commenting on the risk involved in making ‘a wild dedication of yourselves to unpath’d waters, undream’d shores’ which struck Haynes as a poignant image that seemed to perfectly capture the uncertain future faced by migrants today and in the past. It explores the musical legacy of centuries of migration to Britain and the contribution of migrants to local communities, cultures and economies and features a range of instruments and a variety of musical styles including influences from West Africa, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, South-East Asia and Latin America.

“Although there are some tragic moments, broadly the piece is celebratory and upbeat,” says Haynes. “Migration is a contentious issue at the moment, but my own take on it is that we live in a country that has been shaped by migration and we are privileged in Britain to have artists and musicians from other cultures.” The resultant rich cultural landscape we enjoy as a nation is what Haynes hopes will be celebrated in Leeds. “You have all these world cultures represented in the music and on stage,” he says. “People who come to our concerts always observe that it is very authentic – you are actually seeing musicians performing who have been through the migrant experience.”

Although Haynes has a connection with SAA-uk that goes back more than ten years – “it is the best Indian music academy in the country,” he says – this is the first time he has worked with a university music department. “It is a new experience for me and I am enjoying it hugely. There are times when the young musicians look confused or bewildered when they are asked to do things they are not used to – African rhythms are quite difficult to play on European instruments, for example – but they very quickly pick it up and there is a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.” Other unfamiliar things Haynes is encouraging them to do in rehearsal include playing by ear, getting the university violinists to play with one finger as if they are playing an Indian or Chinese instrument.

“A lot of the music is written down, but much of it depends on interpretation, so one of the tricks is to make sure that the ground is covered while leaving a bit open for improvisation in the performance,” he says. “That’s another characteristic of Grand Union concerts – we have some international jazz stars in the orchestra who are brilliant at improvising so when they come in a lot of the things that are maybe puzzling for the performers start to make sense. Something you don’t have to worry about as musicians is communication – you can always communicate; we have conversations in music.”

They also discuss some of the narrative lines including the dialogue between a father who came from Bangladesh 40 years ago and a son born in England who questions him about his homeland. Other episodes that portray various aspects of migration include a lament by exiled people and a celebration of the sea’s power to heal.

Among the numerous musical and singing styles that are featured there are elements of English, Chinese and Anatolian folk songs as well as East European dance, Afro-Cuban beats and West African drumming rhythms. “Our experience around the country proves that this is for absolutely everyone – even if you are not normally a fan of concerts,” says Haynes. “Anybody will find it uplifting and empowering – it is full of such richness and energy.”

Recent tragic events all around the world – and most recently closer to home in Paris – sadly continue to highlight conflict and disharmony in our modern world, so projects such as this which celebrate difference are increasingly important. “Our initiative is one of many but they are so often overlooked by governments,” says Haynes. “Culture and the arts are not high on the agenda but it’s quite obvious that you have to at least take a chance. Organisations like ours that are doing this, you like to think it is setting an example. On the stage you can see how it is possible to get different communities together and the value of working across borders. Art and music has the unique possibility of healing those divisions. It makes sense to me to support more of this kind of activity and spend less money on developing weapons.”

Undream’d Shores will be performed at the Grand Hall, University of Leeds on Sunday November 29 at 3pm and 7.30pm. Tickets are £12 (free for students and under-16s). For more details and to book visit