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  • Writer's pictureEllen Wilkinson

Get to know: Leon Human, Odyssey Festival Orchestra’s leader

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

It is the last of September’s searing heatwave, and we are in Peckham Rye’s cafe, looking out onto the arid stretch of grass, sipping iced coffee and fresh lemonade appreciatively. The Odyssey Festival Orchestra (OFO) has been rehearsing for a couple of weeks now for its forthcoming Astonish Me! concert, and I am here to get to know its leader, Leon Human, who is entering his final undergraduate year at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Ellen: How did you get started with the violin and what is your first memory of playing in an orchestra?

Leon: Both of my parents are musicians, my mum is a cellist and my dad is a pianist. My mum gave me a violin - it didn’t choose me or anything. My first memory of playing in an orchestra, which I recall very fondly, was my mum’s orchestra in my primary school. I was around six years old, sitting at the back of the violins. I loved it, partly because my mum was conducting, which I found very inspiring.

Ellen: When and why did you initially get involved with the Odyssey Orchestra?

Leon, age 10

Leon: Through my long standing relationship with the Odyssey Orchestra’s conductor, Peter Ash. I joined the Centre for Young Musicians in Waterloo when I was in year seven, and Peter guided me through my early experiences of orchestras every Saturday. Later, I joined the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, which he was conducting, and I progressed to leading the LSSO from 2018-21.

When Peter created the Odyssey Orchestra, he asked me to be a part of it, and I was delighted to be involved. I led the first project, which was the Beethoven Prometheus programme, and the Gershwin/Ravel concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Ellen: What makes Odyssey different from your conservatoire orchestral experience?

Leon: I would say the uniqueness is mostly through the wide variety of people playing. At music college, you are in a very insular environment, which is not always a bad thing, but it can feel narrow. At OFO, it is the opposite: there are people studying subjects ranging from natural sciences to archaeology, or on a gap year, all playing alongside conservatoire students and graduate musicians.

That breadth of experience is conducive to fun music-making, which I sometimes lose at conservatoire. Also, the social side of Odyssey is great!

Ellen: What has been your favourite concert that you have played with the orchestra?

Leon leading at our January 2023 concert, The Last Waltz

Leon: Definitely The Last Waltz programme, with Gershwin’s American in Paris and Ravel’s La Valse at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The luscious tunes of American in Paris are unmatched, and I had a few solos, which was a nice personal touch…It was a sold out concert, which always creates a special buzz as a player. So much thought goes on behind the scenes in these concerts, and you can only really tell on the day itself. The feeling after the performance was euphoric.

Ellen: Part of what makes Odyssey unique is their collaboration with actors, who bring to life the story of the pieces. How has it been working with narrators on stage?

Leon: Peter brought narrators to the LSSO concerts as well, so it is something I have experienced before. You never quite know what to expect until the dress rehearsal, but it comes together in a natural and lovely way. You definitely get a fresh perspective on the music, and it is brought to life differently.

The narration and the music perfectly knits together, and you are a part of something a lot bigger than a standard classical music concert.The excitement and innovation with Odyssey comes from constantly pushing boundaries with orchestral music.

Ellen: What are the essential qualities of an orchestral leader?

Leon: Bringing people together and being open and easy to talk to. If you are approachable, everyone feels comfortable to discuss any issues and you can work together easily. It is a given that the leader plays the music well, but the personal factors are more crucial.

Ellen: What is your favourite piece in the Astonish Me! programme?

Leon: Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. It is one of my favourite pieces ever for its sheer beauty. The build-up towards the end is also crazy - I can’t think of another piece like it.

Ellen: What is your favourite snack to have during a rehearsal break?

Leon: Apart from our orchestral manager Gill’s reliable biscuit supply, I would have to say a banana. It might be a vanilla choice, but it gives you a lot of energy and I find a banana helps to ground me during a long day…

Ellen: What are your aims for the future?

Leon: It is hard to say at this point, but I love chamber music and want it to be a big part of my career. I think it should be at the heart of learning an instrument, because it forces you to listen. Those fine-tuned skills can translate to orchestral playing and will serve you well throughout your career. I love symphonic repertoire, but I think I get the most out of playing with my string quartet, Quartet Concrète.

Ellen: Where would we find you when not playing the violin?

Leon: Definitely either playing or watching football. I am an ardent arsenal fan!

Ellen: Would you recommend Odyssey to other young musicians you know?

Leon: 100%. The orchestral experiences you get through Odyssey should be open to anyone who plays music. For those at music college, the experience will enrich your existing musical life enormously - discovering repertoire in new contexts and performing in top London concert halls, while meeting different people along the way.

Ellen: Do you have a piece you would like Odyssey to tackle in future?

Leon: Peter, Donald, if you are reading - I would love to do a Mahler symphony! Not fussy about which one.

Odyssey Festival Orchestra at QEH Jan 2023

Our next concert will be at Cadogan Hall on the 20th of September and will celebrate the music commissioned by impresario Sergei Diaghilev for his pioneering dance company the 'Ballets Russes' with award-winning actor and director Kathryn Hunter and an original costume from Diaghilev's 1912 season making a rare appearance.... The programme for this concert includes Suite No. 2 from Ravel's masterpiece 'Daphnis et Chloé' extracts from Stravinsky's 'Petrushka' and 'Pulcinella' as well as works by Weber, De Falla and Respighi.

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