Blind dating an orchestra

Composer Esmeralda Conde Ruiz looks back on her first three months working with The Fretful Mandolin Orchestra for the Adopt a Composer project
It’s our second ‘date’ today. This time we are meeting in a Mexican restaurant. It’s all going really well, we laugh, we eat, we are less nervous than last time. Still, a tequila seems suddenly appealing to both of us and here we go…how do you do this again? First salt, then lemon? I don’t do Tinder. And if a friend would try to set me up for a blind date I would get really angry. So why have I then voluntarily signed up for being ‘blind-dated’ by a leisure-time orchestra? And not only for one awkward evening but for a whole year?

Flashback to last year...


I have followed the Adopt a Composer residency with huge curiosity. Now that I received the happy news that I have been selected I am absolutely terrified. A jury has met me previously for 45 minutes asking questions on ‘what would you do if’- situations and based on my answers they have selected a suitable amateur orchestra for me. What was I thinking? Is this the closest I have come to how arranged marriage must feel like?


A room full of strangers with name tags. Everyone is nervous, small talk, scanning the room, drinking coffee. Again, it feels more like an unnatural dating event on a Saturday morning rather than an official launch. Here we are: 7 composers and 7 amateur groups that have been selected from over 150 applications from all over the UK who are soon to hear their pairings. My stomach turns as I hear my name being announced. It’s my turn: Meet your group. The Fretful Mandolin Orchestra! 


I google ‘first date, dos and don’ts’ ... a long list of unsatisfying advice shows up. Nothing about how to date an orchestra. Making Music explains that the key to a successful project is the relationship between the composer and the conductor, handing out a booklet with advice and attaching a mentor to the project to guide the way. Like a good dating agency they seem to know what they are doing:


Composer Fraser Trainer joins me on my trips, supervises rehearsals and preparation, debriefs me and is always available to give feedback. At the same time he just lets me create the piece. His experience is priceless. Where my language ends he speaks for me. Where my thoughts get lost he helps me to find clarity and I wonder now why don’t we all have a mentor in real dating life and can I keep him once this residency is over, please?


Sound and Music’s involvement is quiet interesting. Their function is a bit like a Think Tank. They give you the opportunity to have a whole day full of exercises on specific topics and things you should think about. Like first date tips but also turning the focus on yourself an what it is that you are as a composer, to stay true to your style and to be able to communicate that. You meet your fellow composers and their mentors and it gives you a sense of belonging rather than just writing in your room by yourself.


I meet Music Director Lindsey Stoner before my first meet and greet with the orchestra. What a time to be alive! A female conductor and a female composer talking plans. That two women in our positions could do what we are doing would have been unthinkable 50 years ago, certainly unthinkable still in other countries. Luckily our curiosity and excitement about our journey together makes it all really easy. I admire her musicianship, her incredible knowledge of mandolin orchestras and their repertoire, her impeccable sight reading skills, curiosity and drive to do something new and different and her clear musical vision. Little do we know that in the next few months we will built a musical friendship based on deep trust, honesty, communication and mutual respect. What an astonishing thing to experience! 


Meeting the 20 plus players orchestra afterwards feels a bit like meeting your date’s children: they all knew already who I was, had researched me and had many questions full of enthusiasm and good will to make this project work. Mandolin orchestra have instruments like mandola, mandolincello and a double bass, not just mandolins, and I get the chance to learn more about these. Their passion for music, dedication and commitment amazes me. Surprised by their open minds, their incredible sight reading skills and their versatile repertoire including commissions of new pieces and work with soloists, I learn that the orchestra travels incredible distances to get to rehearsals. Besides rehearsals they are incredibly busy with concerts, competitions in the UK and abroad with a tour bus and connections with orchestras all over the world. This is not what I expected from a leisure-time orchestra! Very impressive.


All this information and now what? What can I bring to the orchestra that they don’t already have? The agony of dating! Ideas don’t come easy, which is strange and unfamiliar to me. My head is constantly searching for topics that could excite them and me - but nothing feels right. Endless days of score research, libraries, vintage score shops, Youtube sessions and music listening to understand this new sound world. And the bigger question: How can this sound world sound like me, the composer? Who am I? What is my sound? Quiet an astonishing but equally tormenting research. 


Two-hour workshop time with the orchestra. Feels like having dinner for the first time with your date AND your date’s children. I do something that freaks them out and they do something that freaks me out: I make them play some sonic experiments to explore all possible colours, things that they wouldn’t usually do with their instruments and they are out of their comfort zones. I hear sounds that inspire me but how to notate this? I am not a mandolin player and this is a whole new world for me. At the end of the evening I realise that I would enjoy creating a piece that means something to the orchestra and has the opportunity to sonically grow over the years. Plus I might need to learn how to play the mandolin…
At some point in this journey I find myself again in Brighton, standing by the sea, thinking. And I feel an impulse. And it’s the one! Creative inspiration is an intuition that you trust, that you follow without criticising. You let it grow and it becomes alive. It doesn’t happen straight away, its a journey. This time together with an orchestra! 


All I can say is that this is a wonderful experience. Every month is different and new challenges appear that invite to grow and self-reflect. Like romance it creeped in without me noticing. We started like ‘strangers in the night, walking through Brighton, wandering through the night, what were the chances?’