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Orchestral overtures

What better way of enlivening an art form lumbered with an image problem than by laying on a week of populist, crowd-involving activities?

For instance, last November we had National Architecture Week, when architects opened their doors to the public. Next month it is the turn of Britain's orchestras, in National Orchestra Week, which runs from March 9 to 15.

Co-ordinated by the Association of British Orchestras, and partially funded by a lottery grant from the Arts for Everyone programme, the week will feature 32 regional and national orchestras. The public will be invited to free open days, rehearsals and concerts, with music from Bach to Frank Zappa. they will have the chance to go behind the scenes, meet conductors and composers, and try out a few instruments.

Sarah Gee, the ABO's development manager, says: "One of the biggest barriers to classical concerts is that people are not sure what to wear, and when to clap. We want to let them know that musicians are just normal people who shop at Sainsbury's like anybody else."

Concert attendance figures have held steady over the past decade, with about 3 per cent of adults attending a classical concert once a year, and 1 per cent every two or three months.

What has changed, however, is the extent to which modern British orchestras get involved with their communities, visiting and performing in schools, hospices, residential homes and prisons. Most orchestras have a full education programme, and since music was enshrined in the national curriculum 10 years ago, orchestral players have become invaluable to many teachers struggling with its requirements.

Commercial sponsors now choose often to invest in such grassroots orchestral projects rather than solely in corporate entertaining. Orchestras, in turn, have become more flexible and adventurous, putting on attractive matinees as well as organising numerous special events for younger audiences.

"Orchestras are doing all these things, but not enough people know about them," says Sarah Gee. "National Orchestra Week will give more people across the country access to orchestras in a unique collaboration."

For more information on activities, call Freephone Talking Pages on 0800 600900 and ask for National Orchestra Week. Many of the weekday events welcome schools, while the weekend is more geared towards families

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