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Chester’s charms keep on growing

PUBLISHED: 23:00 15 June 2014

Bridge Street and St. Peters Church

Bridge Street and St. Peters Church

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The antiquity of this city doesn’t mean that it spurns change, just the opposite...

Jan Modelski's Community Youth Orchestra in rehearsals at Barrow Village Hall;   Sarah Beazley on violinJan Modelski's Community Youth Orchestra in rehearsals at Barrow Village Hall; Sarah Beazley on violin

The work of John Modelski encapsulates the fixed and changing faces of Chester. The Jan Modelski Community Orchestra he heads has been a fixture since 2000, rehearsing most Saturday mornings at Great Barrow village hall.

Now he is working to create Chester Youth Symphony Orchestra: ‘The orchestras I run currently – introductory and main - have been going 14 years,’ says John: ‘But there was a gap in the market for a youth orchestra. Chester is one of the few cities without one.’

Mags Kerns, violinist in the introductory band, trumpeter in the main, and a professional manager, was recruited by John as Chair of the youth orchestra: ‘We’ve been lucky to obtain generous support from the Earl of Chester’s fund to get us started, and now have auditions planned for June and July, with the first rehearsal scheduled after the summer holiday at the Queen’s School in Chester.’

John clearly lives for music: he plays fiddle in an Irish band, teaches numerous instruments, and does studio session work. But the buzz from working with orchestras is special: ‘You want the best out of your players. You know what they’re capable of, but they need to be shown that. But when they’re all playing together and the sound is right and you see them get excited by the music, that’s a joy.’

Jan Modelski's Community Youth Orchestra in rehearsals at Barrow Village Hall;  Mags Kerns on violinJan Modelski's Community Youth Orchestra in rehearsals at Barrow Village Hall; Mags Kerns on violin

Young Cestrians attracted by the arts have another option this year, one of the UK’s newest youth theatre projects offering them a taste of stage life: ‘Grosvenor Park Young Theatre works with a troop of young people all based in the region, to write, direct and perform a brand new play,’ explains Amy Bishop of Chester Performs: ‘The young people are mentored by members of the Grosvenor Park creative team - it’s a wonderful opportunity for budding young theatre fans.’

It’s a busy summer at the Grosvenor Park Theatre, the open-to-the-skies theatre-in-the-round unique in Britain outside London: ‘It has an intimacy that a traditional proscenium arch stage can’t compete with. That physical closeness between actor and spectator is wonderful,’ says Amy. This is only the fifth season, but already it’s something of an institution, tickets for Macbeth, A Comedy of Errors and a new piece based on a children’s classic going fast: ‘We’re really excited about The Secret Garden,’ she adds: ‘For the first time our theatre will see puppets take centre stage, all created by Toby Olié, the puppeteer from West End smash War Horse.’

Opened this March, and so new you can almost smell the paint still – along with the ink – the Minerva Lodge Tattoo Club offers a very contemporary take on what is a long established art form, as manager Steve Bowness explains: ‘People forget that it goes back to the 18th century for us, learning it from the Polynesians, and before that in the pre-Christian era the Celts and various other European tribes used tattoos. In ancient Egypt only the very well off had them. These days it’s again going in the high-end direction - we have teachers, doctors, footballers as clients – one of our tattooists Natalie even tattooed two nuns believe it or not!’

Minerva Lodge Tatoo Club co-owner, Jo Talbot displaying some of her workMinerva Lodge Tatoo Club co-owner, Jo Talbot displaying some of her work

The surroundings, with antique and restored furniture, emphasise this departure from the clichéd and maybe threatening vision of the tattoo parlour, and the gallery upstairs adds to the arty atmosphere: ‘The arts and tattoos go hand in hand,’ says Steve: ‘Most tattoo artists were in fine arts before – like Jo our other tattooist. We decided to combine the two and show artworks, and have artists share their passions. We’ve had sculptors and painters exhibit and we’ll be exhibiting works provided by Chester-based Hung Art (www.hungart.co.uk). It underlines this is an artform.’

The arts are inextricably linked with the tourism vital to Chester’s economy, and the new theatre and cinema complex set to open in February 2015 will strengthen those bonds: ‘Culture is a very important reason to visit a destination,’ says Katrina Michel, CEO of Marketing Cheshire: ‘Chester had developed strong cultural propositions over the past few years, but the new cultural centre with a theatre, cinema and exhibition space will catapult it into a whole new league.’

Chester’s biggest visitor attraction, the zoo, is going through its own changes. A £30 million investment in its Islands project is expected to bring another 150,000 visitors a year on top of the 1.4 million it can already boast. Islands is the biggest project in British zoo history, a far cry from the early days, though the focus on animals being kept without bars is a constant. Those early days are being recreated in a new drama to be broadcast on BBC One later in the year. The cast features Ralf Little (The Royle Family), Lee Ingleby (Inspector George Gently) and Liz White (Life on Mars) suggesting that like the new addition to the zoo it will be a big hit.

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