Charles Hazlewood: ‘I decided to “take charge” of my abuse from the age of three or four’

Reflective: Hazlewood recalls the origins of Paraorchestra at the Bristol Old Vic - Heathcliff O'Malley
Reflective: Hazlewood recalls the origins of Paraorchestra at the Bristol Old Vic - Heathcliff O'Malley

“When I started to float the idea of there being a Paraorchestra, I got pretty much the same response wherever I went,” says Charles Hazlewood. “I’m talking about 10 Downing Street, Culture, Media and Sport, even at local level, people were like, ‘that’s a lovely idea’. But you could smell at the back of their minds, they were thinking the thing that everyone perhaps unconsciously thinks – can you really put disability and excellence in the same sentence?”

I’m in the bar of the Bristol Old Vic with the conductor and TV presenter, who’s looking back at the journey he began more than a decade ago, with the creation of an orchestra of disabled musicians to perform alongside Coldplay at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics.

That global stage meant that the first step was “brightly lit”, but subsequent ones were much harder. “A good cause only extends so far if the art isn’t any good,” says the 56-year-old. “Our approach has been about ensuring that we make the very highest-quality art, that’s our starting point – who makes it, how they make it, almost becomes irrelevant in terms of performance.” In the years since, Paraorchestra have headlined a stage at Glastonbury and released an orchestral-electronica album, The Unfolding (2022), with the Mercury Prize-nominated composer Hannah Peel. Hazlewood has now  developed a musical with the circus company Extraordinary Bodies.

Waldo’s Circus of Magic & Terror is set in Germany in the 1930s, where a travelling troupe of outcasts and acrobats continue to perform under the growing threat of Nazism. We’ve just come down from a recording session for one of the songs, The Fear in You, composed by Hazlewood. It melds 1980s funky synth bass with classical vibraphone and drums, surrounding vocals inspired by musicals that Hazlewood loves – Showboat and West Side Story.

Elsewhere, he has incorporated proto-punk and ska, with heavy influence from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. It’s the kind of musical palette his tutors at Oxford, where he was a Keble organ scholar, warned him against if he wanted to be taken seriously as a conductor.

Flying high: in rehearsals for Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror - Steve Tanner
Flying high: in rehearsals for Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror - Steve Tanner

His is not a crusade against “elitist” taste, though. “[Classical] music itself has nothing to do with elitism at all,” he says. “Great music is great music.” Yet there is a radical soul in Hazlewood, who says he’s frustrated by the culture that has grown up around orchestral music, which makes people feel “status anxiety” in a concert hall. “There are still institutions where you’ll get a whole page in the programme telling you the things you are not allowed to do while you’re watching the performance.”

The composition of the traditional orchestra also excludes some of the musicians he works with. “How do you break technology into a symphony orchestra, which has basically had the same make-up of instruments since the late 19th century?” As everything around us has continued to adapt and evolve, he says, “the symphony orchestra sort of got stuck”.

We’re drinking non-alcoholic beer and chewing over all sorts of issues, including the levelling-up agenda, which has seen the Government push to reallocate arts funding from London to the regions. As someone who has lived and worked in London yet elected to base Paraorchestra in Bristol, does he applaud the move?

“I would never want to pull funding away from London,” he says, “because it’s the most dizzyingly exciting musical city in the world. But because there’s so much going on there, it’s incredibly hard to get any oxygen at all for a new idea.” Moving Paraorchestra to Bristol, he says, was a eureka moment – “I urge any other kind of fledgling organisation that’s struggling for oxygen in London, move to another city.”

One of the inspirational forces in the creation of the orchestra was Hazlewood’s daughter Eliza, now 16, who was born with cerebral palsy.

Hazlewood soon saw that she was musical and began wondering why in all his years conducting orchestras around the world, he had not encountered any disabled musicians. Once he started looking for them, though, “they emerged almost like angels in the mist”. Some had had no formal training but had taught themselves alone in their bedrooms. Paraorchestra now has 40 virtuoso musicians who identify as disabled. Yet Hazlewood quickly moved to the concept of an orchestra that also included non-disabled musicians – his ultimate goal was integration.

With hindsight, Hazlewood says, he realises he also always felt a sense of otherness in himself. Born into a family of clerics – his father Ian was an Anglican vicar, his brother Will is now Bishop of Lewes – Hazlewood was sent to boarding school. But as he revealed for the first time on Desert Island Discs in 2020, he was by then a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, “from a very young age through till puberty”. He tells me it left him feeling “traumatised, especially at boarding school, friendless, wonky, weird, disgusting – when you’re an abuse victim, the whole reality of it makes you feel unclean”.

Charles Hazlewood conducting - James Green / Alamy Stock Photo
Charles Hazlewood conducting - James Green / Alamy Stock Photo

He found an answer to his suicidal feelings in a recording of Mozart’s Ach, Ich Fühl’s, from The Magic Flute, by the soprano Gundula Janowitz, which he listened to over and over again on a Sony Walkman under the covers of his bed. “Mozart was the one thing I had that stopped me from taking very severe steps,” he says. “I felt a very intense, very personal connection with him.”

When I gently ask if the abuse was to do with school or with the Church, he says, “all of the above, it was pretty endemic”. It gave him the sense of living a double life, covering up what was happening to him. “No one was outed who was preying on me, because I was too good at keeping their secret for them.”

On Desert Island Discs, he took the unusual step of addressing paedophiles directly. It stemmed from his belief that while society can put them in jail, that won’t stop them having aberrant sexual feelings. “Because you’ve got all these people who feel vilified and full of self-hatred, so they’re going to act out in the most corrupt ways,” he says now.

“Most of the abusers I met as a child, had some kind of very confused idea that what they were administering to me was loving, that somehow that could actually be a loving sexual relationship between a fully grown adult and young child, and to say, ‘please, please don’t ever kid yourself that could be true, however precocious the child is, however much it seems like they’re enjoying it, encouraging it’ – that’s what the child does, in order not to be eaten up by it.

Rehearsals for Waldo's Circus of Magic and Terror - Paul Blakemore
Rehearsals for Waldo's Circus of Magic and Terror - Paul Blakemore

“I decided to take charge of my abuse from the age of three or four. The only way I was going to survive is by saying no, I’m not just an equal part in this but I’m actually the dominant party in this enterprise. Because I knew if I didn’t, it would literally rip me apart. So it’s to say to adults, who’ve got this kind of totally corrupted wiring. Please don’t believe that could ever be loving. That’s an impossibility. It’s a gulf, it’s a divide you must never cross… you’re only going to ruin that child.”

Trauma left Hazlewood struggling with “impostor syndrome”, he says, but he has now “come to a place where I really feel lifted up by the musicians that I work with”. He hopes that the music world can learn from integrating with disabled musicians, too.

“An orchestra is the greatest team in human experience,” he says, noting how Eliza “can’t get on a train without the help of other people. So she is, even at a young age, amazingly adept at creating a sense of team around her wherever she goes”. It’s just one small example of the myriad ways, he says, that non-disabled people can learn from disabled people. “We’ve been in the Dark Ages,” he says, “but I think we are seeing signs for optimism.”

Waldo’s Circus of Magic & Terror is at Bristol Old Vic from Saturday March 11 to April 1