Cambridge University Orchestra (CUO)

Cambridge University Orchestra is the University’s flagship orchestra, performing the most ambitious repertoire with world-class professional conductors and exceptional student and professional soloists.

CUO attracts the University’s very best musical talent, works exclusively with distinguished professional conductors, and achieves the highest possible standards. The orchestra receives regular coaching from professional musicians from the major London orchestras. Many Cambridge University Orchestra members have previously performed at a national level and pursue careers as professional musicians when they leave University. If you wish to be considered for a place in CUO, you will need to audition. Auditions take place at the start of each academic year, during Freshers’ Week.

The 2023-24 programme is as follows:

  • Emmy Lindström’s The Lost Clown, Martinů’s Oboe Concerto and Beethoven’s Symphony No.4 conducted by Alice Farnham
  • Berlioz’s Ouverture Le Carnaval Romain, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 and Poulenc’s Sinfonietta conducted by Jac van Steen
  • Lili Boulanger’s Psalm 24 and Tippett’s A Child of our Time with a massed chorus of four leading college choirs conducted by Martyn Brabbins
  • Brahms’ Schicksalslied, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5 with the University Chamber Choir conducted by Bertie Baigent
  • A concert in March with King’s College Choir
  • A programme including Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante and Mozart’s Symphony No.36 play-directed by Margaret Faultless.

Highlights from previous years have included a recording of Mozart and Haydn with Sir Roger Norrington, Act III of Wagner’s Parsifal with Sir Mark Elder, projects with the Orchestra’s Artistic Advisor Sian Edwards, and collaborations with soloists including Francesca DegoStephen Kovacevich and Peter Donohoe.

Find out more about the 2023-24 auditions here:

If you are offered a place in Cambridge University Orchestra you will need to become a member of the Cambridge University Musical Society. Membership rates are £20 per year for students.

Cambridge University Orchestra is a Centre for Music Performance ensemble run in partnership with the Cambridge University Musical Society.

About CUO

On average, CUO perform six concerts per year: three for symphony orchestra and three for chamber orchestra, adjusting size accordingly. Each concert is preceded by a short, but intense rehearsal period and includes sectional coaching with a professional musician, usually a member of one of the top London orchestras. All other rehearsals are taken by the visiting professional conductor.

Members of CUO are placed into one of two groups. For those who rank highly at audition and desire the full Cambridge University Orchestra package – top professional artists, exciting performance venues and exhilarating repertoire – the first group will perform six concerts throughout the season: three classical-orchestra concerts and three large, romantic-sized symphony orchestra concerts. The second group – which brings you all the exhilaration only a CUO concert can provide, but with fewer commitments – play in the large concerts, but with no need to commit to the smaller ones. The rehearsals for all concerts remain the same: a play-through with our wonderful Conducting Scholar or Assistant Conductor and an intensive (but super-fun) week of rehearsals leading up to each concert.

How can I join CUO?

If you wish to be considered for a place in CUO, you must audition. Auditions take place at the start of each academic year, during Freshers’ Week. Applications will open on via an online form on 1 September and should be received by 5 October, 12 noon. Find out more about the auditions here:

Recent conductors, soloists and coaches

Delyana Lazarova, Joshua Weilerstein, Alexandra Wood, Ben Glassberg, Daniel Hyde, Martin André, Alpesh Chauhan, Jonathan Bloxham, Sian Edwards, Sir Mark Elder, Sir Roger Norrington, Paul Daniel, Nicholas Collon, Richard Farnes, Howard Shelley, Gerry Cornelius, Carlos Izcary, Natalia Luis-Bassa, Andrew Gourlay, Jamie Phillips, Peter Stark, Thomas Gould, Jac van Steen

Jeneba Kanneh-Mason piano; Alexandra Wood violin; Francesca Dego violin; Natalya Romaniw soprano; Robert Cohen cello; Guy Johnston cello; Tom Poster piano; Stephen Kovacevich piano; Peter Donohoe piano; Melanie Ragge oboe; Jack Liebeck violin; Thomas Gould violin

Martin Outram, Lionel Tertis Professor of Viola at the Royal Academy of Music
Charles Mutter, leader of the BBC Concert Orchestra
Adrian Bradbury, cellist
Orlando Jopling, cellist
Melanie Ragge, oboist and founding member of New London Chamber Ensemble
Simon Channing, head of woodwind at Royal College of Music
Stephen Stirling, horn professor at Trinity College of Music and member of Endymion Ensemble
Jo Hensel, member of the horn section of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields

How competitive is it to get into CUO?

This varies every year and depends on the instrument, but CUO is the University’s premier orchestral ensemble and attracts the University’s finest musical talent. Typically, several members of the orchestra will have previously performed at a national level and will pursue careers as professional musicians when they leave Cambridge.

How many places are there in CUO?

CUO is a flexible ensemble: the size of the orchestra adjusts depending on the repertoire being performed. Following your audition, if successful, you will most likely be offered either a place in CUO for the full year (in both chamber and symphonic repertoire concerts), or a place in all large-scale symphonic repertoire concerts.

How is seating determined?

Seating in all sections of the orchestra for the year is determined at the auditions. There will sometimes be some rotation in the strings, which will be confirmed at the start of the year.

What kind of time commitment is involved?

CUO operates on a project-based schedule. All concerts take place on Saturdays and are preceded by a short, but intense period of rehearsals with the visiting professional conductor. Typically, a chamber concert will be preceded by four evening rehearsals during the week, plus a rehearsal on the afternoon of the concert. Symphonic concerts will have one or two additional rehearsals. There are two concerts in Michaelmas term, two in Lent term (plus the King’s Foundation concert) and one in Easter term.

Why are the rehearsals so close together? Why not have weekly rehearsals throughout the term?

The intense project-based rehearsal schedules work extremely well for CUO, because they enable the visiting conductor (who will only be able to spend one week in Cambridge) to take all of the rehearsals for their concert and work in great depth with the players. It would be impossible to invite top professional conductors to work with the orchestra if it operated on a weekly rehearsal schedule. Project-based rehearsal schedules are also beneficial because they enable orchestra members to take part in other activities (e.g. an opera production) or catch up on degree work during their weeks off from CUO.

Will I be able to fit in CUO around my studies?

Yes. Nobody can work all of the time, and it is really important to have other activities planned to take your mind off degree work between lectures and supervisions, and to get the most out of your time at Cambridge. While the CUO rehearsal weeks are quite intense, rehearsals take place in the evenings and the total CUO time commitment for the year is typically 11 evenings in Michaelmas term, 15 in Lent term and 5 in Easter term. Members of the orchestra receive their rehearsal schedules for the entire year in October, so it is possible to plan around them.

Do I have to attend all the rehearsals?

Yes. All CUO rehearsals are compulsory and you must attend unless you have special permission from the orchestra manager. We operate a strict rehearsal policy to ensure that the very high standard of the orchestra is maintained.

I am a choral/organ scholar. Will I have time for CUO?

Yes – it is common for choral scholars to perform in orchestras too. However we do expect members of CUO to prioritise the orchestra’s rehearsals, and any potential problems must be flagged up with a member of the CMP team at the start of the year. If you have concerns about rehearsal commitments and would like to discuss this with a member of the CMP team, please get in touch with Lizzie Hale.

I am applying for an instrumental award. Will I have time for CUO?

Yes. It is very common for instrumental award-holders to perform with CUO and they are strongly encouraged to audition.

Who runs CUO?

CUO has its own student President and committee which runs the ensemble’s rehearsals, concerts and social events. The CUO committee is supported by the CMP Performance Coordinator, Lizzie Hale, who helps to ensure that rehearsals and concerts run as smoothly and professionally as possible.

Will I be able to get involved with running CUO?

Yes. At the start of each academic year the President of CUO will elect members of the orchestra’s committee, including a Publicity Officer, Social Secretary, Stage Manager and Librarian. The CMP is always delighted to hear from students who would like to get involved and offers several opportunities for students to develop their skills and experience in arts administration.

How sociable is CUO?

Very! The orchestra’s Social Secretary is responsible for organising social events, such as dinners and formals, as well as regular after-concert parties. Pre-rehearsal dinners and post-rehearsal pub trips are frequent and encouraged. The Orchestra is made up of a variety of undergraduate and postgraduate students from all kinds of academic backgrounds, and it is a great way to meet like-minded musicians from across the University.

Is there a membership fee to join CUO?

Yes, if you are offered a place in Cambridge University Orchestra you will need to become a member of the Cambridge University Musical Society. Membership rates are £20 per year for students.