John Curnock arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1960.
The nearest orchestral group was the Warwickshire Symphony Orchestra.
Seeking other musicians who might be interested in in forming an orchestral group in Stratford he met Jack Spencer and Norrie Searle, both of whom were involved with the Stratford-upon-Avon Operatic Society. Following being invited to play in the pit orchestra for their production of The King and I in 1962 a number were persuaded to get together and create a new orchestral group. The last such group to exist in Stratford was during the 1938-1945 war period.
From the start the group identified itself as the Stratford-upon-Avon Concert Orchestra with the initial membership consisting of Jack Spencer - Piano/Conductor, Norrie Searle - leader/Violin, Norman Wilkinson - Oboe, Sheila Benson - Cello and John Curnock - Trumpet.
Despite seeking publicity and approaching all the schools the response to this recruiting drive was nil. Friday evenings were selected as being the most suitable upon which to meet.
The orchestra managed to maintain a level of about nine at rehearsals and to reach double figures was an event received with the utmost enthusiasm. As with all amateur groups there was a constant change of membership, but some early members in addition to those previously mentioned were Peter Watkinson, Angela Ring, Charles Bell, Brian Brown, George Butler, David Leitch, Robin Smart, Basil Searle
(by John Curnock)
Philip Long was conducting the orchestra for the last time and Andrew Swinn started the next Friday. After two or three weeks at Stratford High School the rental proved too costly. ‘Robin’ Smart (B.J. Smart) arranged Payton Street Baptist Church schoolroom and the orchestra rehearsed there for many years. It was a long, narrow room with poor acoustics but it had a balcony for storage. The orchestra owned 3 copper/calf-skin hand tuned timpani which were stored with difficulty in that balcony and in the church balcony; until then the timpani, at one time owned by the Beauchamp family, had been stored by Basil Searle.
Andrew’s first concert was in the Baptist Church on Saturday 22nd November 1969. There were a few strings, 1 flute, 3 clarinets, 1 horn, 1 trumpet and timps. The entry was 3s 6d (=17½p).
The total library at that time formed a stack less than 2ft high - no items had a full score except Beethoven’s Symphony no. 1; music was generally selections, eg. The Sound of Music, light items such as ‘Les Patineurs’ (Waldteufel), Sandpaper ballet (Leroy Anderson).
Robin Smart soon arranged to borrow music from Warwick library (Schools’ music section) which gave access to music of a more satisfying nature eg. Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances; concerts still included a march or waltz and sometimes a movement or two from an easy symphony or easy arrangements.
John Curnock (a founding member) played trumpet or percussion as required. Robin Smart and others tried hard to recruit new members, and as numbers grew it became possible to add to the library - relatively cheaply, as string numbers were low; from these early days Andrew established that each string player had an original part (not just one per desk).
Cataloguing was developed by Barbara Swinn in due course any player continuing as a member would receive the same copy whenever a work was re-performed. Eventually the cost of buying string parts grew considerably, with numbers of players - by the year 2000 the string parts numbered 14 - 12 - 9 - 12 - 3/4
From 1969 - 2010 many concerti have been played - flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, horn, trumpet, violin, viola, cello and piano - nearly all by members of the orchestra.
Four piano concerti were performed by Trevor Holdsworth (then chairman of GKN) - Schumann, Grieg and Mozart. In later years Anup Biswas played Dvorak (2002) and Elgar (2006) cello concerti - he had years earlier (1982) while still at music college played Bruch’s Kol Nidrei and a baroque sonata but played the Dvorak and Elgar to raise money for the Mathieson Music Trust which funds the school in Calcutta where he had been a pupil and of which he was now in charge.
A regular viola player, sometimes the only one, from the early years was Michael Chester (Company secretary of GKN - he had been the first contact with Anup Biswas who played at a GKN pensioners’ concert while still a music student and Michael persuaded Trevor Holdsworth to perform piano solos) - it was he who provided the first steel cupboards to store music at Payton Street - cupboards sold off at minimal cost by GKN - also 3 ex-canteen floodlights at five shillings each, -those lights were valuable when performing eg. at Alcester High School and Bidford-on-Avon Church.
Teaching the conductor and acquiring a constitution
Michael Chester was responsible for two significant steps in the group’s development:-
He persuaded the committee to help fund Andrew to go on a conducting course (ERMA - Ernest Read Music Association) which Andrew much needed - never having conducted before January 1969.
He drafted the orchestra’s constitution which years later needed little adaptation when the orchestra became a registered charity in 2007.
Round Table Concerts
The orchestra performed by request for a number of years at the Alcester Round Table’s ‘Last Night of the Alcester Proms’ - a crowded noisy event much enjoyed by players and audience. The Round Table made generous donations to orchestra funds - the Zildian cymbals were purchased at a cost of £350 after one such concert.
Other Alcester concerts often involved groups of children from St. Faith’s Junior School where Barbara Swinn was in charge of music and sometimes Alcester Youth Orchestra which she conducted. Children being involved in concerts brought in much needed audience!
Pat Austin was a regular member of the cello section for many years. It was she who created the orchestra’s logo - originally Stratford-upon-Avon Concert Orchestra later adapted to ‘Symphony Orchestra’.
From the early years young people had a considerable role in the music - flute*, oboe, bassoon, trumpet*, trombone, horn, violin*, viola, cello* and percussion* -
*Bill Cave as a schoolboy, played Haydn’s trumpet concerto and some 30 years later (in 2001) returned as the Revd. W. Cave for a repeat performance.
*Lucia Swinn age 15 performed ‘Romanze’ by Svendsen
*Miranda Swinn age 17 performed Bruch’s ‘Kol Nidrei’
*Peter Earle played timpani aged 12 and Jonathan Earle flute from age 10.
At one time the whole cello section was teenagers.
In November 1994 the 1st horn in Beethoven’s 5th symphony was 14 year old Helen Davey - she later studied music at Cardiff and returned to Warwickshire to teach brass. In the same concert the leader of the cellos was 15 year old Alastair Firrell.
Two seats on the committee were reserved for young members - several were helped with university applications by membership and a number went into professional music as teachers and performers.
Rehearsal clashes with county and school groups, and the rising challenge of harder music led to a falling number of young players; as the orchestra grew in size and became mostly adult membership, young players could not be taken except in string sections: in the 1990s and 2000s there have been very few.
A Change of Home
The Payton Street room could not grow with the orchestra! Many other halls were investigated but eventually Friday night (always rehearsal night) became available in September 1992 at Shottery Village Memorial Hall - that hall had plenty of parking and the three timpani, bass drum, rostrum and five steel cupboards could all be stored on the stage. Shortly after starting there the orchestra paid to upgrade the lights from single 5’ tubes to double 6’ tubes.
The orchestra has gratefully received many generous donations of money over the years from members and their families:
Harry Chapman (violin) - donation in his memory
Norrie and Basil Searle (viola/double bass)
Doris McDonald (violin) - donation in her memory
‘Robin’ Smart (clarinet and double bass)
Ruth Baker (violin) who not only gave several sets of music, but also the three pedal timpani. The three pedal timpani could not be carried up the narrow winding stairs to the Baptist Church schoolroom balcony, so a hoist was made (by the conductor) with stout beams, rope, pulleys and karabiners to lower and raise them each Friday. Fortunately at Shottery Hall access to storage on the stage is easy.
Ted Parker (viola) who gave the glockenspiel and bass drum in memory of his wife
Andrew and Barbara Swinn
Michael Boulton, who has also generously provided refreshments for the whole orchestra at many dress rehearsals and sold programmes at the door, as well as providing a large advertising banner.
Anon. who has 3 times given sets of music
Gill Walker (viola)
Charles Harrison (horn) - a generous bequest
A grant has been received from C.A.Rookes Charity, and annual support from the District Council and Stratford Town Trust.
In the early years concerts were given in schools and village halls (Stratford, Alcester, Henley-in-Arden, Mickleton, Chipping Campden, Balsall Common), churches (Stratford, Snitterfield, Bidford-on-Avon, Hatton) and hotels (Stratford Hilton, Droitwich Chateau Impney) but from the opening of the Civic Hall concerts were given there three times a year. In 1975 the orchestra performed from a barge on the Avon, the barge being built and powered up and down stream below the bridge by the Royal Marines. For a while there were five concerts per year - two in the Autumn, closely spaced with nearly identical programmes, two similarly in the Spring and one in the Summer. A complete written record of concert halls and programmes performed has been kept.
The “Summer Weekend”
Andrew Swinn’s attendance at a conducting course was repeated several times, first at ERMA, then at NLMS (New London Music Society, first at Wycombe Abbey and later at Queenswood School). On his second visit to ERMA, Barbara accompanied him and there asked one of the professionals, Myers (Bill) Foggin if he would run a short course for the SCO (as it then was); he generously agreed and came four successive years. (Myers was an opera conductor, concert pianist and then Principal of Trinity College of Music). He was succeeded for ten years by Sidney Ellison (trumpeter with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and professor of conducting at the Royal Academy of Music) and on Sidney’s ‘retirement’ Philip Meaden (Dulwich College, Trinity College, Benslow Music School, Morley College and then Principal of Leeds College of Music) kindly agreed to take the July weekend - so there has been a long series of expertly run annual weekends which have greatly raised the musical standards.
Myers Foggin 1980 - 83
Sidney Ellison 1984 - 93
Philip Meaden 1994 -
NFMS, Charity Status and rising costs
In 1994 the orchestra joined the NFMS (National Federation of Music Societies) in order to gain economic insurance for its possessions, in particular the percussion instruments and its increasing stock of music (some out of print, or available only on hire).
In September 2007 the Stratford Symphony Orchestra became a registered charity, receiving a valuable one-off back-dated payment from HM Revenue and Customs. Janine Bluteau (violin),a professional accountant, oversaw this considerable task, having already for a long time carefully guided the orchestra’s finances. Concerts over the years nearly always made a profit, and money was given to various charitable causes. However, by 2009 rising costs at the Civic Hall led to regular losses of various sizes, despite much publicity, and despite the creation of the orchestra’s website - and later Facebook and Twitter - all by Ron Barnett, (trumpet) with links to town, county and other musical websites.
When Andrew began to conduct, the leader was Angela Ring - she led with great reliability and support in every way until illness forced her to move to the second violins in 1995. She had led all but one of 122 concerts from 1969 to 1995. She retired and moved away from Stratford in 1998.
Angela was succeeded by Neil Henderson for a brief spell (July 1995 - July 1997). The orchestra was then fortunate to have Diana Lucas to lead from December 1997; Diana has added greatly to the orchestra’s successes by vigorous, competent playing, by valuable contributions in and out of committee in all aspects of the musical and social life of the orchestra. Diana has been diligent in providing bowing for the violins and violas.
Not just Music
In the early years the orchestra held social functions, usually Christmas dinners, in a variety of hotels in and around Stratford. On several occasions parties were arranged by members at Alveston Leys (a Church of England Children’s Society Conference Centre where Angela Ring was cook). More recently dinners have been held at Shottery Hall, again catered by members with Barbara Swinn making major contributions. In 2011 Fiona Shilling (wife of George - cello) provided professional catering for nearly 40 people.
More on the Library
Until the reunification of Germany, whenever possible East German (Leipzig) Breitkopf & Hartel edition was bought. It was not realised that the inferior paper would not last so well - as exemplified by the Sibelius ‘Karelia’ set whose wind parts by the early 21st Century could be used for performance only.
Some early purchases eg. of Elgar and Sibelius went back into copyright after the European Union legislation, and other music which had been on sale retreated into hire-only catalogues, though occasionally a publisher has been willing to provide ‘archive’ copies to make up existing sets.
When the orchestra name was changed from ‘Concert’ to ‘Symphony’ no effort was made to re-stamp all the existing sets of music, but continuity of ownership was ensured by wording in the new constitution.
Sets of music for some works, especially for solo works, have been borrowed from libraries; sometimes music has been hired - Poulenc, Malcolm Arnold, Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’ for “Last Night of the Proms”.
The library was at first catalogued in a large exercise book, but later transferred to a card index. A large rubber stamp enables instruments/number of parts to be recorded on the back of each card. All music is stamped (in red except for early sets) with the orchestra’s name.
The committee decided not to lend or hire out music sets to avoid loss/damage of parts and scores. The conductor has always felt privileged to have full scores available for use and re-use with his own markings.
Anxiety about the Civic Hall
From about 2008 the orchestra’s concerts were threatened by the proposed demolition of the Civic Hall. This hall provided an excellent setting for concerts from July 1986 though the backstage area was limited. In the first years lighting was not adequate and the conductor usually was climbing ladders to move or adjust lights. In time more lights were purchased (one by the orchestra) and Civic Hall lighting technicians were paid. The orchestra was arranged on three levels and the audience had tiered seats. The acoustics were excellent for listeners though rather dry for players. In earlier concerts there, percussion were on stage where their sound was obscured yet oppressive to woodwind and brass on the stage edge. Later that section was sited behind the cellos and basses.
Publicity grew from very small beginnings - the first publicity manager was Anne Howell (clarinet) who began the distribution of posters to shops and hotels - she also booked the Coventry Building Society window for a display including a papier mache figure of a conductor - when she left the orchestra the task was taken on by Trish Evans (viola/violin) and then by Philippa Tennant (clarinet) - developments include posters to Bed & Breakfast establishments, adverts in the Stratford Herald, on Classic FM, leaflets to private houses and membership of the Bear Pit Arts group. Audiences have rarely been outnumbered by the players, but have reached 200.almost equally rarely
Members largely live in and close around Stratford-upon-Avon, but there have been a number of more distant members - from Cheltenham, Banbury, Rugby, Brackley & Aynho, Redditch, Evesham, Coventry and even Ross-on-Wye.
The orchestra has been fortunate indeed to have had a full complement of woodwind players over most of its history - to have two oboes and two (or three) bassoons over decades has been remarkable.
Horns were one or two for a while, but four has been the usual number for a long time, including Mark Faulkner (an ex Royal Marine bandsman) who has played concerti by Mozart, R. Strauss and Haydn. In recent years there have been eight or nine violas though the section consisted of one or two players at one time. Rehearsing double basses have been rare!
Some members have continued for a long time. John Curnock not only played trumpet and percussion but served valuably as the orchestra’s chairman for many years. It was during one of his years as Mayor of Stratford that a grant was secured from the council. On retiring from the orchestra he was appointed its President and Life Patron. Peter Watkinson (clarinet) has been playing since 1968 and has played solos many times (two Weber concerti, a double concerto by Stamitz, with Philippa Tennant, Malcolm Arnold concerto with a pre-Goodman rag as the finale and Coates’ Saxo Rhapsody, as well as the Weber Concertino. He was one of the first secretaries, and through his father’s shop in Cheltenham (Ken Watkinson) supplied music and instruments such as the bass drum.
Other long-serving members are Jonathan Earle (flute) who joined in 1972, at one time supported by his brother Peter (timpani), mother Margaret (violin & percussion) and father John (timpani + artwork eg. posters); Ruth Baker violin and committee, Janine Bluteau violin and treasurer, Rachel Bird violin, Lesley Knowles bassoon and Ian Tovey Horn, committee member and chairman.
After Ken Watkinson another music supplier was ‘The Pied Piper’ in Halesown - the contact in the shop was Yvonne Scrivener whose son, Matthew was studying at the Royal Northern College of Music - he came to play the Mendelssohn violin concerto and the Bruch no.1 in G minor, in concerts at the South Warwickshire College of Further Education in Stratford. Then music was supplied by Presto Music and later by Presto Classical in Leamington spa. By 2008 some Kalmus items were purchased over the Internet from the USA, though Breitkopf is always cheaper and better printed. Music has also been borrowed from various libraries via the economical inter-library loan service.
The first fifty years have brought extensive and satisfying development in organisation, personnel and repertoire - may the next fifty be as fruitful!
Five measures of the orchestra’s progress from 1969 - 2010 are:
Then the library contained one symphony - in 2010 it contained over 40.
The second visiting conductor rightly thought that the first and last movements of Brahms’ 2nd symphony were all that could be played - by 2010 the orchestra has performed well all 4 Brahms symphonies.
In 1969 membership totalled about 12 people - in 2010 there were 55 members. With visiting players numbers rose to 69 at one concert.
A small pile of music grew by 2010 into 4 ½ double 6’ cupboards full.
Early concerts contained perhaps 8 or more short items, using poorly listed parts, creating problems for the librarian. Later programmes tend to contain 3 or 4 longer items, with parts carefully numbered and listed. The early library had only piano conductor ‘scores’, but from 1969 all new purchases had full scores.
The conductor arrived at a concert, but had forgotten scores and drove home to fetch them: ran low on petrol - filled up, arrived back at the hall - fortunately the audience had waited.
A young bassoonist fell off a chair and stage blocks in mid-piece but player and instrument were unharmed.
A percussionist had crashed cymbals a) they stuck together (air pressure) b) one of them turned inside out - he was seen snapping it back across his knee.
Visiting Bass player who ‘knew everything’ tightened bass drum head after dress rehearsal and unknown to its player - when he struck it the stick flew from his hand.
Soloist in Bruch, G minor violin concerto lost his shoulder bar during the opening tutti to the finale - we had to restart.
In the early years a folder of music was lost after having been placed on a car roof - it was returned over 20 years later from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
Violinist after an error in Beethoven 5th Symphony, leaned past her partner on the desk to apologise to the audience.
A visiting bass player spent too long in the nearby pub at the interval and returned during the first item.
A young trumpeter having trouble with an awkward transposition, asked (professional) father to write it out - he did it in the wrong key.
9. A violinist once turned up for ‘dress’ rehearsal in concert dress (dinner jacket etc).
(by Andrew Swinn February 2012)