History of the Orchestra: 1923-2018
Following its first year in 1923-4, the orchestra began to explore a variety of repertoire under the directorship of Mr A.E. Howell. In February 1925 it played its first symphony - Beethoven’s No.5 - followed in quick succession by Dvorak’s No.9 From the New World. At that time half the symphony was played before, and the other half after the interval: it was considered too much to expect a rural audience to take a symphony in one large ‘lump’. Many well-known concertos were performed (such as the Haydn cello concerto played by Beatrice Harrison) and overtures ranged from Wagner’s Meistersingers to Tchaikovsky’s 1812. More light-hearted pieces included The Three Bears, Paul’s Pops, and even The Twist!
The orchestra’s financial struggles were a feature of the early years. The orchestra was overdrawn at its first annual meeting, and in 1928 the first of many rummage sales was held to raise funds. The orchestra’s debt of around £25 more than doubled in 1929 after hiring the services of internationally known viola player William Primrose. (Mr Primrose, then in his twenties, actually played the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the orchestra, and changed to the viola shortly afterwards). Although the debt was reduced to a mere 16s 10d in 1935, the sad lesson of the 1920’s and 1930’s was that if the orchestra gave public concerts it ran into debts which it could only clear by devoting its energy to rummage sales instead of music.
A fall in interest during the 1932-3 season led to the orchestra sensibly declining a BBC audition owing to ‘the indifference of its playing’. An indication that the orchestra was struggling to survive can be surmised from the fact that the minutes of the 1935 annual meeting were not confirmed and signed by Mr Howell until 10 years later, on September 25th 1945. Mr Howell did, however, keep a nucleus of players going during the war years 1939-45, with performances and services in local churches, raising funds for POWs and the Red Cross.
With renewed optimism, an informal meeting was held in November 1944, to start the orchestra again. A body of patrons or ‘Friends’ was formed, subscribing half a guinea a year, and finally in March 1950 the first public concert for nearly 20 years was given in the Town Hall. This concert made a loss of £15. The Wiltshire Times printed a letter from Michael Vickers, director of the Wiltshire Rural Music School, drawing attention to the concert and remarking that ‘the paucity of the audience leads me to suspect that many people are entirely unaware of any musical events in Trowbridge’.
One of the orchestra’s earliest members was flautist Mr Frank K. Green (1902-1986) who worked as Transport Manager for Usher’s Wiltshire Brewery until he emigrated to Australia in 1948. Frank began work in 1917 at the age of 15 when the Brewery’s transport consisted of two Sentinels (steam-powered wagons) and horse and mule teams. Apparently he used to recount the story of a mule that would never pass the Great Western Railway station without first doing a circuit of the station yard. Frank played in the family band, which consisted of his father on clarinet, sister on piano and two brothers on violin, plus an ‘imported’ double bass player. This little group fulfilled many local engagements before the arrival of Jazz in the 1930’s and 40’s. Frank was the secretary of Trowbridge Orchestra until the time of his departure for Australia, whereupon he was presented with a silver cigarette case engraved with his initials and the orchestra’s name. The case was returned to the orchestra after Frank’s death and is still in our possession.
From 1953 onwards, the first grant of £20 was received from the Arts Council and the orchestra’s balance increased to £31. In 1954, the first conductor, Mr Howell, retired and was succeeded by Mr Frank Lavery. During Mr Lavery’s time as conductor there was a move to reduce the orchestra to a string orchestra but thankfully this was defeated. Later that year Mr Lavery resigned due to other commitments (he also conducted the Trowbridge and District Youth choir) and Mr Jack Henley became conductor. On the night of one of Mr Henley’s concerts - the 15th November 1958 - a daughter was born to Myrtle Taylor, wife of violinist David Taylor, one of the orchestra’s longest-serving members (43 years). David played in the concert and Myrtle remembers being ‘not very impressed’ at the time!
In 1959 came the appointment of Miss Jean Horsfall, at that time the director of The Wiltshire Rural Music School. Under Jean, the orchestra flourished as never before, tackling increasingly major works and extending its activities into spring and summer, as well as autumn concerts. With her encouragement, many young local professional musicians started their careers as soloists with the orchestra. The orchestra’s 40th Anniversary concert in the Town Hall featured Hilary Coates as soloist playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. Jean was to conduct the orchestra for 42 years, only retiring in the autumn of 2001 (she conducted jointly with David Price from autumn 1994). Even after this date she wrote reviews for the orchestra’s concerts.
After 1968, the orchestra moved from Trowbridge Town Hall and its Golden Jubilee concert of 1973 was held in St. Augustine’s School. The soloist was Peter Mountain who played the Beethoven violin concerto. The orchestra’s Leader was Mr Clarence Tadd, who had been a member of the orchestra since it started in 1923. Clarence used to travel to London to buy quality violins and bows at reasonable prices which he would then sell to local musicians. Violinist Terry Pike remembered visiting his house to purchase a violin. The violins were hanging in Clarence’s wardrobe instead of clothing, and the bows were stored in the top drawer of the sideboard instead of cutlery!
In November 1974 the orchestra gave its first concert in the newly opened Trowbridge Civic Centre and for a number of years this was a popular venue, with many successful concerts taking place there. Joseph Hepton (an ex-BBC Symphony Orchestra player) was the orchestra’s Leader for a short while and was succeeded by John Moorhouse in 1979, who was Leader at the Diamond Jubilee Concert in November 1983. Hilary Coates (who was also the soloist for the orchestra’s 40th Anniversary concert) played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2. The orchestra’s financial losses during this time were cushioned by small grants from Wiltshire County Council, Trowbridge Town Council, Southern Arts and donations from Friends of the orchestra.
John Lauder was appointed as the orchestra’s Leader in 1984 and the kind of music to be played was debated. John wanted to see the orchestra challenge itself by playing an increasing amount of difficult and demanding works. In pursuit of this philosophy, the orchestra became more adventurous in its choice of programmes, and was able to persuade many young soloists of national and international reputation to perform with it.
A year after the orchestra celebrated its 70th Anniversary (1993) and a few months after an exciting performance of The Planets in 1994, the orchestra appointed an Assistant Conductor to work alongside Jean. David Price, an outstanding musician of great experience, was to conduct the orchestra for the next 20 years.
At Jean’s suggestion, David Price was engaged by the Orchestra Committee initially as her assistant, as she was beginning to feel the need for some help with rehearsals. Very soon David was sharing her rostrum, conducting half of every concert. Now that David was involved, the Orchestra became a little bolder in its choice of programmes. But in meetings to choose orchestral programmes, if a piece was suggested which Jean thought was too difficult, she would say “Trowbridge isn’t ready for that yet”. With David on board we threw caution to the wind, and eventually discovered with amazement what Trowbridge was indeed ready for.
At the concert in November 1996 the Orchestra made a presentation to David Taylor, who stood down from the Committee having been its Librarian for more than forty years. He continued to play in the Orchestra until 1998. The November 1997 concert, jointly conducted by David and Jean, illustrates the change in programming. David had suggested Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne, and Jean conducted Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. We would never have thought of doing the ‘Songs’ in the past, and Jean would have definitely vetoed the Symphony.
TSO was one of the first orchestras to perform in the newly-opened Wiltshire Music Centre in 1998. This gave the Orchestra a tremendous boost; we finally had a venue with proper acoustics. David Taylor died in 2001, and the Orchestra gave a tribute concert for him in June. He was one of Jean’s greatest fans, and it was appropriate that Jean should conduct it. After announcing her retirement, Jean conducted almost all of her farewell concert in the autumn of 2001, and chose the music herself. David became our Principal Conductor, retaining Jean as a Guest Conductor. She returned to conduct Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite in 2003. Jean became President of the Orchestra, so remained a familiar presence taking the chair at the AGM. The Orchestra had been ‘The Trowbridge Orchestra’ for many years, but in 2004 the name was changed to ‘Trowbridge Symphony Orchestra’, and we adopted the now familiar TSO logo.
In 2009 John Lauder stepped down as Leader, to be replaced by the talented Carmen Mirza (now Tunney). John retired with a memorable performance of Holst’s The Planets at the March concert in the Wiltshire Music Centre. He had been Leader for 25 years, and now gracefully and thankfully retired to the ranks.
David Price retired as Conductor in 2014. That year also recorded the death of Jean Horsfall. It is impossible to underestimate the contribution Jean has made to the Orchestra, or indeed that of David. David took over from Jean as President. The new Conductor was to be Gareth Harris, chosen by an audition process (probably the only time that this has happened). Gareth remained as Conductor for two years, until pressure of work caused him to resign in 2016.
While Gareth was conducting we were approached by a young conductor, Philip Draisey, who was looking for opportunities to conduct an orchestra, and offered to deputise for Gareth when necessary. We gratefully accepted this offer, and when Gareth resigned we offered Phil the post. To our delight he accepted, and the Orchestra has now embarked on a new journey. Suddenly caution is again being thrown to the wind, and we are performing music which would have seemed impossible ten years previously – Mahler’s First Symphony, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Scheherazade, and Strauss Four Last Songs. We are seeing an increase in membership, and a renewed vigour in the Orchestra.