“In 1977, I had the great pleasure of conducting a performance of the Verdi Requiem in York Minster given by the choirs of all the Quaker Schools in the country.
I was a comparative newcomer to York, having taken up the appointment of Director of Music at Bootham School in September 1975, and knew little of the orchestral life of the city. During the planning of this epic event in the early months of my appointment, it became clear the choir would exceed 300 youngsters, and that although I could expect some instrumental support from the schools, it seemed more sensible for me to attempt to find orchestral players locally. Little did I realise, as I set out to make contact with the many players who lived in or around York, just where the journey would lead me, nor just what a treasure-house of orchestral excellence York truly was in those days; it still is. In the event, I assembled an orchestra of 80 players who came together for a short but intensive period of rehearsal (five rehearsals in three weeks). Together with a choir of 385 and four professional soloists, we gave a memorable account of that truly stirring work.
“Of course the focus of that event was on the involvement of the young singers, but as the dust settled it did occur to me that it would be perfectly possible to find enough good players to give a purely orchestral concert. I subjected this notion as with so many of my ideas to a process of masterly inactivity. However, the following year, the committee of the York Musical Society kindly invited me to conduct their summer concert while Dr Jackson was in Australia. It was the 150th anniversary of Schubert’s death and they were to do the Mass in A flat and the Unfinished Symphony. Once again, I drew players together for a short but intensive period of rehearsal. It was a chance remark made by one of the players over a pint of beer after the concert that proved to be the turning point; a remark to the effect that, whilst it was always a pleasure to be asked to play for choral works, this concert had been special because the orchestra had been able to do something in their own right.
“This remark, coupled with the very evident enthusiasm of the players, and the fact that York in the late 1970s did not hear much orchestral music from the Romantic and early twentieth century repertoire, led me to give serious consideration to the idea of putting on an orchestral concert. Just the one! The formula of a short but intensive rehearsal period clearly worked; it suited busy people with their many other commitments and there was no doubt about finding players who would be willing to come and play. But I needed a leader who would commend the respect of the string section in general and the violinists in particular. “We’re a highly-strung lot” I was told “and need careful handling”; I could imagine! Talking amongst friends, one name constantly came to the surface; Herbert Whone.
“I went to see Bert and talked through the idea of the concert and the carefully structured pattern of the rehearsals and sectionals for both strings and wind and the programme, Weber’s Overture to Oberon, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and to end with, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. They were all works that I had studied with George Hurst and felt confident that I could bring some of that great man’s magic to them. To my delight, Bert agreed to occupy the leader’s chair and said he would “see what he could do” in the string sectional. Such modesty! The concert was duly set up. The city’s then Chief Executive, Roy Howell (who has ever since been a loyal supporter), gave permission for the use of the Guildhall and, better still, for the use of the name. The Guildhall Orchestra was born.
“The one-off concert took place on 9 February 1980 in front of a capacity audience and provoked an overwhelming response from players and audience alike: “You can’t stop now! Do another quickly. Strike while the iron is hot”. And from the brass players came a special request for something a bit more exciting “Try Tchaik. 4” they said: “give us something to do”. Another date was found and shortly after Easter we gave a concert “To Celebrate the Arrival of Spring” with Delius’ On hearing the first Cuckoo, Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Tchaikovsky Symphony No.4. They had plenty to do!
“Now there was no turning back. Bert, who had already shown his great gift of being able to convey the gesture behind the written notes in a really inspirational way, agreed to continue as leader. Over the twelve years of our collaboration, he did more to lift and transform the standard of orchestral playing in York than anyone I know. Players would emerge from a sectional rehearsal feeling two feet taller and brimming with confidence. Even I, whose string playing expertise is zero, would leave Bert’s house after a three hour bowing session in which Bert would have played every note of every piece explaining how and why it was done that way, believing that I could pick up a fiddle and make music.
“The rest is history and will perhaps one day be written. Suffice to say that during the late 1980s, I recognised that the orchestra needed a musical director who would be able to lift them from the point we had reached onto the next level, and so a search for my successor began. During this time, I was able to take “my band” into the newly-completed Barbican Center and establish them there before handing over the musical future of the City of York Guildhall Orchestra to the safe baton of Simon Wright.”
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