Derby Concert Orchestra - Celebrating 60 Years

PUBLISHED: 11:27 11 March 2010 | UPDATED: 16:51 20 February 2013

The Derby Light Orchestra in 1950

The Derby Light Orchestra in 1950

Ashley Franklin meets members of the Derby Concert Orchestra

How many musicians who play for fun can claim to have performed with Nigel Kennedy? I can name 62 and they all hail from Derbyshire.

More specifically, they were in the Derby Concert Orchestra in 1984 when the celebrated Mr K performed with the orchestra at Derbys Assembly Rooms, scraping his illustrious bow around Beethovens Violin Concerto. Aged 27, Kennedy was still a rising star although he had already played with all the major British orchestras and was about to make his recording debut. Nigel was unpretentious and a pleasure to perform with, remarks member Peter Billson. He was very polite and smiley, recalls Roy Harrison, adding that he played the Beethoven with a maturity far beyond his age. This is just one highlight in the history of the Derby Concert Orchestra which is celebrating 60 years of music making.

Roy and Peter remember other notable guest performers over the years as they actually played with them all: both are founder members of the DCO. Roy still toots his flute (he is the principal flute player and was principal clarinet) while Peter and his bassoon retired in 2002, though he is still involved as the orchestras archivist. If youre a classical buff, you will be impressed by the roll-call of names that includes Kathryn Stott, Leon Goossens, Alfredo Campoli, Semprini and Derbys own Ronald Binge, whose evergreen melody Sailing By still introduces BBC Radio 4s late Shipping Forecast.

The first notable name Roy and Peter encountered as teenage musicians back in 1949 was Derby trumpeter Allan Street. Not content with strutting out with his fted dance band The Allan Street Octet, this Head of Music at Littleover Secondary School struck up the overture to the Concert Orchestra by forming an orchestra capable of performing good light music. For young Roy and Peter, an invitation to move on from the Derby Youth Orchestra to the newly-formed Derby Light Orchestra was a great adventure. Allan Street was a superb trumpet player, a great music arranger and conductor and, overall, a highly experienced all-round musician. He encouraged us so much, recalls Roy.

The early concerts by the Derby Light Orchestra featured short orchestral works by the likes of Lehar, Coates, German, Strauss and Supp the sort of tunes that people would whistle walking down the street, says former DCO President and flautist Bertel Hutchinson. The Derby Evening Telegraph applauded the orchestras debut concert, stating that their complete confidence and enthusiasm was remarkable. Such was the orchestras confidence that they engaged the celebrated international oboist Leon Goossens to perform with them in only their second full season. Soon after came Semprini. Sadly, Roy Harrisons memories of the great pianist are limited to his haughty, aristocratic manner, aquiline nose and the fact that he smiled a lot. Peter Billson fondly recalls playing with the world-renowned violinist Alfredo Campoli who went on to guest twice more, and the orchestra also broadcast live on the BBC Midland Home Service, receiving a fee of over 70 (equivalent to about 1,000 today). Disappointment followed when they were politely turned down in 1952: perhaps ambition was pitched a little too high in hoping Sir Adrian Boult would agree to come to Derby.

Light classics had their time in the 1950s and by the turn of the 60s the orchestra was increasingly playing large scale classical pieces. So, in 1965 the name Derby Concert Orchestra was adopted. The orchestra had a rebirth, according to Bertel, through the appointment of Andrew Massey, one of the most talented conductors we ever had, who later became associate conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra of America.

Counter to these regenerative years were the drawbacks. Forced to move from their Central Hall home due to its closure, they found their new base,"Kings Hall, had a hopeless lack of insulation against external sound. Despite doubling as a swimming baths, the acoustics at the Kings Hall were found to be bright. However, the effect was diluted by traffic noise from the adjacent city road, the pealing bells of Derby Cathedral and, more farcically and embarrassingly, the regular flushing of the Gents urinals. Surprisingly, no one on the orchestra committee during this time offered the wry suggestion that the DCO perform Handels Water Music!

To add to the orchestras woes there was a near mishap when a huge Steinway piano arrived for a performance by Denis Matthews of Beethovens 4th Piano Concerto. During the first rehearsal, the floorboards began to creak under its weight. A genuine fear that the Steinway was about to sink into the deep end caused orchestra members to dash off to a woodyard on Derwent Street for several large timbers to arrange judiciously and spread the weight of the piano.

Nowadays the DCOs principal venue is Derby Cathedral. The 60th anniversary concert there on 6th March has a varied programme: Supps Overture Pique Dame, the very first piece performed by the orchestra; the world premire of Derwent Dances, a work composed by former conductor Andrew Massey; Strauss Horn Concerto No.1, featuring guest player Robert Ashworth, Principal Horn at Opera North; and Shostakovichs Symphony No.5, a large scale work that would be regarded as notoriously difficult for an amateur orchestra to tackle. However, forget that word amateur. DCOs conductor of the last 24 years, Jonathan Trout, never uses the term. Yes, we are a non-professional orchestra, he admits, and I know that we frequently have big technical demands to overcome but its remarkable how our players strive to overcome them. Pretty much everything we play puts huge pressure on our players but that develops them as musicians.

Revealingly, the DCOs concert pieces are determined following recommendations by the players. Jonathan has welcomed the broadening of the programme to include 20th century music. A performance of Stravinskys The Rite of Spring was described by Jonathan as a huge milestone in our development and he is especially proud of his players performance last spring of Mahlers 2nd in spite of its unbelievable complexities, the orchestra gave a phenomenal performance.

The DCOs most regularly-performed piece is Schuberts Unfinished Symphony: its been played 14 times. It seems to be as popular with audiences as it is with the orchestra, says Peter Billson. The players can be thankful their conductor likes Schubert, too, because his only proviso with concerts is not to conduct anything he doesnt like. As he points out, To conduct you have to be passionate so there is no point in doing music that you dont feel passionate about.

Eavesdropping on the first rehearsals of Shostakovichs 5th hailed by him as one of the greatest symphonies of the 20th century I was interested that he took time to explain its context satisfying Stalins demands for an opus of heroic classicism while being acclaimed by the Russian public as an expression of their suffering under the regime. Acclaimed by the players as a genial, patient and very keen conductor, Jonathan told me how much he learned from sitting in on Simon Rattles rehearsals with the CBSO. He had a very easy, relaxed approach with none of the pompous Maestro attitude. Hes always very polite and courteous with his players and Ive never seen him patronise anyone. I try to work in this way.

Jonathan insists on treating his players as if they were professionals, appropriately enough as some could have gone on to perform professionally. Former members who have achieved professional status include John Marson, whose attainments as a harpist make him an unsung local hero. A Guardian obituary of 2007 reveals that Derby-born John became principal harp of the London Symphony Orchestra, wrote two books on the harp, composed for it, and for 30 years performed with everyone from Stravinsky to Sinatra, from Boulez to the Beatles, from Copland to Chaplin, from Malcolm Arnold to Julie Andrews.

The current DCO includes two retired heads of music and three peripatetic instrumental teachers and there could be a budding professional or two amongst its eight student players. The increasing availability of value-for-money instruments and instrumental teaching in schools has resulted in a welcome increase in good student players. The rest of the orchestra includes five teachers, four doctors, four Rolls-Royce engineers plus a headteacher, university lecturer, tour guide, holistic healer and several mums. It was a pleasure to see again viola principal Elizabeth Jack, the former Head of Music at Derby High School who so inspired my violin-playing daughter. Elizabeth joined the DCO over 35 years ago and says she feels privileged to be involved, especially with Jonathan Trout introducing the orchestra to amazing pieces. She also values the comradeship of my many orchestral friends. Sentiments which are echoed all round.

Competition for places in the orchestra is fierce with only the very best players earning a permanent place. In spite of his 60 years with the DCO, Roy has no plans to retire: I will carry on for as long as my playing technique and health permit.

Listening to the DCO, retired Peter Billson believes standards are as high as they could possibly be. Staying at a pinnacle is demanding of both players and conductor but Jonathan is loving every moment: My journey so far with DCO has been a huge part of my own development. Its challenging, exciting and very fulfilling. Most of our players are not directly involved with music in their working lives but it remains an enormous part of their spiritual lives. Im hugely grateful to them all for their support and commitment and for coming on the journey so far. Im looking forward to the next leg.

The Derby Concert Orchestras 60th Anniversary Concert is at Derby Cathedral on Saturday 6th March, 7pm. Tickets 15 (inc. light refreshments and glass of wine served after the performance), from the Cathedral Shop and Foulds Music on Irongate and at the door. Under 16s free when accompanied by an adult.

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