Filling the Vacuum
It was inevitable that the retirement of Francis Jackson from the conductorship of the orchestra after thirty-three years would leave a vacuum that was very hard to fill; the fact that a number of the more prominent players also took this opportunity to leave left the orchestra in a rather depleted and demoralised state. The difficult task of re-grouping and re-orientation fell to the new conductor, Martin Hotton , music master at St. Olave’s School, assisted by the new leader, Hazel Henderson . The orchestra also had to overcome a number of public misconceptions, such as the belief expressed by one press critic that it was merely “a glorified evening class”, and better suited to training young players than giving worth-while public performances.
The orchestra achieved some notable successes, such as an Elgar concert, which the press critic found particularly praiseworthy, and a reassuring feature of which was the appearance of Francis Jackson as organist. (He also performed as soloist in Mozart’s C minor piano concerto and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue .)
An immediate practical problem, however, was the absence of players in some of the sections. This could only be remedied by bringing in professional help at concerts, which not only weakened the orchestra’s esprit de corps but also constituted a considerable drain on its meagre financial resources. One solution devised by Mr. Hotton was the introduction of a lighter summer concert, consisting largely of music by the Strauss family. Mr. Hotton threw himself into this event with enthusiasm, and it rapidly became an annual institution in the York musical scene, its popular appeal being enhanced by the addition of games, quizzes, and other competitions. Though purists may have disapproved, it should be recalled that this event did not replace an established “serious” concert but was additional to it, and it introduced a new kind of audience to orchestral concerts. Besides, its aim was to generate income to support other ventures, and in this respect it was undoubtedly successful.
Other money-raising events were organised by members, including an annual YSO hike and sponsored swims. One final innovation was the institution of a soloists’ competition – in 1986 for clarinet and in 1988 for piano – in which young players were invited to compete for the privilege of playing a concerto with the orchestra. This generated a considerable amount of interest, and the standard of the performers was very high. Under Martin Hotton’s tutelage, the musical standard of the orchestra as a whole also rose, and the number of members increased. The press, too, offered more appreciative comments.
Extending the Range
Martin Hotton relinquished the post of conductor in 1986, and his place was taken by John Godfrey , a research student at the university. (The leadership of the orchestra had also changed; Catherine van de Weyer took over in 1985.) Mr. Godfrey’s youthful enthusiasm and musical ambitions exposed the orchestra to a wider and more demanding range of music than it had previously encountered, including such works as Nielsen’s Helios overture, Sibelius’s second symphony, Rachmaninov’s first symphony, and Ives’s The Unanswered Question . His university connections also brought to the orchestra a number of talented soloists, including Roger Montgomery (horn) and Damien Le Gassick (piano). By the time of its ninetieth birthday concert, in July 1988, the orchestra could feel rejuvenated and was full of optimism.
Continuing the Tradition
When John Godfrey left the orchestra, after the November concert of 1988, in order to pursue his career elsewhere, the youthful tradition was continued with the appointment of Paul Mann , a pianist and another recent graduate from the university; Claire Jowett also took over as leader, a post she continues to hold. Mr. Mann’s musical talents are considerable, and, despite his relative inexperience of orchestral conducting, he applied them to good effect, especially in performances of the classical repertoire. His energetic style of conducting caused the critic to observe on one occasion that his feet left the ground at particularly exciting passages.
Paul Mann also brought to the orchestra an important contact in the shape of Sir Ernest Hall , an industrialist and founder of the Dean Clough arts and business centre, with considerable pianistic abilities, who performed both Liszt piano concertos with the orchestra in a single concert in November 1989, and (with Paul Mann) Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos K365, in March 1991. Another notable and immensely successful event was the performance, in the summer of 1991, of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf , with Berwick Kaler , York’s much-loved pantomine dame, as narrator.
In 1992, Paul Mann was appointed Assistant Conductor of Northern Ballet in Halifax, and moved to Manchester. He nevertheless managed to continue conducting the orchestra until the following year, when he left to continue his successful conducting career elsewhere. Edward Huws-Jones, the principal viola, stepped into the breach as conductor for the summer concert of 1993, but for a more permanent conductor the orchestra was fortunate to obtain the services of Eno Koço , a professional conductor who had left his native Albania following the political upheavals and settled in England. Again the focus changed, with greater exposure of the orchestra to music of Eastern Europe.
In 1992 the orchestra had been forced to change its concert venue from the Guildhall to the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, as the introduction of more stringent fire-regulations reduced the audience size to the point where concerts were no longer viable. The additional expense was, however, offset by the award to the orchestra of a substantial development grant by the Foundation for Sport and the Arts. This grant also enabled the orchestra to employ a number of well-known soloists, including Moray Welsh, who played Dvorák’s Cello Concerto in November, 1994, and Alan Hacker , who played the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in April, 1995. Mr. Hacker also appeared as guest conductor in the following concert, which featured a bagpipe player in Maxwell Davies’s Orkney Wedding with Sunrise .
Meanwhile, Eno Koço’s position in this country had become insecure, and he was obliged to step down from the forthcoming concert, to be replaced by Leslie Bresnen, who became the orchestra’s permanent conductor. Though he had considerable experience of operatic and choral conducting, orchestral conducting was a new experience for him. Following his appointment, the orchestra again broadened its repertoire, to include more dramatic and dynamically challenging works, such as Smetana’s Šárka . Under his conductorship, audiences grew substantially, and the orchestra’s financial position became more secure than it had ever been in its 100-year history, in part owing to generous sponsorship by local firms and organisations.
The orchestra celebrated its centenary in the 1998-1999 season, culminating in a special concert in the Central Hall in the summer of 1999, where it shared the stage with its guests, the York Philharmonic Male Voice Choir. On the programme was Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody , with the alto solo sung by Jacqueline Edwards, and a number of Wagner choruses. But though the centenary marked the end of the orchestra’s first 100 years it also marked the beginning of its second, and more challenges awaited under Mr. Bresnen’s baton, including performances of symphonies by Dvorák, Nielsen, Tchaikovsky, Parry and Borodin, concertos by Bruch, Grieg, Beethoven, Elgar, Weber and Strauss, and of specially commissioned works by Will Todd and Dick Blackford.
As always, a change of conductor means a change of orientation, and the appointment, in the summer of 2002, of David Blake, Emeritus Professor of Music at the University, as successor to Leslie Bresnen, brought to bear on the orchestra Professor Blake’s wealth of experience and rich knowledge of the repertoire, as well as a new set of aspirations, with higher standards of performance, and still more demanding works, such as Sibelius’s 1st Symphony, performed successfully in November 2004. The 2004-2005 season also saw performances of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony and a new work for voice and orchestra by David Blake himself. From December 2005, Alasdair Jamieson took over the baton, and the focus has again changed, with the performance of a number of works by British composers and several new and demanding works, such as Vaughan Williams’ ‘London’ symphony, Nielsen’s symphony no. 2 ‘The Four Temperaments’, and Rimski-Korsakov’s ‘Sheherezade’. With such performances, the orchestra can look forward to enhancing still further its reputation not only as York’s first amateur orchestra but also as one of its most successful musical organisations.