Memorial address for Michael Oliver

It is with great sadness that we had to say good bye to Michael Oliver, one of our longest-serving members and a great friend to many in the ochestra, in December last year. The last concert he played with us was our anniversary concert in November – what a fitting finale to his longstanding commitment to the orchestra.

Here is the memoria address by Christopher Joseph, who had known Michael for nearly all of the 50 years he was part of the orchestra – who better to write such an address?

Michael Oliver

When I came to Wiltshire in 1967 Michael, and his family, were already long-established as central to the musical life of the area.  Indeed wherever you went Michael was almost sure to be found playing.  Michael has been involved in so many groups that I ask you to forgive me if, in a brief tribute, I tread lightly over those I know least about.

For example Michael founded and conducted the Devizes Evening Orchestra for decades; offering much enjoyed playing opportunities, and it continues to this day.  Also Michael was part of numerous chamber groups both as player and director. He ran a summer music school for primary children, described by Naomi Ibbetson as “just brilliant” and “I am sure will be remembered fondly by a whole generation in Devizes”

I would like to focus on three large groups in which Michael was at the centre of their work for decades.

Naomi writes “Michael was an active member of Devizes Musical Theatre for 44 years and spent 12 of those as our musical director.  He was made a life member in 1999 and had promised to play in our upcoming April production. He was very kind; always encouraging those less confident and was so generous with his time and expertise”.  I personally have seen recent DYMT productions and pay tribute to their exuberant and joyful vitality together with an extraordinary level of expertise in drama, singing and dance; all built on foundations that Michael took such care to nurture.

Of the Swindon Symphony Orchestra the present conductor Malcolm Webb writes: “Michael was part of SSO for as long as I can remember.  I am almost certain that he was a founder member.  He was well loved by all who knew him at SSO and was so supportive of young players coming through, regardless of what instrument they played.  He was also extremely supportive of me as a fledgling conductor.  He was always willing to share his vast orchestral experience in a quiet and understated way. His wisdom was something you always wanted to take on board”. It was a quite remarkable record and Michael told me that he was so pleased to have been able to take part in the celebration concert in the STEAM museum last November.

I shared music with Michael most often with the North Wiltshire Orchestra.  In the autumn of 1966 Michael was one of a small group that decided that there was a gap between the established orchestras in Swindon and Trowbridge and so North Wilts was founded.  I arrived for the second concert and Michael was of fundamental importance to the orchestra.  He was variously Leader of the whole orchestra, leader of the 2nd violins and leader of the violas.  But he could be just as happy sitting at the back and helping others. One of the viola section writes: “My memory of Michael is of a man of unbounded enthusiasm for whatever he undertook.  He had an amazing capacity for encouragement and patience, particularly with amateurs. He had the most astonishing memory of people, events and occasions.”  Michael gave a wonderful 50 years of service to the orchestra and he told me that he was so very pleased that he was able to play in the anniversary concert last autumn.

Michael’s contribution was just as vital off the stage as on it.  He was a splendid committee member.  His knowledge of the orchestral repertoire was encyclopaedic. I remember enthusing about the possibility of playing some large symphony saying that “The orchestration looks just right” and Michael replying “I’m not so sure Christopher.  The violas have to divide into 3 subsections in places.  As we only have 4 players this may be tricky” A typical gentle, humorous comment.  His knowledge of players was similarly astonishing. At our last meeting he could recall exact details of string players, who had long gone from the orchestra. When you wanted extras Michael knew where to turn.  His judgements were exact, but charitable.  Of a brass player, from the distant past, notorious for wrong entries he said: “I think he must have missed the school lessons on counting up to large numbers”

There are three distinct threads that run through Michael’s life.  Loyalty comes first. Michael had an absolute loyalty to his musical roots here in Wiltshire and Devizes in particular.  With his skills he could so easily have gone to play regularly in Bath or Oxford.  He never did.  This is where he was brought up and this is where he served. Dedication comes second.  Once Michael had committed to a group he stayed.  North Wilts and Swindon both have had down times as well as good ones.  Michael stayed with us through the hard times, when numbers dropped. I know that he was delighted to see the upturns in both orchestras in recent years.  Service is the last.  Michael was never one to push himself forward.  It was a life dedicated to helping others to achieve the very best that they could and always offering them encouragement and help. David Price writes: ”As Director of Music I was ever grateful for his willingness to help when we needed extra string support.  He was always one of the first people to turn to.  He had the extra advantage of being perpetually cheerful and particular fun as a debunker of any pretentiousness by people or institutions”

Michael was the gentlest of men.  I never heard him raise his voice.  He was utterly devoid of that waspish criticism that so often poisons the well of amateur music making. He was unique and irreplaceable. He leaves a gap that no one person can fill and we shall not see his like again.  But, let us rejoice for the way in which he enriched the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of young people. After his long struggles with illness, borne with such dignity and calm, let us give thanks for all that he did and may he rest in peace.

Christopher Joseph (20th January 2017)