History of the NWSO

50 Years: The North Wiltshire Orchestra

In the summer of 1966 a meeting was held at Marlborough to discuss the founding of an amateur chamber orchestra in North Wiltshire. Rehearsals were held and the first concert was given in the autumn of that year at Fynamore School, Calne.

The orchestra was designed not to trespass on the existing ones in Swindon and Trowbridge but to serve the market towns in the north of the county, hence the name. In the early days, there were strong links with Marlborough College as the conductor Graham Smallbone (1966 – 1971) was Director of Music there, so teachers and pupils were an important part of the personnel.

Long-term loyalty has been a feature of the orchestra.  Two founder members, Rosemary Stanbury and Michael Oliver, are still playing with us*, as are at least four others with over forty years’ service. Initially there were only two concerts per year; the winter weather was reckoned to be too severe for rehearsal attendance! The autumn concert was for symphony orchestra; the summer one for a “classical” ensemble. True to its name the orchestra performed in many towns, including Swindon, but also Marlborough, Calne, Chippenham, Devizes and even as far afield as Warminster and Westbury. Summer concerts were often at Lacock Abbey or Dauntsey’s School.

After five years Graham left for Eton and Christopher Finzi succeeded him as conductor (1971 – 1997). Under his direction the orchestra developed into a full symphony orchestra and widened the scope of recruitment so that players came, and continued to come, from a wide catchment living up to its name.

Some highlights in the ensuing years included Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, Shostakovich 5th Symphony, Sibelius and Rachmaninov 2nd.  There was a memorable 10th anniversary concert, but sadly there seem to have been no special events to mark the 20th anniversary, nor, later on, the 30th.

In 1997 Christopher Finzi left and was succeeded by Alan Harwood. In his sadly brief tenure (1997 – 2002) he impressed many by his musicality and commitment. Before this a decision had been made to give three concerts a year and this was followed by a move to St Andrew’s Church, Chippenham as our permanent concert base.  Both changes have been hugely beneficial to the orchestra, enabling us to stabilise membership and develop an audience base.

Alan died in 2003 and was followed by Chris Thompson (2002 – 2012), who was Director of Music at Dauntsey’s School. He forged strong links there and we are grateful for the many years of hospitality offered to us by the school. During his time, we celebrated our 40th anniversary, with a commissioned piece from Philip Martin, who came and played Rachmaninov’s 2nd piano concerto. We also held a play day with a dinner at Dauntsey’s.

In 2012 Chris Thompson left and was succeeded by Alex Arkwright, thus reviving the link with Marlborough College, where Alex is Head of Wind and Brass. Under his direction the membership has expanded and he has constantly challenged us to greater heights both in playing standard and repertoire. Recent highlights have included Tchaikovsky’s 5th and Vaughan-Willams’ 5th symphonies, plus Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

In November 2016, we celebrated our 50th anniversary – a time to thank the many people, past and present, who have made this such a flourishing amateur orchestra.

(Christopher Joseph)

(*Sadly Michael Oliver died shortly after our 50th anniversary concert.)

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