BASINGSTOKE Symphony Orchestra this year celebrates an amazing 90 years of music making in the town.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic meaning rehearsals and performances have taken something of a hit this year, the milestone means a lot to performers and audiences in the town.

The Gazette took a look at the history behind the current 70-strong orchestra, from its humble beginnings, to producing world-class orchestral talent.

The orchestra was formed in 1930 by local musicians for the enjoyment of making music.

It was originally known as Basingstoke Orchestral Society, until the late 1960s when the name was changed to Basingstoke Symphony Orchestra.

For 60 of its 90 years, it was the only symphony orchestra to perform regularly in Basingstoke.

Clive Evans, the orchestra’s concert manager, joined in 1964 as an oboe player, making him the oldest serving member of the current group.

He told the Gazette: “I joined the orchestra as a teenager in 1964 and have played oboe and cor anglais ever since - some 56 years.

“At that time, Peter Marchbank who was my music teacher at what was then Queen Mary's Grammar School (now the Vyne) had succeeded Frank Banwell as the orchestra's conductor. The leader of the orchestra was Neil Etherington and the Secretary was Reg Charlick who went on to serve the orchestra for over 60 years.

“Reg Charlick sadly died a few years ago but did so much work to keep the orchestra going, especially in the tough times.”

Clive credits Peter Marchbank for much of his enjoyment of orchestral music.

“[He] gave me so much encouragement and support in my musical studies as well as giving me the opportunity to play concertos with the orchestra on a number of occasions,” he said.

“I will always be grateful to him.”

Mr Marchbank went on to work for the BBC and was in turn succeeded by Andrew Forbes who was head of Music at Robert May's School.

The symphony orchestra’s current conductor, Stephen Scotchmer, was formerly head of Music at Ranelagh School in Bracknell and has now been with the group for 40 years.

Reminiscing on the ways in which the orchestra has changed over the last five decades, Clive said: “The standard of the orchestra has been transformed since I joined. The town has expanded beyond recognition and there is a much larger pool of talented musicians to draw from. Many of these players have benefited from the growth of high quality peripatetic instrumental teaching in their schools. A number of our players today are indeed music teachers themselves. Some, like myself, have studied at conservatoires and others have much experience in youth and university orchestras. There are no 'passengers' in the orchestra these days!

“The standard is high, thanks in no small part to the expertise, rehearsal technique and encouragement of Stephen Scotchmer. The playing standard and the fact that we play in the Anvil three times a year (the only local non-professional group to do so) mean that we also attract good players from all over the county and beyond.”

Clive said he remembers some “characters” in particular from over the years he has played with the group.

In the 1960s, he played alongside Bill Woodcock (cello), Dr Monk (flute), Dr Edwards (bassoon) who was a local psychiatrist, Dr Wisdom (violin) who was a local GP, Harold Hedderly (violin) was a local builder, Ray Oliver (violin) , who has now retired from the orchestra but is still a near neighbour of Clive in Oakley, Albert Featherstone (oboe), who was a former army musician, George Fawcett (bass) and Ivor Griffiths (cello).

Ivor ran the Vernon Griffiths Furniture store in the town for many years and had been a good enough cellist to earn a place at one of the conservatoires, but his father had made him help out in the family business instead, while George Fawcett lived in Farnborough and was responsible for inventing and manufacturing the 'Fawcett extension', which you will see attached to the scrolls of double basses to this day. He manufactured these in a shed in his garden.

In the 1960s, the orchestra rehearsed at Fairfields Infants School as the headteacher at the time was a violinist in the orchestra and let them use the hall.

Clive recalls the challenges of such a rehearsal location: “The school only had tiny infant chairs, so we had to stack them up in order to have a seat tall enough to play on! We later moved to the Junior School and then on to the Vyne, Brighton Hill and now Christchurch, Chineham.

“Concerts pre-Anvil were mostly at the Shruberry School Hall (now QMC) but we also played at the Haymarket, St Michaels and All Saints Churches as well as giving smaller Christmas concerts at Sarum Hill and the United Reform Church.”

Reg Charlick managed to salvage the thick plywood sheets and other timber that had been used as a barrier during the redevelopment of the town centre, to create staging for the orchestra’s concerts.

He transformed these into collapsible staging that was used at the venues. He would arrive on the morning of the concert with the staging on a trailer attached to his old Vauxhall car, and a “small army of orchestral members” would set to and erect a stage in time for the afternoon rehearsal, Clive said.

“Thanks to the building of the Anvil, this thankfully is no longer necessary and we now have an internationally renowned concert hall with fabulous acoustics in which to perform,” said Clive.

“Even though financially it is a struggle to maintain our presence at the Anvil, it is a wonderful venue in which to play - we only wish a few more people would turn up to our concerts and give us a try!

“The orchestra's Committee works hard to raise funds, publicise concerts and devise programmes that are appealing - for example, film, family, fantasy and dance concerts as well as popular classics. We are keen to get young people interested in orchestral music and have an initiative whereby children under 16 have free admission apart from the Anvil's £2 booking fee.”

Moving forward, the orchestra is also keen to continue to encourage young talented musicians to join them.

“We are currently liaising with the conservatoires to give rising young classical 'stars' the opportunity to perform concertos with us” said Clive.

“Recently an amazing young lady called Nurry Lee performed the Beethoven Emperor Piano Concerto with us - a sparkling performance!”

Scheduled performances of Elgar's famous Cello Concerto in March with another talented young soloist, Rebecca McNaught, and the Bruch Violin Concerto with dynamic young violinist, Roberts Banalas have been put on hold due to the pandemic.

Clive said: “Both these soloists have agreed to come back and play once this awful crisis is over - we hope it won't be too long! The orchestra has been unable to perform or rehearse since March but we have plans to begin some limited, socially distanced rehearsals in January depending on the ever-changing Covid rules. We sincerely hope these very talented young soloists will manage to get through the tough period caused by Covid and that the Anvil will reopen once again in the not too distant future.”

Over the years, the orchestra has held concerts across the borough, including in Odiham, Hartley Wintney, Whitchurch and Deane, using a scaled-down chamber orchestra to play in the local churches.

The orchestra string players played, for many years, by candlelight at Deane Church at Christmas and pupils from Hilsea College (now Oakley Hall) would attend.

Clive played his first concerto with the orchestra (Handel No.1 in B flat) at one one of these Deane Christmas Concerts, with what he described as “a magical atmosphere”.

With the pressures of performing three times a year at the Anvil, such small concerts became increasingly difficult to put on and for many years the orchestra stopped doing them.

However, in 2004 Clive decided to get some of the string players together to do a chamber orchestra concert of oboe and cello music at Deane in aid of Dogs for the Disabled.

The church was packed and the event raised £1200 for the charity.

Now, the group plays many smaller concerts, including every year for the Petersfield Festival. This also raises much needed funds for the orchestra and helps to keep them playing at the Anvil.

This is something the entire group is extremely excited about being able to do again.

When asked for a stand-out memory from his 56 years with the orchestra, Clive said: “Probably our most memorable performance was with soprano Lesley Garratt when the Anvil first opened - the hall was packed and it was our most successful concert ever!”