Winchester Music Club Orchestra in concert

WMC Orchestra History

The history of the orchestra established alongside Winchester Music Club choir clearly followed much the same path for most of its history; the Music Club musical director conducting both the choir and orchestra.

In 1996 the orchestra stepped away from being part of Winchester Music Club, though it continues to [what is current status and role?]

However, to allow a more detailed reflection from an orchestral perspective, we have extracted some elements of the orchestra’s history from a memoir written for WMC by Fiona Smith in 2011. 

Musical Directors of WMC

Christopher Cowan

Christopher Cowan came from Uppingham to be Master of Music at Winchester College in 1953. Tall, imposing and a fine musician, he conducted Music Club until his retirement in 1970.  In 1999 orchestra member Fiona Smith wrote this programme note for Elijah, performed in memory of Christopher:

“He was a major influence on the musical life of the whole Winchester community for the best part of two decades. Among the Cowans’ friends were some of the great musicians of the time, and they came to perform as soloists in Winchester, often in the Music Club concerts: Jelly d’Aranyi and Adila Fachiri (great-nieces of the legendary Joachim), Leon Goossens, Bernard Michelin, Peter Wallfisch, Isobel Baillie, Astra Desmond, to name but a few.

Christopher made sure that a rich variety of repertoire was performed, from a pioneering commemorative performance in 1963 of the new edition of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, to Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for soprano and eight cellos. He made sure that the major works of the great composers were heard – sometimes the choirs of the County High School and St. Swithun’s, as well as Winchester College, were invited to join Music Club to sing in the Cathedral concerts – Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Verdi, Elgar… and generations of young people were thrilled by their first taste of large-scale performance.

A pupil at Winchester College in the 1920s, Christopher was taught by George Dyson and distinguished himself as a pianist and organist. After winning an organ scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford, he studied conducting with Malcolm Sargent and piano with Frank Merrick: he loved the fact that Merrick’s teacher Leschetizky had been taught by Czerny who was a pupil of Beethoven.

Christopher’s wife Jane, a brilliant cellist, had been a pupil of Emanuel Feuermann and Pablo Casals; she founded the Casals International Cello Centre in London, which later moved to Edrom in Berwickshire when Christopher retired from Winchester. She had been a soloist at the Salzburg Festival, and her many distinguished pupils later included Thomas Igloi and Steven Isserlis – and also the writer and broadcaster Antony Hopkins, who refers to her in glowing terms in his book Beating Time: “a cellist of the very highest quality…a born teacher, her superb musicianship being radiated to all and sundry on infectious waves of enthusiasm”. She reverted to playing the double bass in the orchestra, and would occasionally direct rehearsals from that position – the strings were left in no doubt as to the crucial importance of sharpening their leading notes!

(When I was married, aged 19, and became part of the College community, I was extremely fortunate to be taken under Jane’s wing, and for several years she gave me two cello lessons a week – an unforgettable experience – for which she refused any fee.)

The Cowans’ children, Francis, Maeve and Lucy (cello and two violins) each in turn a member of the National Youth Orchestra, sometimes came in on concert days to strengthen the strings.

In the 1950s, Music Club’s two choral concerts both took place in the Cathedral, in November and February, but in the 1960s the spring concert moved to the recently-built New Hall. The Orchestra used to rehearse every Tuesday evening during the winter terms – it included some remarkable characters.

The principal cellist then was John Gwilt, a pupil of Jane Cowan, who performed the Schumann Concerto with the Orchestra in the Guildhall in 1966. His brother David, a pianist and composer, led the violas, and also conducted the Amateur Orchestra (now the Winchester Symphony Orchestra). Other local principal cellists were Dorothy Milner, Betty Graty from King Alfred’s College, and Henriette Shaw who came from a professional orchestra in Belgium.

The second violins were led for many years by Nellie Fulcher, a graduate of the RAM, one of whose compositions was performed at the opening ceremony of the RAM concert hall in 1912. Nellie was also the Hampshire Chronicle music correspondent, and wrote beautifully-worded reviews of all the Music Club concerts from the heart of the Orchestra. Another second violin was Audrey Dobson, whose husband Bertram was a tenor lay clerk in the Cathedral and a leading light in the Operatic Society. For many years the violas were led by Anne Harris, another fine teacher and player, who made it a point of honour to arrive ten minutes early to prepare.

The wind section in those days was a good mixture of local players, sometimes with professional help when required for concerts. Joan King (wife of a Winchester housemaster) was a professional flautist; John Milner was a fine amateur clarinettist, who also owned and ran the local photographic shop. His assistant Arthur Punter played in the second violins, and was a stylish leader of the Amateur Orchestral Society. Stanley Payne, an irrepressible raconteur, played first trumpet for many years and kept the visiting brass players from London under strict control. Alwyn Surplice, the Cathedral Organist, played the organ continuo when needed, and Raymond Humphrey, the Winchester College Organist, played the harpsichord continuo.

Christopher Cowan’s beat was majestic; he had the endearing habit, early in a final chorus, of checking his watch during an up-beat: he could speed up if necessary so that visiting players wouldn’t miss the last train to London.”

The Orchestra gave annual orchestral concerts in the Guildhall, often with a well-known concerto soloist. Al Hume (later one of the King’s Singers) once played the double bass as a guest, and kept us well entertained. There was one memorable occasion during a Guildhall concert when the lights failed; the orchestra continued to play for several minutes from memory, but gradually the sound dwindled to nothing. Audience and orchestra eventually had to find their way out in darkness – quite an adventure with fragile instruments.

Another time a well-known pianist had a memory lapse in the middle of a concerto, and took a wrong turning; Christopher kept absolutely calm, skilfully and unobtrusively pulling everything back together – very few of the audience noticed that anything had been amiss.

John Thorn (former Head Master of Winchester College) writes: “Christopher never bullied, outwardly he never seemed even to get cross. He never sulked, or took revenges, or thrived on the making of enemies. He achieved that strange miracle of getting people to perform great music because they loved it, and because they loved him.”

Angus Watson

Angus Watson succeeded Christopher Cowan in 1970 (Angus’s wife Alison played the double bass, but did not direct any rehearsals!). The Orchestra still gave concerts in the Guildhall – in 1971 the cellist Rohan de Saram gave a spell-binding performance of the Elgar concerto – but Angus at once insisted upon engaging professional wind and brass players for all concerts, as well as some extra string players, a practice which still continues. Whereas Christopher kept a gentle hand on the reins, Angus tightened things up, introducing auditions for new players, and organising a rigorous rehearsal schedule. His programme planning was adventurous, and made well in advance – Jane Austin has kindly provided a copy of the following note he sent out in the summer of 1971:

“Music Club Orchestra has been asked to perform in a Concert in aid of SHELTER on 25th May 1972 in Winchester Cathedral. I hope that as many members of the String section as possible will be able to do so. Soloists include Gerald English (tenor), Julian Smith (bass), Barry Tuckwell (horn), Neil Black (oboe), Martin Neary (the new Cathedral Organist), and the programme includes an Oboe Concerto by Vivaldi, Haydn’s Organ Concerto No. 1, Bach’s Cantata No. 56, Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. ……..1972 is a big year for the Hampshire Branch of SHELTER, and this Concert is intended to be something of a focal point. I do hope that as many members of the Music Club Chorus as possible will feel able to support us on this occasion, which promises to be a very exciting one.” It certainly was very exciting – an unforgettable evening indeed!

One of many memorable performances was his interpretation and direction of Britten’s War Requiem in 1979. In 1981 we were joined by WinColl Chamber Orchestra strings as the second orchestra in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion; when this was proposed by Angus, there were some disapproving mutterings among Music Club strings; at the first rehearsal, the mutterings ceased at once – the boys’ playing was outstanding.

In 1983, his final year, he put on Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts in the Cathedralin May, and then combined Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in November. For both these concerts we were joined by Bands from the Hampshire Youth Orchestra, and their young percussionists made a sensational contribution, particularly in Belshazzar’s Feast, which Angus himself described as ‘cosmic’. He took great trouble to explain the background context and spiritual significance of each work we performed; his preparation and attention to detail were meticulous, and, as a fine violinist himself, he personally bowed all the string parts.

Angus’s programme notes were always illuminating – he has recently published an acclaimed book on Beethoven’s Chamber Music. When he left to become Dean of Music at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, it was clear that he’d taken Music Club Orchestra to new levels of performance.

Notable orchestra members of the time included Harry Meredith, a charming Welshman who led the 2nd violins for many years, and violist John Cooley, who, with Club Secretary Jack Walters, meticulously compiled a list of works performed by WMC from 1925-1995. Regular visiting players included Cliff Bevan (tuba) who was trombonist of The Temperance Seven, and Barry Glynn on the double-bass – always smiling, and very popular – he still plays with us many years later.

Leaders of the orchestra

Music Club has always rehearsed in the College Music School, and been fortunate to have strong links with the College Music Staff, who provided two long-term Leaders of the Orchestra: from the 1930s to 1960s there was John Sealey, who went away to serve in the RAF during the war, a fine violinist (also an FRCO) who conducted the Winchester Operatic Society in their annual Gilbert and Sullivan productions, and also the Amateur Orchestra. He later became Leader of the Sadler’s Wells Orchestra.

His successor in 1963 was Francis Wells, who led the orchestra with distinction for more than thirty years; he too conducted the Amateur Orchestra and also the Winchester and County Musical Festival. We have had some excellent successors as leader in Averil Carmalt, David Morris, Adrian Adlam (Head of Strings at the College) Elizabeth Russell, Joan Schmeising and Brian Howells. Most of the visiting professionals in wind, brass and strings are on the staff of the College or of the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra.

Guest Conductors

Distinguished guest conductors have included Robert Bottone from Winchester College, also a matchless accompanist; Julian Smith, Director of Win Coll Chapel Music and Quiristers, who was the baritone/bass soloist on many occasions between 1955-95); James Lancelot (now Organist of Durham Cathedral); David Dunnett (now Organist of Norwich Cathedral) and Colin Howard, a fine singer and musician, who took the Orchestra to perform in St. Cross, the programme including Cantos by Arvo Part.

1970s onwards

Winchester Music Club Orchestra music-making continued from strength to strength with conductors Keith Pusey (under whose direction the Orchestra gave concerts in Lymington and Alresford – most rewarding expeditions), Neil Chippington (a Winchester Cathedral Chorister in the 1970s -later Headmaster of St. Paul’s Cathedral School) and then Master of Music Nicholas Wilks. Their fine achievements are fresh in our memory, and are well documented. Nicholas Wilks (a Win Coll Quirister 1970-73 and former conductor of the Hampshire Youth Orchestra) continued to consolidate Dyson’s vision of encouraging music in the community by setting up musical links between the College and the local Primary Schools, including a Vivaldi Gloria project with the Quiristers in New Hall. He was particularly pleased when Bryn Terfel whole-heartedly supported his suggestion that Winchester Music Club Orchestra play in his Elijah in November 2010 – an unforgettable occasion which raised funds both for Bryn Terfel’s charity supporting young singers at the start of their careers and Winchester’s Emmaus project.

WMC Orchestra in the 21st century

Although the Orchestra officially ceased to exist as part of Music Club in 1996, it continues to include “most of the good string players from twenty miles around,” as described by Sir George Dyson, many of whom are teachers of their instruments, and it is in very good heart. This memoir has been put together by Fiona Smith, with help from various knowledgeable friends, particularly from

  • Jane Austin (Jane and Fiona, in their school choirs, sang with Music Club in Gerontius in 1957, and in subsequent concerts
  • Fiona, wife of Julian Smith, has played the cello in the Orchestra since 1964, and Jane since 1968)
  • John and Philly Sargent, who have played in the Orchestra since 1978 (John is also Chairman of the Winchester and County Music Festival, mentioned by Dyson, founded in 1921 ‘to foster the love of music in town, village and school’)
  • Anne Stow, wife of a former College Housemaster (who has played the cello in the Orchestra since 1962 – in 1989 she was the soloist in Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in E major)
  • Welly Green, WMC Concert manager, who played in the Orchestra as a student
  • Christopher Green, WMC Chairman, who played the tuba in the Uppingham School Orchestra conducted by Christopher Cowan before he came to Winchester.