History of the CRSO
After World War II, there were precious few opportunities for serious minded musicians in Medway to perform classical music together. It was not until 1969 that Bill Holtby, then aged 34, began to work towards his dream of a local orchestra. His adventurous courage, hard work, dogged perseverance, and his ideals were to change the musical landscape in Medway, probably forever.
Under their conductor, James Clinch, also a skilled oboe player, the Rochester Arts Orchestra (RAO) was born, taking its name in part from the Medway College of Art who kindly provided the fledgling group with a rehearsal room at their temporary annexe at the old St Peters School opposite Fort Pitt. Rehearsals began in September 1969.
No programme survives from the first concert of 14 October 1969, so we cannot be sure of the names of all the orchestra's members or their total number. We do, however, have a poster and appreciative letters, one from the Vicar of St Nicholas saying, "Many people have said to me how much they enjoyed the concert. I am delighted it was such a success". However, a crisis occurred when the advertised Leader of the orchestra never arrived on the night, and it seems nobody connected with the orchestra ever saw him again. Derek Webb "stood in" for the Leader minutes before the concert began and performed this vital role for the next 35 years.
In 1971 orchestra was constituted as a society and registered as a charity, an unusual year because three concerts were given in the name of RAO and two in Otham Church under the title, Otham Festival Orchestra, with most of the RAO members performing, all with James Clinch conducting. The first at Cobham Church on 8 May was notable because the Vicar announced there was to be no applause. Somewhat surprised, everyone dutifully complied!
On 18 November 1972 in St. Margaret's Church, Rochester, RAO used wind instruments for the first time, oboes and horns, in Mozart's Symphony No 29. The Programme Notes echo Mozart's own light touch, concluding: "The third movement with its unisons for oboes and horns is very original but the fourth movement is pure opera buffa. You expect something deeper? Hang it all, he was only eighteen when he wrote this!" This was the climax to a busy and successful year with players seated for performance of the Mozart symphony totalling 24.
An important milestone in the early life of RAO was their first concert in Rochester Cathedral on Saturday 4 May 1974 with Martin Hughes deputising for James Clinch, convalescing following back surgery. A report in the local press ran: "Rochester Arts Orchestra ... has in the few years of its existence reached a standard of performance which would be a credit to any community ... last Saturday's concert was a success as evidenced by the ovation from the audience."
On 15 November 1975 an all-Beethoven concert was recorded in the Cathedral by BBC Radio Medway. This was transmitted on Sunday 25 January 1976. A week after the concert, a letter headed "What a splendid concert" in the Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham News said "I hope that the packed Cathedral will encourage Rochester Arts Orchestra to give more concerts like this. I know I speak on behalf of all the audience when I say, 'Thank you for a most enjoyable evening.'"
In 1977, with thirty concerts behind it, the orchestra took on its biggest challenge yet - a concert on Saturday 26 February in Medway's major concert venue, Chatham's Central Hall. An 'all-Brahms' featured the 'Tragic' Overture and Derek Collier as soloist in Violin Concerto in D followed by the composer's Symphony No 4. Musically, the concert was a great success. Sadly, the same could not be said for audience numbers. The reviewer from the 'Evening Post' summed it up in his headline: "Where, oh where were the people?"
On Saturday 19 May 1979, the soloist in Weber's Clarinet Concerto No.2 was Jack Brymer. Impressed by the RAO's professionalism, he consented to becoming the orchestra's President - a marvellous way to bring to a close the orchestra's first ten years.
Just two months into the new decade of 1980 and a new RAO logo appeared for the first time on the front of the programmes. The logo was designed by Bill Holtby and used in all orchestra publicity until the official name of the orchestra was changed.
The first 1980 concert, the orchestra's fortieth, was on 18 February and publicised as an "Edward Elgar Concert" with Christopher Van Kampen the soloist in the Violincello Concerto. The local press reported: "On this showing the Rochester Arts Orchestra deserves all the support that we can give. It is a group of which any town in the country would be proud."
At the beginning of 1987 the orchestra was saddened by the death of Edna Hutchinson, the oldest member of the orchestra, possibly the first to be recruited by Bill Holtby. A concert was given in her memory on 7 March 1987.
'Last Night of the Proms' was the billing for the first RAO concert of 1988 on with a Union Jack featured on the cover of the programme. A review of the concert in Chatham News headed 'First-class fun at Proms' Last Night' was almost ecstatic: "The orchestra performed classic Proms music in its first concert of the year, which was rapturously received by a full house at the Central Hall, Chatham, on Saturday night ... The applause was deafening and the audience was jumping up and down by the end, demanding encore after encore." By this time the orchestra featured more than 80 musicians.
On 28 November 1994 RAO celebrated its 25th Silver Jubilee with an "Elgar Concert". The local press previewed the concert reporting poignantly: "It will be one of the last concerts conducted by James Clinch who feels it is time to hand over the baton to a younger man."
20 May 1995 saw founder-conductor James Clinch's final concert. This was reported by a local paper under the heading: "Conductor lays down baton" alongside a photograph of a beaming "Jimmy" seated at the podium during a break in rehearsals in the Central Hall. He had just conducted RAO's ninety-ninth concert.
After a lengthy selection process, the conductorship was awarded to Warwick Potter, who held the position for five years. During this time he conducted a memorable series of concerts featuring Rachmaninov's 2nd and 3rd Symphonies and Symphonic Variations. In 2002 the membership voted overwhelmingly in favour of changing the orchestra's name to the City of Rochester Symphony Orchestra.
In November 1997 every member of the orchestra mourned the death of its Founder. The concert of 7 March 1998 was given in appreciation of Bill Holtby. In that programme the orchestra's Chairman, Colin Hoad, referred to "the initial idea and vision for the orchestra which our founding member, Bill Holtby, planted and nurtured. His death was a great loss and it is with pride we give this concert in deep appreciation of what Bill has bequeathed to all of us."
The twenty-first century began with a concert sponsored by the Friends, with, for the first time, a concert with four soloists - for Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante. During this season the Friends awarded Honorary Membership to Dr. Andrew Ashbee in appreciation of his well-read concert programme notes over so many years and his pre-concert talks.
In 2000 Harry Curtis was appointed as the new conductor following the previous year's selection process. The following year a symphonic work was commissioned from composer Tom Armstrong based on maritime themes and the Historic Dockyard. Pupils from Cliffe Woods School took part in workshops with Tom, as part of the orchestra's continuing education outreach work, composing a piece for percussion and recorders which they performed in the concert to great applause.
2002 was a year sadly marked by the sudden death of Terry Hill, writer of the previous orchestra history, and long-term playing member. CRSO welcomed the winner of the Haverhill Competition for the first time on 1 March 03, pianist Marisa Gupta.
An important era in the continuing development of CRSO, arrived with the appointment of Michael Thompson as Principal Conductor in 2003. The summer saw a successful joint concert with Medway Youth Orchestra. However CRSO was sad to hear news of the death of their much admired President, Jack Brymer, and the untimely death of Maureen Harrison, principal cellist for most of the orchestra's life and, with husband Paul, a very active member of the Friends. In May, Derek Webb, the orchestra's leader retired, and was most ably succeeded, from amongst the players, by the present Leader, Lindsey Purcell.
The orchestra returned to Rochester Cathedral in 2005 giving a sell-out concert as part of the Rotary Clubs' centenary celebrations. The end of the Season saw the retirement of Bernard Parris who had most professionally served as Chairman of the Orchestra since 1998. Bernard was succeeded by CRSO Friend Dr. Ellie Johnson-Searle. In October 2006 the orchestra again gave a memorable concert with 4 soloists, this time Schumann's Konzertstuck for horns.
Richard Hickox, Musical Director of the City of London Sinfonia accepted our invitation to become the orchestra's new president helping to focus both orchestras' joint quest to extend access to live classical music in Medway. In the summers of 2007 and 2008 CRSO performed at the Snodland Summer Festival.
Following five excellent years as principal conductor Michael Thompson handed the baton to Peter Bassano and Tony Halstead who each conducted great concerts with the orchestra during the next season. Sadly during the year our president Richard Hickox died suddenly which was a great loss. At year end the CRSO was recognised for its excellent musical, educational and outreach work over more than a generation here in Medway, winning, jointly, the Music Award in the prestigious Medway Culture and Design Awards.
This new Season starts with the appointment of Peter Bassano as the new Musical Director. With a steadily growing membership of younger players and an enthusiastic and loyal audience, the life of CRSO after 40 years seems to be only just beginning!