40 Years Ago…

The Orchestra – 40 years ago…

I first joined Southport Orchestra forty years ago, and this is a brief description of what it was like then, and of some of the interesting characters who should not be forgotten. Inevitably, the humorous side of things stick in my memory more than the music, so please do not take this as a sign of disrespect.

In 1973, having just moved to the area to work in Jacobs’ Biscuit Factory, my wife suggested that I have Cello lessons, little knowing that she was condemning herself to decades of concert attendance. She found an advert placed by Miss Barbara Johnston of Coudray Road, Southport. Barbara proved to be a fascinating character. She had been a land-girl in the war, and had once been employed as a live-in gardener/cellist for three lake-district ladies who were short for a quartet. After my first lesson, she asked if I would like to join Southport Orchestra, so I turned up at the Unitarian Church Hall in Portland Street and quickly learnt two important lessons.

The kafuffle which was apparent as I arrived proved to be due to the fact that Brian Ward (famous for stringing and playing his violin left-handed, so that the violin neck stuck up in a different direction to everyone else in the world) had sat in Albert Engel’s seat, behind the leader. So the first lesson was: be careful where you sit. I can remember not only the first piece we played, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, but also the actual notes I played, which included a C Natural instead of a C sharp in the opening theme. Everyone looked round at me with horror, so the second lesson was: you can’t get away with wrong notes in an orchestra.

Helen Hogg conducted the Orchestra. Helen taught string instruments in several schools in the area, including St. Edwards, Merchant Taylors’ and Seafield, and was a very encouraging teacher, well liked by her pupils. She conducted the school orchestras and frequently took all of them to Music Festivals and would be thus competing against herself. She was a good musician, and was, to use a modern phrase, very focussed on her orchestras and the music they made. Despite the good results she obtained, she was very nervous before concerts, and smoked like a chimney whether she was nervous or not (even during rehearsals).

The Leader then was Lesley Kemplay, who must have been a teenager at the time. She was the mainstay, both as a leader and a soloist. I wish I could play like Lesley, but I can only claim to be similarly accident-prone. I once left some glass tumblers on top of the car in London, and they dropped off about a mile later. Lesley once left her beautiful violin, in its case, on top of her car, but did not notice it falling off. It was returned following an appeal in the local newspaper. There is also a rumour that she played one concert with Wellington boots hidden under her long frock. She had been gardening and forgot to change!

Next to Lesley sat Muriel Kelly, who managed, when playing, to look severe and shocked at the same time. Once, having just turned over a page to reveal music black with semitones, she famously said ‘I am not playing THAT!’ If she went wrong, she would (allegedly) point at the music and look accusingly at Lesley so as to put the blame on her. The team of Lesley and Muriel became literally inseparable at one concert, when Lesley’s bow got caught up in Muriel’s string adjusters.

Southport Violas were lead by Orchestra chairman John Fowler, who also played for Crosby Orchestra and regularly tried to poach players for Southport. Crosby Violas were lead by Orchestra chairman Don Boutle, who also played for Southport Orchestra and regularly tried to poach players for Crosby. The similarity did not stop there, in that they were both good players, and fine gentlemen.

The Cellos were lead by Dorothy Price, a super player and lovely lady. On one occasion I was sitting next to her playing the Peer Gynt suite, and she suggested a job sharing arrangement. We had to play the slightly awkward phrase:

So she said ‘I’ll play ..’

‘which is quite easy, just coming down in semitones, and you play’

It worked a treat, and I imagined that there would be many opportunities for such teamwork in the future. Sadly I have not been able to find many.

The Principal Trombone was a larger-than-life character called Bill Roscoe. He had a booming voice which matched his playing, and would often start a rehearsal by announcing that his mate and second trombone (Mr Rimmer – No relation to Jeff) would not be coming because of the tide. (He was a fisherman or shrimper). Bill would sometimes explain that you can play a transposed alto clef part by turning the music upside-down and pretending you are playing the tenor saxophone. (I may have mis-remembered the details). On one terrible occasion, his part was missing, and he announced in a furious voice that ‘Some silly bugger with a warped sense of humour has pinched my music!’ I scurried round looking for it, and found it on Helen’s rostrum. Quietly bringing this to her attention, we smuggled it out into the side room, so she could ‘find’ it there and come in with it. This was a prudent subterfuge; in a later incident Bill got so mad at Helen that he hurled his music stand at her, narrowly missing Lesley.

Peter Fletcher, our principal bassoon, used to come in for concerts at that time, and regular Southport Players such as Kath Kenrick, Brian Boothroyd and Harvey Sprake are still playing with Crosby or Ormskirk orchestras. Apologies to anyone I have missed.

We had some fine concerts, mostly in the Prince of Wales Hotel Ballroom, and had some good soloists. I remember Alan Traverse, then the leader of the RLPO, playing the Lark Ascending with us. Unfortunately, in the middle of a sublime solo passage, a waitress fiddled with cups behind a curtain, thus adding tea-cup clinks to the music. Unfortunate though this was, it seemed very Southport, somehow. In 1981 Michael and Jacqueline Thomas gave us a fine performance of the Brahms Double concerto for Violin and Cello; They were founder members of the Brodsky Quartet, for whom Jacqueline still plays the Cello. Terry Sutcliffe was principal clarinet of the Southport Orchestra, and played many concertos brilliantly.

I hope that the above gives you a flavour of the times, and a picture of some of the people involved.

Chris Cresswell 2013