The thrilling sound of live music, incorporating classical and light pieces, continues to fill the air throughout the year as the members of Southport Orchestra come together each week to rehearse for their annual programme of concerts. The players are fortunate to be part of an organisation with a rich history. Southport Orchestra has been an integral part of the resort’s cultural scene spanning a 130-year period since its commencement in 1886. In that year a small group of local musicians formed The Southport Amateur Orchestra, initially bringing together a few string instruments plus a flute, concertina and a piano and performing public concerts at various venues in the town. It was not long before the orchestra began to grow in size, range of instrumentation and in its standard of playing and by 1899 the new title of Southport Orchestral Society was adopted.
As it developed the orchestra was able to attract high profile guest conductors to its concerts. These included Sir Hubert Parry in 1906 and Samuel Coleridge Taylor who conducted his composition Symphonic Variations on an African Air. Quite some achievement during those early years.
The First World War brought a temporary halt to the orchestra’s activities and it did not reconvene until around 1920. A further period of rapid development followed with the orchestra achieving high standards of musicianship, due in part to members of the Manchester-based Hallé Orchestra participating in their concerts. No less than Sir Henry J. Wood (of The Proms fame) was guest conductor at the orchestra’s concert at Southport’s Cambridge Hall (now The Atkinson) in 1936. So impressed was he with their playing that he returned to conduct a second concert the following year whilst also agreeing to become their patron. The orchestra gained further recognition when Sir Adrian Boult was their guest conductor in 1938.
Between the war years a significant feature of the orchestra’s programme was their Annual Armistice Remembrance Concerts, held in the Garrick Theatre on Lord Street, with all proceeds being donated to the Earl Haig Poppy Fund.
The Second World War further interrupted the orchestra’s progress and on this occasion it was not re-assembled until 1952. At this point it was renamed Southport Concert Orchestra before changing its name again in 1964 to Southport Philharmonic Orchestra. In more recent years it has become the Southport Orchestra, a title it retains to the present day whilst continuing its pattern of presenting three concerts in the town each year.
Having had many excellent resident conductors during its history, since 2009 this position of Musical Director has been held by Jeff Rimmer. Born into a musical family Jeff’s rich and varied experiences, not to mention his infectious enthusiasm, have enabled him to raise the standard of the Southport Orchestra to new heights. He is ably supported by the orchestra’s leader, Melanie Foster.
In 2019 Jeff celebrates a total of 10 continuous years as the orchestra’s resident conductor. Jeff says: “Whilst Musical Director for Southport Orchestra I have seen it go from strength to strength. We have been on a journey together playing a wide and demanding repertoire that has seen our membership grow. This could not have been achieved without the support of an excellent team of members and helpers. Crucially we also gain a great deal of encouragement from our following of regular and enthusiastic concert-goers with audiences of 700 not uncommon, particularly for our summer concerts. Our talented group of musicians continue to set new standards and exceed expectations and we have a lot of exciting plans for the future. I am so proud to be the conductor of this superb group of musicians.”
The orchestra currently has a membership of around 55 players, some of whom joined many years ago with others only having taken the plunge in the past year. Several of the players are private music tutors while some members played instruments when they were younger, took long breaks to concentrate on their careers or families and then rediscovered the joys of music later in life.
Many players are Southport residents whilst others travel in from as far as Preston, St. Helens and Liverpool to attend rehearsals and concerts. A feature of the orchestra is its friendly and supportive ethos, especially towards newer and less experienced players. Whilst everyone works hard during rehearsals there is always a degree of fun, laughter and light-hearted banter.
Leader of the viola section, Penny Foley, who joined the orchestra in 1992, says: “Southport Orchestra is the friendliest orchestra that I have ever played in. Rehearsals are the highlight of my week and every concert brings new challenges and helps stretch my abilities.”
A wide range of professions is represented amongst the membership, albeit some of whom have now reached the age of retirement. These include those in education, the pharmaceutical, nuclear, agricultural and aerospace industries; barristers, solicitors, a police officer, probation officer, a news editor, human resources manager and a financial advisor.
Southport Orchestra is part of a wider community of musicians maintaining close links with Crosby and Ormskirk Orchestras with some members playing on a regular basis in more than one. The three orchestras are keen to support each other, attending each other’s concerts and “borrowing” people where needed in order to ensure 60-plus players take part in each concert.
The orchestra performs a wide repertoire of music focused primarily on the classics. However it is equally at home playing more popular pieces such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “The Dam Busters’ March”. Conductor Jeff is also a firm believer in introducing players and the audience to lesser known composers and works such as Carl Reinecke’s Flute Concerto and Vasily Kalinnikov’s Symphony No. 1; and although Tchaikovsky is always popular few have his 3rd Symphony in their repertoire. Challenging the players and the listeners can be both exciting and rewarding, if not a little daunting at times!
Another aim of the orchestra, which is self-funding and relies on member subscriptions and ticket sales, is to encourage young people to develop their interest in music and in recent years has loaned an instrument to a young student and has paid for peripatetic music lessons at a local school.
As an experiment during 2017 the orchestra switched the date and time of their summer concert to a Sunday afternoon in order to encourage families to experience a concert of light classical music of interest to children and young people. The concert proved to be a huge success with many younger people in the audience as well as taking part and as a consequence Sunday afternoon summer concerts at the Floral Hall on Southport’s Promenade are set to continue for some time to come.
The orchestra is always pleased to welcome new players, particularly in the string sections, and musicians who have reached a reasonable standard are welcome to take part in rehearsals. They take place every Tuesday evening between 7-45 and 10 pm at All Saints’ Church, Rawlinson Road, Southport PR9 9JB (entrance adjacent to Lewis Court). Come and join a friendly and supportive group of musicians who are willing to share their musical skills and experience and introduce others to the joys of playing in an orchestra. As philosopher (and composer) Nietzsche said: “Without music life would be a mistake!”