Blowing our own trumpet since 1931

You can download the programme from our Spring 1985 concert - Bryan's first one - on our Downloads page

As local musician Bryan Western directs his 30th year concert on the 21st March, Graham Chalmers asks him to reflect on his life with the Harrogate Symphony Orchestra.

When did all this fascination with music start?

Coming from a family with 4 brothers whose musical upbringing was ‘Sing Something Simple’ on the radio, you can imagine the shock at the age of 9 when I was selected to be a chorister at Bradford Cathedral. This is when my love of choral music started and as a singer, we were expected to sight read anything put in front of us. At school at the age of 11 school, as I was ‘the singer’ I was asked if wanted to play a flute. Not having a clue what one was, I said that I would love to learn one! Realising that music was going to be a big part of my life, I decided to learn the piano at 14. My Gran paid for then lessons and my eldest brother bought a £2 piano (with woodworm we later found out) from a local auction house. Inspired by my music teacher Ronald Fletcher at Grange Boys School in Bradford, I wanted to become a teacher so went to college, formed a chamber orchestra and the rest, as they say, is history.

So how was the relationship with the HSO formed?

Well, initially it wasn’t the HSO but the Harrogate Chamber Orchestra. I think what happened was that someone from the orchestra had attended one of my school concerts. I was teaching at the High School (Granby High in those days) and we were performing Carmina Burana by Carl Orff in St Wilfrid’s Church. Over the short time I had been there, I had managed to establish the most amazing choir of over 190 pupils, staff and parents and an orchestra that consisted of the pupils and peripatetic staff who taught them. The concert was a success and soon after that I had a letter from the Chairman to ask me if I would like to conduct the March concert, as the person who was going to do it, was not available. So there we were in the music room at the Grammar School: me, a wind group and 4 string players! Not the most startling of beginnings but nevertheless enjoyable. Fortunately more players did arrive as the weeks went by and for the first concert we had 21 strings, 12 wind and 2 percussionists. After that first concert I was asked to do the summer concert and then they simply couldn’t get rid of me! Although the inaugural concert on 2nd March was at Ashville College (so we could use their piano for Beethoven’s 3rd concerto) the HCO’s usual ‘home’ was in the Crescent Rooms, then the Parliament Rooms and as time went on, the Lounge Hall.

When did it become the HSO?

It is difficult to know which came first: more players or changing programmes. Certainly we seemed to be getting more and more players arriving for rehearsals and, as I had access to lots of brass players from school, programmes had to be selected to cater for this influx. Hence the move to the Lounge Hall because larger numbers of players had to be accommodated. The move to a symphonic ensemble was quite natural: we were playing many 19th century larger scale works, so in 1990 the committee, with the backing of the members decided to change the name. The result was totally unexpected: members numbers started to rocket and it wasn’t long before we had 60 players.

Any memorable occasions?

So many. Where do I start? I suppose the most proud moment was when, at the age of 14, my daughter Katie played the Dvorak Romance in F. It is difficult to explain this kind of experience, conducting someone so close to you but needless to say, it is something that I will always cherish. The event that lots of people remind me about was around the time we worked with the Rotary Club of Harrogate to raise funds for charity through a venture called ‘One Voice’. We arranged two of these one-day events in the 90s that called on local singers to ‘come and sing’. The first, naturally, took a long time to organise: nearly 2 years. Just before the first one in 1995, one of our cellists commented on the bad cold I was developing. Thinking nothing of it, I continued with the rehearsal only to find myself, late on that Sunday night in St. James’s in Leeds with transverse myelitis and paralised from the waist down. The concert was the following Saturday and there was no way I was going to miss it. The doctors worked miracles and by the Thursday I was released, still unable to walk. I did the concert sitting in a wheelchair with the 2 consultants from St. James’s sitting in the audience. So although this concert was certainly memorable, in a way, every concert is unforgettable: with so many wonderful experiences. We are lucky enough to be able to afford some outstanding soloists: international and local. Most of these are from the Young Classical Artist Trust based in London: all award winners and so professional in their approach. There is no doubt that they have helped contribute to the standard of playing we hear today in the HSO. I remember so well the first notes that Lewei Qin played in the Elgar cello concerto. Everyone, including the audience, was completely spellbound just from his opening entry. Playing with a young viola player was certainly an experience not to forget. Elizabeth Varlow, who was deaf, was simply outstanding. I also will never forget the time when Alison Balsom walked onto the stage to perform the Aratunian trumpet concerto. Just look at her now! But it isn’t just young artists, including local youngsters, at the start of their careers that we encourage. Martino Tirimo, Ben Frith, Alberto Portugheis, Stephen Orton and a host of others, including locals like Julian Saphir and Marika van der Meer, have blessed our stage.

. . . and more recently?

Things seem to have developed at a pace. The commitment and enthusiasm of the players is quite remarkable. There are over 90 members now, and it is such a real treat to rehearsal with them. We have such a good laugh whilst we learn new music and yet, at the same time, work so hard. It is difficult to understand why some people come from such distances to rehe---- week in week out but clearly they must enjoy themselves. One member, Judy, in the cellos, never misses and she comes from Notttingham. Others come from Bingley, Leeds, Rotherham, Wakefield, Hull, York and of course Harrogate, Wetherby, Ripon and Knaresborough. We have been congratulated on our wind section but the strings are now absolutely amazing. There is an interesting story about someone who wanted to buy one of our CDs (we now record all the concerts). The week after she bought it, she gave it back, with the comment that she wanted the last HSO concert cd and not a commercial recording. She was surprised, to say the least, that this was actually the HSO sounding as they do today, so professional. One of the percussionists, who plays professionally with all kinds of ensembles, always enjoys playing with us. He commented on the quality of our performances: “sometimes I get so involved in the quality music making, that I forget that I am playing with an amateur orchestra”. Certainly the links with both the local Choral Society and schools is something of which I am really proud. Although we have performed many times with the HCS, it is the annual Christmas concert in the Conference Centre with the HCS and the local primary schools that is one of the highlights of our year. For the last 20 years over 500 performers each year have entertained thousands of families. It is such a popular event that now we have a 3 year rotation system for schools to take part. In many ways this is something that I have strived to encourage in the planning of HSO concerts: working with children to offer them the experience of performing with an orchestra. So much so, that in 2013 the Royal Hall was packed with children, teachers and parents for our matinee concert which included a puppeteer from the BBC Muppet Show. Also in 2013 we had children playing with ‘Inca’ in a South American project. Over 400 people turned out to support us in atrocious conditions: with ice and snow everywhere. All this could well be topped by this year’s children’s matinee concert on 19th July when we take part as a fringe event with the Harrogate International Festival. This will be a wonderful event to celebrate the BBC’s project ‘10 Pieces’: designed to encourage young people to attend classical concerts. There will hopefully be lots of publicity, so watch this space! Before this though, we are all excited by our concert on March 21st, when the BBC winner of the Musician of the Year Laura Van Der Heijden will be with us, playing the Shostakovich cello concerto. June should be a real crowd pleaser, when we have another of our summer specials, with a “Songs from the Shows” concert featuring singers from York Musical Theatre.

Plans for the future?

The one thing I really enjoy is planning for future events. Success, for an organisation like this, comes from good programming. If I get it wrong, then not only will the players not want to come to rehe---- every week, but audiences will vote with their feet. It is, however, really difficult to balance what will work and what will not and what I try to do, is provide challenges to both players and listeners alike. Providing opportunities for unconventional programmes, introducing new works (including world premiers), engaging exciting and outstanding soloists, encouraging our young listeners to concerts, performing a wide variety of music that can be both challenging and stimulating, ensuring rehearsals are constructive and enjoyable; these are all aspects of the planning process and I have to get it right! Our audiences now expect the highest quality of music making. Concert attendances since the Royal Hall (now our permanent ‘home’) was renovated have been very encouraging. Indeed we have had many full houses and some have been sold out. I know we are very fortunate here but there is no doubt at all that the audience does make a difference and I would love to see ‘sold out’ on every concert we do! Hopefully if people like what we do, they will return and the HSO will continue to go from strength to strength: yes, even in the next 30 years. I will be 90 then so bring it on!