The Sevenoaks & District Orchestral Society, as the Sevenoaks Symphony Orchestra was known until 1955, was formed in the dark days of war at a meeting on 21 November 1944 of Sevenoaks Music Club. Many founder members were from the local string orchestra, which had been in existence for some years. Rehearsals were held on Tuesday evenings in the gym at Walthamstow Hall School (members were requested NOT to smoke, or make a noise on the stairs when leaving, as this was a boarding school) and later at St Hilary’s School. Quite a few players had to leave early to catch their last bus home!
The inaugural concert was given at Johnson Hall, Sevenoaks School, on 12 May 1945, the Saturday after VE Day on May 8. The conductor was Aidan Liston and the leader was Miss May Weth, of Minerva House, Riverhead. The soloist, in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3, was Ethel Breething, who had founded Sevenoaks Music Club in 1933. She came from an old Sevenoaks family and was an accomplished piano player and teacher who lived in Dunton Green (the Breething family owned the local Brick and Tile Works).
Other works in that first concert included Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Haydn’s Symphony No 103 (The “Drum Roll”) and Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile. Rather oddly the programme ended with a little known overture: Boieldieu’s ‘Le Calif de Bagdad’ (maybe they assumed that they would be asked for an encore?). The programme (price 3d) solemnly invited “players of all kinds of the instruments found in symphonic orchestras” to join them.
The Sevenoaks News reported on May 17 1945 that “A commendable standard was reached” before a large audience who as a finale joined in a heart-felt rendition of Rule Britannia (in an arrangement by Mr Mitson, the Chairman), and the National Anthem. Mr Mitson played the double bass and his wife was orchestra Secretary.
Sadly the archives do not reveal the names of the members of the orchestra at that very first concert, but they probably differed little from the list contained in the programme for the second concert in February 1946, which includes the names of many individuals still remembered locally for their contribution to music-making over many decades.
Subsequently the conductor for 20 years until 1965 was Joseph McMenemy. Ian Bremner (trumpet 1961-1985) recalled that “he was a former professional violinist……..a friendly person who accepted the standard of what was then a small amateur orchestra with good grace”. Two of the founder members were Edwin Dyer (oboe) and his wife Mona (violin). Their daughter is Elizabeth Fryza (viola) – still a member of the orchestra, and recently made an Hon. Vice-President in recognition of her long service.
By 1948 Lieutenant William Stroude (viola), husband of May Weth, was Secretary and Treasurer (and occasional conductor?), Miss Kathleen Judd was Chairman, and Miss Betty Crawfurd was Librarian. Miss Judd and Miss Crawfurd lived at the (now long-demolished) White Lodge in Hitchen Hatch Lane. The Judd family, and Miss Judd (who played viola) in particular, were very involved with the orchestra. Her sister Mrs Marian Brown played the cello and was Secretary of the orchestra 1951-1976. Mrs Brown’s daughters Bridget and Ann played oboe and cello respectively and Ann’s daughter Lore played viola. Betty Crawfurd (who did not play herself) remained a supporter of the orchestra until her death in 1989.
The White Lodge was used for committee meetings and also for AGMs until Miss Judd’s death in 1987; Ian Bremner, who was Chairman 1965-1972, recalled that the Strawberry Teas on offer usually ensured a good attendance!
The end of an era was reached with the death of violinist Margaret Wilson in 2006. Margaret, who also played viola and double bass, had in addition appeared as a mezzo-soprano soloist with the orchestra back in 1949. She joined the orchestra in 1951 and went on to serve on the committee for 40 years – as librarian for 20 years. Many people will remember her as the unflappable deputy leader of the orchestra.
Another character from the early days was Dr John Lloyd, a Riverhead GP. He played clarinet in the Orchestra, but on several occasions was the soloist in piano concertos. Ian Bremner and his wife Dinah (horn, and Secretary of the orchestra 1981-85) were instrumental in the appointment as conductor of Malcolm Binney (1968-71), and it was Malcolm who really started what was now the Sevenoaks Symphony Orchestra on its upward path.
Miss Weth had retired after leading the orchestra for 20 years and fortunately she approved of her natural successor among the first violins, Terry Calnan. (Dr John Lloyd recalled that ‘She had the endearing habit of waving to her friends in the audience when…… taking her place as leader of the orchestra. The conductor had to time his entrance several minutes later than he did with other leaders to give time for this performance to come to an end’.) Miss Weth continued to attend SSO concerts until she died in 1985. After Mr Calnan left the orchestra in 1968, Barbara Strudwick was persuaded to lead (and occasionally to conduct at rehearsals!). Barbara handed over to Sheila Veryard in 1974 but later made a welcome return to the orchestra and played in the 1st violins for many years and then 2nd violins until quite recently. Sheila was leader for 10 years until 1984 and then, after two concerts led by Penelope Howard (later leader of the Tonbridge Philharmonic), Catherine Smart, our current leader, was appointed in 1985.
After Ian Bremner’s retirement in 1985, Reginald Cope (cello) became chairman for 20 years, and he and long-serving Treasurer Norman Down (horn) steered the orchestra safely through some very difficult financial times as Norman signed up some useful patrons by (he said) trawling through the telephone directory. Norman and his wife Celia also continued the tradition of an SSO Strawberry Tea each summer at their house (with swimming pool) in Otford, though this no longer involved the AGM! After Reg, SSO Chairmen were Laurie Wedd (viola), Ian McLauchlan (flute), Joanna Kiely (violin), Philip Day (bassoon) and Charles Hebert (violin). Our current Chairman is Joanna Kiely. Secretaries after Mrs Brown have been Jane Bell (cello), Dinah Bremner (horn), Liz Newton-Clare (cello), Amanda Rupp (violin), Nick Thomas (violin), Sara Benfell (viola), Emma s’Jacob (violin), Nick Thomas (violin) and Charles Hebert (violin). There are several long-serving players (some with over 40 years’ service) in the orchestra and the SSO’s 75th Anniversary in May 2020 also marks 55 years with the orchestra for oboe Isabel Pearce, who joined the orchestra in 1965.
Conductors after Mr McMenemy included Mr Segal, Malcolm Binney, Julian Williamson and Mr Estall. In 1975, Jonathan Butcher, then still a student but now well known as conductor and artistic director of Surrey Opera, took over until 1980, apart from the 1978-9 season when the conductor was Jonathan del Mar. Jonathan Butcher in particular did a lot to build up the orchestra. Our current conductor, Darrell Davison, was appointed in autumn 1980, so he has been in post for nearly 40 years - more than half the life of the orchestra – and he has led and encouraged the orchestra forward to great adventures and successes.
The earliest orchestra concerts were given in Johnson Hall, Sevenoaks School. Subsequently, concerts were given in the hall at Wildernesse School and then in the Aisher Hall at Sevenoaks School from February 1980. When the Stag Theatre opened in 1983, in what had formerly been the Majestic and latterly the Odeon cinema, the SSO was one of the first local groups to take advantage of this spacious new venue. The early years there saw some interesting moments – at one pre-concert rehearsal during a cold spell the heating had failed and water was dripping down from burst pipes between the strings and the woodwinds. But as the Stag was refurbished (occasionally the orchestra had to return to the Aisher Hall or to Wildernesse School) the orchestra was soon presenting three, four or even five concerts a year there. In February 2005 the orchestra successfully moved a concert to Walthamstow Hall at very short notice when the Stag Theatre suffered an electrical failure. When the theatre re-opened in November 2006 after a six-month closure the SSO gave the opening performance.
Rehearsals had originally been at Walthamstow Hall and then St Hilary’s School but later moved to the (rather chilly!) dance studio at Beechmont, courtesy of owner Valerie Dunlop, who played timpani with the orchestra. When the Sevenoaks Community Centre opened in the early 1980s the orchestra moved there (where it sometimes interestingly had to compete with a tap-dancing class in the next room). After an arson fire there in 1996 (which the SSO timpani, stands and hired music, which were stored under the stage there, fortunately survived!) the rehearsal venue moved first temporarily and then permanently to Sevenoaks County Primary School.
Many well-known soloists have appeared with the orchestra over the years including José Luis García, Piers Lane, Alan Civil, Timothy Hugh, Barry Griffiths, Claire Rutter, Carlos Bonell, Robin Ireland, Clifford Benson, Andrew Haveron and Timothy Ridout.
The programme price was 3d in 1945. In 1965 it was 6d until 1971 when it went down to 3d again. In 1974 it went up to 5p (a good example of Decimalisation Inflation?), then to 10p in 1975. By 1979 the admission price for adults was £1 or 80p for adults, to include a programme……….
Until 1974 players were only listed with initials (plus Mrs or Miss for ladies). Interval refreshments (coffee) are mentioned for first time in November 1974. No programme notes were included until the arrival of Jonathan Butcher as conductor in autumn 1975. The National Anthem (never very well-rehearsed unfortunately) was played at beginning of every concert until May 1977.
The SSO originally gave two concerts a year, usually in May and November and used to number its concerts so we do know that by 1977 there had been 66. From 1980 a third February concert was added and in 1997 season tickets were introduced for these three ‘subscription’ concerts. Meanwhile in 1996 the orchestra had been awarded Charitable Status (thanks largely to the efforts of then Chairman Laurie Wedd, viola) and in 1999 as part of its wider educational aims began a series of annual Family Concerts. These now take place each October, with the 20th of them, ‘Toy Stories’, in 2019. These very popular short concerts specially for children feature several entertaining pieces with a common theme and always include a narrated piece and some audience participation!
Most recently (since 2012) a short midweek ‘Taste of Classics’ concert each spring has been drawing in new audiences. In alternate years, the orchestra also performs a choral concert jointly with the Sevenoaks Philharmonic Society in June, and has also given outdoor summer concerts (some with fireworks!) at Lullingstone, Knole and Hever Castle – the latter in aid of the International Needs charity.
The orchestra now performs up to six concerts a year making a running total of at least 250 concerts over its 75 years.
As far as we know, prior to the coronavirus pandemic only one concert has ever had to be cancelled! That was ‘Great Ballet Classics’ which was scheduled for February 10 1991. That week Sevenoaks was blanketed by deep snow with many roads impassable, trains halted, and the Stag Theatre car park unusable. The programme was eventually given in November 1992. In recent years, some of the SSO’s summer concerts have been given at the Pamoja Hall at Sevenoaks School to take advantage of the excellent piano there. This would have been the venue for the SSO’s 75th Anniversary Concert planned for May 17 2020, when the programme was to feature Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto, which was played at that very first concert in May 1945. It is now hoped that we can play this in a delayed anniversary concert in 2021.
Particular thanks are due to local firms Marley plc and Warners Solicitors who both generously sponsored the orchestra for many years, and to other benefactors including, of course, SSO Patrons.