HCO "how it all began" - by Peter Smith
In late 1965 I had left the Hertfordshire Youth Orchestra and, in my final year at Cambridge, would soon also have to leave the University Orchestra. I was therefore facing the prospect of finding not only a job, but somewhere to continue playing my bassoon!
I knew that for an orchestra to produce good results, all players need to be at all rehearsals, and for this reason the prospect of joining an orchestra that met weekly did not appeal: some players would inevitably be absent, and besides, I did not know where I would be living once I had (hopefully) found work! The solution seemed to be to try to form a new orchestra.
The idea of holding an intensive weekend of rehearsals, with all players present, was not original: I had recently been on tour to Germany with the Bath Youth Orchestra (although what my connection with Bath was, I cannot remember), a group of mainly university students, whose tour was preceded with just such an intensive weekend, held in a local boarding school.
A straw poll of my local musical friends indicated that I had a good chance of getting enough players together: there was just the small matter of finding a conductor, a leader, and somewhere to meet! Actually the choice of conductor was not difficult: Andrew Davis was my exact contemporary at Cambridge - he was both King’s Organ Scholar, and student conductor of the University Orchestra – and happened to live in Watford. I remember walking round to his rooms at King’s to ask if he would be interested, which, as we know, he was!
A strong leader would be essential, and I remembered having played chamber music in St Albans with a superb violinist, Bransby Roberts. What is more, I learned that he was now engaged to my potential principal oboe, Jenny Hopkins (later to become Head of Instrumental Music for Hertfordshire), and thus his services were secured!
Finding a venue was a little trickier: in the absence of the internet, or the yellow pages (neither yet invented), I scoured the local telephone directory and telephoned or wrote to all the likely-looking schools in a 20 mile radius from Welwyn Garden City, where I was then living. Amazingly I had a positive response to my proposal: to allow an unknown number of 20-somethings – and some teenagers - to have the run of his precious school for a weekend – from Brian Chidell, Headmaster of Aldwickbury School, near Harpenden.
I set off to meet Brian in my father’s car (I had just passed my driving test), with my sister for moral support. His offer was generous then, and seems incredible now – for £4 per head we could have two days’ full board and lodging, the use of the school hall for rehearsals and (notoriously!) the use of the school swimming pool. A weekend was chosen – 2nd-4th September 1966 – and a date and venue for a concert – Wednesday 7th September, in the College of Further Education, Welwyn Garden City.
The decision to try to form a Chamber Orchestra rather than anything bigger was Andrew’s, as was the choice of name – to the slight chagrin of the County Music Organiser, who felt that he had a proprietary right to anything musical with “Hertfordshire” in the title! Andrew also chose the programme, which would be built round the Beethoven violin concerto with Frederick Grinke, a then-well-known Canadian violinist, as soloist.
It is a common misconception that HCO was formed by players “then leaving the Hertfordshire Youth Orchestra”. In fact only about half of those who played in the concert on the 7th September were former, or current, members of the Youth Orchestra: the other half were friends, friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends! One violinist who did not take part was my father, Jim Smith, who declined on the grounds that, at just 51, he was too old! He would however go on to play many times, and be dubbed “the father of the orchestra”. Before the internet, e-mail, or mobile phones, communication was not always easy, and this led to some amusing misunderstandings, such as when I arrived at Harpenden Station on the 4th September 1966 in my little 2-door car to meet a viola player, and was confronted instead by a six-footer with a double bass!
This was a minor problem compared with what was to follow: the day before we were to start rehearsing (and five days before the concert) we received a phone call – Frederick Grinke was ill and would be unable to play! Unperturbed, Andrew announced that he would instead play Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor, K491, directing from the keyboard. More illness was to follow, including our principal clarinet, who was replaced at the last minute by Tony Pay, a colleague from Cambridge (now with the Academy of Ancient Music and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment). A bonus was that his girlfriend played the viola – an instrument we were short of! In fact the violas (and cellos) would play HCO’s very first notes – the opening bars of Mozart’s Symphony no. 40, the first piece we rehearsed on the evening of the 2nd September.
More was to come: between the rehearsal weekend and the concert Tony Pay, his girlfriend, and two of the other viola players all called in sick! Somehow we found replacements – a professional clarinettist, several peripatetic string teachers (and a very youthful Peter Trevelyan) and the concert went ahead. I think it can safely be said that the rest is history!
Peter Smith, April 2016