Abergavenny Orchestral Society – now Abergavenny Symphony Orchestra – goes a long way back – they say to the late 19th century. It has had its ups and downs, and just at the moment it is on perhaps the biggest up since the 1950’s. I know, because I have been a member, off and on, but mainly on, since 1960 – 58 years and counting. I joined as a 15 year old, when I was a pupil at the grammar school in Ebbw Vale. I had only been learning the violin for 3 years, but I was music mad, and my teacher, Haydn Bond, often helped out in ASO rehearsals and concerts. There were only two girls left in our class by then, and he suggested that we both come down to Abergavenny Orchestra on a Sunday night.
The orchestra was quite large at the time and had some very fine wind players. Mr. Crouch and Mr. Bucknall (as I called them – no first names then!) In the fifties it had an excellent reputation and attracted fine musicians such as Megan and Mansel Thomas from Cardiff (Mansel had been the director of music at the BBC for many years and was making his name as a composer). Megan told me later that the main reason that they retired to Abergavenny was because of the Orchestra. Megan, who had played with the famous Boyd Neel chamber orchestra for many years, was the leader of the cello section. I’m not sure who the conductor was at that time, but by the late fifties the standard had dropped a bit, which was why they tolerated these two 16 year olds at the back of the seconds – although we were told off at our first rehearsal for playing too loudly!
Kaz Hardulak was the conductor when we joined. He was a refugee from Poland and he and his wife had been in a concentration camp, but escaped and came to Britain. (His wife, a teacher, showed me her camp tattoo on her arm on one occasion). I am not sure what exactly happened but I was told he was something of a hero in the war. He was a very cheerful rotund man with a good turn of phrase in English, which he used effectively with the orchestra. I was told that he had been starting out as a professional conductor when the war started. He had got a job teaching the violin at Monmouth Boys’ school, and he brought Don Eynstone who taught music there, as leader. We were rather frightened of him – he was a firm disciplinarian at school and had no intention of changing when he led an orchestra of adults! There were other characters such as Fish. Mr. Fish (although his surname could have been anything – we only knew him as Fish) – was a huge man, who could hardly play the violin because his stomach got in the way of his music stand and sharing a desk with him was a nightmare. There was a lady who played the flute, and as I played second violin I was down wind of her, I got full draught of her breath from the flute – it was full of garlic. At least I think it was garlic as I hadn’t come across it before but that was what people said. Of course everyone seemed so old – even the 40 year olds were ancient – and my friend, who always had an eye for the lads, was very disappointed. Then suddenly a very handsome young man who played the horn appeared, and she perked up. They began spending the interval together, and then something happened that increased the attraction of the orchestra considerably. The rehearsals (Sunday evenings even then!) were held in the ballroom at the Angel hotel, as they continued to be until very recently when we moved to Dance Blast. But Monmouthshire was “dry”; that is, there was no Sunday opening in hotels and pubs, as was the case in the whole of Wales at that time. But in 1961 the temperance law, the Sunday closing act (Wales) of 1881 was repealed and the new Licensing Act 1961 provided for a referendum to see if people still wanted their county to be dry. In the referendum of 1961 Monmouthshire voted to go “wet”. So wonder of wonders for the orchestra, the bar was open for the interval! For us, this was the height of sophistication, to go into the bar. Actually we were both under-age but at first no one took any notice of that, and I had my first vodka and lime, which was the fashionable ladies’ drink at the time. So Lynn and her friend were probably incapable of playing any notes at all in the second half! Although we usually came down on the bus, my father often picked us up to take us home as the buses were infrequent (and took hours) and he was a bit surprised that the orchestra was as popular as it was!
The repertoire was quite advanced and we had famous soloists such as Frederick Grinke playing Beethoven violin concerto. and Florence Hooton playing the Dvorak Cello concerto. We also played the Tchaikovsky Pathetique, which I loved.
In the nature of things I left school and went to University and Medical school so didn’t play in the Orchestra for many years. After working for several years in and around London, I decided to become a GP, and by chance there was an opening in Abergavenny. I arrived back in 1973, and then followed busy years getting established in general practice, getting married and having children. I was told that Abergavenny Orchestra wasn’t worth joining so I played with the Gwent Bach society, which had been started by Lloyd Davies, another local GP. Then in 1979, out of the blue I was asked by Emlyn Watkins to lead Abergavenny Orchestra. It turned out that while I was away the Orchestra had changed conductor and then lost members very fast; it apparently got down to 6 people. Eventually there was a decision to change again, and Emlyn was appointed as the new conductor. It is a small world musically and John Roberts, who had founded and led the Gwent Chamber Orchestra, suggested that I should lead it. Obviously it wasn’t a great honour as the orchestra was really struggling, and at first we only played relatively easy pieces. However I had led several orchestras, such as the Welsh Youth 2nd orchestra, and also the Cambridge 2nd orchestra under John Eliot Gardiner. He had gone up to Cambridge to study Geography (I think) but in his second year decided to change to music in order to pursue a career as a conductor. He was given the 2nd orchestra, which consisted of those not good enough to play in the first CUMS orchestra under David Willcocks, to practice on. I was one of those selected not to play in the first orchestra, but was made the leader of the 2nd orchestra, which I did for three years, as I never progressed further! I can’t remember whether he was a good conductor or not, and in any case I was far more interested in a lad on the front desk of the cellos than I was in the conductor. So I had had experience of leading an orchestra before.
Emlyn proved to be an excellent orchestral conductor and players started coming back, although we did have to buy in or beg instrumentalists to augment for concerts. We gave concerts with Emlyn’s daughter Julia, who played the Bruch concerto (she is now back in the area and has reinvigorated GCO after John Roberts’ untimely death,), and Joanna Cobb, Megan’s granddaughter, also played a solo with us. Tragically Emlyn died very suddenly of a heart attack shortly after, just as the orchestra was getting popular again. It was difficult finding someone else and we had a series of young hopefuls who fancied their chances. Some of them showed a lot of promise but as is the way of things they moved on. Eventually after some years Michael Eveleigh was appointed, and he proved a successful conductor who attracted more players.
Heart attacks were a terrible scourge in those years. I saw it in my practice – so many men in there forties and early fifties would die suddenly. Better treatment and prevention (mostly reduction in smoking) has now reduced the death toll, but Bert Muncaster from Raglan was another man in the orchestra (he played trombone) who died very young. I was on the committee at that time and we agreed to a fund in his memory. That started the Muncaster shield award for the most improved player, which has been awarded annually ever since.
I must now acknowledge a great debt to Ruth Brown. She had played with the Halle orchestra in the North of England but then moved to Abergavenny shortly after I did. She had children a little bit younger than mine, but she was still playing freelance with WNO and other orchestras. I met her playing in the Gwent Bach society, and she agreed to help out with Abergavenny Orchestra. She sat with me as co-leader, and greatly facilitated entries in concerts – which I would otherwise certainly have missed!
Later I left the orchestra when family life and career became more demanding. The orchestra was doing fine with Mike Eveleigh as conductor, and I found smaller orchestras and chamber music very satisfying when I had the time.
But eventually I was tempted back into the Orchestra, a few years after Brian Weir took over and the orchestra started on its second upward trajectory, which has finally peaked, in the fantastic concerts it has been doing recently. I say peaked because I don’t see how it can grow any bigger –we need a concert hall dedicated to us in order to really hit the top!
Dr. Elizabeth MacFie (retired G.P. and member of the first violins) April 2019.