Happy memories of the Abergavenny Orchestra!
I joined the first violin section of the orchestra on 10th December 1961 having moved in the previous October from my home town of Newcastle upon Tyne after graduating and finding a job with British Nylon Spinners (later ICI Fibres) at Pontypool. Somehow I seemed to infiltrate the music scene in Monmouthshire very quickly. Perhaps it was due to the existence of a Chamber Music group, at ‘the nylon’ as the locals called it, where I made many useful contacts.
Luckily, I joined the orchestra at the right time as, after my second rehearsal at the Angel Hotel, there was a cocktail party to celebrate Christmas! I was also very fortunate to have two musical colleagues at BNS, Dave Cumbers (horn) and Richard Crowe (bassoon) both of whom were members of the orchestra, so I was almost guaranteed a lift to and from rehearsals! Dave was an engineer and the proud possessor of a Morgan sports car. Unfortunately, he seemed to enjoy driving a little too fast round the country lanes and crashed it more than once, ending up with an amazing collection of steel pins in one leg!
After Christmas, rehearsals continued and we prepared for what was to be my first concert with the orchestra. I remember it clearly: 25th March 1962 in the Town Hall with Kazimierz Hardulak conducting. The programmes cost six (old!) pence! The main item on the programme was the Dvorak Cello Concerto with Florence Hooton as soloist who played magnificently.
Shortly after that, on 27th May, my diary records a concert at Pen-y-Fal Hospital in which five pieces were performed:- the Overture ‘Poet & Peasant’, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, a Waltz by Katchaturian and Schubert’s Unfinished. Quite a programme! Was this the Abergavenny Orchestra I wonder?
On June 3rd, we had the last rehearsal of the season but my musical activities didn’t stop. On the contrary, I was flung headlong into a continuous sequence of music making. I cannot remember how it happened but I joined the Crosskeys Community Orchestra which rehearsed in Risca and again I was lucky with lifts as the conductor (Max ? can’t remember his surname) lived nearby and took me in his ageing Ford Anglia to rehearsals through the narrow valley roads – frequently in pouring rain as I remember.
My diary shows that I went to Risca three times in June to rehearse the Holberg Suite and two Haydn Symphonies. By September we were tackling Beethoven’s Eroica and the concert in October also included ‘Morning, Noon and Night’, a Mozart Piano Concerto and ‘Swan Lake’.
I was amazed at my own tenacity (of course I was much younger then!) to read in my diaries about how often I was out ‘on the fiddle’ in those days. As rehearsals in Abergavenny began again in September, I found myself in Risca two or three times per week, while also attending the rehearsals in Abergavenny, and in October playing for Cwmbran Amateur Operatic Society’s production of ‘The Gondoliers’ at Llantarnam School. The last week in October was particularly hectic: Sunday 14th rehearsal for Gondoliers, Tues. Risca, Wed. Gondoliers, Thur. Risca, Fri. Gondoliers, Sat. Risca for rehearsal and concert, Mon. Gondoliers dress rehearsal, Tues. – Sat. Gondoliers, Tues. Risca, Wed. Music Group at BNS, Sun. Abergavenny, Tue. Risca…. and so it went on.
Then came the terrible winter of ’62-’63! I had managed to get back home to Tyneside for Christmas but was delayed quite a few days before the trains and buses were running again. Needless to say getting to any rehearsal was out of the question and I walked to work quite often. Pipes in houses were frozen, gas pressure was low throughout the country and the BNS factory was on half power for most of January. But despite all this, the show must go on – and on it went. This time it was the Pantomime ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ at Pontnewydd for which, somehow, I had been volunteered to play! The day after the last night, there was the first rehearsal at Abergavenny. We rehearsed a Beethoven Piano Concerto from 3 pm and, after tea, tackled Tchaik 5 until 7.30. That was a good way to warm up! And so we managed to get through the January snow with only one cancelled rehearsal and prepared for the next concert, this time in Monmouth School on 17th Feb. The programme included Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto, Wagner’s overture to ‘Die Meistersinger’ and Tchaik 5 to keep us warm. There had been an extra rehearsal on the previous night so we were all rather exhausted after that! Playing that sort of programme three times in two days is enough for anyone no matter how fit they may be. I had a stiff back for the rest of the following week.
But there was no time to rest! My diary shows that the following Tuesday we went to Risca despite the snow and again the next Sunday….and then to Abergavenny for a rehearsal of ‘Samson’! This is a bit of a mystery. Did the Abergavenny orchestra accompany the choir and soloists for the performance of ‘Samson’ which was on Thursday 7th March in the Town Hall? My diary notes that I ‘sat next to the leader’! So which orchestra was it?
But before that of course I had to play in another concert …at Risca! This time it was ‘Peter and the Wolf’, a Mozart Horn Concerto, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro and ‘The Nutcracker’ on Saturday 2nd. Unbelievably, the following day I had attended the usual Sunday rehearsal at Abergavenny and then another at Risca on the Tuesday, this time playing Haydn’s Military Symphony!
Apart from all this ‘external’ activity, I was also deeply involved in what had become the ‘Music and Film ‘ section at BNS and at the end of March was appointed Music Adviser – a post I was not to hold very long.
The next (and my final) concert by the Abergavenny Orchestra was on 31st March in the Town Hall, this time repeating the programme of the previous month but replacing the Beethoven Piano Concerto by Mozart’s concerto for Flute, Harp and strings, a delightful work which I have never seen or heard played since!
I was now making plans to settle down, get married and buy a house in the area but my plans were due for a sudden change when I was told that I was to be transferred to the BNS Gloucester factory in May. Luckily, I had not signed any contracts, having expressed an interest in a house in Govilon! Living in the area for two years, I had come to appreciate the beauty of the countryside and often explored on my bike, a favourite ride being to get up onto ‘the mountain’ specifically Mynydd Twyn Glas. What a view!
To celebrate our 56th wedding anniversary, my wife and I spent a very enjoyable week in Abergavenny recently and explored again those wonderful spots: the Blorenge, the Sugar Loaf, Llangorse Lake and the canal (on which we spent a week some 30 years ago).
Back in 1963, I had to say goodbye to the many friends I had made during my hectic music making in Monmouthshire. Having grown up on Tyneside, which is itself a very busy region regarding music making, I had discovered a region even more thriving. (I had half suspected that I would find only male voice choirs in Wales!!)
And so, finally, I came to the end of my happy days with the Abergavenny Symphony Orchestra (and a few others!). I still look back on that time as fundamental to my orchestral playing. It was the first time I had been a member of what I felt was a ‘real’ orchestra. My experiences at school and university were useful in introducing me the the delights of classical music but I still had a lot to learn. What I learned in Abergavenny stood me in good stead when, after returning to my roots in Newcastle, I later became joint founder of the New Tyneside Orchestra in 1970 and led the orchestra for 35 years. Happily it is still thriving and going from strength to strength – just as I hope the Abergavenny orchestra is. And I myself am still ‘on the fiddle’ though thankfully not as hectically as those days over 50 years ago.