History of the Reading Youth Orchestra 1944 -1954

1944 – 1950

Reading youth orchestra was founded in 1944, after the Youth Committee of the time had begun instrumental lessons for modest fees (sixpence, or 2.5p today) The conductor was Humphrey Hare, senior science master at Leighton Park and amateur musician. It had its first rehearsal on the 29th October 1949, with 11 players, many of whom could not even read music. This number slowly increased, fed by pupils from Leighton Park and Kendrick, and some of the teachers playing along.

In March 1945, the orchestra made its debut in a small scale concert playing simple pieces like Handel’s Scipio. As there were pupils of all different standards, the parts had to specially arranged to accommodate for beginners and more advanced players; a third violin part, based on the viola line was arranged and beginners on the trumpet played simplified horn parts. On November 16th 1945 the orchestra performed for the first time movements from major works in a joint concert with Reading Youth Choir. However, during the playing of Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz, the orchestra ‘fell apart’ and it was only Humphrey Hare singing the tune and conducting at the same time which restored order and pulled everyone together again.

As funds were limited, it was necessary to accept what was available. This led to an acquisition of a number of reed instruments which were not the same pitch as others already in use. Also, the simplification of the string parts meant that bowings were not always synchronised. A note explaining this was put in the program:

“As the orchestra contains high and low pitched instruments, a certain amount of retuning between items is inevitable, and as many of the parts have to be re-arranged to suit the technique of the players their bowing cannot always be synchronised properly.”

1946-7 were years of steady progress. In 1947, RYO embarked on their first tour. This was to Zaandam, in Holland.  The concert of February 1948 saw the premiere of a Fugue specially composed for, and dedicated to Reading Youth Orchestra by Humphrey Hare. This fugue is featured on one of the 78 RPM records recorded on May 23rd at Leighton Park.

On August 8th 1949 the now sixty strong orchestra went to Dusseldorf for a week’s visit during which they gave four concerts which were very much appreciated by local people who came to see them. This was to be the last occasion Humphrey Hare would conduct the orchestra in public. In January 1950, with the orchestra now consisting of just over seventy players, he wrote to all those connected with the orchestra resigning due to medical reasons.

1950 – 1954

The fifth anniversary concert in March 1950 marked the five years since the first concert in March 1945. (Subsequent Anniversaries have dated from the orchestra’s foundation in the Autumn of 1944). It was an occasion of mixed feelings. There was so much to celebrate that had been achieved since 1944, and yet it could not be the same without Humphrey Hare in his rightful place at the conductor’s desk.

His place was taken by John Russel and Edward Underhill. The climax to the concert was Schubert’s symphony in C major “The great”. It was a fitting end to a memorable evening. Humphrey Hare was in the audience with the guests of honour, and the music making he heard was a tribute both to his vision and his determination. He died three months later on June 2nd 1950 at the age of 43. At his memorial service, at St John’s, Watlington Street, members of the Orchestra played Air, from Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D.

Upon Humphrey Hare’s death, John Russel agreed to fulfill the orchestra’s immediate commitments which included a second tour of Germany already planned for August 1950. The cost to members was £13.00. To make up for the somewhat primitive conditions experienced on their first night in Germany the previous year, this time there was a splendid civic reception and a pleasant hostel up in the hills. Five concerts were given, finishing with a return visit to Dusseldorf. The reports in the local German press spoke warmly of the standards reached and the impressive performances comparing the standard of this English youth orchestra to the opportunities available in Germany:

“What about us? Why do we not find something like this here, in the once leading country of music? The performance in our town should be appreciated as an example from which we want to learn and that would be their highest value”

The orchestra now needed a permanent replacement as a conductor. Mark Wigram, who taught at Leighton Park, and who had played the double bass with the orchestra, was appointed. He is remembered as a quiet, down to earth man with a strong interest in young people and as someone to whom they could really relate. Musically he understood what was needed and communicated it clearly. It was Mark Wigram who took the orchestra on its next foreign tour, this time to Denmark.

The visit, in August 1951 was organised at the Invitation of the World Friendship Association. The orchestra travelled as two separate parties. One travelled by air and had five days in Denmark before the other party arrived. The other party travelled by sea and stayed on a further five days after the air party had left. In addition to the usual sight seeing program, (which included the Carlsberg breweries) the orchestra gave three concerts. Including a number of soloists; Bridget Ortner, John Dingle, Maureen Lund-Yates (who later became Mrs. John Dingle, certainly not the last time in which the orchestra played a part in the matrimonial process). The second concert was notable because part of it was broadcast on Danish National Radio. The final concert of the tour was given in the concert hall of the famous Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.

In 1952, Mark Wigram accepted a teaching post away from the Reading area and so had to relinquish his association with the orchestra. His last concert with them in February, 1952 is special for another reason: the program contained the first public performance of Serenade (for small orchestra) by Richard Bennet, who played in the percussion section of the orchestra and is now a world famous composer, know as Richard Rodney Bennet. The serenade is not the only work he did which has a link with the orchestra. In 1959, at the age of 23, he composed an overture which was dedicated to Reading Youth Orchestra. This remained unplayed for many years in it’s full orchestral form, although it received it’s first public performance as part of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations in 1994.

On Mark Wigram’s departure, John Russel once again stepped in as conductor, assisted on occasions by Edward Underhill. The concert given in June 1953 celebrated the Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. An orchestra committee meeting passed the following resolution in November 1953:

“Members of the orchestra should wear unform dress when playing at concerts – girls to wear white blouses and dark skirts and men to wear dark suits.”

1954 saw another step forward in the progress of the orchestra, in that, for the first time, the members’ committee took over the running of its own concerts. Finances, pulicity, and concert management were being undertaken by members of the orchestra, their first effort being rewarded with a substantial profit on the sale of tickets. The tenth anniversary concert, conducted by John Russel, was held in the town hall on Friday, July 16th 1954. During the concert, Gwynneth Reed was presented with a bouquet of flowers and later a brooch after six years with the orchestra.

Gwynneth had joined the orchestra in 1946 as a result of an advertisement in the Berkshire Chronicle for instrumentalists with a view ti giving concerts abroad. She was already an accomplished violinist and soon began to be involved in local orchestral groups. She lost no time in going along and was greeted warmly by Humphrey Hare. The following week he declared that he wanted her to lead the orchestra which she did until 1954.

Following the tenth anniversary concert, John Russel handed over the baton to Edward Underhill who had been deputy conductor since the early years of the orchestra’s life. John Russel was beginning to take on other commitments: he made his professional debut as a conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1952 and became a household name in Britain and abroad through introducing the 1954 radio series, Music to remember. As a graduate of both Durham University and the Royal College of music, he had joined the staff of Leighton Park school in 1940 as a language teacher. He was appointed as Reading’s Music Advisor in 1949. During his career he conducted orchestras all over the world and was made a fellow of the Royal College of Music in 1979. He is remembered by RYO members as having a magnetic personality whose sense of fun and magic touch were inspirational. He too had been involved with the orchestra from its earliest days as general adviser, conductor and the writer of programme notes which did much to help audiences gain the most from a particular performance. He died in October 1990 aged 76.