Grand old man: Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) conducts the Halle Orchestra in rehearsal in 1956.
From a very early age, I loved classical music - orchestral music, chamber music, (proper music) - and my weekends were spent rehearsing with two different orchestras that I had joined when I was 13. One was the Bradford Symphony Orchestra, rehearsing on a Saturday morning with a mixture of young and older musicians.
It was with some of them that I went to the Subscription Concerts, performed by the Halle Orchestra at St. George's Hall in Bradford, shown here in it's Victorian glory.
We heard some truly wonderful music played at these concerts and I have kept all my programmes - over a three year period - in an old-fashioned scrapbook, which is currently in a barn in Leon. The concerts were usually on either a Friday or a Saturday evening - sometimes, oh joy, on both! Usually, I went with my friends, Anne and Elaine, and we sat up high in the 'gods' and waved at friends below us, opposite us and to the side of us - no one was higher though!
The Halle isn't the unusual orchestra of my title though.
This is the second orchestra I rehearsed with between the age of 13 and 18. It really was the most unusual group of musicians who rehearsed at the unlikely - but oh-so-appropriately named - Oddfellow's Hall in Cleckheaton. (I tried to find a reference to this on Google, but so far haven't managed to - probably no longer exists.)
I was first taken by my then clarinet teacher, Jack Whitaker, who was probably about 70 when I first met him and the most bandy-legged person I had ever seen - but he could really play the clarinet. He and a group of older men (and I mean, older than him!) met every Sunday morning to play through music together. There were never more than 12 or 13 of us in total and the numbers dwindled as time went by. The Hall had the most amazing and wide library of orchestral music and each week, the two excellent violinists, Alfred and David, took turns to chose and then conduct a selection of different pieces whilst the other played. Alfred had a wonderful, generous tone when he played and he conducted with elegance, whereas David was less sophisticated and probably less technically brilliant but his phrasing and control won me over immediately. He was a more demanding conductor too!
Stanley played a very reliable 2nd Violin and to be fair, Stanley was probably no more than 40 years old at the time - though his wide handlebar moustache, swept-back sandy hair, and chest-high trousers gave him the air of a WWII pilot - he seemed incredibly old-fashioned to me. Occasionally we were joined by a cellist - an excellent player - whose name I don't remember but whose face I can still see in my mind's eye. He wasn't a well man and I suspect he died within the first year of my going to rehearsals, though no one specifically told me and I was too shy to ask. When he didn't come, George filled in. George filled in a lot - more of which later.
Getting to rehearsals required an early start and a lift from one of my parents to a meeting point in Queensbury. From there, I travelled with Mr Whitaker to the outskirts of Cleckheaton where we would stop and collect Herbert the Bass. I then had to sit in the back of the car with a double bass across me - the end of which poked out of the window by a foot or more. Mr. Whitaker wasn't the best of drivers - bless him, he was getting on a bit - and the first time he hit another car with the end that stuck out, it almost broke my jaw. In time, I learned to keep a very vigilant eye open and sit at a safer angle behind the neck of the instrument.
The rehearsal room was up a flight of steps and I always followed Mr Whitaker and Herbert and the bass up these steps with some apprehension as there was much wheezing and several halts for breath. Then we'd enter the room to see who was still alive from the week previous. Despite being only 13, I was aware of the incredible energy these strange old men gave out - many must have been in the First World War, almost all in the Second, had lived most of their lives already, yet were still full of life; laughing and joking in the broadest of Yorkshire dialects which I often did not understand.
Herbert the Bass positioned himself on the piano - he didn't have a stool, so he perched on the closed keyboard - to play. George the Trombone was one of my favourites and he'd almost always request that we played 'T Derx Pidgins Sweet' - almost never granted until one day, the music was brought out and I discovered that this piece of ballet music was actually called 'Les Deux Pigeons' by Messanger. George always had three music stands in front of him, playing the trombone, 'cello and any other bass part that was required in our small ensemble.
We were blessed with two trumpeters - Herbert the Trumpet, a cheeky octogenarian, who liked to amuse me by tap dancing on the old wooden floors. Then, next to him was the rather bad-tempered Ted, an excellent trumpeter who I much later learned was riddled with cancer. He smoked all the time - as did George and David. Herbert the Trumpet had a pipe.
We sat next to the trumpets, Mr Whitaker playing first and me second clarinet. I played very quietly, especially if we had to transpose - sometimes from Bflat to A and sometimes into C - which required us to play different notes to the ones that were written - or fill in the flute part. Absolutely fantastic training for a young musician. I don't think it mattered that I couldn't be heard too much - it was the exposure to so much varied music that was such a good experience for me.
I sat next to Eric the Oboe - a man with such a dreadful stammer that I dreaded having to converse with him at first - though as time went on, I remember us chatting quite normally as both of us found a way round expressing our thoughts and ideas. He smoked too. The air was thick with smoke.
We would almost always start with an Overture - be it Beethoven, Weber, Rossini, Mozart or even Tchaikovsky - and then do at least one symphony in the 'first' half. Then, changing conductors, we'd sometimes do another symphony or a tone poem or a selection from a ballet or opera - in particular, I loved Bizet's 'Carmen Suite' and Ralph Vaughan William's 'The Wasps'. I think my favourite of all was Mozart's Symphony No. 39 as the clarinets have so many wonderful little passages to play - often in thirds - and in my lessons, Mr Whitaker and I would practice these, so on Sunday mornings, I could play out with confidence. I used to be able to sing the whole of the symphony from beginning to end, just the second clarinet part!
Here is the third movement - listen out for the clarinets in the trio - I used to love playing the supporting, lower-registered arpeggios, but in later years, particularly if David was conducting, he would play the whole of the third movement again and make me play the solo.
Occasionally, very occasionally, Alfred's daughter would come to play flute with us. She was older than my mum but I was always rather resentful of her presence. Being painfully shy at the time, in my early teens, I loved my old men with a passion but couldn't express myself very well to them, very often doing little more than blushing and smiling at their jokes and banter, but Alfred's daughter came and made them laugh. I preferred it when she didn't come.
I must have truly loved going. I rarely missed a week in five years despite having to get up early on a Sunday to go and travelling with the increasingly scary driving of Mr Whitaker and I have never been an early riser. These were special musicians and I learned over the years that many of them had in fact been in service together; David and Alfred had played in a British Army orchestra and Alfred, later played professionally. David had, in fact been a wire-drawer - a skilled job but not one that would normally be conducive to violin playing, I suspect.
If we'd lived then in the world of technology as we do now, I would have been able to record some of our Sunday morning rehearsals for posterity. As it is, I suspect even young Stanley is long gone and Alfred's daughter too, so I am the only vessel left who witnessed and took part in those hours and hours of wonderful music making.
I can hear it now as clearly as ever.