One enduring achievement of Walter Wurzburger, our founder and principal conductor for over 16 years, has been the Kingston Philharmonia, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. In the dark ages before we existed, Kingston’s musical landscape was, in the words of Hilton Tims, bleak and spare. Walter’s contribution to the Orchestra is adequately recorded elsewhere in this program.
After Walter retired in October 1991, we expected to enter a lean period – but far from it. On announcing our plight to the world, and with the help and advice of Sally Mays, an old friend of the Orchestra and of Walter, we had no fewer than eight candidates for the vacant post; most would have done the Orchestra credit, and all would have enlivened our Friday nights. One candidate – musically impeccable – proposed to retrain the Orchestra, a century per year. Thus for the first year we would have been a baroque orchestra, in the second year rivalled the London Mozart Players (in name at least), and so on. This was not what we had in mind. The problem of choice was solved by the brilliant suggestion that we should give each conductor a rehearsal, and assess their performance, both musical and afterwards in the Springfield Arms (although more weight was given to the former). A voting system was devised that would have done credit to the Electoral Reform Society, and in March 1992 Stephen Whittaker - the Orchestra’s choice by a large majority – became our principal conductor.
Stephen Whittaker, like our present conductor, had been a professional percussionist, and made an outstanding conductor. It would be interesting to speculate on the connection between ex-percussionists and amateur orchestras – perhaps inculcating a sense of rhythm is a high priority. After all, the instruction “if you can’t play the notes …” does not crop up quite so often with professional players!
Stephen had high expectations of us, and did not easily tolerate the deaf, lame and halt. This was occasionally a source of tension, and frayed nerves had subsequently to be massaged by the Orchestra management. However we appreciated his dedication both to us and to the Orchestra, and some fine performances arose out of this creative tension. One high point was a performance of the Enigma Variations, which set a standard which we hope at least to match in tonight’s concert. It came as a shock and a source of some sadness when Stephen announced that he was leaving the music profession, and he gave his last concert in December 1995.
The appointment of the subsequent, and finally our current, conductor were relatively low-ceremony affairs. Perhaps the Orchestra management were better connected, perhaps there was a single obvious candidate – at any rate, in early 1996 we appointed the Orchestra’s third principal conductor, Tom Hartman. Tom was a flamboyant American, straight out of an “Uncle Sam Needs You” poster, complete with goatee. (Walter Wurzburger also sported a goatee, but we shall not indulge in further speculation on this score.) Refreshingly, Tom was as comfortable in the Jazz world as in the Classical – he ran a regular Jazz Workshop in Richmond – and adopted an equally relaxed approach in both spheres. Unfortunately this sometimes got the better of us, notably when we booked Allan Schiller for the wrong year! Rehearsals were reminiscent of “Evenings in the Orchestra” (a highly recommended set of fantastical stories by Hector Berlioz), and we often spent as much time enjoying anecdotes as playing.
The Orchestra decided in 1998 that it needed to raise its sights. The choice of conductor on this occasion virtually made itself. More than one Orchestra member had met Levon Parikian at summer schools, and he came with glowing recommendations.
It is worth noting in this context that England enjoys an amateur music tradition unrivalled in Europe – Italy, for example, has virtually no amateur music. Amateur orchestras need conductors who themselves are professional, but who recognise the special needs of amateurs, second to none in their love of music but not able to devote the time and effort to nurture this affection. Lev, who also conducts professional orchestras, is an outstanding example of this breed of conductor who manage to extract a performance that can be as moving and exhilarating as that of a professional orchestra, even though it might not be note-perfect.
With Lev Parikian, as with Walter Wurzburger, the Orchestra has played a wide range of music, including many works, demanding both technically and musically, from the 20th century. Rehearsals regularly include a full complement of brass and woodwind, rare in the old days, and the string sections are replete, retired older members being more than adequately replaced (in numerical terms, at least) by talented younger players. With growing audiences, the future of the Orchestra is assured, and we have every expectation of celebrating our next deciversary in as robust a state as we do this one.
Lev Parikian stayed with the Orchestra for 15 fruitful and creative years. In January 2014, we are again searching for a new permanent conductor.