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The Worthing Symphony Orchestra and its predecessor, the Worthing Municipal Orchestra, have been part of the fabric of the town for almost a century. Whether you’re interested in classical music or not, they’re one of the area’s most admired musical institutions, and certainly one of its oldest. Their 2018-19 concert season kicks off with Scottish star violinist Nicola Benedetti performing Sibelius’s ‘Violin Concerto’ at the Assembly Hall on 2nd September.

“It’s very apt,” says the WSO’s Chairman Eddie Hurcombe, “Municipal orchestras were responsible for bringing a lot of classical music to people’s attention in the earlier years of 20th century. Not many realise that in this country all Sibelius’s symphonies were first heard not in concert halls but at the ends of piers.”

Hurcombe, also one of the orchestra’s double bassists, is its longest-serving member, joining them in 1972. He’s the ideal candidate, then, to shine a light on their history and starts by explaining how Worthing Pier’s opening in 1862 kick-started a chain of events that leads, eventually, to today’s Symphony Orchestra.

Piers were originally built for people to board boats. Worthing’s had a toll gate at its southern end and employed musicians to entertain, initially the Rhine Band and, by 1909, the wonderfully titled Madam Florence Sidney James and her 12 String Ladies Orchestra. After the Worthing Corporation (predecessor to the Borough Council) bought the Pier in 1920, the Southern Pavilion was erected, opening in 1926, and the Worthing Municipal Orchestra was set up.

“The Pavilion was very much like a winter gardens,” Hurcombe explains, “Palms inside and aspidistras, tables and chairs, and the Municipal Orchestra offered full time employment to five musicians – soon upped to eight – although it was a heavy schedule, sometimes seven days a week.”

In 1927 the Orchestra’s director, Joseph Shadwick, persuaded the council to promote the first ever symphony concert and augmented his musicians with 25 from the London Symphony Orchestra for a programme that included Dvořák’s ‘New World Symphony’ and Mendelssohn’s ‘Violin Concerto’.

“Municipal orchestra programmes were very catholic,” says Hurcombe, “You might have a waltz and extracts from a popular ballet followed by [jolly light music standard] ‘The Grasshopper’s Dance’. The idea was that if you didn’t like what you were hearing, don’t worry, something completely different will be along soon.”

The third building to play a key role in the orchestra’s development was the Assembly Hall, built by town alderman James G Denton, opened in 1935, and bequeathed to the community. It was just the right size for a larger orchestra, with acoustics to match.

There were, however problems along the way. World War II saw the Pier closed and a section of it destroyed, to hinder possible Nazi invasion. The austerity that followed the war was even more damaging. There were only three concerts during the 1948-49 season and none the following year. Throughout the ‘50s the orchestra survived but it did so by narrowing down, performing what its director Herbert Lodge called “symphony concerts in miniature”. It wasn’t until the late-’60s and early 1970s that it began to truly thrive again.

Under the leadership of Jan Červenka the orchestra started visiting local schools, introducing children to its music, and from 1972, after the purchase of a Steinway grand piano, Červenka also instigated the tradition of Sunday Symphony Concerts which continue to great (and ongoing) success. Eddie Hurcombe joined the orchestra that same year. He has many memories of the era, such as the Orchestra’s 50th anniversary concert which lasted four hours – under lights – in the stifling heat of the famously scorching summer of 1976. Or an occasion when the Pavilion’s raked stage proved problematic.

“The piano was being played really loudly,” he laughs, “Some of the violinists had to sit with their backs braced against it to stop it rolling forward across the stage.”

The end of the ‘70s also saw the Municipal Orchestra dissolved as a permanent council-funded body, to be replaced by the Symphony Orchestra which continued on a freelance pay basis. Since the 1980s, especially following the quiet authoritative leadership of John Ludlow, it’s been known as one of the country’s finest provincial orchestras, as is borne out by the quality of guest soloists who request to play. Names along the way run the gamut from late, great pianists such as Peter Katin and Shura Churkassky to, in more recent times, the globally acclaimed cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Hurcombe also recalls a comedic occasion when the orchestra had another very special guest, the pianist Philip Challis.

“He was going to play solo in the second half and the orchestra went backstage for a break,” he recalls, “David Finn, the principle cellist, took this opportunity to light up his pipe. Unbeknownst to him, he was standing directly under a newly installed and highly sensitive smoke detector. Thus Philip Challis found himself accompanied by fire alarm bells and left the stage in some bemusement as firemen swarmed all around him.”

Usually, however, the orchestra happily avoids such slapstick drama. Under the directorship of John Gibbons since 1997, it has gone from strength to strength. Since 2015 it’s been a self-governing body and is a registered charity. The Borough Council, in other words, no longer owns the orchestra, but gives it support in the use of the Assembly Hall and its staff and technicians.

The forthcoming season, which runs until next May, sees no let-up in quality control. It includes a new year celebration of Viennese music, performances of Grieg’s ‘Piano Concerto’ and Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherezade’, and guest appearances by violinist Jennifer Pike, viola-player Sarah-Jane Bradley, Turkish pianist Idil Birit, and Australian soprano Helena Dix. It’s safe to say that the end-of-the-pier entertainment of a century-and-a-half ago has developed into a beloved institution that only grows stronger with time. For more information check www.worthingsymphony.co.uk

Do you have any memories of music life in Worthing? We’re interested in stories and scenes from any era. Do you remember dances in the ‘40s and ‘50s? Or how about rockin’ out at ‘90s and Noughties gigs? Anything at all! We’d love to hear about it. Please email editorial@hereandnowmag.co.uk

Thomas H Green