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hester was a centre of musical excellence in the late 18th Century. The focal point was the Cathedral and the Festivals, which commenced in 1772 with performances of Messiah, Samson and Judas Maccabeus. This entirely Handelian event was wholly appropriate. Had not the great man passed through Chester en route to Ireland in 1741, the year of the composition of The Messiah?
Contemporary records suggest that these Festivals were well supported. It was the age of oratorio and this form seemed appropriate for the musical needs of the day.
In late 1883, Bridge, tiring of the lack of unity in the musical societies, set about rectifying this by organising a major performance of Messiah in the Music Hall. Originally built around 1280 by the monks of the neighbouring Abbey (now the Cathedral) as a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas, those who have seen the Music Hall progress from cinema to supermarket to gentleman's outfitters and now a branch of Superdrug may not appreciate that it opened in 1855 as a concert hall with a Gothic front added by local architect James Harrison, and that in this capacity it housed not only musical but also dramatic productions. It could accommodate 1400 people with ample room for an orchestra and choir of 250 persons, and we know that no fewer than 1049 people attended the December 1883 performance of Messiah.
"This advert for the Music Hall is interesting. I note that you have a Signor Piatti billed along with Signor Sivori. If these were Carlo Piatti and Camilo Sivori that must have been one hell of a concert. Sivori was a student of Paganini and gave the first performance in Britain of Mendelssohn's violin concero. Piatti was equally famous. If Chester really had these famous people playing there, note the 'understatement' of the advert..... but the cost of the tickets... Hells Bells!! T M"
Bridge invited all societies to take part and expressed the hope that "the formation of a Musical Society of a larger and more comprehensive nature might now be feasible". It was not to be however, since despite the success of the performance the various conductors still preferred to go their own way. This might have demolished a man of less stature than Bridge but, resilient and determined, he decided with strong support to "start a Society independent of all existing ones" with a choir and an orchestra. The 1883 Messiah orchestra was 49 strong and included no fewer than 6 clergymen which may show the special influence of Bridge. The organist was the Rev C H Hylton Stewart then Precentor. The chorus consisted of 180 singers.
The concert, given on 29th April 1884 at the Music Hall, included choral works and a performance of The Ruins of Athens by Beethoven. The subscription rates in 1884 are mouth watering. The subscription rate of one Guinea entitled the subscriber to 5 reserved or 8 unreserved tickets during the season.
Dr Bridge continued to conduct the orchestra until the latter part of the nineteenth century, when he handed over the orchestral baton to the Cathedral’s assistant organist, J T Hughes.
In 1982 the Orchestral Society adopted a policy of engaging different professional conductors for each concert. Edward Warren was the first of these in October 1982. Edward’s first contact with the Orchestra was to conduct a wind sectional rehearsal which was held in the old Magistrate’s Court in the Town Hall. The following season he was invited to become the Principal Conductor and he is currently the Orchestra’s President.
The Chester Philharmonic Orchestra is now recognised as one of the North West’s premier non-professional orchestras and is able to attract first rank professional soloists to perform at its concerts. The Orchestra has an important part to play in the musical life of the North West Region of England. It also provides young professional musicians and students from music colleges, both soloists and conductors, with the opportunity to develop their talents by performing with an orchestra in front of an audience as they embark upon their careers. It also provides a facility for good amateur musicians who under an established professional conductor, by paying an annual subscription, rehearse and perform music from a wide repertoire which will appeal to playing members and audiences alike. The Orchestra usually performs four major concerts each year in Chester Cathedral and a Christmas Concert alternating bi-annually in Ellesmere Port. The Orchestra has also performed special Children’s Concerts such as Pirates Ahoy in both Cathedral and alternative venues.
The whole range of orchestral repertoire is played, from Handel to Hindemith calling at lesser known composers on the way including Kabalevsky (2012) and Koussevitszky (2013) and who can forget the performance of Mahler’s magnificent Symphony No 2 (2011) nor, in contrast, Pirates of the Caribbean, Schindler’s List, and 633 Squadron from “An evening at the Cinema”.
The Orchestra, a registered charity, is self funded by subscription of its members, income from concert revenue and fund raising events. Its regular playing membership is somewhere around 60/70 musicians (remember the 1883 orchestra had a strength of 49 players) and their ages range from sixth form students to senior citizens. If you feel like sponsoring the Orchestra or, better still, joining in as a playing member please contact them via the web site.
All photographs: Nicole Mitchell-Mereddith.
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