This history of Wimbledon Symphony Orchestra was written by Paul Vaughan who sadly died in December 2014. He was a longstanding loyal member of WSO and an eminent writer and broadcaster.
A history of Wimbledon Symphony Orchestra
For well over a hundred years amateur music has flourished in Wimbledon: the town is rich in musical talent of all kinds and at various times has had youth orchestras, Old Tyme dance bands, jazz groups, chamber orchestras, even a banjo orchestra. There was a time when the words ‘amateur orchestra’ would suggest a unique kind of audience discomfort at the prospect of faltering techniques, sour intonation and muffed entries. The Portsmouth Sinfonia of a few years ago - a professional band that aimed to sound like a bad amateur one and sent up the whole amateur musical movement - was brilliantly funny but things have changed even in the two decades or so since then: standards in amateur music rise all the time and are no longer to be laughed at. Amateur orchestras can be found all over England: every borough in London has at least one. And here in Wimbledon we are lucky to have an orchestra of first-rate quality conducted for many years by a musician of international standing - John Alldis.
There has been a local orchestra here since before the first world war. Under Herr Gustav Mächtig, an immigrant from Germany and Wimbledon resident, concerts were given from the 1890s until 1913, with orchestras made up of professional and amateur players, and with programmes that were both innovative and popular. Then between the wars the Wimbledon Philharmonic Orchestra was formed, and revived after the war. It continued until the late 1950s, conducted by an enthusiastic local bank manager, Kenneth Tucker, until he retired and moved to the West country.
Then, in 1961, the composer-conductor Kenneth V Jones announced in the broadsheet Wimbledon Borough News his plan to start a new orchestra, and he invited interested players to contact him for auditions. This was the beginning of the Wimbledon Symphony Orchestra, and it met for the first time in 1961. When Kenneth V Jones moved from the district he was succeeded by John Alldis, founder of the famous John Alldis Choir, and conductor, successively, of the London Philharmonic Choir and the London Symphony Chorus. Under his inspired musical direction, the orchestra built a solid reputation for adventurous programming and fine performance, able to attract prominent soloists, the likes of John Lill, Joanna McGregor, Hamish Milne, Alan Hacker, Felicity Palmer, Michael Collins, Richard Watkins, Rodney Friend, James Galway, Jack Brymer and Paul Lewis. Many have made return visits.
John Alldis had to retire through illness, and in 2005 he was succeeded by Robin Browning, who continues to direct the orchestra in innovative programming and fine performance.
Music is a social enterprise: it creates friendships and camaraderie like few other activities. Many of the fifty or so people in the orchestra have been members for twenty years and more, and they come from many walks of life: teachers, computer programmers, media people, doctors, solicitors, architects, an airline pilot, a personnel officer, a senior civil servant, a barrister and a professional cake-maker. All these diverse types come together every Tuesday evening to rehearse for a schedule that embraces four main programmes a year. In recent programmes the orchestra has played music by Bernstein, Birtwistle, Britten, Copland, Stravinsky and Tippett in addition to composers from the mainstream classical repertoire.
The orchestra used to give its concerts in Wimbledon Town Hall. Since that was demolished to give place to the shopping centre, the concerts have taken place mainly in St Matthew’s Church, Durham Road.