Chambers Institute – the last Sunday of November 1975 – a full orchestra of 33 musicians from all over the Borders meet for an exciting musical venture to see if there is sufficient interest to form a regular rehearsal orchestra. As the final chords of Bethoven’s 1st Symphony die away, there is no doubt that the first chords of the new orchestra will soon be heard.
So the Peebles Orchestra became a reality at the first rehearsal in January 1976. In the following years, the Orchestra has developed in many ways but has remained very much a community group for local players of all ages, and is supported by strong links with the community. A solid base of Borders musicians is regularly joined by players from Edinburgh and the Lothians, for this dedicated community group offers a very different ambience to the many Edinburgh orchestras.
Since 1976 the Orchestra has presented over 60 concerts, which, though based on the symphonic, classical repertoire, have continually incorporated new ideas and challenges. Almost every year the Orchestra has tackled something new and exciting. A player commented, “I love playing in Peebles Orchestra, as it always throws up a new opportunity.” This readiness to change was amply demonstrated in our 30th anniversary concert when, for the first time, we had the privilege of performing a specially commissioned new work.
Over the years Peebles Orchestra has performed many symphonies, most by Haydn and Beethoven who win on popularity, though less well known composers such as Rijcha and Vorisek have provided some surprises. Numerous soloists have graced the rostrum and every orchestral instrument has been represented, including organ, harp and classical guitar. During the 1980s, making good use of the current ensemble, the Orchestra played much Baroque music, often featuring soloists from within the orchestral ranks. This is one of the reasons that no less than 16 flutes have at one time or another taken the solo role. Katie Punter, who played the Mozart Flute Concerto in the 30th anniversary concert, was in good company! In 1991, at a very special concert, Peebles’ own Alastair Paton performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto no 19, delighting his many friends with his superb playing.
Neville Garden was Narrator in the memorable performance of Peter & The Wolf at the hugely successful 2002 Children’s Concert. In 2008 a Concert for Children offered a mini symphony programme to give children a taste of the real thing; the work most popular with our discerning young audience was the Pastoral Symphony.
Peebles Orchestra has always encouraged young musicians. The Youth Orchestra, started in 1978, has enabled hundreds of children to enjoy learning how to play in an orchestra while building a close understanding of works of the great masters. More competent young players have progressed to play in the main orchestra, some going on to a career in music. It has been a delight to invite some of our own ‘home bred’ musicians back to the soloists' rostrum with Peebles Orchestra. Rowan Bell performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto in 2009 and the Bruch Violin Concerto No 1 in 2011. In 2010 Colin Scobie played the Dvorak Violin Concerto. Rowan is now a professional violinist living in London; he is currently a director and a founder member of the innovative Arensky Chamber Orchestra. Amongst a number of other things he is also the leader of the Santiago Quartet. Colin now plays with the well-established Maxwell Quartet and has played with a number of prestigious orchestras at home and abroad. Both started in our Youth Orchestra while at primary school, progressed through the Senior Orchestra, and both went on to study at the Royal College of Music in London.
As many as 30 singers have sung solo roles with the Orchestra and there have been partnerships with many local choirs. Two outstanding choral concerts were the performances of Mendlessohn’s ‘Elijah’ with the Roxburgh Singers in 2004 and Mozart’s C minor Mass with the Abbey Consort in the Spring Concert of 2005. But singers from the community have also had their chance in several of the ever popular ‘scratch’ Messiahs, the first in 1981.
The first conductor of Peebles Orchestra was Elizabeth Luke, then the newly appointed Music Advisor for the Borders. She got the Orchestra off to a very good start and in the Spring of 1976 presented an informal concert which was well supported. Geoffrey Whittaker was the first leader and continued in this vital role until he left the town in 1983. However, he has continued to travel back to play with the Orchestra. A key to the Orchestra’s success has been the involvement of Malcolm Porteous who, for 27 years, not only conducted the group but also devised programmes and provided music and soloists, ensuring the consolidation and ongoing development of the group. Since he retired in 2004, we have been lucky to work with Kenneth Dempster and Robert Dick, both respected professional musicians who have taken the Orchestra on to new levels of excellence - Ken for the Autumn Concerts and Robert in the Spring. John Howden, another well-respected conductor, has directed two very successful Viennese Nights - yet another innovation in the Orchestra’s schedule. John is no stranger to Peeblesshire as for many years he has been Musical Director of Innerleithen Opera.
The Leader of an Orchestra is a vital key to a successful ensemble and we were tremendously lucky to have Joy Todd take over the leader’s seat in 1983, a post she held until 2000. Joy was an experienced professional violinist with an excellent understanding of what was required. Tony Kime led the Orchestra for many years, during which time his special blend of technical expertise, musicality and humour drew the string section to another level as well as making the whole group really listen to each other and play as a co-ordinated ensemble.
Thirty years of Peebles Orchestra was celebrated in 2006 at the Anniversary Concert in the Eastgate Theatre. Kenneth Dempster conducted a programme that encapsulates all the elements that have characterised the Peebles Orchestra: a classical symphony - Beethoven’s magnificent 8th; a classical concerto - Mozart’s G major Flute Concerto played by Katie Punter; romantic music in Faure’s ‘Pavane’ and Sibelius’ ‘Andante Festivo’; and a new commission, written specially for the Orchestra by Kenneth Dempster – ‘King of the ‘Crown’, which is challenging and exciting music to play and listen to and focuses on a local theme: the Crown Hotel in Peebles High Street.
The Orchestra is honoured to have renowned Scottish composer and musicologist Ronald Stevenson as our Patron and we were able to perform his music in honour of his 80th birthday in 2008.
Valuable and essential support from the community has enabled our town to support an orchestra for so many years. With many keen musicians ready to play; with a leader and conductors of quality; with so much music to perform; with support from the community; the Orchestra remains in good health and looks confidently to the future of music-making here in the Scottish Borders.