Original Painting by Andrea Watson, ©2021
A group of amateur string players plus a flautist, a pianist and two vocalists came together to give a concert in the King Charles Church Hall on 4th February 1922. They styled themselves “the Royal Tunbridge Wells Orchestral Society”. The programme presented that day consisted of various symphonic movements, interspersed with unrelated songs. Whilst not remarkable at the time, such a jumble of works would seem most eccentric to modern-day audiences accustomed to the usual format of overture, concerto, and complete symphony. Nevertheless, the production apparently went down well with local critics at the time and was the modest beginning 100 years ago of the orchestra we know and love today.
Conductors for the first few decades were Guthrie Foote, who led that first concert and remained through the 1920s; George Weldon who served as principal conductor until 1943 and John Hollingsworth until 1963. In the following years conductors included, notably, Barry Wordsworth, principal conductor in the 1980s, Christopher Adey, Neil Thomson, George Vass, Derek Watmough and Mark Shanahan. In 1994 a young and promising conductor named Roderick Dunk made his first appearance with the orchestra; Rod is now, of course, our music director and principal conductor.
It was under George Weldon’s direction that the orchestra began bringing well-known soloists to Tunbridge Wells. During its first 50 years, RTWSO concerts featured such fine calibre artistes as Léon Goossens, Dame Moura Lympany, Cyril Smith, Eileen Joyce, Arthur Grumiaux, Denis Matthews, Dennis Brain, Larry Adler, Peter Pears, Stephen Bishop and John Lill. The tradition carries on into the present season which includes internationally-known soloists. But the orchestra has also provided a stage for young soloists, mainly BBC Young Musician winners, including Emma Johnson, David Pyatt, Martin James Bartlett, Guy Johnston, Jennifer Pike, Laura van der Heijden, Freddy Kempf and Nicola Benedetti.
The RTWSO was entered on the Register of Charities in 1986. Its principal charitable object is education, and the trustees of the orchestra are very conscious of this obligation, especially as it applies to children and young people. They have for many years offered reduced price child and student tickets at every concert. More recently the orchestra has undertaken an education outreach programme; through this, visits are organised for musicians in schools and special ticket pricing is arranged for parents and children to attend concerts.
About half of the players in concerts today are amateurs – but only in the sense that they don’t earn their living by playing in orchestras. All are accomplished musicians; some are teachers or retired professionals. The other half are professionals, drawn mainly from top London orchestras. Many of these are regulars here, including most of the principal-chair players. Such a combination of musicians, plus the dynamic leadership of our music director, has made the RTWSO one of the finest orchestras of its kind in the southeast of England.