Tune in to this extraordinary orchestra

As the Royal Tunbridge Wells Symphony Orchestra prepares for its first concert of 2023 next month, its Chair Frances Armstrong tells Lilly Croucher about the orchestra’s history and what to expect in 2023…


So Frances could you give us a brief history of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Symphony Orchestra (RTWSO) and what the group looks like today?

The RTWSO was originally called the Tunbridge Wells Orchestral Society with its first concert taking place 101 years ago on the 4th February 1922 in the King Charles the Martyr Hall. Back then it was a small group of around 25 amateur string players under the baton of Guthrie Foote. Over the years the orchestra grew and developed in both size and professionalism and is now a modern spirited and ambitious symphony orchestra with around 80 performers taking part in each concert.


Is there a mix of both professional and amateur musicians in the RTWSO?

Today we are evenly split between the two and our aim is to have as many local players in the orchestra as possible. We currently have 45 regular musicians who attend our Friday rehearsals at Holmewood House School. They come from a wide range of professions including Teaching, Nursing, Law, Upholstery, Veterinary, Journalism, Psychology, and Finance to name a few, but what we have in common is our love of music. Enjoying the thrill of shared performance is something, once experienced, is very hard to live without.


What is the principal aim of the orchestra?

It has always been to produce musical performances of the highest standard, both for the pleasure of the audience and the enjoyment and development of the players. That is why the educational aspect of our work has become increasingly important to us. We are painfully aware that funding for the arts has been cut time and time again meaning the opportunities for young people to develop musical skills are being dangerously diminished. In response to this, we created the Education Outreach programme in 2015, which is funded purely by donations and is fantastically run by Yvonne Smith. To date, the programme has reached more than 3,600 local school children who we hope to have gained a passion and enthusiasm for music as well as becoming future audience members.


“I am surprised when people say, ‘I’ve lived in Tunbridge Wells for years and never knew it had an orchestra, we’ve been here for 100 years!”


Where can we expect to see the orchestra play?

For us, the Assembly Hall is the only venue locally that can accommodate our full orchestra on stage. We would love to expand our season and perform elsewhere but it is simply not possible unless we venture out of Tunbridge Wells. However, a lot of our members perform with other groups across the town so whichever classical concert you choose to attend, there is a good chance you’ll find a member of the RTWSO involved in some way!


How did the pandemic affect the orchestra?

We were performing six concerts per season before the pandemic and were regularly filling the Assembly Hall audience with more than 800 attendees each show. During Covid, we were forced to cancel eight of our concerts. We tried to keep in contact with our regular supporters, but it has been challenging trying to encourage people to come back to the theatre. Then, just as people were returning to live performances, the country plummeted into a cost-of-living crisis. So far, we have sold half of our tickets for the first three concerts of this season. After every concert, we receive loads of positive feedback, mostly from people who are delighted to have found the town’s ‘hidden gem’. Tunbridge Wells is renowned for having one of the finest regional orchestras in the country and more people should be aware of it!


Many talented musicians have played with the orchestra – any standout moments for you?

Looking back on one hundred years’ worth of programmes, for the orchestra’s website, has given an interesting insight into the variety of performers we have welcomed over the years. The orchestra has always championed young artists and has proudly supported the winners of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. This hall of fame includes Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Emma Johnson (clarinet), David Pyatt (horn), Freddie Kempf (piano), Natalie Clein (cello), Jennifer Pike (violin), Peter Moore (trombone), Lara Melda (piano), Laura van der Heijden (cello), Martin James Bartlett (piano) and of course, the world-renowned violinist Nicola Benedetti who has performed with us on several occasions and is Honorary President of the RTWSO.

Personally speaking my biggest ‘stand out’ moment was in April 2018 when we ended the season with Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss. It was an amazing performance to be a part of and was a turning point for me in my involvement with the orchestra; it made me realise just what a special thing we have here in Tunbridge Wells, and how important it is to treasure the orchestra and keep it alive for future generations.


“The orchestra has always championed young artists and has proudly supported the winners of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition”


What are the RTWSO’s plans for 2023?

This year we have three remaining concerts of the current season which take place in February, March and April. In February we welcome guest conductor and long-term friend of the orchestra Neil Thomson, alongside the pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason. In March we see the return of Music Director and Principle Conductor Roderick Dunk. He will conduct a programme that includes Copland’s Clarinet Concerto performed by Katherine Lacy, and Symphony No. 7 by Sibelius.This concert is linked to our Education Outreach project, so the local school children can expect plenty of clarinet action and jazz rhythms in their workshops! The final show of the season in April will close with a performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, performed by Callum Smart. Once again under the baton of Roderick Dunk, we end the season in style with Rachmaninoff’s great orchestral showpiece, Symphonic Dances.


When do you announce your new programme of events?

Our 2023/24 programme will be announced in the summer and we are very excited by what we have in store! I can’t say much about it at the moment but it will be great! The first RTWSO show of the new season will be in October 2023.


What are you looking for in a musician to join the orchestra?

We are particularly keen to recruit violinists to replace those who are retiring from the orchestra or have moved away. Players should ideally be of a standard equal to at least a grade eight and have some significant orchestral experience like youth, student, or community orchestras. We also want to hear from potential volunteers who want to help with marketing and other aspects of running the orchestra.


If you think this sounds like you and you want to join the orchestra, contact us at chairman@rtwso.org

The RTWSO’s 2022/23 Season continues on February 5 at the Assembly Hall Theatre. There is a half-season ticket available offering a 20 per cent discount to anyone who wants to attend all three concerts. For more information on how to book visit, rtwso.org

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