Chichester Symphony Orchestra: Medley of history from The Novium Museum

Chichester Symphony Orchestra is a highly-regarded amateur orchestra that was likely founded in 1889 as the Chichester Amateur Orchestral Society.

The Chichester Directory in 1881 records band practice on Monday evenings from 8.15pm for ‘a String Band of Amateur Instrumentalists’. One of the early adverts for the Chichester Orchestral Society appeared in the Bognor Observer on December 25, 1889. A later article in the Bognor Observer described the opening concert of the society on November 12, 1895, as ‘highly meritorious’. A second concert took place in 1896 to more critical acclaim, and a further 1899 concert at the Corn Exchange raised £97 for the Chichester Fund during the Boer War.

As well as the Assembly Rooms being a venue for concerts, the orchestra also played at the Corn Exchange. In the 1950s, when it was known as Chichester Light Orchestra, they performed concerts at Graylingwell Hospital, as the Assembly Rooms at that time had been condemned for public use. One of the orchestra’s main challenges was having sufficient funds, as well as members.

A large expense was having a hall in which to practise each week. The society had used the Unitarian Church Hall but was given notice to find new premises by Christmas 1953. Various venues were tried over the next two decades, the British Legion Hall, the Boys High School, Whyke Hall, Stockbridge Hall and the hall at the recently-opened St Richard’s School.

Chichester Symphony Orchestra, a highly-regarded amateur orchestra that was likely founded in 1889 as the Chichester Amateur Orchestral Society

A few times the City Council was approached for grants to keep them afloat financially, as not everyone was regular in paying their subscriptions. In 1965, it was decided to have a summer break, from June to mid-September, when rehearsals were suspended to save money.

Of the museum’s various collected programmes of the orchestra, one of the earliest was for a Jubilee Concert in 1897. From the 1950s there is a more comprehensive collection which includes concert reviews printed in the local newspaper from the 1980s. In 1973, a joint concert of the Chichester Orchestral Society (COS) and the Chichester Amateur Operatic Society (CAOS) was held at the Assembly Rooms with conductors David King and Margaret Pink.

At the end of 1981, Robert Long took over from Michael Hurd who had previously conducted for four-and-a-half years. Robert Long had then recently taken up a post in the music department at Bishop Otter College.

This was another time of failing membership, so he amalgamated the Chichester Orchestral Society with the West Sussex Institute Orchestra to form the Chichester Symphony Orchestra. The chapel at Bishop Otter College served as one of their venues.

Chichester Orchestral Society concert programme from 1923

On April 13, 1991, the Chichester Symphony Orchestra Centenary Concert was held at Christ Church, Old Market Avenue, Chichester, conducted by Ralph Willatt. Cathedral organist and orchestra president Alan Thurlow was a soloist, along with Sir Patrick Moore, noted astronomer, on xylophone. Mark Harrt-Palmer, the then leader of the orchestra, followed Ralph as conductor and under his baton, the orchestra’s repertoire and reputation grew.

Then 2004 saw collaboration again between Chichester Symphony Orchestra and the Chichester Amateur Operatic Society, with concerts on May 8 and 13 in St Paul’s Church.

It was in St Paul’s Church at a Christmas concert in December 2017 that Mark Hartt-Palmer made his farewell performance as conductor of the orchestra after 17 years.

Following Mark’s retirement in January 2018, the orchestra appointed its current conductor, Simon Wilkins. The orchestra enjoys participating in the Festival of Chichester every summer and recent programmes include The Glière Horn Concerto with BBC Young Musician finalist Ben Goldscheider in 2017, Dvorak Cello Concerto with soloist Pavlos Carvalho in 2018 and Brahms Violin Concerto with soloist Catherine Lawlor in 2019.

An invitation letter to Mr Hopkins from A Whitehead about forming an Amateur Orchestral Society in the 1880s

The orchestra tries to reach as wide an audience as possible and in October performs at a Cathedral lunchtime concert. The first family Saturday afternoon concert took place in January 2019 and was linked to outreach work taking instruments into local primary schools.

Although the orchestra’s activities have been curtailed by the pandemic, a summer 2021 Festival concert is planned.

New players, particularly strings and brass, are welcome and more details are on the website at