Devon Philharmonic Orchestra has been performing for over 50 years, having evolved from small beginnings to a full symphony orchestra. Under new music director Benjamin Voce it is continuing to go from strength to strength.

As the aurally dramatic final notes of Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations shimmer up into the distant vaulting of Exeter Cathedral, the audience collectively releases its breath. Musically vivacious and energising, the skill of the performance is superb. A fitting finale and glorious venue for a 50th anniversary concert.

That was back in 2017 when what is now the Devon Philharmonic Orchestra (DPO) was still known by its original name of the Exeter Music Group (EMG). In its first 50 years the orchestra had evolved from its foundations as a small chamber orchestra conducted by Peter O’Brien, with violinist Robin Stowell as the leader, passing under the baton of many different music directors and growing in stature along the way.

During the tenure of the second music director, Ron Smith, an association was formed with a choral society in Rennes, the Jean-Marie Lorand Ensemble, with whom the orchestra collaborated for joint concerts. From this point the expansion began.

Great British Life: The Devon Philharmonic Orchestra in Exeter Cathedral. The Devon Philharmonic Orchestra in Exeter Cathedral. (Image: Jim Wileman)

In 1984 Roger Hendy took the baton, growing the orchestra in size and repertoire. With an increasingly appreciative audience Roger presented more than 100 concerts and is still the orchestra’s longest-serving conductor.

From 2008 the EMG was conducted by Marion Wood, at which point the orchestra raised the bar even more, taking on more challenging repertoires as well as more players. Following her move to Germany, Tony Hindley stepped in for a year until the appointment of Leo Geyer, a young professional conductor and composer from London.

Probably the longest-serving player who still plays regularly with the orchestra is viola player Fenny Gill. She has witnessed huge changes.

‘The expansion from chamber orchestra to full symphony orchestra really happened under Roger Hendy. When I joined in around 1979, under Ron Smith, it was definitely still a chamber orchestra and we rehearsed in St Stephen's Church in central Exeter.’

Great British Life: The orchestra performs three concerts during the year. The orchestra performs three concerts during the year. (Image: Jim Wileman)

Later, the expanded orchestra had to relocate to a school hall for rehearsals, and in 2019 the EMG became known as the Devon Philharmonic Orchestra.

‘The name change aimed to reflect the geographical scope of both players and audience,’ says Fenny. ‘We reached yet a different audience in early March 2020, collaborating with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter and CoMA (Contemporary Music for All), in an Arts Council-funded event which presented specially composed works performed by small groups throughout the RAMM building. These involved volunteers from the orchestra and associated singers, culminating in a work by our then music director, Leo Geyer. Six separate groups played simultaneously in different galleries of the museum. We were fortunate that the date was March 7, as soon after this we were summarily shut down by Covid and our planned performance of Firebird in the cathedral the following month never happened.’

But with the innovation that so marvellously manifested itself during the pandemic, the DPO ensured its survival via online sessions, ‘including another work by Leo Geyer, O Brave New World, rehearsed on Zoom, recorded individually and then collated for the Box in Plymouth’.

As well as some long-standing music directors, DPO has also enjoyed stability with its leader, violinist Clare Smith, who has been in the role since 1993. Clare started learning piano and violin at the age of six, gaining a place in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain when she was 14. I can also personally vouch for her beautiful voice – she sings each Christmas in our tiny village church!

Great British Life: The orchestra also has a remit of working in the community.The orchestra also has a remit of working in the community. (Image: Jim Wileman)

Throughout its existence the orchestra has had a strong charitable ethic. DPO chairman Carol Galton says that in 2019 they were awarded the Lord Mayor of Exeter’s Commendation for services to the wider community and charity over many years. Fenny and Clare both represented the orchestra at Exeter’s Guildhall to receive the award. For most concerts a charity is selected, usually something local or one that has a connection to one of the players. This is featured in the programme, sometimes with a short presentation during the performance, followed by a ‘retiring bucket collection’ as everyone leaves.

Since the pandemic disruption the orchestra is once again expanding its remit to involve the community. Having now rebuilt the annual concert season and the performance standard of the orchestra as a whole, the DPO is keen to resume both outreach work and open rehearsals, and to work with visiting tutors again. Last spring, the string players were delighted to welcome back Fiona McLean-Buechel, a well-known string specialist, for a workshop on Barber's Adagio in preparation for Leo Geyer's farewell concert as music director.

At present, the committee is consulting with the music lead in an Exeter primary school, with a view to enabling younger pupils to hear live some of the recommended listening in the Department of Education’s Model Music Curriculum. The plan is to incorporate this project into programme preparation for the future.

There have also been conversations with local instrumental teaching staff as to the best way to collaborate, so that students can be offered extra playing experience and enjoy shared music-making with adult instrumentalists. DPO now looks forward to a sustained period of outreach and cooperation, while also enabling the continued musical and technical development of members under the current music director.

Great British Life: Music director Benjamin Voce with the orchestra in Exeter Cathedral. Music director Benjamin Voce with the orchestra in Exeter Cathedral. (Image: Jim Wileman)

That position has been held by Benjamin Voce since 2023, a musician with an illustrious pedigree. Having simultaneously studied maths at Imperial College and viola at the Royal College of Music, Benjamin gained a first-class degree then went on to gain a music degree from the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin. Since graduation Benjamin has worked with the Berlin Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw and London Philharmonic orchestras. He has also worked as associate conductor of the Dresden University Orchestra, rehearsal conductor for the Philharmonic Youth Orchestra of Niedersachsen and is the founder and director of Berlin-based Ensemble Luminar.

I ask Fenny how the orchestra’s repertoire is determined, whether there is a preference for accessible pieces that audiences will recognise, or challenging pieces to test the players.

‘The quick answer,’ she says, ‘is both! We have a programming group which includes the music director, our librarian, our leader Claire Smith, the chairman and representatives from each section. They meet regularly and make recommendations to the committee. Also, the wider membership is consulted periodically for wish lists or “the work you most want to play”.’

Although many of the players are quite staggeringly accomplished, with their outreach work and welcoming attitude, they present a very approachable face to aspiring players.

Great British Life: Music director Benjamin Voce believes in 'making concerts a journey and an experience for the audience'. Music director Benjamin Voce believes in 'making concerts a journey and an experience for the audience'. (Image: Jim Wileman)

'We aim to be a friendly group,’ says Fenny. ‘We have a policy of not holding formal auditions but inviting potential players as guests for an assessment period (strings) or to deputise for absent players (wind and brass). Under successive music directors we have sought to bring live orchestral music to as wide a range of listeners as possible, performing not just in the cathedral, other churches and schools but over the years in the museum, outdoors in the centre of Princesshay and online.’

Devon is extremely fortunate to be the home of so much talent. Now, with almost 60 years of history behind them, the DPO goes from strength to strength, continuing to contribute an enormous richness to Devon’s musical life. May they do so for decades to come.