Blackpool Symphony Orchestra mark the centenary of their debut performance with a series of celebratory concerts
- Credit: Martin Bostock Photography
Crowds at the Blackpool Music Festival in 1922 were among the first to hear work by a new orchestra. Founded the previous year by Percy Dayman, the Blackpool Amateur Symphony Orchestra had 50 members by the time of the festival and despite only having played together for a matter of months, they were among the winners.
They went on to have success at subsequent festivals and competitions in Blackpool and across Lancashire under Mr Dayman’s leadership. And a hundred years on from that first appearance at the Winter Gardens, the Blackpool Symphony Orchestra is still going strong, and has a series of concerts and events planned to celebrate their centenary.
Their founder and conductor, Cornishman Percy Dayman, also founded the Blackpool Philharmonic Society and the orchestra became the instrumental section of the society. He also conducted the Blackpool Lyric Choir, the Lytham St Annes Orchestral Society, the Blackpool Choral and Orchestral Society and a church choir.
And that busy schedule is mirrored by the current conductor and musical director, Helen Harrison.
Alongside her role with the BSO, she is also musical director of Preston Opera, the Lytham St Annes Choral Society, the Young Symphonia in Gateshead and works as a freelance with orchestras, opera societies, choral groups and others across the country.
Helen, an accomplished violinist and pianist, was born in Blackburn and read music at Cambridge before working in finance around the world – and playing in orchestras wherever she went.
‘When I was young I played with the Lancashire Youth Symphony Orchestra,’ she said. ‘When I was there, the conductor once asked to start a performance while he checked something and it was absolutely thrilling for me.
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‘I was in the orchestra at Cambridge and when I was leaving, some friends asked if I was going to study for a masters in conducting. I didn’t then but I was always playing in orchestras wherever I lived and the idea stayed with me.’
She has now been the BSO conductor for ten years and was presented with a golden baton to mark her decade on the podium. But her work extends beyond guiding her various groups through their performances – she is an ambassador for them, for classical music, and for the small but growing band of female conductors.
‘The role goes beyond conducting,’ she said. ‘I have a long-term strategic view of the direction I want the groups to go in and the music I want them to play. I am always planning two or three years ahead – there's never a time when I can just stop. I have scores in my mind a long way ahead as I try to ensure we have a balanced programme. At the moment I’m preparing to conduct 40 scores in 10 days. I do sleep sometimes, but that’s often the thing that is sacrificed.
‘There are a number of fantastic professional orchestras, but they often find it hard to reach those parts of the country that don’t get performances. That’s why groups like the BSO are so important – without us there probably wouldn’t be an orchestra playing in Blackpool. I have lived all over the world and am very keen to promote good quality classical music outside the big cities.’
Helen was chosen to take part in the Women Conductors’ International Masterclass run by the Royal Opera House last year and was invited by the Royal Philharmonic Society to work with the Royal Northern Sinfonia as one of four emerging conductors in a project to advance gender equality on the podium.
And Helen, who now lives in Great Eccleston, said: ‘Women are still in a minority as conductors, but there are more of us now and numbers are increasing on the Masters programmes. One of the most amazing things that happens is after a concert when someone gets in touch and says they want to become a conductor – and it’s especially pleasing when it’s a young girl. That means they are seeing it as something they can do.’
And she added: ‘I am very proud of the work we do in Lancashire and I want to make sure we are making music that’s available to everyone and that audiences will love. I want these groups to be alive and vibrant and to always be moving forwards. We are not set in aspic, we are developing and evolving and improving all the time.
‘The BSO are very good and they are going from strength to strength. The orchestra has grown in membership and in the kind of music they play. They are a really exciting bunch of warm-hearted musicians who want to play well and be the best they can be. We have done a lot of projects and workshops with schools – it's not a matter of us giving concerts in our ivory tower, we want to introduce as many people as possible to the music.’
The BSO attracts players from across Lancashire with a core membership of 50 semi-professional musicians under Helen's direction.
Among them is violinist Cath Chambers who was an accomplished player when she was growing up in Huddersfield. But when she moved to Blackpool to start a career as a teacher, the violin was packed away and it didn’t come out again for more than 30 years.
When a teaching colleague came for Sunday dinner, Cath asked that his children bring their instruments and hearing the violin that afternoon inspired her bring hers down from the loft.
‘I had lessons and joined Phoenix Strings, an orchestra for people coming to back to their instrument. I was the leader there for ten years and when I left, I joined the BSO. It’s wonderful, they are such a great group of people and it is remarkable to have an orchestra of this quality in one of the poorest areas of Britain,’ she said.
During lockdown, BSO members recorded themselves playing Somewhere Over The Rainbow and the spliced together video was widely shared and featured on local television news. They also used it as a way to raise awareness and £3,000 for the Blackpool food bank. It also won the Making Music national award for Best Virtual Concert Video 2020 and was highly commended by the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards 2020 and the Classical Music Digital Awards 2020.
Cath added: ‘The camaraderie among the group is wonderful and during lockdown we would come together online to play together and support one another. I have been with the BSO for about five years now and I love it. It stretches me musically and I have made some great friends. Some of our members have been with the orchestra for more than 30, or even 40, years.’
Join the celebrations
Blackpool Symphony Orchestra will play a series of concerts this year, including:
March 19 – Family concert at Fleetwood Marine Hall
July 2 – Winter Gardens concert with Blackpool-born professional violinist Alexandra Stemp
September 3 – Jubilee concert at Lancaster Castle
September 17 – Proms night at Hodgson High School, Poulton-le-Fylde