There is evidence of a Greenock Philharmonic Society instituted in 1850, which presented musical evenings in the Watt Hall and the Assembly Rooms on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings. The concert party comprised of a small orchestra and a vocalist.
In a speech to celebrate the very first concert of the Philharmonic, Mr Ryrie Erskine-Orr, patron of the arts in Greenock, posed the question whether the choir had "the staying power to carry on". The answer he said "did not depend altogether on the conductor, it lay with the musicians of Greenock and the musical public".
As mentioned previously, the Society as it now is, was formed in 1935 under the conductorship of Mr Robert Constable. At a special meeting in September of that year, Mr Constable described how he had led "a few young and innocent enthusiasts" known as the Newton Singers to a successful appearance in the Glasgow Musical Festival. As there was no traditional mixed voice choir in the town, Mr Constable and his friends were determined that "this promising infant" should develop. The Greenock Philharmonic Society was constituted at this meeting and made its concert debut the following spring with a programme which included "Blest Pair of Sirens" by Parry and, local composer Hamish McCunn's "Lord Ullin's Daughter". The first work performed by the choir was Bach's "O Sacred Head" from the St Matthew Passion, and the concert featured the leading Wagnerian tenor, Walter Widdop.
Spring concerts in the two succeeding years were well received, but with the outbreak of war, rehearsals were adjourned. Towards the end of hostilities, many choir members sang under Mr Constable as the "Greenock Community Centre Choral Society" but Philharmonic business was not officially resumed until 1946. On the strength of its first concert after the war, the choir was honoured to be invited by the BBC to become the first large choir to broadcast "live" on radio with the BBC Scottish Orchestra in the Scottish Studio, when over one hundred singers joined sixty players under Mr Constable's direction in Handel's Coronation Anthem "The King Shall Rejoice".
In 1948, the choir treated a packed Town Hall to the first complete performance in Greenock for over 20 years, of Handel's "Messiah".The Scottish Orchestra provided stirring support, and the soloists were among the finest of the day. Three of them, Mary Jarred, Heddle Nash and Harold Williams were part of a group of sixteen singers for whom Vaughan Williams composed the work "Serenade to Music" dedicated to Henry Wood at his 1938 Jubilee Concert, and which will be well known to Philharmonic followers from its performance at their 1983 Spring Concert. By public demand, "Messiah" was repeated in major concerts in both 1949 and 1951.
As part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, the choir made its one and only venture on to the dramatic stage "sustaining" in the words of the programme, two tableaux in the Greenock Pageant, which played to capacity audiences for five consecutive nights in Greenock Town Hall. All the local choirs were involved, the Philharmonic appearing in "Robert Burns and Mary Campbell" and as the singing class of Neill Dougall, energetically portrayed by Mr Constable. The following year's annual concert was notable for the appearance of a most popular soloist, the late Maori baritone, Inia te Wiata, whose "racy and uninhibited platform manner" as described by the Greenock Telegraph, found such favour with the audience that he was invited to return to the next choir concert. Among the items presented was a chorus from Bach's "Mass in B Minor" a complex work which the Society was to perform in it's entirety, a quarter of a century later.
The following seasons brought changes in the conductorship, as Mr Constable had left the town to live and work in Dunoon. He was succeeded first by Charles Cleall, and then after one season, by Robert Creighton, a former choir member. Under Mr Creighton's careful guidance, the choir continued to present its annual spring concert, supplemented by the occasional radio broadcast. At Christmas 1956, the choir was assisted by Trinity Junior Choir, whose accompanist was a promising young musician by the name of Ian McCrorie. As in most post war concerts till that date, the Society's accompanist at this concert and later its president for thirteen years, was Mr Archie Paterson. The following year when Mr Creighton left the area to take up a business appointment, the Society was fortunate to secure the services of the youthful Thomas Walton, who was to remain a popular and accomplished conductor for the next twenty-one years.
In 1959 the choir recognised the bicentenary of Handel's death with performances of the great composer's serenata "Acis and Galatea" at it's spring concert and of "Messiah" in December. The baritone soloist on each occasion was William McCue, and he was joined at the second concert by Moira Anderson, also at the outset of a popular career. After a short association with Ayr amateur orchestra, the choir joined forces with the County of Renfrew Youth Orchestra for two seasons. The highpoint of this union was a performance of Haydn's "Creation" attended by the biggest Greenock concert audience for some years. The renowned bass, Harvey Alan, was among the soloists, but notably, the concert marked the debut with the choir of its regular accompanist for over forty years, now Associate Conductor and singing in the choir, Archie Shearer.
From 1965 to 1970, Mr Walton led the choir to large scale performances of major choral works. With funds available through the choir's affiliation to the National Federation of Music Societies, and to the foundation of the Greenock Musical Association by the local Corporation in response to the Wilson Government's "Policy for the Arts" the choir was able to employ professional orchestral players in performances of Bach's "St Matthew Passion", Handel's "Samson" and Haydn's "Creation".
In 1968, Alistair Massey was an able deputy conductor in Brahms "A German Requiem" when Mr Walton was indisposed through a car accident. Mr Walton was able to return the following year to conduct Mendelssohn's "Elijah" which featured his son, Master Kenneth Walton, now a noted music critic, as the "Youth". In 1970, the Philharmonic staged a performance which was described by the Greenock Telegraph as "the Society's finest hour". Verdi's "Requiem" was the first foreign language work presented by the choir which was assisted by an excellent orchestra led by Louis Carus. The Greenock Telegraph critic wrote of feeling "thrilled to the marrow on many occasions".
The progress of the Society continued into the seventies, and the audience reaction was enthusiastic towards two works new to the choir, Elgar's "The Dream of Gerontius" and William Walton's "Belshazzar's Feast". The bass soloist in the latter piece was Michael Rippon, a most welcome participant in this evening's programme.
In December 1976, the choir arranged its much-praised "Messiah for All". This only the third such venture in Great Britain at that time, and the Society was rewarded for its enterprise by a large and appreciative audience. Over 450 singers arrived from all over the West of Scotland, and Mr Walton directed the throng to a surprisingly controlled performance.
For his finale as conductor in the 1977/78 season, Mr Walton set the choir its most arduous task to date, Bach's "Mass in B minor" the first time in living memory that the complete work had been performed in the Greenock area. Regrettably, Mr Walton was unable to conduct the performance due to illness, and the Society was much indebted to Derek Fry who agreed to direct the piece at short notice. On Mr Walton's retiral, Mr Fry accepted the office of conductor for a further two years, in which the choir extended both its repertoire and technique. Rossini's "Petite Messe Solenelle" received probably its first local performance, and the 1979 Verdi "Requiem" was described as "a new landmark for the choir".
In 1981, Alan Tavener was appointed to replace Derek Fry, and contributed to the development of the choir by introducing works by modern composers such as Britten, Vaughan Williams and Tippett, the last named's "A Child of Our Time" being the success of the 1984 Spring Concert. The choir also presented different settings of major works under Mr Tavener's leadership.
In 1989, Mr Tavener was succeeded by someone well known locally through his time as head of the music department in Greenock High School, and that was Alistair Massey. During his time as conductor, from 1989 to 1996, the choir continued to present many of the great pieces such as the Vivaldi "Gloria", Dvorak's "Mass in D", and the Mozart "Vespers", through to Gabrielli's "Magnificat and Charpentier's "Christmas Eve". Such was the regard in which he was held that when he took to the platform once again in 2006 as Associate Conductor to conduct a "Messiah for All", enquiries were received from former pupils anxious to come along and see their old school teacher, and join the singing. That was a very happy occasion for everyone involved and the reputation of the people in Inverclyde was very much enhanced, with many comments about the hospitable treatment they received.
For a short period between 1996 and 1997, there was a period of uncertainty with conductors. Gordon Jack took over from Alistair Massey and was with the choir for a year when he had to leave. His successor, Bernard McDonald had an even shorter period of tenure, being conductor for only three months, when he had to move to London.
January 1998 brought Peter Jones, a violinist with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, to the choir, and through the years from 1998 to 2007, Mr Jones continued with the best traditions of the choir in presenting popular choral music to those who loved listening to it.
The Society's next conductor, John Thwaites, joined the choir in January 2007, and was prepared to try different things. He therefore began including the odd more popular piece of music, which probably came as something of a surprise, (but a pleasant one) to audiences. By March 2008 however, he hit the ground running, and the Philharmonic, together with their friends in Bridge of Weir Choral Society, pooled all of their resources to perform once again the Verdi "Requiem".The local music critic remarked that in particular the "Dies Irae was magnificent, submerging the audience in wave after wave of menace and fear."
The next conductor, Alejandro de Palma Garrido, was born in Spain in 1982. He had a substantial musical background in Spain, but in 2008 came to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland having been awarded a Post Graduate Diploma in Conducting, and he went on to obtain his Masters degree in Conducting in 2009. The choir immediately took to this enthusiastic young man, and whilst some of the Philharmonic's musical traditions were unfamiliar, he soon got the measure of the choir. Alejandro put his own stamp on things and introduced one or two items to take the choir out of its comfort zone, with pieces like Victoria's "O Magnum Mysterium" and Debussy's "Trois Chansons".
And so the Philharmonic now continues under the confident guidance of its latest conductor, Andy McTaggart, who joined the society in 2017.
It is to be hoped that the high standards and enthusiasm that were so much in evidence when the Greenock Philharmonic began in 1935 will continue, and that the choir will be part of the musical future in Inverclyde.
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