There can be no orchestra without musicians, so this seems a good place to start. All the orchestra members are professional musicians with experience of playing in a variety of ensembles. Just a few months after Alan Free’s decision to found the orchestra,
The Sinfonietta’s inaugural concert took place in October 1997 with a string orchestra.
Several of our current woodwind players have also been present since the first time their instrument featured in the Sinfonietta’s programme. There have been only three Leaders, Patricia Donnelly until 2005, Celia Hebbron until 2019, and Tom Sykes until 2023. Over the years, many others have joined the ranks of our regular players, with a number featuring as soloists on occasions. We now also have players who were not born when the Sinfonietta’s life began.
A trawl through the concert programmes reveals a number of favourite pieces: Elgar’s Chanson du Matin, Chanson du Nuit and Salut d’Amour, Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Britten’s Simple Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Several Viennese evenings have been held, the most recent in September 2018.
However, from the beginning these familiar pieces have been presented alongside less well-known music from composers of many periods and nationalities, for example, Corelli, Telemann, Pergolesi, Albeniz, Warlock and Grainger. Pieces by David Forshaw( our Chair until November 2021) such as Into the Light and his Piano Concerto, have received their first performances.
Concerts requiring the space afforded by the Town Hall to accommodate a large orchestra have included the tenth anniversary concert with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, The Eroica,
Opera Night in 2011 with the Sinfonietta joined by three soloists and a chorus formed from local choirs, and Beethoven Night in 2012 with Symphony No. 2 and Piano Concerto No.3.
The twentieth anniversary concert included Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 and Elgar’s Cello Concerto.
In September 2022, the Sinfonietta celebrated its 25th year with a special anniversary concert, conducted by Helen Harrison, which included pieces by Butterworth, Elgar, Quilter, Vaughan Williams and Haydn. Called Looking Back, Looking Forward, it was a an exciting and wide ranging concert, enjoyed by a capacity audience.
Making live music accessible for all in the area has always been one of the Sinfonietta’s aims, and young people have been enabled to hear and make music in a range of events including:
Much has changed since 1997 and the Sinfonietta has adapted to grow and develop. Originally the programme was for four concerts a year with a chamber orchestra, plus a Carol Concert. The comfortable, modern surroundings of the United Reformed Church in Ormskirk Street soon became the Sinfonietta’s home venue. However, expanding to perform works for a larger orchestra required at times the use of larger venues such as the Town Hall and World of Glass. Such events also required much time and effort writing bids which were successful in securing funding from grants. The Sinfonietta became a charity in 2006.
After the financial crash of 2008, as austerity measures took hold, business sponsorship was much more difficult to obtain, and local authority finances were increasingly under stress. In 2009 the Friends of St Helens Sinfonietta was formed. The small annual fees, together with larger contributions from patrons, were invaluable in providing income when, as our Chair reported at the 2009 AGM, ‘funding sources are increasingly difficult to find and even more difficult to secure.’ The Sinfonietta is grateful for the continued financial support in these difficult times from local trusts and individuals, and, more recently, for legacies which have enabled us to plan for the future.
The number of concerts per year was, in general, reduced to three, and recitals became an increasingly important part of the programme. The longer recitals are held on Saturday evenings in programmes with an interval. Shorter recitals without an interval take place on Thursdays in the early afternoon. Song, piano, organ and guitar recitals and string quartets have been joined by jazz events and more unusual combinations of instruments: recently we have greatly enjoyed performances by the Polaris Duo of harp and saxophone (2019) and The Abramskis, piano and bassoon (2020).
The year began successfully with pleasing audience numbers enjoying the excellent playing of Cobalt Brass and The Abramskis. Pieces by Astor Piazzola played by the former and by Hector Villa-Lobos introduced the South American theme intended for the year. In March, the Sinfonietta Strings gave us a thoroughly enjoyable evening with ‘Interconnections: from Purcell to Britten and from Villa-Lobos to Mike Harding’. And then, of course, as for all arts’ organisations and for life in general, the pandemic took its toll.
We were able to re-start live concerts in Autumn 2021, and since then we have been able to provide a wide-ranging programme of musical events, including performing works by female composers, and a special ‘comparison’ programme for string orchestra when items were played from the baroque period and from the 20th and 21st centuries, conducted by Miguel Sepulveda from the Royal Northern College of Music.
We are looking forward to developing our links with the Royal Northern College, as well as other organisations.
Making Events Happen
Over the years, many dedicated volunteers have worked behind the scenes to enable the Sinfonietta to function. This includes the production of promotional materials, tickets, programmes and newsletters, obtaining the musical scores, the setting up of venues and tidying afterwards, providing refreshments for players and audiences, the routine correspondence and minuting of meetings, the day-to-day finances, writing bids for grants and running the Friends of St Helens Sinfonietta. We would like to thank all past committee members, and all the spouses and partners who get roped in, for all they have done. We would also welcome new volunteers who feel they could give their help.
Ted Kirk – 1927-2017
Ted Kirk died in November 2017 at the age of 90 after a life which had been infused with a profound love of music. His immense knowledge and enthusiasm left its mark on all who knew him and from the moment he joined the committee in the early 2000s, that knowledge and enthusiasm were of immense benefit to the planning and running of the Sinfonietta’s activities. His work arranging pieces for the orchestra and his authoritative programme notes were just part of his contribution and the fact that virtually his last act for the Sinfonietta was conducting his own Tunepiece at the 20th Anniversary Concert was very fitting. Here is Alan Free’s appreciation of Ted:
“I first encountered Ted as a “newt” (new pupil) at Prescot Grammar School in September 1954. He must have been 27 and my memory of him at that time was of someone with abundant energy and enthusiasm. He ran the school choir, which I joined as soon as I could. They performed at Founder’s Day services at Prescot Parish Church and at the annual Speech Day. If I remember correctly there was an annual concert where the choir and embryonic school orchestra played pieces, some of which were his arrangements or compositions.
When the time came to make subject choices, I opted for music with a small group studying GCE “O” Level. In the 6th form I went on to join a group of two studying for “A” Level. I learned so much then and there were regular visits to RLPO concerts. All in all Ted was an inspiring, rigorous and friendly teacher. At that time he formed a small jazz group with me on piano, himself on soprano sax and someone else on guitar.
I left school in 1961 and apart from chance meetings at the RLPO, I had no contact with him for more than 40 years. However the inspiration stayed with me. Around 2002 I discovered that he lived in St Helens, found his contact details and asked him if he was aware of the existence of St Helens Sinfonietta. He said he’d seen one or two references in the local paper and assumed they were amateur players. When I told him about the quality of the orchestra, he became very interested. He must have been 76 by the time he did some work for us.
I think that the Sinfonietta gave him a new lease of life at a time when he may have thought of winding down. What an amount and quality of work it was! He produced our programmes, containing brilliant written notes about the pieces; he made many arrangements suitable for the orchestral resources at our disposal; and he set up our website and was the webmaster for many years.
He was a constant support to me in my position as Musical Director and I could ask his advice about musical matters at any time. I think the whole organisation moved up a gear when he joined because of his example of high standards in everything he did. What a triumphant finish he had with Tunepiece in St Helens Town Hall.
What a man!”