The Essex Symphony Orchestra grew out of the Chelmsford Festival Orchestra which had been formed before the Second World War to accompany choirs competing in the town’s annual Essex Musical Association ‘EMA’ Festival. The first orchestral concert took place in 1949 under founding conductor William (Billy) Bush and leader Arthur Davison, the young Canadian violinist who had recently arrived in London. In the same year Dr Stanley Vann was appointed Cathedral organist and soon showed an interest in the orchestra. He took over as conductor in 1952 and persuaded the members to expand it into a full symphony orchestra and adopt its current name.
Since then the Orchestra has performed across the county, in The Shire Hall, Civic Centre, The Corn Exchange, Thurrock Civic Centre, The Hoffman Hall, Harlow Sports Centre, King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford High School for Girls, Cressing Temple, Brentwood Cathedral, Cliffs Pavilion, Westcliff School, Thaxted Church, Felsted School Chapel, Loughton Academy and Davenant Foundation School, as well as in our home of Christ Church, Chelmsford. ESO played in Harwich at the Film Festival in 1998 and the International Music Festival in 2014 and 2016 and appeared in a joint concert with the Essex Police band in Chelmsford in 2002.
Choral performances during the early years saw the Orchestra perform under the guests invited to adjudicate the choral competitions including world famous conductors Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Charles Groves, Sir David Willcocks and Antony Hopkins. Repertoire performed included the requiems by Brahms, Mozart, Verdi and Fauré; Mendelssohn’s Elijah; Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and the Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams. The Orchestra accompanied the last ever EMA concert in Davenant Foundation School, Loughton, in 2011.
By the 1970’s ESO was performing to packed houses and was able to engage famous soloists of the day such as Leon Goosens, John Lill, Alfredo Campoli, Phyllis Sellick, Peter Katin and Ian Wallace. The introduction of leading soloists has remained one of the ESO’s missions and we have been able to bring the finest musicians to Chelmsford. We are pleased to have provided a platform for many young talented artists, both from Essex and from the national scene, often supported by the Countess of Munster Trust. We have enjoyed long associations with a series of Music Directors including Antoine Mitchell (1984 – 2004), Justin Doyle (2005 – 2009) and Tom Hammond (2009 – 2019) who was succeeded by Robert Hodge.
The ESO is proud of its strong associations with Chelmsford Cathedral. Two of our former conductors, Derek Cantrell and Philip Ledger, were also Masters of Music at the Cathedral and we performed there with the Chelmsford Singers over the years, with 2004 seeing a revival of this co-operation in a performance of Haydn’s Creation under Peter Nardone. Other notable appearances there included a performance of Saint Saens’ Organ Symphony in 2016.
Exploring adventurous repertoire has been a feature of ESO programming and we have also worked with a number of contemporary composers in commissions and premieres. These include Jane Wells (Playing the Game, Making Music Break Out Scheme 2004), Andrew Hall (Marconi Echoes, PRS Adopt a Composer Scheme 2011; recorded and broadcast on BBC Radio 3), Matthew Taylor (Storr, commissioned to mark ESO’s 60th Anniversary with funds provided by Britten Pears Foundation and PRS for Music Foundation and featuring student workshops and a recording by Colchester Institute) and James Francis Brown, (Lost Lanes, Shadow Groves, Emma Johnson clarinet, 2019).
The Orchestra has long supported local charities, including performances at the Cathedral in New Year’s Day Viennese concerts for the Rotary Club and ‘Hallelujah for Hospices’ Messiah concerts for Farleigh Hospice in the 1990s. Since 2013 we have worked with local charities to enable volunteers to raise funds and promote their causes to our audiences and are proud to have supported Helen Rollason Cancer Charity, Essex Air Ambulance, Chelmsford Citizens Advice Bureau, Chess, Havens Hospice and Kids Inspire in this way.
An area of our work which is growing in importance is that with children and young people. In 2007 we were invited to play as part of a school children’s project in Pitsea and ever since we have presented annual events in Chelmsford aimed at encouraging young players. These have included ‘Gifted and Talented’ activities, schools’ concerts and young people’s workshop days, sharing our love of music and nurturing the musicians and audiences of tomorrow.