Three decades in the life of HSO: Bryan Western looks back

HSO conductor Bryan Western.
HSO conductor Bryan Western.

It’s more active than ever - and bigger! When conductor and musical director Bryan Western first appeared on the scene, it was known as the Harrogate Chamber Orchestra. Graham Chalmers talked to Bryan about the story of his three decades with Harrogate Symphony Orchestra.

Graham: You’ve been with the HSO for 30 years now. What have you been your most memorable moments?

Bryan: It’s hard to top our One Voice charity concerts with the Rotary Club of Harrogate in the 1990s where we invited everyone to come and sing. It took quite a lot of arranging.

Just before the first one in 1995, one of our cellists commented on the bad cold I was developing.

Thinking nothing of it, I continued with the rehearsal only to find myself, late on that Sunday night in St James’s in Leeds with transverse myelitis and paralysed from the waist down.

Eventually, I did the concert sitting in a wheelchair with the two consultants from St James’s sitting in the audience.

But I suppose my proudest moment was when, at the age of 14, my daughter Katie played the Dvorak Romance in F. It is something that I will always cherish.

Graham: When did all this fascination with music start?

Bryan: Coming from a family with four brothers whose musical upbringing was Sing Something Simple on the radio, singing was in my blood.

But you can imagine the shock at the age of nine when I was selected to be a chorister at Bradford Cathedral.

This is when my love of choral music started and as a singer, we were expected to sight read anything put in front of us.

At school at the age of 11, as I was ‘the singer’, I was asked if I wanted to play a flute. Not having a clue what one was, I said that I would love to learn one!

Realising that music was going to be a big part of my life, I decided to learn the piano at 14. My gran paid for the lessons and my eldest brother bought a £2 piano (with woodworm we later found out) from a local auction house.

Inspired by my music teacher Ronald Fletcher at Grange Boys School in Bradford, I wanted to become a teacher, so I went to college.

Graham: How did you get involved with the HSO?

Bryan: I was teaching Harrogate High School and over the short time I had been there, I’d managed to establish the most amazing choir of over 190 pupils, staff and parents and an orchestra that consisted of the pupils and staff who taught them.

I think what happened was that someone from the orchestra had attended one of my school concerts.

I got a letter from Harrogate Chamber Orchestra’s chairman to ask me if I would like to conduct the March concert for the Harrogate Chamber Orchestra, as the person who was going to do it, wasn’t available.

After that first concert they simply couldn’t get rid of me!

Graham: How did it change into the HSO?

Bryan: We seemed to be getting more and more players arriving for rehearsals and, as I had access to lots of brass players from school, programmes had to be selected to cater for this influx. The move to a symphonic ensemble was quite natural: we were playing many 19th century larger scale works, so in 1990 the committee, with the backing of the members decided to change the name.

The result was totally unexpected: members numbers started to rocket and it wasn’t long before we had 60 players.

It hasn’t stopped growing since! And concert attendances since our home at the Royal Hall was renovated have been very good. Full houses aren’t uncommon.

Graham: What are your ambitions for further success for the HSO in the future?

Bryan: Success, for an organisation like this, comes from good programming. If I get it wrong, then not only will the players not want to come to rehearse every week, but audiences will vote with their feet.

But what I try to do, is provide challenges to both players and listeners alike.

I’m hoping the HSO will propser even more in the next 30 years.

I will be 90 then. Bring it on!

Byran Western conducts Harrogate Symphony Orchestra’s Spring Concert on Saturday, March 21 at the Royal Hall at 7.30pm when cellist Laura van Der Heijden, will perform the Shostakovich Cello concerto no 1. Programme also includes Sibelius: Karelia Suite, Respighi: Pines of Rome, Salmon: Air & Fandango (world premiere).