The 1970s – Beginnings
The South Liverpool Rehearsal Orchestra grew out of the South Liverpool Symphony Orchestra founded in September 1976 by Bertha and Eugene Genin. For many years, the Genins had both been involved with Merseyside’s musical life. At various times, Eugene had conducted amateur orchestras at Christ’s, S. Katharine’s & Notre Dame College and at Liverpool Local Education Authority (LEA) Evening Institute orchestras held at the David Lewis Theatre, Mount Street, Highfield and Rose Lane as well as being conductor of the Oxton and Claughton Orchestral Society. He worked as a peripatetic string instrument teacher in many schools, teaching violin, viola (his own principal instrument which he had played in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra), cello and double bass as well as taking private pupils at his own home. Eugene was a pupil of Alfred Ross (taught by Joachim) whose father, John, was also a music teacher, with premises in a large Canning Street house.
Bertha (nee Murnaghan) had played as a harpist in the Manchester BBC Northern Orchestra (now BBC Philharmonic) and had taught at St. Finbar’s R.C. Primary School, in Liverpool. Each summer, the Genins ran a week’s orchestral holiday in the Lake District held at the Hollins Hotel and known as the Grasmere Orchestra. Apparently, the idea came from Mona Lloyd, a well-known Liverpool amateur violinist who was a teacher of handicapped children at Sandfield Park School and who had led the Orchestra since she founded it in the mid-1930′s.
When Eugene was retired on grounds of age from Liverpool Education Authority, Bertha suggested that they should set up their own independent orchestra. Arrangements were made with La Sagesse R. C. Girls’ High School, Aigburth Road, L19, for the proposed orchestra to meet in the School Hall on Tuesday evenings during term time (The old Mount Street Orchestra used to meet on those nights). This location was very convenient for the Genins as they lived just around the corner in Mayfield Road.
Posters were put up advertising the formation of the new orchestra and instrumentalists already known to the Genins were contacted. Son-in-law and one of Eugene’s recent outstanding pupils, Leo Byrne, was the orchestra’s first leader, playing an instrument of his own making. Bill Jenkins, the Liverpool Education Authority Music Adviser and founder of the Merseyside Youth Orchestra, was occasional leader (though he often preferred to play his cello), under Eugene’s baton. Bertha and Eugene’s sister, Winifred (member of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra), both played in the viola section; Catherine Byrne, the Genin’s only daughter, played the timpanis (her principal instruments being piano and oboe). Quite a family affair! One player recalls that on the first night the Orchestra met, all the violinists were lined up against the wall and called out in turn to take their seats where Eugene had decided.
There were no auditions for the South Liverpool Symphony Orchestra but incompetence and lack of concentration were not welcome! Some players were indeed quite frightened of Eugene, feeling once again like school children incurring teacher’s wrath! However, Mr. Genin, as all of the (non-family) members felt obliged to call him, was always encouraging and loved to share his own enthusiasm for the repertoire.
The Genins had a huge collection of orchestral music so there was always plenty of music to play. Quite rightly, Eugene guarded this great treasure trove of sheet music fiercely and woe betide anyone putting music on the floor or failing to return borrowed copies in time for Tuesday evening rehearsals! Some of the music was stamped thus: Matthay School of Music; Rose Lane; David Lewis Theatre; John Ross etc. Those stamps read like a potted history of defunct Liverpool amateur orchestras.
Orchestral members paid a weekly subscription which included a cup of tea (organised by Bertha) during the interval and which provided the focus for social intercourse. Each summer, a public concert was held at La Sagesse, with Eugene standing raised up on the podium and resplendent in tails! The proceeds of the concert went to the School funds.
The 1980s – From Place to Place
In the early 1980′s, Eugene Genin was awarded the MBE in recognition of his services to music in Liverpool. But 1983 was a watershed year. In early July, days after the successful summer concert in which Bertha played her harp most movingly, Eugene suddenly died. Leo Bryne bravely took over the baton at extremely short notice so that the Grasmere Orchestra (renamed the Rydal Orchestra) which many SLSO members attended and which had by then transferred to Rydal Hall, was able to proceed as planned at the end of July.
The Byrnes (with Bertha’s help) then took over running the SLSO at the beginning of the 1983 Autumn season. Leo had been leading the SLSO on Tuesday evenings, following Bill Jenkins’ retirement some years before on grounds of ill-health. Agnes Frengley who was a Liverpool LEA peripatetic violin teacher, moved from leading the Second Violins and took over the leadership at that point and was joined on the front desk, by Matthew, Catherine’s & Leo’s eldest son. Sadly, a few players left the SLSO then, some joining the newly formed Metropolitan Cathedral Orchestra which also rehearsed on Tuesday evenings.
That summer of 1983, La Sagesse School closed prior to demolition. The Orchestra moved to the School Hall at New Heys Comprehensive in Heath Road, L19 with the Byrnes having to transport the music, the timps and the tea things from their home in Hoylake! This proved to be an unsatisfactory venue as the poor lighting was made even less effective on account of the hall’s dark green ceiling. Despite paying a watchman for a couple of hours, members’ cars were interfered with on several occasions so after three or four years, the Byrnes arranged for the Orchestra to transfer to the Benedict Arts Centre of Liverpool Institute of Higher Education (LIRE) on Woolton Road, L16 (previously Christ’s, St Katharine’s and Notre Dame College) with support from Ray Guinee, Head of Music. When the Music Department moved from that building, the College authorities allowed the Orchestra to transfer to its current venue, the Music Salon, adjacent to Taggart Road in what is now called the Hope Park Campus of Liverpool Hope University.
The 1990s – The End… Or a New Beginning?
Leo Byrne announced at the first meeting of the 1992 season that he was closing down the Orchestra as he and Catherine were over-burdened, with their employment and domestic responsibilities and with the difficulty of arriving in time for the rehearsals at the Music Salon from Hoylake. This was a great shock to members. Not only had the conductor resigned but the orchestra had lost at one fell swoop, Catherine on the timps, Matthew as Leader, (Agnes having died a couple of years earlier); their daughter, Jane, oboe; daughter Anne who played violin; son Nicholas (cello); son Jonathan (violin); and Katie (clarinet) as well as access to the City Music Library tickets, all the sheet music and the timps! (N.B. Bertha Genin had died by this time).
Nothing daunted Phyllis McIlroy (viola), and as a longstanding player in Eugene Genin’s orchestras, Phyllis was determined to keep the orchestra going. She sounded out one of the Ormskirk Orchestra’s conductors, Roger Tindley, and spoke to their Music Librarian, Mrs. Yates, about the possible loan of some of their music. Eileen Tregunna (cello) who had contacts in the LIRE as she had been an External Assessor for their B.Ed Finals course, called a meeting on October 20th 1992, having obtained a list of current members from Catherine Byrne. Dr Ian Sharp, Senior Lecturer in Music and the Institute’s organist represented the College authorities and has been closely associated with, and strongly supportive of, the orchestra ever since. It was decided that sufficient members were in favour of continuing and Eileen Tregunna liaised with the College about the administrative arrangements. She was amazed to find that the SLSO had use of the Music Salon gratis and equally astounded and grateful, to be told that the College authorities were happy for this situation to continue!
On 27th October 1992, a Committee was elected to run the renamed South Liverpool Rehearsal Orchestra (SLRO). Eileen Tegunna was elected first Chairman; Ian Sheppard (French horn) Hon. Treasurer; Dr. Alastair Finch (violin) Hon. Secretary; Norman Payne (violin) Music Librarian; Joan Wilson (violin) Publicity Secretary. Bryan Oldfield, Leader of the Second Violins, brought along the written constitution of the Oxton & Claughton Orchestral Society of which he was Chairman. This was adapted to fit the requirements of the SLRO and adopted at a subsequent meeting. At the Committee Meeting in December 1992 it was agreed: that Norman Payne would ask Geoff Pellegrini to lead the SLRO, that a Letter of Thanks would be sent to the Byrnes and that the Treasurer open an account with Giro Bank in the Orchestra’s name.
Into the 21st Century – New Associations and Fundraising
Dr. Ian Sharp eventually suggested that the SLRO become associated with the College (renamed Liverpool University College) in a more formal way and that the SLRO become the College’s Community Orchestra. He also suggested that an annual fundraising concert be given, beginning in the summer of 1997, in support of Hope One World, the College’s overseas educational charity. Light refreshments at the end of the concert for players and audience alike served as an excuse for conversation and celebration. A public concert had not been attempted since 1983, in Eugene Genin’s time! Dr. Sharp also suggested that soloists, either orchestral members or guests, be invited to play a concerto movement or two with the SLRO at concerts and/or during a Tuesday evening meeting. In December 2000, the SLRO provided instrumental music for the first time at the College’s Procession of Carols, playing in the College’s R C Chapel and accompanying the College Choir.
With increased involvement and encouragement of College staff, especially of Dr Ian Sharp, many College (now renamed Liverpool Hope) students joined the SLRO. Some stayed only a couple of weeks or a year. Others are happy to join forces with the orchestra for the duration of their course and even, after graduating, if they were local residents. For the first time, SLRO had a formal presence at Liverpool Hope’s Freshers’ Fair in September 2001. Jane Chapman (Student Committee Member and leader of the cellos) set up and oversaw the SLRO information and recruitment stand, helped by Gordon Charters (viola); Judith Hinds (violin); Nick Wood (violin) and Des O’Hare (double bass) using posters and publicity material prepared by Joan Wilson. Incidentally, subscriptions are always waived for full time students, regardless of age or of academic institution.
For many years, the SLRO gladly set aside an evening rehearsal for the College’s Post Graduate Certificate of Secondary Education Music students to try their hand at orchestral conducting, under the watchful eye of Gresham Professor of Music, Stephen Pratt.
Liverpool Hope’s School of Creative and Performing Arts moved to its new location, The Cornerstone, known as Hope at Everton, L3 in 2000. Although the Music staff retained the Music Salon’s use at Hope Park, the College’s set of timpani were moved to Everton. The SLRO was therefore faced with a major dilemma either to buy a set of timps or to move to the Everton site. The idea of relocation was unpopular with many of the members for a variety of reasons, despite the Committee having been impressed by the facilities and their concern that most of future music students would be living there too. Through Des O’Hare’s contacts, a second-hand set of timps was purchased and is now kept at Hope Park following repairs organised by Ian Sheppard. Professor Stephen Pratt kindly agreed that the College would help with costs. In return, the College also has use of the instruments should a set be needed at Hope Park.
Mention must be made of the social aspect of Tuesday evenings. Until the beginning of the 2001-2 season, hot drinks and biscuits had always been smoothly managed by Eileen Tregunna and prepared by herself and/or with the help the late Dot Danher (timpani) and Margaret Dee at the interval. At Christmas, Eileen would present the players with beautifully arranged light refreshments and alcoholic drinks. Eileen has now handed over this catering responsibility entirely to Margaret Dee and Anna Robinson (percussion). Conversion of the ‘tea room’ meant it was only possible to serve cold drinks with biscuits although no-one seemed to mind! The drinks interval enabled the SLRO to create a friendly environment, with members mixing well without regard to age group, profession or instrument. This socialising led to Phil Newton suggesting a more ambitious social gathering in the form of a buffet before members attended the College’s Psappha Concert in March 2002. One of Professor Stephen Pratt’s piano compositions, ‘Winter Fantasy’ was featured in the programme. This event epitomised the beneficial symbiotic relationship of the SLRO and the College (now renamed Liverpool Hope University).
From the Noughties to the Teens – A Time of Change
The excellent relationship with the University continues to date with many of the orchestra’s concerts featuring the University’s vocal ensemble, The Hope Park Voices. In 2007, SLRO’s Christmas concert was dedicated to memory of Norman Payne, a founder member of the orchestra. In 2010, Dr Ian Sharp, after conducting the orchestra for 14 years, decided to hang up his baton. His final concert featured Nick Byrne performing the 1st movement of Dvorak’s ‘Cello Concerto. As a nice link back to the SLRO’s origins, Nick’s grandfather was Eugene Genin – the founder of the orchestra!
Following Ian’s resignation, the race was on to find a new conductor for SLRO. Fortunately, Dr Robert Howard, who was already known to the orchestra thank to his frequent “depping” on bassoon for concerts, agreed to take the reins. Robert is Assistant Head of Music Faculty (Head of Orchestral Music) at St Edward’s College, Merseyside – Choir School to Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. He is Associate Conductor of the Phoenix Concert Orchestra and also a prolific performer and composer in his spare time (www.roberthowardmusic.co.uk). The orchestra still see Ian on a regular basis however as he enjoys attending the orchestra’s concerts and occasionally conducts a rehearsal if Robert is unavailable.
Robert decided the orchestra was under-selling itself by including the word “Rehearsal” in the title, and with the agreement of the orchestra, changed to the name to South Liverpool Orchestra (SLO), which is how the orchestra is still known.
2012 saw the Genin link reiterated once again with the arrival of Jude Byrne, wife of Jon, grandson of Eugene. Through Jude, the orchestra were introduced to the Wavertree String Quartet, a semi-professional string quartet led by Jon. The quartet now regularly performs at SLO concerts. The orchestra’s Christmas concert in 2012 was dedicated to Geoff Pelligrini following his sudden death. Geoff led the orchestra for 20 years with great modesty and enormous competence, rarely missing a rehearsal.
Over the years, SLO have held the majority of their concerts within the Chapel at Hope University. However, a few concerts have utilised other local churches such as Allerton United Reform Church, Booker Avenue and All Hallows, Allerton. Robert, as well as being a teacher, conductor, performer and composer, is Artistic Director of the Prescot Festival. This is a 10-day series of music and cultural events held in the last full week of June each year in the historic Lancashire town of Prescot (www.prescotfestival.co.uk). Arts in Prescot, encompassing the Prescot Festival, organise a series of year-round events. Under this umbrella Robert invited SLO to perform in Prescot Parish Church at Christmas, 2013. The event was joint event with local school and church choirs and saw the largest audience in the orchestra’s history – over 400 people!
The orchestra still continue to perform twice annually and usually sight-read at least one new movement or short piece each week. SLO is a very friendly orchestra. In addition to the weekly squash and biscuit breaks during rehearsals and post-concert buffets, members enjoy twice-yearly evening socials, often at a local carvery. As a result of these friendships, chambers groups have been formed of musicians within the orchestra and these groups have recently been invited to perform at house parties, and for Childwall in Bloom events.
The orchestra continues to thrive with rehearsals usually being attended by over twenty-five players, varying in age from teenagers right through to octogenarians. Most players live in south Liverpool although a few come from further afield in Merseyside, Warrington and Widnes. SLO regularly perform concertos with either visiting musicians such as Russell Thompson – piano, or players within the orchestra (including Nick Swift – french horn, Robert Howard- bassoon, Laura Bonnett – flute, Alison Wilson – oboe, Miriam Cartwright – clarinet and Lisa McCloskey – flute). Additionally, the orchestra’s Christmas concert always involves a local choir such as The Hope Park Voices or the Oriel Singers. As will be apparent from the foregoing text, the continued success of the orchestra is due to its conductor, committee and its many members’ cooperation and input. Of particular note are the librarians who always ensure the orchestra have a varied and interesting selection of pieces to choose from. There have only been four librarians in the orchestra’s history – Norman Payne, Peter Drury, Jane Chapman and the current librarian, Paul Holt.
The orchestra celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2016 with a successful Prescot Festival Finale (Last Night of the Proms) concert in June of that year and a Christmas concert in the following December.
The association with Liverpool Hope University ended with the change of rehearsal venue to the Liverpool Reform Synagogue in September 2017. St James’ Methodist/URC in Woolton quickly established itself as our new concert venue, and biannual concerts at the church between 2017 and 2019 were very well attended.
From March 2020 to September 2021 the orchestra were unable to have any in person rehearsals due to the Covid 19 Pandemic, but continued contact and encouragement with the membership via online means.
In September 2021 SLO resumed weekly rehearsals at the Liverpool Reform Synagogue with an increased membership. Sadly, St James’ was undergoing extensive renovation work and unable to host the orchestra concerts as before. After researching a number of different locations, All Hallows’ church was felt to be the most well suited venue, as it was located in the heart of South Liverpool. We also had contacts with the church through members of the orchestra. Arrangements made, we celebrated both the orchestra’s 45th anniversary year and Dr Robert Howard’s 10th year as conductor of the SLO with a very successful concert in December 2021. This was followed up with a Jubilee themed spring concert in May 2022. Both concerts had an excellent audience turn out.
This article has been written collaboratively by members of the orchestra, past and present. All text prior to 2002 was written by Joan E Wilson, a founder member of the orchestra. Text post-2002 is courtesy of Laura Bonnett. Thanks must also go to Frances Barendt, Norman Payne, Bernard Duffy, Eileen Tregunna, Ian Sharp, Robert Howard and Margaret for their help in providing relevant information.