Sinfonia of Leeds

Honorary President: Michael Beverley DL

Fifty years of Sinfonia music making

Sinfonia of Leeds began life in 1972 as a 40-piece chamber orchestra, giving its first public performance on 13 January 1973 at the City of Leeds and Carnegie College, Becketts Park, Headingley (now part of Leeds Beckett University). Founded by Graham Bennett (who also ran Leeds’ Classical Record Shop in Albion Street), a Yorkshire Evening Post review gave the ensemble’s debut fulsome praise, recommending that “a group of young instrumentalists such as this who can play with such finesse and musicality at their first concert must be encouraged and nurtured.” And, for the next 17 years, the orchestra thrived, its repertoire drawn from the baroque era to the 20th century. New pieces were commissioned from local composers and concerts held at various venues in and around Leeds. 

Beethoven, Haydn and Schubert were the composers most regularly performed, along with some unusual items (Kurt Weill’s Symphony No.2 for example). The Sinfonia even had its own chorus, handy for performing masses by Haydn and Mozart, and commercial sponsorship was used to promote the careers of local young musicians. Occasional concerts were held in Leeds Town Hall, the Yorkshire Post music’s critic wondering “when will Leeds give this dedicated and by no means unworthy ensemble a place in the regular Town Hall concert series? It deserves nothing less.” 

Read a 1975 article from the Leeds Graphic  here.

A Sinfonia concert in the late 1970s

David Greed succeeded Graham Bennett as Music Director and Principal Conductor in 1990, and this eventually led the orchestra to broaden its musical horizons and grow in order to play some of the larger symphonic works. Larger-scale and more demanding pieces were tackled, the string section growing as a result; Schubert was played alongside Sibelius and Shostakovich. A move to Leeds University’s refurbished Great Hall reflected the orchestra’s increasing heft; pianist and philanthropist Sir Ernest Hall recording Bartók’s three piano concertos there with the Sinfonia in the mid-1990s. Other highlights of this period included Leeds Town Hall performances of Shostakovich 10 and the Gershwin Piano Concerto with Kathryn Stott as soloist, and Bruckner’s gargantuan 8th Symphony.

In 2003, David Greed invited one-time Opera North horn player Dougie Scarfe to become Associate Music Director, Scarfe leading the Sinfonia in epic renditions of Elgar’s two symphonies. Dougie left in 2012 to become Chief Executive of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and Opera North’s then Chorus Master Tony Kraus was appointed in 2014 as his successor.

St Edmund’s Church in Roundhay became the Sinfonia’s regular concert venue, hosting technically accomplished and memorable accounts of Mahler’s 6th Symphony and Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica.

Successive Covid-19 lockdowns meant that Sinfonia effectively stopped playing early in 2020, the players managing to reunite briefly for online recorded renditions of Wagner’s Mastersingers Overture and a Dvorak Slavonic Dance. Reuniting in the summer of 2021 for a series of socially distanced play-through sessions was an emotionally-charged experience, and it was a huge relief to be able to play to audiences again. Recent concerts have included only the second UK outing for Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s brilliant Metacosmos and Act 1 of Wagner’s Die Walküre with a stellar team of soloists and a battalion of extra brass. 

Sinfonia has worked with many eminent soloists over the years, including the pianist Michael Roll, the late Ralph Holmes (violin) and the Leader of the English Chamber Orchestra, Stephanie Gonley. Our connection with Opera North, through David Greed and Tony Kraus has given us an opportunity to work with a number of ON soloists including, in recent years, David Aspin (viola), Sally Pendlebury (cello) Colin Honour (clarinet), Andy Long (violin), Catherine Lowe (oboe) and Murray Greig (trumpet). In addition, Sinfonia is committed to supporting young musicians and has featured the following over the last few years: Yuanfan Yang and Lara Melda (piano), Jordan Black (clarinet) and Sophie Rosa, Nathalie Shaw and Emma Oldfield (violin).

Recollections from Conductors and Members

David Greed:
In the summer of 1989 I was invited by the chairman of Sinfonia of Leeds – Prof. Dave Hobbs – to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the orchestra in concerts at St Michael’s Church Headingley and also at the Grassington Festival.

Shortly before the rehearsal period began, I was invited further to direct and conduct the entire programme, which included Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony. This came as quite a surprise to me, and was one of my first ‘outings’ in directing a concerto (with no conductor). The situation was compounded (in the Headingley concert) by the event of my A string unravelling as I played – quite painful on the fingers! Shortly thereafter I was asked to become Music Director of the orchestra and here began a long and wonderful association, which has lasted 33 years – so far.

In my time with Sinfonia I have learned so much about working with non-professional musicians – how to get the best results for the group, frankly how to behave, and how to conduct, since I received no formal training in this craft.

I consider the players to be highly expert professionals in their own field (or formerly so in the case of a few retirees!) and I try to give the respect that is deserved to such people. For me, the way forward is to adopt absolute positiveness and convey that at all times.

There are a hundred and one differences between the professional and the non-professional orchestra (or the pay-to-play orchestra). I would say, rather controversially perhaps, that a lot of these differences are preferable to me when I work with Sinfonia. I have always been stimulated by the challenges of being ‘the boss’, and by the wonderful nature and enthusiasm of the personalities within the orchestra.

Along my magnificent journey with Sinfonia I recruited the assistance of associate conductors to help me. Dougie Scarfe worked alongside me for some years and, more recently, my good friend and colleague Tony Kraus has been (and is) my partner in crime! I feel that Tony and I have a great relationship. We work hard together to bring interesting musical works and new challenges to the players, and the membership seems to love and appreciate that.

Tony Kraus:
I was invited by David Greed to conduct Sinfonia of Leeds almost exactly a decade ago - my first performance with the orchestra was in January 2013. Looking back on it now, I guess it was an unofficial audition, as I was then asked to become Associate Music Director the following year.

There are several things I enjoy about my position with the orchestra - bringing new repertoire is something I strive to do in each season, something the orchestra has never played. The Kaparálová piece we are performing in our 50th Anniversary concert is a case in point - I think I can safely say it’s new to everyone, including me! I can also indulge my own love of orchestral repertoire away from my daily diet of opera. I’m currently one symphony away from completing my Brahms cycle...

This is an orchestra that likes to work, and we do work hard! I don’t ‘make allowances’ for the non-professional nature of the players - in fact some are either former professional musicians, or certainly good enough to be. Having strength in depth means that David and I can plan ambitious programmes, which in itself develops the orchestra and its repertoire, and we are almost unrestricted in our choice of music. We strive for the best we can be, and I love that even though we may have rehearsals when things don’t go quite to plan, it always seems to come right “on the night”!

A high point for me came in 2022 when we were able to play the whole first act of Wagner’s Die Walküre, with a most distinguished cast of internationally renowned singers. There are very few amateur orchestras that would meet that challenge with such fortitude, but this is one such orchestra, and I’m delighted and proud to be able to continue working with them, and David, for as long as I can.

Orchestra members:

I moved to Leeds from Bournemouth in 1977. I had an introduction to David Salinger (Sinfonia’s first leader): we played quartets, and he invited me to join Sinfonia. At that time it was a classical orchestra, six 1st violins, six 2nd violins, four violas, three cellos, one or two basses, double woodwind, timps, with trombones brought in when required. So we played Haydn and Mozart of course, but also Kurt Weill. Soloists were Andrew Watkinson (Endellion String Quartet), Leodian String Quartet, and local professional players.

We rehearsed at Notre Dame, because the double bass player was deputy head there (and we still rehearse there today). We played at the Clothworkers Hall, as well as organ concertos in churches in Ilkley, Armley and Harehills. We did choral concerts after Sinfonia Chorus was founded by Sybil Chambers, David Salinger's wife, so we played Haydn and Mozart masses.

We also did Childrens' concerts, conducted by Mike Williamson, in the old Grammar School with soloists from Leeds Youth Orchestra.

After a couple of years I became leader. My job was partly to find repertoire which included parts for everyone, the 2nd flute, the clarinets... Also to reconcile everyone's demands – interesting! In my early days I went round with a tuning fork to check everyone's intonation, as the tuning wasn't brilliant - an orchestra of individualists. I also auditioned violinists … one eminent writer on technique played Grade 4 pieces and when I suggested he came back with more demanding repertoire he went off in a huff and never reappeared.

Graham Bennett was the main conductor, but we also had Clive Timms from Opera North, and other people conducted wind repertoire - e.g.Strauss Wind Serenade.

After some years I left because I needed a change, and didn't particularly want to play big orchestral works. Having returned, I now find it challenging, learning new repertoire, playing in an orchestra of such a high standard, with good conductors, playing violin/viola as required, sitting well back, letting others play the difficult bits, and grumbling about the bowing - not seriously!

And being among good friends.

Christine Brown (Violin, 1977 – present)

I was introduced to the orchestra by a friend in 1978 and still love playing in Sinfonia as a grandparent now. The repertoire has developed from chamber works/ symphonies through to the massive forces needed for Mahler, Bruckner and Nielson. I love the challenge of new works and really appreciate the professional coaching from David and his colleagues.

One particular memory springs to mind - a choral concert at St Margaret's, Ilkley when a few of us walked up onto the Moor and miscalculated how long it took to get back.... I’ve never changed so quickly...ever!!!!

It’s great to be able to play with like-minded folk in Sinfonia, which embraces all ages too. I’ve made many good friends over the years.

Teresa Crick (Violin, 1978 – present)

The founding of Sinfonia coincides with my arrival in Leeds. I started teacher training at Beckett Park and in early 1973 saw an advert for the first concert by the SInfonia of Leeds - to be given in the Great Hall of the college. I went along, thought it was good and continued, off and on, to go to concerts over the next nine years.

When I left college I joined the College of Music orchestra but by 1981 wanted a change. Through my work in the Music Library I got to know Graham Bennett and in January 1982 I joined Sinfonia.

As the orchestra was a chamber group, we played a base of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, but Graham was also keen to perform more unusual works and also modern works - Bill Kinghorn and Phil Wilby for example.

When David took over we continued the chamber style until he wanted, and we agreed, to make the switch to being a larger symphony orchestra. Since then we have played some really amazing repertoire. The music is certainly more technically difficult these days.

As a chamber orchestra we gave 6 concerts a year in a variety of places and we settled for a long time at St Columba's Church before moving to the Clothworkers Hall. We gave lots of concerts around the area - Ilkley St Margarets, Heptonstall, Skipton, Grassington, Castleford, and more recently with David - Ackworth, Lincoln and Skegness! Having grown in size most of those places are no longer open to us. I suppose that is the down side of being a symphony orchestra.

For me, the most memorable/rewarding concerts have been those in the last 20 years. Particularly the Nielsen Inextinguishable Symphony (Feb 2005) - given in memory of Sally Macgill who died in the Boxing Day Tsunami. That concert is still unforgettable. Dougie Scarfe's first concert including Elgar’s 2nd symphony sticks in the mind, as does the opera gala, Mahler 6 and, without doubt, last year's Die Walküre.

Some concerts are memorable for other reasons - a very long Messiah in Castleford and the very cold church at Heptonstall where violin players were swapping clothing to see how many layers we could wear under our black concert gear. A concert at the Clothworker's Hall, involving a new piece by Phil Wilby, called for a horn player to wander around outside the hall and play random music. The caretaker didn't realise and kept trying to close doors and shut the player up, rather spoiling the desired effect!

Sinfonia has been a fixture of my life for so long I can't really remember a time before it. The friendships made and players who have come and gone are all valuable memories.

Elizabeth Bee (Violin, 1982 – present)

As a long serving member of Sinfonia I have been questioned about the many stories which must have accrued over 50 years. One such story relates to a prestige concert engagement. A gala concert in Leeds Town Hall, April 1978.

This was a civic occasion with the Lord Mayor of Leeds, civic dignitaries and the Earl and Countess of Harewood, with a full Town Hall audience. The soloist was Michael Roll, winner of the first Leeds International Piano Competition, performing Beethoven's 1st piano concerto.

With the first and second movements beautifully delivered the piano sets the pace for the final movement. Bar eighty nine is etched in my brain for ever! Michael suddenly stopped, declaring, "I've gone wrong". He rapidly moved from stool to conductor saying " We'll start the last movement again".

I was stunned, along with the conductor Graham Bennett and the whole orchestra. Michael returned to the piano (with loud whispering from the audience) and announced "we'll start the last movement again" - loud applause followed by even louder reaction when he said , "it's my fault entirely, not the orchestra's"

The civic reception following provided much fodder for the thank you's, including Michaels humble admission.

Every time I hear or play the concerto, bar 89 looms!

Brian Robinson (Double Bass, 1974 – present)

Sinfonia of Leeds at St Edmund's