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Milngavie Music Club - the first 70 years
The club was the brainchild of Alex Duncan and the viola player Herbert Downes who was then in the BBC Scottish Orchestra and later moved to the position of Principal Viola in the newly-formed Philharmonia Orchestra in London. At a time when opportunities to hear live chamber music were limited, their vision of a concert society that would invite musicians of international stature to perform in a village hall on the edge of Glasgow was nothing if not ambitious. For that first concert the musicians were Herbert Downes and three colleagues from the BBC Scottish Orchestra, the Downes String Quartet.
But the scale of the founders' ambition went further: between 1947 and 1975 Milngavie Music Club held a series of weekend-long 'festivals'. They happened every five years and involved several concerts, starting on the Friday evening. For the first festival in 1947 the club invited the Zorian String Quartet, the pianist Colin Horsley and the famous clarinettist Reginald Kell. But the most extraordinary of these events would probably have looked impressive enough in the Edinburgh Festival's programme. It was held in October 1953 and the musicians who took part, appearing together in various combinations across four concerts, were Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten (on their second visit to Milngavie), the Amadeus Quartet with Cecil Aronowitz, and the great horn player Dennis Brain.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the programme was the Scottish premiere by Pears and Britten of Britten's newly composed Thomas Hardy song cycle Winter Words. In fact it was so new that this was only its second performance, following the world premiere in Leeds a week or so before. Peter Pears later said that Winter Words was, of all the song cycles Britten wrote for him, the one he felt closest to. It's no doubt thanks to events like these that the club's membership reached an all-time high of nearly 550 in the 1960s when world-renowned musicians like the Suk Trio, Janet Baker and Stephen Bishop (now Stephen Kovacevich) were appearing at club concerts . From the late 60s on, though, there was a huge expansion of classical music performance in Scotland with the advent of organisations like Scottish Opera, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Scottish Ensemble, and various successful chamber music ensembles and city centre recital series. It was never going to be possible to sustain such a large membership with so many competing attractions available on our doorstep and inevitably membership dipped and audiences got smaller.
The good news, though, is that membership and audience numbers have been climbing again. After the closure of the Old Parish Church Hall the club held its concerts in Milngavie Town Hall for many years. Since 2010, however, the club has held all its concerts in the much more acoustically suitable Cairns Church. Having moved to a more attractive venue, Milngavie Music Club is in good health and once again attracting a large, enthusiastic audience. The 70th Anniversary concert in October 2012 is a recital by distinguished tenor James Gilchrist and pianist Anna Tilbrook and the programme includes a work that Gilchrist has recorded to great acclaim and that recalls one of the club's most memorable events: Winter Words by Benjamin Britten.