The origins of today’s Isle of Man Symphony Orchestra can be traced back to the formation of the Douglas Amateur Orchestral Society (DAOS) in 1917, whose first important concert took place in November 1918, just a few days after the signing of the armistice. The orchestra’s first conductor was John Edward Quayle, an experienced violinist and orchestral leader, pianist, organist and the composer of a number fine orchestral works based on Manx traditional melodies. During the 1920s the orchestral participated in the Manx Music Festival gala concert and inaugurated a series of ‘country concerts’ in the smaller communities of Castletown, Peel and Port St. Mary.
J. E. Quayle resigned as conductor in 1927 due to the pressures of his career at the Government Rolls Office. A successor, the cornet player and choral conductor J. T. Wood, was swiftly appointed, but was unable to fully commit to the orchestra, which was disbanded in 1930. That year the orchestra emerged, phoenix-like, with a new name – the Manx Amateur Orchestral Society – and a new conductor, Kathleen Rydings, one of the finest Manx-born violinists and teachers. The programmes for the orchestral concerts between the wars consisted exclusively of what we would term light classical music, and regularly featured pieces by such composers as Coleridge-Taylor, Ketèlbey, Haydn Wood, Elgar, Coates, German with occasional movements from Mozart or Schubert symphonies, a tuneful nineteenth century overtures, popular operatic arias, Manx songs and ballads.
With the death of Kathleen Rydings in 1961 the orchestra entered the dark ages of its history, yet through the dedication of some of her colleagues and pupils, survived as a string ensemble known as the Swarthmore Players, under the baton of Tom Holroyd, the music master of Douglas High School. In 1969, the viola player Bernard Osborne was appointed as a string teacher with the Department of Education and took over as conductor. During the 1970s the orchestra began to attract permanent wind players and moved from the Well Road Hill Methodist Chapel to the music room at King William’s College, Castletown, the orchestra’s home for the next twenty-five years.
Bernard Osborne relinquished the conductorship of the Swarthmores in 1976, and Geoff Nicks, newly arrived on the Island from Leicestershire to teach stringed instruments with the Department of Education, was appointed conductor. A versatile and energetic multi-instrumentalist, he moulded the orchestra into a permanent chamber orchestra of 30-35 players and began to include complete orchestral works – suites, concertos and symphonies - from the Baroque, Classical and early Romantic periods in their programmes including Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. In 1980 the Swarthmore Players were re-born as the Manx Sinfonia, but Geoff Nick’s died suddenly in 1986, and for the second time Bernard Osborne took over as musical director for the next seven seasons, until the late Alan Pickard, the popular choral conductor and director of the music service was appointed, and the orchestra moved into a new home at the Music Centre in Douglas.
Alan Pickard was an engaging a popular figure and his programmes were innovative, adventurous, more challenging technically for the Sinfonia. His annual concert with the Teacher’s Choir – now the Isle of Man Choral Society – and the Manx Sinfonia were some of the largest-scale musical events ever witnessed on the Island and included ground-breaking performances of Orff’s Carmina Burana, Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, Dvorak’s Stabat mater and Verdi’s Requiem. Alan Pickard resigned in 1995 due to encroaching ill-health, and his deputy conductor, head of the Music Service woodwind department and principal oboist, Wendy Smith, was appointed. Under her experienced baton the Sinfonia gave performances of such staples of the repertoire as Brahms’ 1st symphony and Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and formed a close working relationship with the concert pianist Colin Horsley, recently retired to the Island, with whom the orchestra gave performances of piano concertos by Schumann, Rachmaninov and Beethoven.
Wendy Smith moved to England in 2004, and the principal horn, Maurice Powell, was appointed as the new musical director. The orchestra grew rapidly in number to some seventy players and was re-named the Isle of Man Symphony Orchestra. The joint annual choral concert with the choral society continued, and a number of new ventures were inaugurated, principally an annual ‘Spectacular’ or gala concert in Douglas’s prestigious Villa Marina, beginning with the Tchaikovsky Spectacular of 2008. In 2014, the year of the Island of Culture, the orchestra welcomed the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra from West Yorkshire to join them for an evening of music inspired by the Isle of Man including Haydn Wood’s Manx Rhapsody and Manx composer Charles Guard’s Song of the Southern Hills, specially written for the occasion. A wonderful performance of Holst’s suite The Planets concluded a glorious and memorable occasion.
The highlight of the 2016 season was the gala concert in December when the violinist Tasmin Little gave only the second performance on the Island of Haydn Wood’s violin concerto in front of a packed Villa Marina. The audience responded with great enthusiasm to the highly Romantic and little-known concerto, a stirring performance of Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony and an extract from Swan Lake, which, it may be fairly said, brought the house down.
Amateur musicians have served the Island’s orchestras well over the last century, and hopefully will continue to do so for decades to come, brought together for the same reason that J. E. Quayle and his players formed the DAOS: simply for the love of making music.