History of Holiday Orchestra

Cambridgeshire Holiday Orchestra was founded by Molly Gilmour, a Cambridge musician. In the summer of 1953 she invited friends of her children to come and form an orchestra for fun in her front room. We think they played ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’ and the St. Anthony Chorale. This was a time of post-war idealism with a need to build upon universal values for a better future. Molly was soon joined by Geoffrey Varley and Ludovic Stewart and the belief of these founders was that music was a priceless gift to be passed on by the older generation to the younger for the good of all mankind. They also knew that music should not be some kind of nasty medicine for the improvement of children but should by its beauty and wordless excitement reach into the soul of each one. Lessons and practice are solo activities for children but what brings it all to life for them is the fun of playing good music with lots of other children. This was the starting point for Holiday Orchestra. Cambridge people gave their time, their expertise, their premises and of course some money; an expanding Holiday Orchestra moved from Molly’s house to a room in the Botanical Gardens in the summer of 1956. It has never looked back. Its history has been one of rising to challenges as they came, enjoying times of peaceful success and then rising to the next challenge as the world moved on. At one point we raised a huge amount of money to buy instruments for loan to children when schools and local government did not provide. At another time we became the Cambridge arm of the Cambridge/ Heidelberg/ Montpellier Youth Orchestra, looking after the German and French children when they came here. We once had good Government funding but when funds were transferred to the County we successfully transformed into a charity, under the guidance of Willi Watson. As road traffic increased and children became less able to cycle round Cambridge alone, we developed our whole-morning programmes to help parents organise their transport and to include children from further away. Recognising that music starts early in the young human, we have provided music games and many other musical activities which can be learnt on the spot – great fun and nonetheless music. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, our Upper Orchestra is astonishingly good and those early founders would be very proud if they could hear it today.

We have moved from the Botanical Gardens via the Technical College and the Guildhall to the West Road Concert Hall with all its wonderful facilities. We are very grateful to the University for continuing this relationship.

The structure of Holiday Orchestra at present is this: we have a committee of volunteers, under the rules of the Charity Commission, who organise dates, venues, bookings and a thousand details. We employ an overall Music Director who is the main source of ideas, direction, standards, contacts etc. for the organisation. For many years now our Music Director has been the inestimable Russell Keable. For each course we have a Course Director, often Russell himself, but in recent years Trevor Barlow has taken over at Christmas. The Course Director finds and instructs tutors for every activity and is responsible for the content of the course. We are also very grateful for large numbers of parent helpers – volunteers dealing with registers and responding to needs and emergencies. Everything is co-ordinated from the Committee desk where all questions can be answered!

At the end of each course the children present their music to an audience of family and friends, performing amazing feats of musicianship and releasing a vast amount of energy.

When Holiday Orchestra started it was apparently the only chance children had of making music together. Now, of course, there is much more on offer, but Holiday Orchestra remains very popular and well-subscribed. Some families are in their third generation of membership! Many children have grown up with music becoming an essential part of their adult lives. They naturally pass that on to their children, which was where this all began.

Thankyou for being part of Cambridgeshire Holiday Orchestra, and may it continue to be a source of inspiration and understanding for many years to come.