The Wessex Concert Orchestra is one of the oldest amateur orchestras in the area. Our orchestra history dates back to the second world war. We call ourselves 'WCO' in homage, at least in part, to our original identity as the Westinghouse Concert Orchestra.
The firm Westinghouse was for many years the largest company (and the major employer) in the town of Chippenham, Wiltshire (approximately 80 miles west of London). It was as a company-sponsored club, with employees making up the membership of the orchestra.
The Early Years
At the outbreak of the Second World War the staff at the company's London headquarters moved down to the factory site at Langley Park, on the north eastern edge of the town. In 1940 local violinist Stanley Oatley formed a duo with pianist Gerald Gillies who had relocated from London. The seed was sown: other amateur musicians within the company soon joined them, and the partnership rapidly grew into a full orchestra.
During the war years the orchestra was in great demand and gave monthly variety concerts in the works canteen. During this time it performed live in two Works Wonders programmes for the BBC. Works Wonders was a series of programmes broadcast from factory canteens and described as "a lunch-time concert presented to their fellow workers by members of the staff of a large munitions work somewhere in England"! The orchestra also performed frequently at venues in and around Chippenham, including the many military establishments in the region.
The first conductor was James Astle, who was followed by Walter Little, Reg Ash and then Grenville Townsend. During Grenville's time the orchestra gave an annual Grand Concert in the Neeld Hall (part of the Chippenham Town Hall complex) with a top class professional soloist brought down from London.
Grenville Townsend remained conductor until the Suez Crisis in the 1950s drastically restricted membership and concerts could not be given. The post was taken up by David Fidler, and as the membership started once again to grow, the orchestra became the largest amateur concert orchestra in the region.
After a long spell as conductor David Fidler left in 1967, and Jack Henley became conductor until 1972 when David once again took over the baton.
The Golden Jubilee
In 1990, with David Fidler still at the helm, the orchestra celebrated its 50th anniversary with a Gala concert in the Neeld Hall. The concert was in collaboration with the Chippenham Male Voice Choir - formerly the Westinghouse Mens Chorus which was founded, like the orchestra, within the Westinghouse firm in 1940.
David Fidler finally retired in 1993 and his post was filled first by Bob Tucker, then Daniel Weston, Brian Ashley and Andrew Baatz, who took over in November 2003.
In late 2003 / early 2004 it was becoming increasingly obvious that the orchestra was stalling - both in terms of its aspirations and in its membership. Furthermore, the Westinghouse company was finalising its plans to move away from Chippenham, making the overt link between our orchestra and the firm even less tenable. In its slow decline the orchestra had lost much of its good reputation within the local community, and people new to the area either had no idea that we even existed, or assumed that the orchestra was only open to Westinghouse employees.
By the spring of 2004 it was clear that something had to be done if the orchestra was to be saved, so a date should be set for later that year to reform the orchestra. Certain obligations had still to be met and it seemed sensible to wait until the summer recess when a concerted media campaign and recruitment initiative could be launched to put the orchestra 'back on the map'. Newspaper articles appeared all across Wiltshire and into Bath and Bristol, and the orchestra was able to capitalise on the (comparatively) recent appointment of a new Musical Director and a decision to style ourselves 'WCO' rather than the full 'Westinghouse Concert Orchestra', to generate further media attention.
The recruitment initiative went extremely well, practically doubling the size of the orchestra at the first rehearsal after the re-launch date (6th September 2004). The success of the recruitment drive and the newly regained sense of purpose allowed the orchestra to make some bold plans for the future and regain our reputation in the region.
In 2016, WCO appointed Tim Harrison as our new Musical Director. Tim led the orchestra in new and challenging repertoire for three years and further improved our reputation and skill level.
The orchestra's current Musical Director is Philip Draisey, who joined the orchestra in late 2019. Unfortunately Phil had only led the orchestra in one concert when the coronavirus pandemic halted all rehearsals and concerts. Phil, along with the orchestra leader Nicola Ashton, was instrumental in keeping members connected during this time with Zoom rehearsals every week, until we were able to meet again in-person in May 2021.