The distinguished history of the present Fulham Symphony Orchestra dates back to 1958 when Stephen Hunt, then principal of the Fulham and South Kensington Institute, founded the orchestra. The orchestra, originally the Fulham Municipal Orchestra, gave concerts around the borough in association with Fulham Borough Council and, from 1965, under the sponsorship of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. The FMO was affiliated to the Inner London Education Authority. In 1965 the organization comprised a symphony orchestra, symphonic wind band and many chamber groups with rehearsals taking place up to four times a week at Bousfield School.
For nearly 30 years the Musical Director of the orchestra was Joseph Vandernoot (1914–1999), a conductor who worked with many leading orchestras and opera companies. He was for five years the Musical Director of Ballet Rambert. Vandernoot led many pioneering opera performances. The orchestra often joined with companies such as Beaufort Opera, Hammersmith Municipal Opera, and Opera at Holland Park to give several groundbreaking productions including, for example, the very first staged British productions of Puccini’s Edgar and that of Delius’s Fennimore and Gerda. (An insight into musical life in London at this time, and the important role within it of the Fulham Municipal Orchestra can be gained from Vandernoot’s obituary published in the Independent.)
As a result of changes to the organization of the Inner London Education Authority in the 1980s and resultant funding cuts, the orchestra changed its name to the Fulham Symphony Orchestra and became an independent organization. The orchestra struck a partnership with the Novotel Hammersmith in the 1990s, which remains crucial to this day, with the Novotel providing rehearsal space in its vast conference rooms for weekly rehearsals each Monday.
After Vandernoot’s distinguished tenure with the orchestra, several conductors continued to maintain the high standards for which the orchestra had become well known, including Andrea Quinn, Peter Stark, Roland Roberts and Levon Parikian. Marc Dooley became Musical Director in 2001. In recent years the orchestra has enjoyed the results of consolidating its independence, forming new and important partnerships, and establishing firm musical, social and community values.
At the heart of its current activities, the orchestra is committed to exploring the large-scale symphonic repertoire in rehearsal and to presenting the results of this exploration in high-quality performances. A glance at the programming in recent seasons indicates a healthy and ambitious orchestra that has been received with critical acclaim. Successes include performances of some of the grandest work in the repertory, Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony, Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 among many other works of similar proportions. The orchestra has recently been described as “magnificent […] a splendid band” by the Bruckner Journal and as delivering, “exciting work in thrilling programming in one of the most interesting seasons on offer” by Seen and Heard International. Principal current performance venues are Hammersmith Town Hall and St John’s Smith Square.
The orchestra has regularly enjoyed working with soloists of international standing and particularly with players on the cusp of a successful career. Recent soloists have included the violinists Alina Ibragimova, Giovanni Guzzo and Fenella Humphreys, cellist Philip Higham, soprano Anna Dennis, pianist Clara Rodriguez, horn player Martin Owen and clarinetist Richard Hosford. The orchestra also regularly gives concerto opportunities to the excellent players in the orchestra.
Based in London, a city which is probably better served with orchestral music than any other in the world, the orchestra frequently creates a unique space for itself by programming music which can rarely, if ever be heard elsewhere. In 2012 the orchestra presented what was almost certainly the first performance in the UK of Charles Koechlin’s Vers La Plage Lointaine, following on from rare performances of Vagn Holmboe’s Tuba Concerto and Frantisek Jilek’s orchestral suite from Leos Janacek’s opera From the House of the Dead. Crucially the orchestra has been dedicated to presenting new or very recent music as a regular part of its programming, including music by composers who play in the orchestra – recently including Stephen Hick’s Trombone Concerto (one of three orchestral premieres to date by this composer) and Tom Evans’s Cantilena. The orchestra has performed works by John Adams, Thomas Adès, Luciano Berio, Mauricio Kagel, Colin Matthews, Wolfgang Rihm, and Howard Skempton. For the 2004–05 season, the FSO was one of two orchestras selected nationwide to participate in the Society for the Promotion of New Music’s Adopt a Composer scheme, and ‘adopted’ composer Owen Bourne.
Partnerships and community work
The orchestra has developed important, lasting partnerships with several organisations. The FSO has worked on several projects with the Youth Orchestra of Hammersmith and Fulham (YOoHF). The orchestra is currently a partner organization of the Tri-Borough Music Hub for the London boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Westminster, providing opportunities for young musicians to experience the symphony orchestra in rehearsal and performance. Since 2005 the FSO has had an association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The two orchestras have worked together on several projects and broadcasts. On several occasions the two orchestras have combined to work on a large orchestral work over the course of an evening. FSO collaborated on two BBC composer weekends. In 2006, FSO took part in a performance at the Barbican as part of the BBC festival, Get Carter! The FSO’s performance of Judith Weir’s Alverley Symphonies in 2008 as part of the BBC Weir weekend was broadcast on Radio 3. FSO has in recent years worked closely with the excellent choir the Fulham Camerata.
A strong social aspect is a vital part of the orchestra’s personality, and informs the enthusiasm, supportiveness, energy and engagement found in rehearsals and performance. The orchestra enjoys several specially organized social events throughout the year, both in and out of London – recently including dance lessons, concert trips, occasional parties and weekends away.
Adult players of all ages are welcome in the orchestra and many enjoy it so much they stay for decades (the average age of the orchestra is currently mid-30s, the orchestra attracts many young players fresh from university or music college as well as diverse professionals of all ages).
As the orchestra looks towards its 60th Anniversary Season in 2018, it can look back on more than five decades of playing a crucial and central part of musical life in London, and on providing a huge number of exciting opportunities and experiences to players and audiences in its community.