Founded in 1891, the orchestra has survived an impressive 125 years, supported by the hard work and belief of its members and audiences. Many generations of the same families have remained at the centre of its existence, like that of John Taylor, a cellist who started the orchestra with a group of friends in 1891. It thrived in the early years under the baton of conductor Arthur Armitage, winning many national competitions and, despite a struggle for survival over 20 years after the Second World War, it was revived under the baton of conductor Adrian Smith in 1969.
Conductors have of course been central to its story. Adrian Smith was resolute in his determination to oversee and inspire the flagging orchestra. He presented new twentieth century works as well as traditional repertoire, and his contagious enthusiasm brought in new members during his 32 years of leadership. Over this period the orchestra won national awards and presented large scale and difficult works such as Mahler’s Third Symphony. Adrian invited contemporary composers like Malcolm Arnold to attend performances of his own works, a practice which has continued under Chris Houlding and present conductor, Benjamin Ellin.
Adrian oversaw the Centenary of the orchestra and produced for the occasion a book about the first 100 years of the orchestra’s history, itself a detailed social history of the surrounding area over the century. Entitled An Improbable Centenary, this book was unveiled for the extensive celebrations 25 years ago.
Chris Houlding followed Adrian as conductor and he led the orchestra’s endeavours for excellence in seven years of strong leadership, hugely increasing the standards of ensemble and generally improving orchestral discipline. He also inspired the orchestral committee to programme large scale works, including two operas, themed programmes such as a film night and a very successful charity concert on a Gilbert and Sullivan theme with local choirs and hosted by Richard Baker. His links with the University brought in students and there were several educational concerts involving school pupils.
Benjamin Ellin took over the leadership in 2008, continuing to be innovative with programming and employing new technologies. This included images projected behind the orchestra during a performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka ballet; later the same technique was used for an educational project, Standedge Music, exploiting the creativity of primary schoolchildren. Under Ben’s baton the orchestra has continued the tradition of setting ever greater challenges, presenting four fully staged operas and huge works such as Britten’s War Requiem, Verdi’s Requiem and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Firebird ballets. As a composer, Ben has also conducted his own works with the SPO and revived the family concerts in local venues, originally started by Adrian.
The orchestra’s capacity to attract new members, inspire audiences and retain the loyalty of all the extra people required to put on concerts continues to be impressive. The Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra shows itself to be in an extremely healthy state, having good cause for optimism in the future after 125 years of public performance.