As with all good things, the success of the society had a small beginning.
In 1942, when the Second World War had already created immense damage in Southern England, a number of women gathered in an Oxshott home for their regular "Discussion Group" meeting, and at the end, when talking about future topics, one lady suggested (and this was, perhaps a strong hint, knowing who was in their midst) that it would be nice to vary their meetings, perhaps with some music? A young 25-year-old concert pianist, already the recipient of the second prize in the famous Brussels International Piano Competition (the first prize winner was Emil Gilels!), offered her services and her drawing room. Thus the seeds were sown, and the first concert was given by Moura Lympany. Other musicians, not all of whom lived locally, were then invited to take part.
In time, there was a plan to disband the discussion group, but still with the same members to form a music group instead, and Sir Adrian Boult, the conductor – a well-known local resident – was consulted on how to formalise this.
A new resident, Mr Bertie Rimmer, had moved into Oxshott during 1946/47 and purchased the large Edwardian mansion Pinewoods on the brow of the hill, and this became the focal point for concerts in the district. With his great love of music and connections with many artists, he and his wife offered their home with its baronial-style hall and minstrels gallery for the regular concerts, and at this point, with the help of a small committee, he then began to organise them.
"Bertie" (as everyone called him) and his wife were no mean performers themselves on piano and violin respectively, and their wide circle of friends in the music and opera world provided some of the concerts. Occasionally an entire weekend would be given over to rehearsing and then staging an opera, such as "Idomeneo" by Mozart – the large hall of Pinewoods, with its vast stone chimney-piece, lending itself admirably to the performance.
Whilst Pinewoods was the main venue, from about 1947 some other extremely large Oxshott homes hosted some of the concerts, and then, in 1954, record evenings were introduced and given by other members in their homes.
In 1964, when the Yehudi Menuhin School opened in Stoke D'Abernon, Bertie Rimmer was the first person to offer the school's pupils a "public" platform, and for some considerable time the members were afforded the great pleasure of a biennial concert given by young performers such as Nigel Kennedy (violin), Melvyn Tan (piano) - known as Tan Bang at that time, Tasmin Little (violin) and Paul Watkins (violin).
By 1967 the range of recitals was incredible. Some of the more memorable ones included artists who were, or became, very well known indeed: Joseph Cooper (broadcaster and pianist), Marisa Robles (harp), William Pleeth (cello), Barry Douglas (piano), John Williams (guitar), the Medici Quartet, Jack Brymer (clarinet), etc. Many of these musicians paid more than one visit.
With the popularity of the concerts it became evident eventually that new and larger venues were needed and that a change from the intimate concert style was necessary. Various churches and school halls were tried out for their acoustics, amenities, cost and convenience for members, and a home was found for a time at Claremont Fan Court School in Esher, where all concerts were given in the Sports Hall of the Joyce Grenfell Centre. But numbers dwindled and in the late 1980s, when membership dropped to what seemed a less than viable number, there was talk of closure of the society.
Close links with the Yehudi Menuhin School were still continuing, and the new Chairman, Sheila Hurton, was asked by the Friends of the Yehudi Menuhin School if the Music Society would share the costs of a concert to be given by a young Russian pianist, recently employed as a teacher at the school. The pianist wanted to rehearse his programme prior to a tour of Japan and was happy to donate his services.
Money for the coming season was short, and faced with an unknown pianist, the initial response of the Committee was negative: "Who is this pianist? We have never heard of him. No, thank you." and the decision to proceed with a rather run of the mill programme was made. However, one member thought that if Yehudi Menuhin and his team of advisors considered a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory to be good enough to teach the cream of the next generation of musicians, he must be an excellent musician. So another planning meeting was held and the suggestion offered that the programme be altered. One set of artists would be dropped and a speaker whose fee was less would be engaged, thus freeing up the money for hall hire, etc.
Enterprise meant that everyone was asked to spread the word and make up a “party” to attend the concert of this exceptional Russian star! The hall was packed. An amazing performance ensued and the concert changed the fortune of the society. The downward trend was halted.
The artist who helped the society on its way, giving impetus to our celebrity concerts since then, was Nikolai Demidenko.
Following that concert in 1990, the policy of encouraging brilliant young musicians by giving them a platform had its reward, and the regular inclusion of celebrity artists ensured that the local people, unable or unwilling to attend concerts in London, had the opportunity to hear wonderful musicians, including those with an international following, at first at Claremont Fan Court School and then in the comfortable, and welcoming ambience of the Holy Trinity Church in Claygate, Surrey. In the period between 1999 and 2005, the Society more than doubled its membership.
Memorable concerts were given by Steven Osborne (a very beautiful performance of a Schubert sonata), Nelson Goerner (piano) and Elisabeth Batiashvili (violin). The clarinettist Michael Collins, with Kathryn Stott, piano, and Isabelle Van Keulen, violin and viola, produced trios by Bruch, Bartok and Mozart, with the clarinet sonata by Poulenc and the viola sonata by Brahms sandwiched between.
A cello recital by Steven Isserlis brought in a record audience, whilst the programme played by Stephen Hough, ending with his own compositions, delighted a huge audience.
The first local Claygate festival in 2008 provided an opportunity for the Society to advertise its presence, and the concert given by the young Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski brought in a record number of enthusiastic supporters, not only, as had been hoped, from the surrounding area, but also from further afield.
Quartets have featured both home-grown musicians, such as the Belcea, Carducci, Doric, Heath, Medici, Maggini and of course the Elias and Castalian String Quartets, whilst overseas groups have included two visits by the Auryn Quartet from Germany and the Atrium Quartet from Russia, the Rachmaninov Quartet from Odessa, Ukraine, and several visits by the Czech Martinu Quartet. The most recent delight was the arrival of the polished Dover Quartet from the USA.
Over the last 20 years, singers have also featured, and a steady increase has been noticed in attendance. The first, in the mid-1990s, was a young Susan Gritton, who had just been chosen as a member of the Young Concert Artists Trust (YCAT). Her programme included some lyrical Mendelssohn lieder, but these were insufficient to persuade the audience to attend, and it was sad that only about 40 attended!
Despite this, there has been a succession of fine singers since then, each gradually bringing in a larger audience. Notably, New Zealand recitalist and opera star Jonathan Lemalu, bass, who had just made his Proms debut, gave a varied programme which included some beautiful Schubert songs, and a new song cycle of lullabies written specially for him by Richard Rodney Bennett.
When a young singer, Ana Stéphany, included the Schumann "Frauenliebe und Leben" song cycle, a speaker was invited to introduce this wonderful work, and give pointers to the unravelling of the mysteries of the composition. More than a third of the membership arrived over an hour in advance of the concert, eager to learn, and the audience was swelled by a further 50 people buying tickets at the door.
Other singers included Sophie Danemann and William Dazeley with Iain Burnside, piano, and international opera singer Susan Bullock, who, with only 24 hours’ notice, stepped in and, accompanied by the superb Malcolm Martineau, sang a programme of unusual Grieg and better-known Brahms, followed in the second part of the concert with beautiful French songs by Duparc, and a group of classic songs by English composers. Her second and comic encore "brought the house down". A tremendous artist.
Sadly, through his sudden illness, we were deprived of hearing Christopher Maltman, one of the great modern singers of lieder, and later a performance by Chen Reis, the much heralded star of Vienna Opera.
Although the society tries to maintain high standards in chamber music, it also tries to provide a wide palate of music to suit all tastes. Hence, concerts including early music with unusual instruments, the Palladian Ensemble, and the Dufay Collective, and the superb period instrument group Spiritato, featuring strings, trumpets and harpsichord and introducing little known and wonderful composers – even, in one case, singing and dancing (Eclipse). The programmes are sprinkled with occasional wind and piano quintets, larger instrumental ensembles, and even chamber and larger orchestras.
This first occurred in 1988, when the Surrey Philharmonic played, and again, when the Norwegian Camerata Roman arrived, and gave us Handel's Concerto Grosso Op 6, No 7, Johan Helmich Roman's violin concerto in D, and Bach's Brandenburg No 5, followed by lighter Scandinavian works and Elgar's "Serenade".
The Yehudi Menuhin School Orchestra has played for the Society three times, notably giving a wonderful performance of Schoenberg's Metamorphosen in 2003, and again in the 2009/2010 season, when, maintaining its connection with the Oxshott and Cobham Music Society, these outstanding young musicians from all over the world not only drew a small ensemble from their midst to perform a guitar (lute) concerto by Vivaldi, with 13-year-old Kevin Loh as soloist, but also performed the Benjamin Britten "Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings" with Daniel Norman, tenor, and one of the great exponents of horn playing, Richard Watkins. A superb event, followed by a performance of the Mahler arrangement for string orchestra of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet.
Between 1990 and 2006 membership rose from about 70 to an exciting 170 members, giving the Committee the feeling that at last we could relax a little.
But of course the massive 2008 downturn in world-wide economy affected our members too and there was an immediate decline in membership. Our worries lasted for about three years. However, in 2013, a surge of interest in our young artists, beginning with our opening concert and BBC Young Musician of the Year, Laura van der Heijden, cello, attracted 50 visitors and sent home 180 very happy members of the audience. Then 14-year-old Benjamin Grosvenor, piano, held the audience breathless with his performance, and the following year we had another astonishing performance, from Ukrainian-born Alexei Grynyuk, who brought the audience to their feet for a standing ovation.
Whilst the recession meant reliance on good programmes, excellent musicians and a keen eye on the budget, it did result in a return to the former stable state of our bank balance.
In recent years, the society has been fortunate to find some exceptional performers, such as the Leeds Piano Competition winners Eric Lu from the USA and South Korean Sunwook Kim. America provided the brilliant Dover Quartet and from Britain the young Benjamin Grosvenor, piano, and most recently Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the charismatic young cellist.
Now we have another challenge with the Coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world. The effect on British cultural life has been devastating, especially on young musicians at the start of their careers, as well as more established and great artists, deprived of income and the joy of making music.
In March 2020 we were forced to postpone the final two concerts and reschedule them in the autumn and spring of our 79th season (2020/2021), which then also had to be cancelled. Thus, as a result, we have accumulated some wonderful programmes for what we hope will be our Covid-19-free 80th season!
Ever optimistic, our music will continue!
The initial part of this history is based on notes written by the first two secretaries, Miss Crown and Mrs. Kathleen Hinds.
The first concert was given by Moura Lympany
Melvyn Tan (Tan Bang)
Sheku Kanneh Mason