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As a tribute to Raph, we would like to share with you the following interview that was published in the Camerata magazine in 2002 to mark the orchestra's 30th anniversary.
'Raph Gonley, Manchester Camerata’s founder, looks back at the Orchestra’s early years'
Published in 2002, Manchester Camerata Magazine
Back in the early seventies, Raph Gonley was working at Radio Manchester as Music Producer. Following discussions between the Musicians Union and BBC Local Radio, a sum of money was made available for local radio stations to promote professional music. At that time, Manchester was the only BBC local radio station with a full time music producer and this ensured it received a substantial share of the funds. Raph was convinced that forming a chamber orchestra would fill a gap in the region’s musical life and would be the best way of using the money. ‘I was lucky that Allen Holden, the Station Manager, was behind the idea’, says Raph. ‘He was bold enough to take risks and when I put the proposal to him he simply said: ‘get on with it’. So that’s what I did!’
So, Manchester Camerata was born in 1972 and the next step was to appoint a conductor. A young musician, a viola player with the Halle Orchestra and a participant in the BBC Philharmonic’s (then the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra) scheme for apprentice conductors, was approached and Frank Cliff became the Orchestra’s first conductor. Fay Campey (who retired only this April) was appointed as Leader.
‘You couldn’t repeat the excitement of that first concert’, remembers Raph. ‘There was a tremendous buzz, we had a party afterwards and people thought ‘how can a local radio station do this?’. In the first year, we performed on a makeshift stage made from lab tables in the Great Hall of UMIST (University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology), which was a lovely hall with a good acoustic - essential, because all the concerts were broadcast live - but the audience facilities were poor. The following year, the Royal Northern College of Music opened, and we were able to perform there.’
Despite the humble beginnings, response from the public was terrific and after attendances of 90% at the first concert, the concerts in that first season played to near capacity audiences. The music focused on 18th century repertoire, baroque and classical works, well suited to chamber orchestra resources. The budget wasn’t generous and rehearsal time was strictly limited, but occasionally additional wind and brass players could be engaged to perform Haydn middle-period symphonies and there was almost always some 20th century music in the programme. Occasional commissions were also possible and the Orchestra gave the first performances of works by composers such as John McCabe and David Ellis.
‘We called the ensemble Manchester Camerata because we always believed it would have a life outside the BBC’, explains Raph. After year one, Manchester Camerata Limited was set up to promote the Orchestra’s own concerts outside the Radio Manchester commitments. The Greater Manchester Council (1973 – 1986) funded the Orchestra to perform concerts in Manchester’s ten districts and further funds became available from promoters in Lancashire and Cheshire who were keen to host concerts by Manchester Camerata.
Raph remained involved in the day to day running even after he had left the BBC at the end of 1974, but gave up the responsibilities about a year later because he felt there might be a conflict of interest with his new job at North West Arts. We asked Raph what he most remembered about running the Orchestra in its early days and he replied, ‘The small scale of the operation. Remember, I was Radio Manchester’s Music Producer, producing all sorts of music programmes, so running the chamber orchestra was no more than a fifth of my total job. That’s probably the main difference to running the orchestra today. I did everything, from deciding programmes with conductors to making the flasks of coffee to take to performances for the players. It was very satisfying. I also owe a big debt to Allen Holden who saw the potential and gave me constant encouragement.’
Raph has many fond memories of the Orchestra, including the first time they were invited to broadcast a concert on Radio 3. There have also been some amusing moments. Violinist Yossi Zivoni was the soloist at an early concert and the BBC announcer, noting the unusual name, approached him to ask how to pronounce it. ‘Vladimir Ashkenazy’ came the response to a slightly bewildered announcer, before he got the joke! On another occasion, the programme included a piece by Lennox Berkeley and the Concerto for Trumpet, Piano and Strings by Shostakovich. Raph had invited Lennox Berkeley to the concert and conductor Frank Cliff, a little nervous, said to the trumpet soloist Maurice Murphy, ‘I am a bit worried that Raph has invited Lennox Berkeley’ to which Maurice replied, ‘Well, I hope Shostakovich isn’t coming too!’.
After a lifetime’s dedication to music making, what does Raph Gonley enjoy listening to these days? ‘Thirty years on, chamber music is still my favourite. It’s something to do with the economy of expression, the lack of hype in an age where hype seems so important. With chamber music, you can’t get away with anything, you’ve got to be very good to play it and it’s deeply satisfying.’
Looking ahead to Manchester Camerata’s thirtieth anniversary celebrations, we asked Raph what he would wish if he found himself blowing out the candles on the Orchestra’s birthday cake. ‘Another thirty years of great success’, he replied without hesitation. ‘The Orchestra has gone from strength to strength, I am amazed at how it has developed from small beginnings. It had from necessity to start as a modest operation, but it has grown into something I’d never have dreamt of and I’m so proud of its achievements.’