We get a lot of curious looks, especially when we turn up at hilltop churches asking whom we should speak to about organising a concert. People seem almost suspicious - after all, why would anyone want to turn up at a church and organise a concert for only a small cut of the takings? Well, here’s the story of the Arethusa Ensemble. So far.
It was in 1994 that Rachel Phillippo and I left the Coopers’ Company and Coborn School in Upminster, Essex for undergraduate careers at Oxford. While at school, we’d been playing in a wind quintet together and had given several concerts. At one of these, we’d played a quintet reduction of Mozart’s Serenade in C minor, K. 388, a piece which I thereafter longed to play in its original form for wind octet - something which had been impossible in a school environment where finding one horn player was hard enough, never mind two.
So, at the beginning of our second year in Oxford, we brought together the eight players we needed for the Mozart, forming, for want of a better name, the St John’s College Wind Players. Everyone got along pretty well, and we rehearsed weekly during the term for the concert at the end of November. But the St John’s College Wind Players just wasn’t a particularly inspiring name. In a crowded curry house on Oxford high street, the dreaming spires shrouded in the November fog, we racked our brains for something a little more profound. And we came up with ‘the Arethusa Ensemble’. For the record, Arethusa was a Sicilian spring nymph in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, who turned into a fountain to escape the pursuing river-god Alpheus. But that’s not why we picked the name. It just sounded right.
A couple of weeks later, our first performance was held in St John’s College Chapel, and we opened with Debussy’s Golliwogg’s Cakewalk, before Malcolm Arnold’s Three Shanties, opus 4, for wind quintet, and of course the Mozart Serenade. We had some interest and momentum now, and the success of that concert was to be repeated on many further occasions in Oxford that year. Our repertoire expanded quickly, and players came and went. But by the Summer of 1996, most of the players here tonight were performing together.
Many of us had a background in county youth orchestras, and fondly recalled the Summer tours we’d been on in the holidays: in my own London borough we hadn’t been much further than the other end of Essex, but some had been as far afield as New Zealand and America. The Lake District was chosen as the destination, and we wrote to the Lake District tourist board seeking advice on accommodation and potential venues. In many ways the tour proved easier to organise than any we have undertaken since: my letter was forwarded to more than thirty venues and a few weeks later Rachel and I travelled up to the Lake District to visit the five or so that were interested in our performing.
In a fleet of borrowed, bartered-for and in some cases battered cars, pride of place amongst which was Daryl’s olive-green Austin Wolseley 1300, we headed up to the Lake District as a group of thirteen. Billed alongside a poetry reading by Pam Ayres and a folk band called the Yettis, our first performance outside Oxford was at the the Theatre in the Forest near Grizedale. This was to be the first of five concerts that week – other venues included Dalemain Historic House and churches in Windemere, Cockermouth and Ulverston. It was a tiring week and at times stressful week, what with the amount of rehearsal required (little material was repeated between the concerts) and the way we seemed to have to push the Wolselsey further than it made it under its own steam, but doubtlessly the beginning of something.
Brimming with enthusiasm from the Lake District tour, we continued to perform in Oxford the following year, and a similar mix of concert venues was found for a tour of Cornwall in the Summer of 1997. Indeed, we applied for and received lottery funding of Ł840 under the National Lottery’s Arts for Everyone scheme, which met the costs of organising the concerts and provided some coaching for ourselves. What we lacked, though, was a bassoonist. Several of the pieces we planned to perform, like the Mozart Serenade, were for pairs of wind instruments. In the search for the final player, I resorted to the relatively new medium of the internet newsgroup, hoping to find another student who’d be inspired to join us for the week. A response came, from more than three thousand miles away, in Philadelphia, PA, and a few weeks later I was waiting with a sign at Gatwick airport to meet our new bassoon player, Rebecca. The strategy worked, Rebecca became a very active member of the group and ended up transferring from Philadelphia to Oxford for an academic year. In 1999, several of us watched from the banks of the Thames at Henley as she rowed at number two with the Osiris crew (Oxford’s women’s reserve boat) to victory over Blondie for the first time in many years. Rebecca, and subsequently her twin sister Madeline, a hornist, have become regular players on our Summer tours.
At the back of my mind, the concert at St Buryan, a few miles from Lands End, was to be the group’s last: my final exams were less than a year away and no way could I have spared the hours that were spent hunting down suitable venues, publicising and trying to find people who would fork out a few pounds for a half-page advertisement in the programme. But the Arethusa fountain was still flowing, and with the energy of flautist Jodi Marshall a third tour was organised in Derbyshire in 1998.
It wasn’t clear what would happen when most of us left Oxford in 1998, but thanks to the enthusiasm of Liz Cheng who spent that year as an au pair and English tutor in Nantes, France, the momentum continued and we made our first venture abroad. However, the response from the lady at the tourist board in Saumur was less helpful than the one we’d had in the Lake District three years previously - she didn’t seem to know much about organising concerts. So, we resorted to simple determination, driving round the region seeking out venues, stopping off at châteaux and going into churches to write down the names and numbers from the noticeboards. This time Liz did all the hard work organising the concerts and distributing the publicity materials - the result, another impressive range of venues and fantastic week of concerts.
In much the same way, the formula has been repeated in the years since, with further visits to the Lake District, Alsace, Devon and the Ardeche. We’ve now given over sixty concerts at more than fifty venues, from the chapels and auditoria of the Oxford colleges of the early years, through the churches and country homes we’ve visited in our UK travels, to the châteaux of the Loire, the hilltop castles of Alsace and a former monastery in the Ardeche. In 2005 we’re celebrating our tenth birthday, and planning a tour to Paris and tenth anniversary concert in November.