The Winchmore String Orchestra
Stringing along in Winchmore Hill
Twenty years ago a new musical venture began in Winchmore Hill – an amateur string orchestra. Called unpretentiously the Winchmore String Orchestra (WSO), or simply the Winchmore Strings, it was the creation of a local professional violinist and teacher, Stanley Lishak, and his wife Bertha, a viola-player.
Today, with a core membership of more than two dozen that is boosted by the addition of guest players at concerts, the orchestra is in fine form. Most of its members live in the boroughs of Enfield and Barnet, though some come from as far afield as Walthamstow, Islington and Hertfordshire. It gives a platform to up-and-coming soloists and a hearing to local composers. And many charities benefit from the funds it raises at its concerts, which are held at Winchmore Hill Methodist Church.
The history of the orchestra is very much bound up with the post-war development of musical activity in north London, in which Stanley Lishak was a leading figure. Born in 1930, he was taught by the distinguished violinist Max Rostal before entering the Guildhall School of Music, and, after national service (which he served as a member of the military orchestra and band at Sandhurst), he began a career as a professional player. For a period he was leader of the D’Oyly Carte Opera orchestra, and then he spent some five decades playing for West End shows, including Kismet, My Fair Lady, Showboat and Oliver.
At an early stage, however, Stanley was also drawn to teaching, and this gave him effectively a second career, which he pursued during the day while spending the evening in the theatre pit. Initially he became a teacher with the London County Council, then in the early 60s he began an association with Kurt Rokos, who ran a string music scheme in the then borough of Tottenham. From this partnership grew a highly-regarded teaching scheme which launched many local young people on musical careers and fostered a love of music in countless others. Through the numerous residential courses which he helped to organise and the various orchestral groups he conducted he became widely-known and respected.
When the time came for Stanley to retire from his teaching post in what was by now the borough of Haringey, he and Bertha had the idea of starting an adult string orchestra. And so came into being the WSO. At first it was part of the Winchmore Art and Craft Group, but later in 1998 it became independent as a registered charity.
Stanley was, naturally, its first conductor, and many of its members were people who had belonged to one or other of the youth orchestras with which he had been involved. One of these was Chris Gundry, who has been its leader since the beginning and who is also currently chairman of its managing committee. Sadly, Stanley died only five years after setting up the orchestra, though Bertha, who was a playing member for a number of years, remains closely associated with it as its president.
Since Stanley’s death there have been four regular conductors – successively Stephen Wilder, Anthony Weeden, Ron Rappoport and Rachael Young. In 2012 the orchestra welcomed to its podium Philip Gibson, a former violinist in the BBC Concert Orchestra who now directs his own ensemble, the Aeolian Sinfonia, and leads the Amici Chamber Orchestra, besides coaching and working with amateur players in Britain and elsewhere. Philip had already appeared with the WSO as a guest conductor.
The WSO concentrates on the standard string orchestra repertoire – from composers of the Baroque and Classical period – Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Haydn etc – to Elgar, Britten, Vaughan Williams and other 20th century figures. But it also looks for music that is less familiar to the audience, such as pieces by the Czech composer Josef Suk. And it has performed pieces by local composers Roderick Elmer, Frank Bayford and -- one of its own members – Maire Buonocore.
Like most amateur orchestras, the WSO is funded by subscriptions paid by its members and ticket sales at its concerts, and sometimes there is a fine balance between income and expenditure. Even so, it has from the outset made contributions to charities. During the interval of each concert a raffle is held and the proceeds are given to a charity nominated by the evening’s soloist. Since 1999 the WSO has raised a total of roughly £6,500 in this way.