Bath Philharmonia: The Conception, Creation and Growth of an Orchestra for 21st Century Bath


Jason Thornton, Music Director, Bath Philharmonia


18 March 2019



Jason Thornton began his talk by saying that he had grown up in Sandwell, West Midlands, where there had been free music education during his boyhood. In his local authority at that time, there had been music making at a very high level, and real opportunities for young, enthusiastic musicians. Jason had studied music at what is now Bath Spa University, and had remained in the West Country. In 1995, the Bath Philharmonia began its existence, performing at 600 events so far since then, to a total audience of some 100,000 people. In October of 1995, a fellow student had wagered Jason that he (Jason) could conduct all the Mahler symphonies before he was 30 years old. Bearing in mind very strongly what players themselves wanted to play, Jason organised a concert in the Forum  (Bath) on May 4 1996, which consisted of Musorgsky’s A Night on a Bare Mountain, and Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. 106 players took part. Jason had the task of booking the hall, arranging publicity, and organising staging - with no previous experience in any of these areas. He had felt that the audience was secondary to consideration of the players.


The first review in the Bath Chronicle, on 6 May 1996, was by Tim Bullamore. He praised the large (113-strong by then) orchestra for the clarity of the ensemble, though the piece was headed ‘Arrogance or ambition?’ The event led to the orchestra’s first soloists, its first meetings with living composers, first performances of major repertoire, the orchestra’s first bank account and cheque book, its first drinks reception, and, of course, its first reviews. That summer of 1996, the orchestra performed the Concierto de Aranjuez (guitar concerto) by Rodrigo, with other Rodrigo works. The composer, then 99 years old, was in the audience, in a wheel chair. In October 1997, at St John’s, Smith Square, London, a well-known music venue, the orchestra gave the British premiere of a new contemporary work, John Tavener’s Song of the Angel, Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.1, and Mahler’s Symphony No .4, preceded by Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila Overture. This was the orchestra’s first and only concert in London. 


Previously, in May 1997, the orchestra had given a concert in the Forum, Bath, comprising excerpts from Wagner’s Ring cycle, Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, and Strauss’s symphonic poem Death and Transfiguration.  Jason Thornton had always been inspired by Simon Rattle during his conductorship of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), and, happily, Rattle agreed to become Patron of the Bath Philharmonia at Jason’s invitation. It was Rattle who persuaded Jason to include the one completed movement of Mahler’s otherwise unfinished Tenth Symphony in one of his performances.


Now, in 2019, the Bath Philharmonia has played at the Bath festival more times than the old Bath Festival Orchestra did under Yehudi Menuhin. The first Chairman was Rear Admiral Austin Lockyer, with martin Davis as Vice-Chair. Mike rally, a keen choral singer, was a valued Trustee from early on. Late in 1998, the orchestra was formed as a Charity, with a Memorandum of Association.  Soon afterwards, Mahler’s great Eighth Symphony, the Symphony of a Thousand, was given under Jason’s direction at Green Park Station (now Sainsbury’s car park) - the only place in Bath which could accommodate such large numbers of performers and audience. Apart from the orchestra, the forces consisted of the Bath Millennium Festival Chorus, the London Philharmonic Choir, the Bournemouth Symphony Choir, Hayesfield School Choir (Bath) and the Bath Royal High School Choir. Soloists were: Teresa Cahill (soprano), Jennifer Pike (soprano), Cheryl Enever (soprano), Lore Lixenberg (alto) Kathryn Turpin (alto), Neil Jenkins (tenor), Stephen Foulkes (baritone), and Keith Watson (bass). 650 performers took part, including 100 children singing in German and Latin. The whole concert venue had to be built in Sainsbury’s car park for one night only. All the logistics were managed by Mike Ralli. That one concert on Monday 29 May 2000 outsold all the other classical concerts in that year’s Bath Festival.


In September 200, an all-Russian programme at the Forum comprised Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Soon after this, the Trustees and Jason told the players (in the BRLSI’s Elwin Room) about the plan to go professional. It was a brutal time, in which he, Jason, sadly admitted to falling out with many former players. Mrs Joanna Wiesner, MBE, joined the Orchestra as Administrator.  In May 2001, Peter Donohoe joined the orchestra in the Forum for a rare public performance of Ferruccio Busoni’s large -scale choral and orchestral Piano Concerto (1903), preceded by Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This was an inspirational concert (the present writer was in the audience, and gave the pre-concert talk) but the financial results were admitted to be catastrophic.


At the Frome Festival in 2002, a new venture was launched, with a concert involving Critchell Special School, Frome. The programme included Carnival of Very, Very Special Animals, with the actor Stephanie Cole as Narrator. This was a gripping experience for Jason, who had never previously worked with Special Educational Needs children.  Under the second Chairman, Denis Gamberoni, a connection was formed with the Eden Project in Cornwall. At the 2004 Frome Festival, the children’s opera The Cuckoo Tree, by Rachel Stott, was given, directed by the distinguished soprano Rosa Mannion, with choreography by Lucy Schaufer. Though a success, 2014-5 marked the beginning of a very difficult period for the Bath Philharmonia. An outdoor concert at Bowood, Wiltshire, had to be cancelled, the promoter of the Frome Festival went out of business, and all the Bath Philharmonia’s reserves were lost. However, Brian Roper, of Roper Rhodes, came to the rescue with an offer of £50k a year for three years (2005-2008) and a salary for Jason as Music Director. The first salaried member of staff was Ali Groves.


The revival of the orchestra in the summer of 2008 saw the first professional concert season, with Tim Hugh (cello), Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Jennifer Pike (violin) and Peter Donohoe  (piano). Howard Blake’s The Snowman and the Bear was given in the Forum in December 2007, and filled the auditorium.  In 2009, Jason met two key figures, Victoria Clare (Carers’ Centre, BANES) and Sonia Hutchinson (Young Carers, Wiltshire), resulting in a continuing bond with Young Carers ever since. Jason said that it made him realise afresh ‘why we do music, and why music is important.’ Emphasising this, he also said that  ‘music has the power to move, entertain and bring people together. It can even change lives.’ At this time, a Creative Learning Programme was launched.


The third Chairman was Professor Rod Hogan, who was based in Social Services. He was very keen to develop the Bath Philharmonia as a social force for good. Soon after this, a concert was held in the Abbey, built around a living castrato, the male soprano Radin Marian, a Rumanian whose voice never broke. Not only did Radin’s voice never break, but he spoke not a word of English. This event, entitled A Castrato and a Volcano: Rauzzini and Mozart filled the Abbey. This concert occurred at the same time as the great Iceland volcano, and was widely reviewed outside Bath as a highly unusual and original musical event.


In 2012, at Doddington Hall, home of the industrialist James Dyson, Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs (1948) were performed by Bath Philharmonia, with the great American soprano Renee Fleming as soloist. Jason said that he found working with Renee ‘simply indescribable, a joy.’ In 2014, the Bath Philharmonia’s first operatic production, Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw (after Henry James’ ghost story) was launched at the Cooper Hall, mentored by the baritone John Shirley Quirk, and managed by his wife Terry Shirley Quirk. Charles Wiffen became the Bath Philharmonia’s fourth Chairman at this time, and Simone Homes became the orchestra’s first General Manager. Recordings were made (all first recordings) at Abbey Road studios in London, of two works by Paul Carr (Requiem for an Angel; Seven Last Words)’ Psalms Volume Three by Steven Faux, Havas (1993) for orchestra  by the Cornish composer Judith Bailey (b.1941) and three works by George Lloyd (1913-1998).


The cellist Sheku Kaneh-Mason played with the Bath Philharmonia five days after the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018. That summer the orchestra (and choir /soloists) gave Haydn’s Creation. Jason described the orchestra’s atmosphere as truly happy, a real family of musicians. Repertoire consists of a mixture of standard and contemporary works. Sophie Langdon in Leader, Sasha Rattle is co-principal clarinet, Martin Gatt is Principal Bassoon, and Gavin Wells is Principal Trumpet.


Living composers whose works have been performed include Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman, Jonathan Dove, Max Richter, David Matthews, Howard Blake, Paul Carr, Steven Faux, Judith Bailey and Mark Boden. In 2019 the orchestra has a professional infrastructure, gives high quality concerts on a regular basis, and has creative learning projects with school across BANES. 2019-2020 is its twentieth year, and twenty events are therefore planned. 


The orchestra’s financial breakdown was given as part of the publicity leaflet circulated to everyone. It makes clear that the Bath Philharmonia is not supported by either the Arts Council or by the local authority. 


Operating costs:      Overheads                £85k

                                Concerts                    £150k

                                Creative Learning      £65k                          Total £300 k


Income:                     Philanthropic giving £105k 

                                    (Roper Family Foundation)    

                                  Box Office Income   £125k

                                  Grants and fees       £70k                           Total 300k  



© Dr Robert Blackburn, Convenor, Literature and Humanities, BRLSI, based on notes taken during Jason Thornton’s talk