Scarborough’s king of strings

Scarborough Spa Orchestra and below, Max Jaffa
Scarborough Spa Orchestra and below, Max Jaffa
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The conductor who came to embody Scarborough music did not think much of the place in the beginning. Stephen McClarence reports on the centenary of the Spa Orchestra.

Max Jaffa had his doubts about coming to Scarborough. “Don’t be ridiculous – it’s all bloody mills and flat ‘ats up there,” his widow Jean remembers him saying in 1959 when the resort’s council invited him to be musical director at the Spa. In the event, he came, and stayed for 27 years, with a punishing summer season of concerts, every night for 17 weeks. He only missed one, to go to a friend’s funeral.

Jean – the contralto Jean Grayston – recalls her husband’s doubts and achievements in a fine new booklet celebrating this year’s centenary of the Scarborough Spa Orchestra, Britain’s last surviving professional seaside orchestra.

“It is hard to recall, when all it takes to become famous these days is eating a few bugs in the jungle, just how big a star he was,” she says. “He was not only a national celebrity, his fame was built on talent and hard work. He also had charm and charisma... He was as much a part of Scarborough as the show at the Opera House or Futurist. He was on the list of things to see.”

True enough, but you might, as you take your seat in the lofty Spa Grand Hall for this morning’s concert, quibble ever so slightly and politely with Jean’s assertion that “musically he put Scarborough on the map.”

Actually, the resort had been on the musical map for half a century before Jaffa arrived, thanks largely to Alick Maclean, the man they called “the lightning conductor” with just three tempi: quick, quicker and damned quick. “The fervour with which Toscanini is regarded in Milan,” wrote one critic, “pales into insignificance beside the awe with which Mr Maclean was regarded in Scarborough.”

Maclean created the Spa Orchestra in 1912 (though there had been music at the Spa since 1840) and conducted it until his death in 1935 and... no, we must get on; it’s 11 o’clock and, on the dot, the ten-strong orchestra is making its way on stage.

It’s blustery outside, here at the “select” end of Scarborough. There’s a hint of rain and the wind is billowing the deckchairs like galleon sails in a gale. So the concert has been brought indoors from the seafront Sun Court Enclosure where, most mornings from June to September, the orchestra plays in the most elegant of bandstands: a sort of rococo pavilion with a domed oval roof like the lid of a giant butter dish.

With plenty of straw hats and parasols and occasional off-the-beat screeches from the seagulls, it has as much period charm as the Spa Orchestra’s music – up to 900 different pieces over the season, palm court music, light classical, songs from the shows, the sort of music practically no-one else plays anywhere now.

It’s music from the days when you could programme a piece called Glow Worm Idyll without anyone smirking, when the name Tom Jones on the programme meant a medley from Sir Edward German’s light opera of that name.

Once, any resort worth its sea salt had its own orchestra. Llandudno’s was conducted by the young Malcolm Sargent; New Brighton’s lured Elgar; audiences in Whitby’s Floral Pavilion sat down to Wagner and Tchaikovsky. End of the pier it was not.

Now there’s just Scarborough, where some of this morning’s 80-strong audience have been regulars for decades (people come from Germany and America), and the orchestra, surrounded by potted palms, are looking spruce in their gaily striped blazers, like walking deckchairs. Paul Laidlaw, conductor (from the piano) since 2008, is about to launch a medley of Sousa marches with plenty of booming brass and tinkling piccolo.

A few rows from the front, Jan Berry has been coming to these concerts since 1975, when she was living in Bradford. She spent her holidays in Scarborough, and the orchestra was such a draw that she moved here in 1987 and has been buying a season ticket ever since: 140 or so concerts for £265 (or £235 for the more mature, which most are).

She recalls the heyday of Max Jaffa. “The place was packed and everyone dressed for the occasion,” she says. “And with the morning concerts, what could be better than sitting in the Sun Court with the sun out and listening to music? People used to knit during the concerts, I remember.”

Across the aisle, Iain and Marion Macleod have been regulars since 1968. They moved from Sunderland to Scarborough when Iain retired in 1994 and “the Spa Orchestra was one of the main reasons,” says Marion.

“It’s the only place you can hear this sort of music, not all that shouting, blaring pop stuff,” says Iain. “This is the sort of music you used to hear on Music While You Work.” They buy season tickets, come to every evening concert and most mornings, and are always delighted when pieces by the much-celebrated, much-sniffed-at Albert Ketelbey are played.

Simon Kenworthy, Laidlaw’s ebullient predecessor but one as conductor, used to urge the audience to cheer whenever he mentioned Ketelbey’s name.

No Ketelbey this morning. No Bells Across the Meadow, no whistle-stop tours of Persian markets or monastery gardens. But there’s a pretty piece called The Little Clockwork Fairy (nifty xylophone) and Leroy Anderson’s Forgotten Dreams, Irving Berlin’s Always waltz, a Strauss polka and selections from HMS Pinafore and The Student Prince.

Most of the audience tap or nod along, a few do crosswords, and a sort of convivial family feeling suffuses the hall. I sink into a warm bath of nostalgia for music my parents and grandparents would have known. It would be easy to camp this stuff up, to patronise it, but the orchestra play with terrific gusto and the sort of dedication they’ll be bringing to more classical pieces in the evening. They’re a versatile band, making a far fuller and more integrated sound than you might expect from such a small group with only three string players.

“When I first took on the job and was told that we did Ravel’s Bolero, I raised my eyebrows until I heard us play it,” says Laidlaw, backstage during the interval (15 minutes and not a minute more). The art is in the arrangements, he says, with some of the scores in the orchestra’s library – and there are 8,000 full sets – dating back to the Twenties and Thirties, the great days of Alick Maclean.

There’s a short snatch of Pathe newsreel footage of Maclean on the internet, conducting on an overcast day with the Sun Court audience in overcoats, and the orchestra – 30 of them in those days – crammed into the bandstand. He’s a stocky figure, with an angular, darting conducting style and a businesslike bow at the end (12.30 sharp: back to the boarding house for midday meal).

As well as Eric Coates, foxtrots and musical comedy medleys, he fearlessly programmed complete Beethoven and Berlioz symphonies. These were days of serious musical purpose at the seaside. Not for nothing did the orchestra include a cellist called Mozart Allan and a clarinettist called Mendelssohn Fawcett. Much of the orchestra’s more popular repertoire, though, was and is potentially more ephemeral. Isn’t there a risk today in programming light music that not even the oldest in the audience will remember from their youth? Even with swing and approachable jazz, isn’t there a risk of running out of audience?

Laidlaw thinks not. The fifty-pluses, the core audience, constantly renew themselves, he says. “The world seems to be saying: ‘We must have things for the kids’ but there should be things for other people as well. The only reason people don’t know some of this music is that they’ve never heard it.” Some are derogatory about ‘light’ music, he says, “but I don’t think that because a tune is memorable it necessarily makes it a bad tune.”

After the concert, Stephen Walker, the orchestra’s librarian, archivist and author of the superbly illustrated centenary souvenir brochure, leafs through old programmes from the days when the Spa’s Bijou Orchestra and a “ladies quintet” played every night in the cafés, when Ramon Newton conducted his Light Syncopated Orchestra, and the Hungarian Ladies Trio (“in national costume”) vied with the Havana Trio.

Walker mentions a prestigious Light British Music Week staged at the Spa in the early 1950s. A new suite by Haydn Wood was premiered, with an opening movement called On the Spa, Scarborough. “It’s now gone, the parts have been lost,” says Walker. “I’ve been in touch with Haydn Wood’s relatives, but they haven’t got it. I wonder if any Yorkshire Post readers know what’s happened to it.”

The concert ends – a concert of what Fiona Kemp, a season-ticket regular, calls “happy music”. “You go away feeling happy when you’ve listened to it,” she says. At 42, she’s almost certainly the youngest person in the audience, and is here with her mother Ann.

“People go out humming bits of music,” says Ann. “And when you’re sitting outside in the Sun Court, looking at the sea and the sun’s shining, and you’re listening to the music... well, I can’t think of anything better.”

Scarborough Spa Orchestra season runs until September 13. Centenary Celebrity Gala Concert with Lesley Garrett on September 8. Box office: 01723 357869 (www.scarboroughspa.co.uk). Centenary Souvenir Brochure costs £6.50.