The Weihsien Symphony Orchestra – 1943-45,
and other music
by Peter Bazire
In September 1943 the Chefoo contingent arrived in Weihsien. We soon heard the Salvation Army band playing, and later that month some of us went to a concert given by the Weihsien Symphony orchestra. Boy, what an experience! In Chefoo we had a school orchestra that played simple, light classic pieces. But here in Weihsien was an orchestra of a much higher standard, and with a good range of instruments.
The only work I remembered that September was the first movement of Beethoven’s 1st piano concerto. That music lived with me during camp and afterwards. To this day if I occasionally hear the concerto on the radio, memories of 1943 come flooding back.
The W. S. O. did not play very often. For one thing, the only music available was some musical “scores” (i.e. the conductor’s part), from which the individual parts were written out in camp. The S. A. band had a book of marches for each player, with lots of marches in the book.
The S. A. band provided what brass instruments were needed for the orchestra. Other internees had brought in flutes, clarinets, but no oboes or bassoons (if my memory is correct). There were violins, violas and cellos, bu no double basses. Altogether there were twenty-something instruments; enough to make a pleasing sound, even if small in number compared with a full symphony orchestra of 60 to 80 players.
Curtis Grimes was probably the solo pianist in this September 1943 concert. Curtis Grimes was repatriated to the USA in September 1943.
Earlier in 1943 there was a concert in which a number of nuns played in that first orchestra. Later, the nuns were moved to Peking (now Beijing).
In the last few years I have made a few phone calls to Nelma (Stranks) Davies, who lives in Australia. She is the daughter of Brigadier Stranks who conducted the band and later the W.S.O. Nelma is 90! She told me that Curtis Grimes had played a piano concerto, probably one of Tchaikovsky’s, where the orchestral part was played on another piano.
I am attaching some posters my mother made of concerts and recitals. You will see the W.S.O. playing for the cantata “Far Horizon” on 3rd and 4the November 1944, and for the cantata “Crucifixion" on 25th and 26th March 1945.
In July 1945 the W.S.O. gave a concert which had a profound effect on me. The main work was Mozart’s piano concerto n° 20 in D minor, K466. Nelma (Stranks) Davies was the soloist. She had been taught the piano in Peking before the war by Curtis Grimes. This concerto remains one of my all-time favourite pieces of music. I played 2nd trumpet, not a demanding part. (50 years later I played in the same work in the Bath Symphony Orchestra, this time in the 2nd violins.) Nelma told me that at a previous concert she had played the first two movements of the Mozart concerto. She posted me a copy of the poster for the July 1945 concert, and on the back of it my mother had made a provision for the orchestra members to sign:
Vicente de Legaspi
Can’t read the name !!
Arnold Scott (bishop)
Major Ollie Wellbourn
Major Len Evenden