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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.

Brigadier Stranks (Salvation Army) and family on their way to "Camp" ...

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:

1st violins:
Vicente de Legaspi
Eileen Avery
Can’t read the name !!
Gladys Craggs
Mathilde Bono

2nd violins
Wentworth Prentice
John Barling
Angela Bono
Alice Wiloughby
Monica Priestman
John Hayes
Eileen Bazire
Stephen Shaw
Arnold Scott (bishop)
Ernest Shaw
Robin Hoyte
1st Cornet
Fred Buist
2nd cornet (trumpet)
Peter Bazire
Major Ollie Wellbourn
Eb Bass
Major Len Evenden
George Foxlee
1st Clarinet
Mary Scott
2nd Clarinet
Theo Bazire

Sometimes when I visited my parents in their room, I saw my mother drawing music lines on plain paper, and copying music from an orchestral “score” for individual players, or for some recitals, e.g. for singers. If an orchestral work included oboes and bassoons, of which were none in camp, she would adapt these parts for e.g. flute and clarinet. Singers in camp would write out their parts for choral works, e.g. “Messiah”.

Let me turn now to music practising, and choir and orchestra rehearsals. I know next to nothing about this, except that my mother happened to keep a week’s practicing schedule for October 16th – 21st (probably 1944). This gives an indication of the range of musicians. You may remember names better than I do. Percy Gleed was an accomplished musician. He had a fine baritone voice, and could play “by ear” to a very high standard. Some time after the war he was working in Nairobi, and took his turn playing the organ in the cathedral. Later in London he and my mother often played duets on two pianos in her home. Shireen Talati was a talented pianist.

I think the above practicing schedule took place in church. There was a second piano in some other large room. Nelma said that one was a grand piano. One came from Peking and the other from Tientsin.
Nelma sent me a photo of her and her parents turning up at the Japanese Legation in Peking on March 23rd 1943. They were told that they could only take what they could carry into the internment camp. You will see a viola (her father’s instrument) strapped to her back. It was this viola that my mother played in the orchestra. Nelma adds, “My mother’s Chinese basket of food was too heavy for her to lift so Dad fastened an old roller skate underneath so that she could trundle it along. Dad had his heavy cases strapped onto a very primitive wheel-barrow which he had made with two poles and a wheel. We had to walk with our burdens to the station (about a mile?) with our Japanese guards.”

I include this photo as an attachment.

I also include 6 posters of other concerts, where some of you may recall some of the names of musicians. I remember the leader of the orchestra, Vincente de Legaspi: a musician to his fingertips. It was said in camp that he had been the finest trumpet in the Far-East, before he had lung trouble. Lopez Sarreal was a trumpeter I admired. I remember him playing Celest’Aïda (Verdi) at a concert, but cannot recall other items.

A long time after the war my mother wrote an account of her life. Here are a few excerpts from Weihsien.

"There was one music job and somehow I got it. I had to arrange concerts and assign practice and rehearsal periods in the church which was also used for concerts, and another large room which, like the church, had a piano.”

“I walked into camp carrying my ‘cello and a suitcase' ...
... Orchestral scores had been brought in from Peking. I was able to adapt these as orchestration had been part of my B. Mus. Course. This had not included the euphonium played by a Salvation Army major. To this day I forget whether the music sounds a third lower or higher than written. During a rehearsal of a Haydn G. minor symphony something sounded terribly wrong. The conductor, Brigadier Stranks, was very musical and played the violin beautifully. I put down my viola and walked up to the rostrum. “I think there is something wrong with the euphonium part,” I said. “Where are we?” looking at the score in front of the Brigadier. “I haven’t a clue, dear,” said he and continued conducting. I had to write out the euphonium part.”

“A fine coloratura singer, Jacqueline de Saint Hubert, nearly always wanted a flute obligato. George Foxlee obliged. I enjoyed writing the part.”

“The Brigadier’s daughter Nelma played the piano beautifully for Mozart’s D minor concerto which I had orchestrated. Shireen Talati, a gold medallist from the Royal Academy, gave piano recitals. Other instrumentalists played solos. I did most of the accompanying including playing for the choir who performed ‘the Messiah’, 'Hiawatha' and the other oratorios and cantatas. I probably had more music than if I had just been a housewife in England. Such privations as we had were well worth it.”

Do any of you have memories of the dance band? In my post-war Weihsien diary, Monday 20th August, I referred to the “Gala Super”. After this there was dancing. I go on, “Once after a dance Mr Adams played his clarinet in and out of the dancers very beautifully.” So there was Mr Adams on clarinet. Lopez Sarreal played the trumpet. Mr Jones (aka ‘Jonesy’) was a bass player, but did he have his double bass in camp? There was at least one guitarist. Any further help, please?


A footnote:
Before coming to Weihsien, we in Chefoo were interned for 10 months. My mother later wrote about our experiences there, including: “The sound post in my ‘cello had come loose and I was unable to mend it. I don’t know what made me take the problem to the Japanese guard, but he kindly managed to fix the sound post firmly into its natural habitat from whence it never strayed again.”