For many years the Sunderland Pianoforte Society was the only surviving society in Britain devoted entirely to the presentation of piano music played by professional classical music soloists. It celebrated its 60th season of recitals in 2003. Currently, members are drawn from a wide area covering most of County Durham, Tyneside and South Northumberland and to the south of the region from Teesside, and even as far as Darlington which itself is well-served, musically. with the only other specialist Pianoforte Society in the country.
The Sunderland Society was founded at a public meeting on February 2nd. 1943 “to encourage the study and playing of piano music by presenting at least four concerts in each season”. Initially half of each concert would be given by members, and the second half by a professional pianist. After some years this arrangement was replaced by having one full evening each season devoted to members’ performances (the “Members’ Evening”), and the remaining recitals (increased to five) each season given wholly by professional pianists. That has been the arrangement until the “Millenium Season” (2000/2001), when for such a special celebration the number of professional recitals was increased to eight. By that time the number of pianists among our members capable of taking part in a “members’ evening” had fallen drastically – enough to make such “members’ evenings” no longer viable. We held two seasons in the “Tom Cowey Lecture Theatre” of Sunderland University (see below) and the Officers and Committee decided to make all recitals fully professional at that time.
At the beginning of its life the Society used to borrow pianos, but as the membership grew, it was decided to buy a piano for the sole use of the Society. After a great number of fund raising activities, a Steinway concert grand was purchased and this is still in use. Ted Ducker, a long-standing member of the Committee, Secretary and Chairman was instrumental in organising the purchase of a suitable piano. He sought the practical advice of the great pianist Ronald Smith who actually travelled around with him to various piano showrooms in London, trying out pianos on behalf of the Society. It was he who selected the present Steinway Model D Concert Grand in its light walnut Louis 16th. style of case. Over the years many visiting artists have commented that it is probably the finest instrument that they encounter in their northern tours, and many eminent pianists have played for us. (See the complete list on our website)
Despite a drop in membership in the immediate post-war years, the Society managed to increase the number of concerts each season to six or seven. This was made possible by the generosity of sponsors who have, in the past, included Sunderland Corporation, Northern Arts (standing for Arts Council of England) through the good offices of “Making Music” (the National Federation of Music Societies North East), Metro Radio, Youth & Music (through Natwest Bank), Foundation for Sports and the Arts, Messrs. Vaux & Company, the Countess of Munster Musical Trust, and the Tillett Trust. Without them it would have been impossible to maintain the high quality of artists obtained for our recitals. For this the Society is most grateful.
The venue for the Society’s recitals for many years was the Art Gallery (upstairs) in
Borough Road, Sunderland. Major alterations for the refurbishing of the Gallery and the rebuilding of the “Winter Gardens” (destroyed during World War II) forced the Society to find a new “home”, for what eventually became two seasons. The crisis was averted by the timely intervention of Sunderland University who were most
generous in allowing the Society to hire the “Tom Cowey Lecture Theatre” on their St. Peter’s Campus , including the use of their new Steinway Model C Concert Grand Piano. The Society had to change its traditional evening (Tuesday at 7.15p.m.) to Saturday at 7.30p.m. so that the new accommodation fitted with the University’s own arrangements. Used as a busy Lecture Hall, they could not guarantee our use of it on a Tuesday evening. At that time this seemed like a small price to pay for the delights of such a fine new venue which was getting the Society out of a very critical situation. It is very difficult to find a good venue that includes the use of a fine piano that was so necessary for the quality of international pianists we booked. The Committee hoped that new members would subscribe from those people who could not manage to attend on a Tuesday evening and for whom Saturday was, perhaps, more convenient. We hoped, indeed, that our membership would increase with this move to the University. We also hoped that the university students themselves would discover and take an interest in the recitals of the Society. Our events were well publicised on the Campus.
In an attempt to make the move to the St. Peter’s Campus especially attractive, the Society introduced extra recitals to celebrate the “Millenium Season” (1999-2000) to build the season up to eight in place of the previous six, and for the period at the University dropping the traditional “Members’ Evening”. The Committee also decided to give a truly “international” scope to these programmes, and the recitals in that new “Millenium Season” were given by a world-wide galaxy of musical stars including Hugh Tinney (from Ireland), Martino Tirimo (from Greece), Alexander Kobrin (from Russia and the winner of the Glasgow International Piano Competition), Valentin Schiedermair (from Germany), John Clegg, and Viv McLean, Haruko Seki (from Japan) and Philip Smith – who are all world-class masters of the keyboard.
For that “millenium season” our own 80 subscribers dropped to a mere 35 because of this change of venue and evening. It was clear that the St.Peter’s Campus was not an easy place to get to, even though the Committee offered car services to any who needed it. What proved an even more important factor was that it was clear that many of our members did not like Saturday as the evening for our recitals. Finances were partially restored by the fact that we had more visitors paying for individual tickets at the door, and an important saving factor was a legacy received from a faithful member who had died. By 2003 we still had not made up that shortfall of subscribers, even after moving back to the “Sunderland Pottery Room” in the rebuilt Museum and Wintergardens, and returning to our traditional evening of Tuesday at 7.15p.m. The count in that 2003 season was 55, and recently we have lost faithful members who have unfortunately died, so that the subscribing membership in 2006/7 season was 41, and in 2007/8 season 38 and in the 2008/9 season that it fell to 30. Once again the Society’s finances were saved by an anonymous donation from a long-term subscribing member as well as by a legacy left to us by our previous Chairman Dr. Dennis Holden, and his wife Mrs. Anne Holden in their wills. This was especially important to us when our piano had to be taken away to Hamburg for a whole year at the main Steinway factory being rebuilt after it was badly damaged in an accident during the Museum refurbishment. We had to hire Steinway grand pianos for every single recital in the 2000-2001 season. This was a cost that was not covered by our insurance so almost £2000 extra had to be found that season for that item alone.
A very sad loss to the Society was the death of Miss Winnie Elstob in November 2007 .Winnie had been a member, Committee Member and Secretary since late in 1943. She was 93 and although not actually a founding member, she was nevertheless our
longest surviving member. The November recital was to have been given by Winnie’s favourite:Margaret Fingerhut, as a remembrance concert. Unfortunately a mere two days before the recital took place a large part of the ceiling in the “Sunderland Pottery Room” collapsed and the room was declared unsafe by Health & Safety. Tyne and Wear Museums Service came to the rescue and offered the Society the use of the “Jack Crawford Room”. The piano had to be moved , temporarily, and Margaret’s recital was postponed until May 2008. We held Winnie’s Memorial Recital in that month in the presence of members of Winnie’s family as our guests.
The Society is constantly trying to encourage young people (and especially families) to become members by allowing accompanied children (16 & below) to come to recitals free of charge. Other full-time students can attend for a mere £5 per recital, as can unemployed people (UB/40s). The importance of the future generation of music lovers was emphasized when the Society hosted its first “Festival of Young Pianists” in May 2003 as the main event which celebrated our Diamond Jubilee – 60 continuous years of promoting fine music in Sunderland. We circulated information, posters and fliers to schools in our whole area as well as to as many piano teachers as possible (latterly including “E-mails”). Teachers and playing students were all supplied with Full Festival Season Tickets” and booked seats free of charge and we attempted to make the event as special as possible by involving teachers and students (of various ages) from Chetham’s School of Music ( Manchester) at every festival. We continued to promote more “Festivals of Young Pianists” in 2005, 2007 and the fourth festival in 2009, in the hope that it would improve the overall image of the Society and encourage more Sunderland people to realise that the Society exists, and especially to encourage young people who are seriously interested in the piano and its repertoire to come to enjoy the performances of top professionals.
The Committee has constantly reviewed all of these festivals and realise that the same handful of North-Eastern teachers were involved (six) every time and not one from Sunderland! The media have never shown any interest in these festivals, the people of Sunderland have never supported them and audience figures have always been very low. All four of these festivals have done absolutely nothing for the overall image of the Pianoforte Society across our area. Considering that mounting such festivals entails considerable expense and considering the amount of sheer hard work involved in the organisation and carrying through such events, the Committee have reluctantly decided that they are a luxury that the Society can no longer afford.
The costs of running a successful society escalate as the years go by. Artists’ fees naturally increase, as do all other expenses (especially travel), although the Committee try to keep administration cost down by doing much of the work themselves. Even our Hon. Auditors (Mssrs. Barnes of Sunderland) offer their professional services to the Society at no charge: for which the Society is deeply grateful.
The old multi-storey car park in Tavistock Place where our members frequently parked has in recent years been demolished. It has been replaced by a ground level CCTV- controlled car park with entrance in Tavistock Place where members can park with confidence. Our members and guests can also park either in John Street (CCTV controlled) or Burdon Road (with disabled badges) opposite the Museum front entrance. A number of our members and friends from a wide area come to Society recitals using the Metro trains because the Central Metro Station in Sunderland is 3-4 minutes walk from the Museum.
Tyne & Wear Museums Service for many years made no charge for our use of the “Sunderland Pottery Room” as our venue for our full seasons. They regarded this a
“Sponsorship-in-kind”. Unfortunately, due to Local Authority cuts and the general economic conditions, Tyne & Wear Museums service are going to have to charge the Society for the booking of the room starting in November 2011.
Over the past years the Society has been helped by grants from Art Council England administered through the local Committee of “Making Music” (the National Federation of Music Societies). Indeed our four “Festivals of Young Pianists” have each been supported by special “one-off” grants from the same source. In 2006 the Arts Council England made a decision not to give money directly to any “amateur music organizations” across the whole country.
One thing that the Committee has discovered is that quite a lot of organisations and business firms who give sponsorship or make grants to Arts organisations (such as our Society) expect them to have the status of “registered charities”. So throughout 2008 the Chairman, Officers and Committee were busy completing application forms and preparing the Society to approach the Charity Commission in order to become registered. On 1st. May 2009 we received news that our application was successful, and we are now Registered Charity Number 1129383. This means that we can now take advantage of the “Gift Aid” scheme, which allows us to reclaim the tax paid on any moneys donated to our Society. This does not apply to our annual subscriptions or ticket prices. We hope “Charity Status” will also open doors for us in the future to gain sponsorship or to obtain grants from larger organisations which only consider registered charities.
The “Membership” situation became more serious in more recent years. In the Season 2008-2009, for example, the subscriptions dropped to a mere 30 members – this in spite of the fact that we had better concerts than ever, and we managed to get more publicity in the local Press than ever before. The Society did show a major financial loss in the Treasurer’s Report at the end of that season and the finances were saved (almost at the last minute) by a “Grass Roots Grant” of £2000 given to the Society by Tyne and Wear Community Foundation for which the Society was most grateful.
More serious still, five of our members died during that season, so we were faced with a possible drop to 25 members for the 2009-2010 season. At this level the Society simply would not be financially viable. Everyone seems to have made special efforts – because we actually gained 13 new members for the 2009-2010 season bringing us back from 25 up to 38. Clearly things began to look more hopeful, and the membership figure rose to 41 for 2010-11 and again to 42 for 2011-12 seasons.
Being a registered charity is, of course, an advantage to a society such as ours, but the success of a musical organisation depends entirely on having sizeable audiences coming to our recitals. Clearly without audiences, of a reasonable number, the society can not exist. In these days when the mass media seem intent on pushing exclusively “pop music” in all of its forms, young people are finding it very difficult to appreciate our heritage of great music. There is also a dearth of “musical appreciation” in our schools to encourage youngsters to learn about that great heritage. We do our best to make our concerts available to young people and families, but it is a similar pattern across the whole country – not only in Sunderland and the North East – young people of this country do not know and apparently do not want to know, because the national and local media in all its forms are determined to keep it that way.
The future of classical music across this whole country is at stake, and we fear that many hundreds of societies such as ours could well cease their activities through shrinking and ageing audiences. This, naturally, will have disastrous effects on the
opportunities for professional musicians who are trying to make a living from their skills. More and more of them will be forced to travel widely abroad to survive.