Looking back on QSO’s history

By Warwick Adeney

Blog ·

Looking back on QSO’s history

Our Concertmaster Warwick Adeney sat down with Joan Bowen, one of the first in the Administration team of Queensland Symphony Orchestra back in 1953, to talk conductors, concerts at City Hall and life after the Orchestra.

While staying with my mother-in-law recently at Keperra Sanctuary I met an elderly lady during one of my jaunts playing violin to residents. She astounded me by saying she was part of the history of our Orchestra having worked in its administration in the early 1950s. I arranged to come back and chat at greater length, which I'm grateful now to have done, stimulating waves of memories for her and deepening my appreciation of the annals of our city and its Orchestra. 

Joan Bowen was brought up in Coorparoo and was a teenager during the war. She remembers that American soldiers commandeered her school, Somerville House, as its communications headquarters and her studies were removed to Queen Alexandra House, on Coorparoo Junction. She wanted to be a kindergarten teacher, but I gathered that her bookkeeping and secretarial skills, formed at a business college in the city, were recognised early and she worked firstly for an agricultural chemist and then in St Helen's hospital (now Wesley) as the hospital Secretary, and finally, at the request of a friend, at ABC music. She looks back with pride at being in responsible positions in three such contrasting areas of work. Her family boasted a good number of the significant teachers of the day, and hearing of its culture and expectations one cannot be surprised at Joan's success.

It was at ABC music, then situated at the old School of Arts in Vulture St, South Brisbane, that she worked in orchestral management in 1953-4. Queensland Symphony Orchestra was then barely five years old, playing under the baton of its first conductor, the hard-working John Farnsworth-Hall. The Orchestra rehearsed there, but played its concerts over in City Hall which was at that time of course the tallest and most splendid building in town. Joan remembers that the work of the Orchestra, then numbering less than fifty musicians, was divided between concerts, broadcasts and its education program. The concerts were always well attended ("there was nothing much else on!") and always concluded with the national anthem. Joan certainly enjoyed the music, the busyness, and the colourful personalities of her time.

John Farnsworth-Hall

The orchestra manager was Bert Shepherd, formerly a violinist. Dr Robert Dalley-Scarlett, remembered as eccentric, was arranger, as the Orchestra was often playing reduced or re-arranged versions of serious and light music. The Orchestra also played for the musicals coming through Brisbane. The head of music was Alan McCristal, married to a cellist, Julie van der Klei, and they were among a number of married couples that Joan also recalls in the Orchestra, including Maria and Joe Benvenuti, who drove ceremoniously in an open vehicle by the river with their double-basses in the back. She also remembers Jimmy and Joyce Carson, Max and Marie Muller, and Rees and Una Morgan, both harpists (Una was a lecturer of mine in Conservatorium days!).

Another player from Joan's day that I knew of course was Patrick Thomas, the flautist who became Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor. And of particular interest to me was the concertmaster, George White, who also led the Queensland State String Quartet and was a very significant Australian violinist of his day. George was a popular man who lived on Hamilton Road with his wife and ten children in a typical small house, Joan remembers. I found myself describing to Joan my own efforts to build three stacked caravan double-bunks to accommodate six of my sons!

Patrick Thomas

Joan grew up in that generation of home culture sadly rare these days, in which family ‘arty’ get-togethers and music were enjoyed, often including friends and neighbours. She learnt piano with Jim Wallis (the city organist and also ABC programme director) and fondly remembers Sunday evenings at home when her father played piano and sang with everyone around joining in, while Joan accompanied on the nearby harmonium. Classical music, with hymns and folk music gathered with it, was ‘all you were taught’. Joan says, ‘we weren't allowed popular music.’ The organ was the instrument she preferred, far better expressing the rich and harmonious sound of the orchestra. For decades subsequently, she played organ for services at The Gap Uniting Church. I asked Joan if she remembers particular favourites among the music she heard in her young days. After a moment's reflection, she nominated the Flower Duet from Lakme as one she always loved. 

Was Joan’s time at Queensland Symphony Orchestra long? No, she was there only two years. Shortly after working at the Orchestra Joan was married and began her new life raising her two children reminding me that although she enjoyed her work fed by her interest in music, math and management, her earliest love was children.