The Southampton University Symphony Orchestra was first established as an orchestral society in October 1919, involving students of all subjects who had a passion for performing classical music. Within a few months of their formation the orchestra were playing at all important social functions at the College (prior to being awarded the Royal Charter in 1952, the University of Southampton was known as Hartley University College). Throughout the first twenty years the orchestra had very close ties to the university choral society and music department, often coming together for joint concerts. Repertoire highlights in these years included many Haydn symphonies, and some of Beethoven’s early symphonies. The orchestra disbanded upon the outbreak of war in 1939, as many students and staff from the college fought overseas.
After the war, the arts scene took a number of years to re-emerge on campus, and the orchestra reformed in 1951, this time under the music society. The orchestra appeared annually at the university arts festival throughout the 1960s. Professor Peter Evans joined the university as Head of Music in 1961, and immediately became conductor of the university orchestra, which thrived under his leadership of 27 years. Professor Evans did not conduct the orchestra every year, and other members of the department, such as Eric Graebner, Jonathan Harvey and Richard Studt sometimes led terms. The works the orchestra took on became more adventurous during this time, performing symphonies by Prokofiev, Sibelius, Saint-Saens and Tchaikovsky.
The orchestra helped raise funds for the building of the Turner Sims Concert Hall on Highfield Campus, which was completed in 1974. This purpose built arts venue became the home of the orchestra, replacing the Reception Room as the main rehearsal venue. The majority of concerts from this time onwards were held in the Turner Sims.
After a year of transition, Antony Dennant, was appointed the permanent conductor of the orchestra during his final year of his undergraduate music degree at Southampton in 1990. It was during this era that the acronym ‘SUSO’ was established. This was a role that he continued until 1994, when Robin Browning was appointed.
The orchestra expanded and developed rapidly under Robin Browning. Instead of two performances a year (in December and March), the season produced 6 concerts; two performances of each programme and adding a summer term. The Assistant Conductor position was also added, allowing a student who was studying conducting at the university the opportunity to conduct rehearsals and a short piece in concerts. SUSO’s repertoire became far more eclectic and ambitious- Robin’s tenure contained symphonies by Mahler (1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10), Bruckner (4, 7, 8) and Shostakovich (5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15). The biannual tour to Glasgow was replaced by an annual European destination, including Prague, Budapest and Barcelona. The orchestra also performed in a wide variety of venues- not just ones on campus. Throughout the 21 years of Robin’s tenure performances were held in Cadogan Hall, Rudolfinum (Prague), Romsey Abbey, Thornden Hall, St Peter’s Church Bournemouth and St Mary’s Church Southampton amongst others. Robin decided to step down as Music Director at the end of 2015.
The vacancy for a new Music Director attracted international attention and over 100 applications were received, and in September 2016 we welcomed Susanna Riddell to SUSO as the new Music Director. With over 20 years of experience as a cellist in the London Philharmonic Orchestra, we enjoyed a fabulous 2 years with the conductor.