Greenock Philharmonic Society can be traced back to 1850, but The Greenock Philharmonic of modern times came into being in 1935. The conductor was Mr Robert Constable, and the first concert was in the following spring with a programme including ‘Blest Pair of Sirens’ by Parry and, local composer Hamish McCunn's ‘Lord Ullin's Daughter’.
The outbreak of World War 2 caused rehearsals to be adjourned, and when the choir resumed in 1946 it was very successful, with a highlight being a performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ in Greenock Town Hall. Greenock Philharmonic was the first large choir to broadcast live on radio with the BBC Scottish Orchestra in Handel's Coronation Anthem ‘The King Shall Rejoice’.
During the 1950’s, there were annual Spring Concerts and occasional radio broadcasts, and in 1957 Thomas Walton became the conductor and continued for over 20 years. From 1965 to 1970, Mr Walton led the choir in large scale performances of major choral works, including Bach's ‘St Matthew Passion’, Handel's ‘Samson’ and Haydn's ‘Creation’. In 1970, Verdi's ‘Requiem’ was the first foreign language work presented by the choir. The Greenock Telegraph critic wrote of feeling "thrilled to the marrow".
Thomas Walton’s final season was in 1978, culminating in a performance of Bach's ‘Mass in B minor’ - the first time in living memory that the complete work had been performed in the Greenock area. Other major works along the way had included Elgar's ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ and William Walton's ‘Belshazzar's Feast’.
Derek Fry and Alan Tavener then had very important spells as conductors. They moved the choir away from the traditional choral society repertoire, and their programmes of music were quite startling, for example Vaughan Williams ‘A Sea Symphony’, Bruckner's ‘Te Deum’, Poulenc's ‘Gloria’ and Tippet’s ‘A Child of our Time’, some of which pitched the choir against huge orchestral forces. In 1989 Alistair Massey was appointed. He was well known locally through the music department in Greenock High School.
During his time as conductor, from 1989 to 1996, the choir continued to present many of the great pieces such as Dvorak’s ‘Mass in D’, and the Mozart ‘Vespers’, through to Gabrielli's ‘Magnificat’, Elgar's ‘The Kingdom’ and Poulenc's ‘Quatre Motets pour Le Temps de Noel’.
From 1998 to 2007 Peter Jones continued with the best traditions of the choir in presenting popular choral music to those who loved listening to it, and he was succeeded by John Thwaites. In March 2008 there was a notable performance of Verdi’s Requiem, together with the Bridge of Weir Choral Society. According to the local music critic “the ‘Dies Irae’ was magnificent, submerging the audience in wave after wave of menace and fear."
The next conductor, Alejandro de Palma Garrido, had a musical background in Spain, but in 2008 came to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to study conducting. Alejandro put his own stamp on things and introduced some items to take the choir out of its comfort zone, with pieces like Victoria's "O Magnum Mysterium" and Debussy's ‘Trois Chansons’.
And so, the Philharmonic now continues under the confident guidance of its latest conductor, Andrew McTaggart, who joined the society in 2017. Andy has injected a renewed enthusiasm, and his expertise in vocal techniques has improved the sound of the choir. Recent concerts have featured works such as ‘Eternal Light – a Requiem’ by Howard Goodall, Haydn’s ‘The Creation’, and the highlight has been the 2019 concert which featured Rutter’s ‘Feel the Spirit’, Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ and ‘Five Mystical Songs’ by Vaughan Williams. The choir have also staged several ‘Come and Sing’ events, most notably gathering people together to tackle Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ and Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’.
It is to be hoped that the high standards and enthusiasm will continue, and that the choir will continue to be an important part of the musical life of Inverclyde.