New Town Concerts Society
In 1964 Laurence Harris hit on the notion of New Town Concerts to replace Ruth D'Arcy Thomson's seasons of chamber concerts at the Freemasons' Hall in George Street, the heart of Edinburgh's original New Town, and the home of international chamber music at the Edinburgh International Festival from its start in 1947. These concerts were intended to light up the 49 weeks of musical darkness in the Hall over the winter months between one Edinburgh International Festival and the next. In January 1965 the dream became reality with the first New Town Concert, given by the Smetana Quartet. In 1971 New Town Concerts Society was formed to promote an annual concert series with tempting price reductions for subscribers, though the single ticket price of £1 could hardly, even then, have seemed preposterously high.
The early years
The first full season in 1971-2 looked eastwards, with the Warsaw Piano Quartet playing Shostakovich, the Tel Aviv Quartet paying tribute to Britten, Gyorgy Pauk and Peter Frankl in a programme including the Stravinsky Serenade and the impassioned Janacek Quartet in Dvorak's Opus 106. But as the Edinburgh International Festival had already discovered, the marmoreal chill of the Freemasons' Hall was not the best of places for great music-making. For all the fine performances that had been given there, change seemed overdue and by 1980 it came when New Town Concerts were joined by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in a combined series in the recently opened Queen's Hall. This classical former church offered better facilities, more seats, a less penitential atmostphere and a welcoming bar. Though Newington, where the hall was situated was not quite the New Town, it was apt in style and perfectly accessible. To have changed the name of the concerts would have seemed a betrayal of the original vision.
Fifty years forward
Some of the illustrious old string quartets faded away, to be replaced by new ones. The Emerson Quartet made their first Edinburgh appearance playing Bach and Beethoven in a New Town Concert in 2004. The Lindsays, now themselves a thing of the past, played a complete Beethoven cycle, the first in the history of New Town Concerts, thereby adding six extra concerts to the 2001 season. Alfred Brendel retired, but his protege, Paul Lewis came with two additional series for solo piano; the first a survey of all Schubert's piano sonatas, and the second a Beethoven sonata cycle of eight recitals spread over two seasons.
Based on an article by Conrad Wilson for New Town Concerts Society 50th anniversary programme