When Alexander Panfilov from Russia played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 at the White Rock Theatre nearly a year ago to win the 2015 Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition, he almost certainly didn’t realise that 80 years earlier, an even more distinguished pianist had played on probably exactly the same spot: Sergei Rachmaninov himself.
This startling discovery has been made by Dr Richard Wray, a patron of the piano competition. He heard a rumour that Rachmaninov had played in Hastings and decided to investigate. He found that the Russian had played at the White Rock not once but twice: on 23 March 1935 and 28 March 1936.
His research also revealed that the White Rock Theatre, where this year’s Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition will take place from 25 February to 5 March, was a major national centre for classical music in the 1920s and 1930s.
Hastings has always been a musical town but after the first world war Hastings Borough Council decided to fund an orchestra to encourage wealthy visitors to stay in the town for the winter season. It was arranged that the Harrogate Municipal Orchestra would come to Hastings each year to become the Hastings Municipal Orchestra, before returning to Harrogate for the summer.
In 1925, the relocation of the Royal East Sussex Hospital provided an opportunity to build a Concert Hall on the site. The White Rock Pavilion, as it originally called, was designed by an acoustically trained architect and was the first of its kind in the UK. Not even London could match it until the Royal Festival Hall opened in 1951.
It was opened in 1927 by the Prince of Wales, later Edward the Eighth. Shortly afterwards Sir Edward Elgar came to Hastings to conduct his Violin Concerto. Years later the brilliant Spanish cellist Pablo Casals would come here to play Elgar’s Cello Concerto.
Because of its superb acoustics, the White Rock was for many years a favourite recording studio for the Decca Record Label. The Municipal Orchestra, although relatively small, was frequently used for these recordings because of its quality: 20 of the 32 regular members were acknowledged soloists.
In 1930, the composer Julius Harrison took over the Hastings Orchestra. (The fact that his predecessor Basil Cameron had left to take over the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra shows how well Hastings was regarded.) At peak times Harrison conducted up to twelve concerts a week and he raised the standard even higher by introducing a series of special concerts which attracted major names.
As well as Rachmaninov. other pianists included Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Cliiford Curzon. Guest conductors he attracted included Sir Henry Wood, founder of the BBC Proms, Adrian Boult, Sir Thomas Beecham and John Barbirolli.
The Hastings orchestra also built up a strong relationship with the BBC. In the early years of the 1930s, up to eight concerts a year were broadcast from the White Rock Pavilion. In 1935, a two hour live concert was broadcast from the White Rock on Christmas Day after the King’s Speech.
A further Christmas Day concert was broadcast the next year, though this time there was no King’s Speech because of the Abdication. The third and last live Christmas afternoon broadcast took place in 1937 after the new King’s Speech. It went out over the new Empire Broadcasting Service and could theoretically be heard by a third of the world’s population.
Dr Wray says there is a real dearth of written evidence about the White Rock’s musical history. He believes his findings are accurate but would welcome any further evidence, recollections or corrections that any readers might have. He asks them to get in touch via the piano competition website (see below).
So when this year’s Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition begins at the White Rock on 25 February, it will be following a well-established musical tradition.
This year’s competition is bigger and better than ever, culminating in a two evening final on March 4 and 5, when the six finalists – three each night – will be playing with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. The winner will receive a cheque for £10,000 and the opportunity to perform as soloist with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
All stages of the competition will take place at the White Rock Theatre and will be open to the public. Tickets are available now from the theatre on 01424 462288 or at www.whiterocktheatre.org.uk.
For further information please go to www.hastingsconcertocompetition.co.uk.
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