ARGUS music critic Nigel Jarrett recalls the time when musical legends queued to perform in a Gwent town.
A GWENT music club once widely regarded as among the best in Britain is celebrating its 50th anniversary amid nostalgia for a golden era.
Monmouth Merlin Music Society once presented a stellar list of musicians, including composer Benjamin Britten, singers Peter Pears and Janet Baker, violinists Nigel Kennedy and Yehudi Menuhin, and cellist Jacqueline du Pré.
Concerts were held at the Monmouth School Hall, which is now the Blake Theatre, a public performing space. For many events in its illustrious past, the Merlin always had a waiting list and latecomers often struggled to find a decent seat.
With various kinds of funding, mainly public, on the decrease and many older members passing on, the Merlin has had to come to terms with more modest presentations and a lower public profile.
But each September it confidently announces yet another season, these days often giving Britain's younger musicians a chance to appear on the platform.. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales has recently renewed its links after a few years and has recorded its Merlin concerts for broadcasting on BBC Radio 3. So things are looking up.
Membership secretary Christine Ferguson and vice-chairman Tony Ferguson, the former treasurer, are long-standing Society members. When they joined in 1976 there were over 600 who were either already subscribers or were on the waiting list. Public subsidy was at its most generous.
"The Merlin was ranked as the largest music society in Wales and one of the ten largest in the UK," said Mr Ferguson. " Our expenses were high but so was our income. At one stage during my 15 years as treasurer, our grant reached £8,000.
"The gradual reduction and eventual termination of our grant was a major disaster. With diminishing income we gradually lost our orchestral concerts and most of our celebrity performers which, in turn, led to falling membership and shrinking audiences. Nowadays there are very few new members arriving and the old faithfuls steadily migrate to care homes and obituary columns..
" Sadly we get almost no young people to our concerts these days which is astonishing considering the proximity of Monmouth School, and the other schools are hardly far away."
The Merlin shares this problem with many other music groups, from clubs to choirs to amateur operatic societies.
The Society has always had strong links with Monmouth School, and its current headmaster, Dr Steven Connors, is the Society president. Help from the school has always been forthcoming. Several Merlin performers also give master classes or run workshops for local school students.
The Merlin owns a Steinway Model D grand piano, which was bought in 1973 and underwent a full reconditioning in 2005.
Membership is by annual subscription, which is in effect a season-ticket, and it is chiefly on the basis of season-ticket sales that the Society is able to function. The revenue they generate is secured at the start of the season. Tickets for individual concerts are also available from the theatre. Most concerts are held at the Blake except the last, which takes place at the concert hall of the Nimbus record company in nearby Wyastone Leys.
The golden jubilee season, from September to May 2013, opens on September 13 with violinist Christopher Horner and pianist Richard Ormrod, playing Beethoven, de Falla, Ravel and Brahms.
Season ticket inquiries to the membership secretary, 45 Duchess Road, Osbaston, Monmouth NP25 3HT (01600 772747). The Blake box office number is 01600 719401 (email@example.com)