The members of the City of Newport Symphony Orchestra are on a mission to bring the joys of live music to a wider audience. NICHOLAS THOMAS found out more

IT MIGHT come as a surprise to many of us living in the city, but Newport has had its own symphony orchestra for the past 100 years.

And while there may not be a huge classical music following locally, the members of the City of Newport Symphony Orchestra are determined to open up the genre to a wider audience and celebrate music’s positive effects on our wellbeing.

Sean O’Neill, the orchestra’s musical director, said: “Not a lot of people in Newport know we exist, and although the orchestra’s been around for 100 years it’s mainly been like a lot of amateur groups in that they get together and play for their own enjoyment, then put on an orchestra for their family and friends.


“That’s great, but what we’re striving to do now is break out of that mould, and get more people to know that there is something else going on in Newport that adds to cultural diversity.”

The orchestra’s 50-odd members are amateur musicians of all ages. They normally meet once a week to rehearse for the concerts it puts on several times a year – though the ongoing coronavirus outbreak has scuppered their plans for the foreseeable future. And within their musical group, they have also built a community.

“What we have here is a very broad base of people, coming from all walks of life,” Mr O’Neill said. “Some have learned music at school and then come back to it, some have retired.”

South Wales Argus:

Sean O’Neill conducting the City of Newport Symphony Orchestra. All pictures: CNSO

Mr O’Neill, originally from the Scottish Borders, took on the role of musical director at CNSO last year following a successful career playing and teaching music in Gwent and beyond.

He spent 24 years teaching brass at Monmouth School and 25 years as principal tuba with the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, as well as a freelance career working with many of the UK’s major orchestras both at home and abroad, including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Mr O’Neill also spent 16 years with Gwent Music Service, starting out as a part-time tutor but retiring in 2017 as the head of the brass and wind departments.

But despite an illustrious career performing with some of the world’s most eminent conductors, Mr O’Neill said his goal was to show people that live orchestra music could be for anybody.

“Classical music can often be perceived with having an ‘elitist’ tag and that is very far cry from what the City of Newport Symphony Orchestra want to be seen as,” he said. “We do strive to deliver classical music to the highest quality of our collective abilities, but it is music for all and covers a huge and varied repertoire of period and genres.”

But he admitted many people could be sceptical when the topic came up.

“Sometimes you mention classical music and you see eyes glazing over, but lots of what we do is easy on the ear,” he said.

The orchestra plays several concerts each year at the St John the Baptist Church, in Newport’s Risca Road; and also performs annually at the St Julians Senior Citizens’ Club.

Unfortunately, the arrival of coronavirus has scuppered any chances of them practising together this spring, and a concert in St Woolos Cathedral, due to take place last weekend, had to be cancelled.

The orchestra also performs for other groups, and last December held a concert in support of the Cwtsh Arts Centre and the Eden Gate night shelter.

Mr O’Neill said he hoped to do more work with charitable groups in future, believing that playing and listening to music was good for people’s health.

“We want to reach out to different people who might not think of coming to see a live orchestra,” he said. “Music is great for wellbeing, and we know from the people here that for them it brings back an awful lot of stuff they did in their youth – I’ve certainly had that experience – coming and making music has really been therapeutic for them.”

And orchestra member Emma Gibbins said that “from a playing point of view, you can always leave your stresses, anxieties, and work pressures at the door.

South Wales Argus:

The City of Newport Symphony Orchestra, at St John the Baptist Church in Newport. Pictures: CNSO

“You come in knowing you’ve got two hours dedicated to just making music, with friends, all working towards a common goal.”


Mr O’Neill added: “You’ve got 50 different people, but you have to work together. There is that drawing-in of community, and the emotion of making it all work – it’s not just bashing at a tin, you have to get it right together.”

In this uncertain time, the orchestra is unable to meet and rehearse, and its members were “bitterly disappointed” to halt plans for the April concert.

At present, while the coronavirus lockdown period continues, the group is yet to make definitive plans for a future performance, but when things return to normal, the orchestra – one of Newport’s hidden gems – will return with renewed determination to make music for everyone to enjoy.