A Tale of Two Orchestras
Wednesday 22nd November, 2017

A Tale of Two Orchestras

Every year at National Music Camp more than 200 young musicians from around Australia come together to form two symphony orchestras, and one chamber orchestra. The two large orchestras have for decades carried the titles: Bishop Orchestra and Alexander Orchestra.

These two names carry great significance, and the story of how they came to be goes all the way back to 1946, when a country lad from South Australia met an American girl from Kansas.

In the early 1900s the small town of Wellington in Kansas was bustling with immigrants, who had brought with them their typically-European love of culture. Ruth Kurtz was born into this vibrant community in 1914, and grew up with music easily within her grasp. Children were taken to concerts as a matter of course, and most young American children had the opportunity to learn a musical instrument at school. Summer music camps were thriving, and had the support of first-class tutors looking to boost their earnings during the long breaks between playing in symphony seasons.

Having spent her early years learning music at school and playing the piano, Ruth dreamt of pursuing music as a career, but owing to the economic depression in America at the time it was nearly impossible for young students to afford a university course.  Instead, Ruth turned her attention towards a piano competition in Kansas City. The prize – the full payment of the winner’s university fees – attracted fifty two entrants. Against the odds Ruth went on to win the competition, and was thus able to complete her music degree at Kansas State University.

By the time she graduated the Second World War was in progress, which led to another unexpected turn in her life; the introduction of a young Australian engineer named Geoffrey Alexander, who was posted in Detroit to oversee the production of army tanks. Just fifteen months later they were married, and Ruth Alexander began her next adventure; a voyage to Australia.

Meanwhile, a young boy named John helped out in his father’s country store in the small town of Aldinga in South Australia. John was a creative young soul, and despite the lack of musical education on offer at his local school, his family managed to arrange some piano lessons with William Silver, a distinguished teacher from Adelaide. John flourished under the guidance of Silver, who eventually took John into his own home to continue his musical training. John gained the Elder Scholarship in 1922 and set off for London, where he studied at the Royal College of Music.

A few years later he decided to settle in New Zealand with his wife, Margaret, where he became the conductor of the Wellington Philharmonic Orchestra. He undertook a great deal of teaching work on the side, and gradually came to realise it was in music education that his passion really lay.

John and his young family moved to Melbourne in 1934, where he took up a post as a piano teacher at the University of Melbourne Conservatorium. Like America, Australia was going through a period of financial depression, and most musicians found themselves out of work. John focused his energies on supporting his fellow musicians by arranging small performance opportunities, and one weekend found himself in the tiny town of Portsea near Melbourne, providing dinner music at a summer camp. Music at a summer camp… John had a bright idea.

It wasn’t until John and Ruth met in 1946 that things began to take shape. At the time both were unaware that this was a momentous moment in the history of Australian music, but by 1948 their dream of National Music Camp was realised. John’s enthusiasm for establishing music camps in Australia, teamed with Ruth’s experience in music education and familiarity with the music camp system in America, provided a scheme with very exciting prospects.

The rest is history! John Bishop and Ruth Alexander leave behind them a lasting legacy. Our two symphony orchestras are just one small nod of appreciation to the young musicians who changed the face of Australia’s musical scene forever.