Philharmonic societies were established in Wellington in 1848, Nelson in 1852, New Plymouth in 1856 and Invercargill in 1864. These societies presented mixed programmes that included orchestral performances.
The flavour of early philharmonic society concerts is captured in a Taranaki Herald review of 1886: ‘as is now usual, a large audience was collected ... The programme opened with a selection from “Iolanthe,” given by the orchestra with creditable execution, and was followed by the chorus, “Bright Lady, Sweet Mistress.” ... After the interval the entertainment was continued with the orchestral item, “Solitude,” followed by Miss Sole’s song, “Thy voice is near,” which was made much of. The rest of the evening was taken up with the dramatic cantata, “Hero and Leander”...’1
Similar concert-giving organisations arose elsewhere. The Hawkes Bay Herald of 17 October 1868 carried (as its sole entry under ‘Amusements’) a notice saying that rehearsals of the Napier Philharmonic Society were held every Wednesday and Thursday. Late in 1871 the New Zealand Herald announced that the recently formed Whangarei Philharmonic Society would ‘combine vocal and instrumental music, the practice of glees, and the opening of an elementary class for instruction in the theory and practice of vocal music. Concerts will also be occasionally given for social and charitable purposes.’ A year later, the Herald reported from Coromandel (then in the throes of a gold rush) that the Philharmonic soirée had been a great success.
Such societies presented Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s Creation, Gilbert and Sullivan and miscellany programmes of the kind that were also fashionable in the Un2ited States at the time.
Orchestral societies drew on the best talent available. The Christchurch Star in 1872 described the newly-formed Christchurch Orchestral Society as ‘comprising our leading instrumental amateurs’ and announced that they would be performing ‘with some professional assistance’.3 In 1881, when this orchestra toured to Dunedin, the Otago Daily Times confirmed that it comprised ‘an unusually large number of instrumentalists of considerable repute.’4
Theatres – an essential part of the infrastructure of New Zealand towns from the early 1840s on – included orchestra pits, a space in front of the stage to accommodate musicians. These professional venues provided a stimulus for the formation of orchestras (often comprising just a handful of oddly assorted instruments). Auckland’s Fitzroy Theatre opened in February 1844 with a variety programme that included the then-popular overture to Boieldieu’s Caliph of Bagdad. Achille Fleury led a nine-member orchestra at the Princess Theatre, one of two that opened in Dunedin in 1862. (Fleury was later to appear in court for stealing a pair of trousers and a jumper from the St Patrick’s Brass Band.)