UNLOCKING THE PAST: Kurri Kurri Mandolin Orchestra enjoyed great success

BEAUTIFUL SOUND: The Kurri Kurri Mandolin Orchestra in Russian costumes. The orchestra consisted of local miners and their families.
BEAUTIFUL SOUND: The Kurri Kurri Mandolin Orchestra in Russian costumes. The orchestra consisted of local miners and their families.

The Kurri Kurri Mandolin Orchestra first came to public notice in May 1924 when it won first prize in the Mandolin Quartette section of the Kurri Kurri Eisteddfod. Who would have thought there were so many local mandolin players that there'd be a section of the eisteddfod dedicated to them?

The Orchestra didn't waste any time following up on their success.

On September 3, 1924 the Orchestra, conducted by Russian violinist Jascha Gopinko, performed to great acclaim at the Lyceum Hall, Also on the bill was Sydney's foremost soprano Miss Millie Hughes. Every performer received 'a rapturous encore' with this musical night described by local newspaper the Cessnock Eagle as 'one of the most meritorious concerts ever given in Cessnock'. It was clear that the Orchestra had arrived.

They were back the following June for another concert with a soprano, a tenor, a violinist and to give the evening some levity - a comedian. No expense seems to have been spared to bring the artists in, with the concert described as possibly the most expensive ever put on in Cessnock. By this time the orchestra had grown to 40, with its members playing the mandolin, banjo, cello, violin, double bass and piano.

The Kurri Kurri Mandolin Orchestra was formed by Jascha, a Russian immigrant who had arrived in the town in 1918 to work in the coal mines. His beautiful violin playing so inspired his fellow miners that when he created the orchestra it was composed mainly of his colliery workmates.

Jascha's passionate love of music, huge talent and commitment to teaching had a profound effect on his new home town. His musical legacy went on to stretch across the entire Cessnock local government area. Jascha publicly stated, over and over, that the talent in regional towns was equivalent to that in the big cities and we should aim high and be proud of our musical achievements. One of his famous students, violinist Ernest Llewellyn, claimed that Jascha's skill as a teacher was equal to the greatest teachers of stringed instruments anywhere in the world.

In June 1927 a new conductor took the helm, W.H. Ward, putting his individual stamp on the Orchestra. Its last publicised performance was in September 1929, when in a lovely gesture it visited Kurri Kurri Hospital and played a free concert for the patients.

Kimberly O'Sullivan is the Local Studies Librarian at Cessnock Library. Email her on kimberly.osullivan@cessnock.nsw.gov.au.