Alumna Rebecca Smith launches own orchestra

Rebecca Smith and her Orchestra: Palm Court Music revival!

Rebecca Smith (2005, Worcester College) launches her own orchestra.

On 12th November 2023, Rebecca Smith launched her palm court orchestra: The Rebecca Smith Orchestra.  Invigorated and inspired by her role as the Violinist with the Scarborough Spa Orchestra—the last remaining professional seaside orchestra in the UK—Rebecca and her Orchestra presented the whole range of Palm Court Music within one cosy, sparkling evening.

The essence of Palm Court music can be captured within a world of beautiful melodies and toe-tapping tunes, whose warmth and charm both displace, and transcend time. Dating back as far as the 1890s, the palm court genre was borne out of an appetite for music to accompany high teas and dinner dances—in hotels, spa town pavilions, and aboard ocean liners. Usually the room would be adorned with palms and aspidistras, and the style came to be known as 'Palm Court’.

It wasn’t long before it roared its way through the hotels of the West End of London in the 1920s and 30s, taking up the genre of the dance band, and catapulting to fame band leaders and violinists such as Albert Sandler, Tom Jenkins and, of course, Max Jaffa. In 1924, the long-running BBC radio series ‘Grand Hotel’, began to broadcast live performances from the Great Hall of the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, going out every Sunday night until 1939. Thus began a long line of light classical violinists leading the BBC’s Palm Court Orchestra.

In 1943, the violinist Albert Sandler, then leader of the Palm Court Orchestra, became the first host of the BBC series ‘Grand Hotel’, broadcast live from the concert hall at Broadcasting House rather than a palm court. The violinist and prodigy Tom Jenkins succeeded Albert, taking the audience numbers to 15 million in the 1950s, to Reginald Leopold, and finally, Max Jaffa. The series ended in 1973, with a short-lived revival in the 1980s.

Max had already become a household name through these BBC broadcasts before eventually becoming the Violinist and Musical Director of the Scarborough Spa Orchestra. His status as the world’s pre-eminent light classical violinist still stands today.

The increasing popularity of light music, as it is sometimes called, resulted in composers such as Eric Coates, Robert Farnon, Leroy Anderson, Vivian Ellis, and Albert W. Ketèlbey writing more for the genre. Now a Palm Court Orchestra concert can feature everything from Elgar’s and Kreisler’s salon music, to character pieces and rags, glamorous musicals by Ivor Novello and Noel Coward, elegant Viennese waltzes by the Johann Strauss, Franz Lehár operettas, to dance band numbers from the transatlantic talents of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Rodgers and Hart.

Rebecca studied music at Worcester College, Oxford, before completing an MMus in Violin Performance at the Royal Northern College of Music.  Since then she has been freelancing as a violinist and viola player, performing on stages worldwide and on BBC Radio.  She is delighted to be championing this genre of music making, and driving its revival. Her direct lineage to Max Jaffa is unique, and one she considers both humbling and inspiring.  Exciting plans are afoot. Keep an eye on for news and future events.