Friday, 12 February 2010

Inspiring conductors

Lyle Sanford has been musing lately on the autocratic habits of conductors and the childlike and dependent attitudes of some amateur musicians.

I've come across my share of autocratic conductors, and there are of course famous examples of such people at the top reaches of the profession - Fritz Reiner was a notorious martinet for instance.

But from my experience here in the London area both of the orchestras I am or have been a regular member of and those for which I've deputised from time to time, conductors of amateur orchestras do seem to recognise that their continued employment depends to some extent on making the rehearsal experience rewarding and enjoyable to the players. You do hear of an occasional conductor who drives his players to tears but inspires great loyalty because of the results he achieves. But here, this seems very much to be the exception rather than the rule.

I suspect that this in part is because there is a huge oversupply of wannabe conductors compared to orchestras available for them to conduct. Your average amateur orchestra is perhaps 60 players, and it requires just one conductor. And many conductors run a number of amateur orchestras, each meeting on a different night of the week. If you take a look at the London page of the UK Amateur Orchestras listing website, you'll see that conductor's names often pop up 2 or 3 times.

Outside London, this is less common because of the longer distances to travel. But within London, this does put the orchestra committee at a great advantage - if the orchestra finds itself disliking a conductor, there are always plenty more where he (it is almost always a "he") came from. This means that a conductor has to work much more by encouragement than has perhaps been traditional in the past.

But I think it is also partly due to the example of their predecessors whom they themselves have learned under.

I've long since lost count of the conductors I've played for. I've mentioned here a magical occasion on which I once had the opportunity to play under the baton of Simon Rattle, but generally I find myself comparing any conductor against three that I regularly played for in school and student days. On the few occasions that I've had the opportunity to do a bit of conducting myself, these three are the ones I model myself on.

The first was Fred Firth, who conducted the Norwich Students Orchestra. I played under him for about 2 years from the age of about 13 to 15, when he retired. One one occasion after that I played under him in a series of performances of Verdi's I Lombardi which he conducted with the Norfolk Opera Players.

He wasn't the first conductor I played under or the first orchestra I played in - I joined my first youth orchestra at the age of 9 in London before my parents moved to Norfolk, but I don't remember all that much about the conductor there. Fred Firth was the first conductor to inspire me. He had a broad Lancashire accent that shone out of his mouth every time he spoke, even though he had lived in Norfolk for decades. The kids in the orchestra were willing to follow him anywhere - and we followed him through some very tricky pieces - things which I would regard as difficult even today. Kodaly's Hary-Janos suite, the Elgar Cello Concerto, Delius Paris: Song of a Great City, and Sibelius' 1st Symphony are four works that come to mind. By the standards of the 1970s, this was quite daring repertoire even for an adult amateur orchestra, let alone a set of high school kids.

Next was Lawrence Leonard. When I was at high school, the Norfolk County Youth Orchestra would meet twice a year for a one-week residential course at Wymondham College in the Easter and summer holidays. I loved those courses - though I was utterly exhausted at the end of them. Lawrence had a most amazing fund of anecdotes and would keep us all in stitches of laughter telling us real or imagined stories of his musical adventures. I didn't know it at the time, but Lawrence had been the conductor of the Morley College Orchestra, which transformed itself into the Hoffnung Festival Orchestra for some utterly hilarious concerts in the Royal Festival Hall called the Hoffnung Interplanetary Music Festival. An idea of the fun to come was in the announcement given by the Festival Hall's general manager T.E. Bean, at the start of the first concert.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have to ask your indulgence for an announcement. Owing to circumstances over which the LCC [London County Council] and the management of the Hall have no control, tonight's programme will be given exactly as advertised.

The concert included such items as A Grand, Grand Overture by Malcolm Arnold, which included three vacuum cleaners and a floor polisher among the required instruments, and a Concerto for Hose-pipe and Strings, with Dennis Brain playing a garden hosepipe with a horn mouthpiece in one end and a funnel on the other.

This was all before I was born, and I only learned about it later, but gives an idea of the sort of fun that he could be. Anyway, Lawrence was also inspiring to us. He was a cellist as well as a conductor, and during rehearsals would grab the principal cellist's instrument and demonstrate what he wanted in terms of an effect or style - whatever instrument he was speaking to.

He was always a good sport. On the last night before the concert there was a tradition of "follies", an informal concert of light-hearted pieces by members of the orchestra. One year I got him to agree to do Ernst Toch's Geographical Fugue. It is a perfectly good fugue, except that it is entirely spoken and there are no notes in it. It starts like this.

And the big Mississippi
and the town Honolulu
and the lake Titicaca,
the Popocatepetl is not in Canada,
rather in Mexico, Mexico, Mexico!

So I got Lawrence to start alone on stage. He made a huge performance out of tuning his cello, and then put it to one side, and said "Ladies and Gentlemen. Trinidad! And the big Mississippi..." The other three of us taking part in the fugue each started our own part from our seats in the audience and made our way up to join him on stage.

On another course, he had been very critical of one of the violinists who had something of a tendancy to fling himself about when playing and to use too much bow. On Follies night, Lawrence performed John Cage's 4' 33" (arranged for solo cello), with an excessively serious expression on his face. Halfway through, the errant violinist called out "Lawrence, too much bow!", and everyone completely fell about laughing. Lawrence's expression didn't even crack!

Lawrence Leonard also got us through some very tricky pieces. Stravinsky's Firebird and Petrushka suites, Brahms 2nd Symphony, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherezade, Sibelius 2nd Symphony are highlights I remember. All before I was 18. We played Petrushka in a concert in Kings Lynn at the end of one course, and just as we reached the passage where the horns are playing a quaver passage slurring up and down alternate notes, an ambulance drove past the outside the hall with its two-tone siren going - in a different key but at about the same tempo!

The third conductor I particularly remember was Harry Legge. He was a founder member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (playing the viola) under Sir Thomas Beecham. He was in a way responsible for my existence. He set up The Rehearsal Orchestra, as a residential course during the Edinburgh Festival in August 1957, (it has been run there every August since) and my parents met as a result of attending that very first course. Probably nearly half the professional musicians in Britain have been through the Rehearsal Orchestra in their student days and so a great many of them knew Harry. It meant that at his local amateur orchestra in London, the Brent Symphony Orchestra, he was able to get some of the most amazing soloists to come and play with the orchestra. I remember Moura Lympany playing a Rachmaninov concerto, Robert and Raymond Cohen playing the Brahms Double Concerto together, Nigel Kennedy playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto (and staying on with his girlfriend to listen to us play Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony in the 2nd half). I first played for Harry in the British Youth Wind Orchestra (now the National Youth Wind Orchestra) on a tour of Canada and the US in 1977. When I was in London at university, I played both for the Brent Symphony Orchestra and for various of the Rehearsal Orchestra weekend courses in London. I remember in particular in one weekend getting through not only the whole of Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, but also Bartok's Kossuth as well (which requires an almost identically huge orchestra).

Harry had played under many of the greats, particularly including Beecham and also Rudolf Kempe, who succeeded Beecham as chief conductor of the RPO, and so he knew precisely what he wanted from an orchestra, and got it without much fuss. He modelled his rehearsal technique on Beecham's, basically working on the principle that you speak as little as possible, and let the players play the notes as much as possible, eventually they become familiar with what you are trying to achieve.

It's noticeable that all three of these conductors who had a great musical effect on me were ones I first played for before I was 18. They were playing great and difficult and inspiring pieces of music, requiring the utmost concentration from both conductor and players. None of them worked by shouting at the orchestra - except under extreme provocation. And they were all hugely loved by their players. They, along with my teacher at the RCM, Douglas Moore, provided me with my musical education. What I know of music I know largely as a result of having played it for them. I count myself incredibly fortunate and privileged to have had not just one but three such outstanding musical role models.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful stories. This post reinforces my notion of what a great system you have over there for nurturing players of classical music. It's amazing the pieces you were playing in high school. There may be that level of playing at that early an age over here, but I've not heard of it.

    I can't help wondering if part of it is the same reason you've got the better train system, i.e. everything is physically closer which creates a larger pool of people able to participate. It's a different kettle of fish, but here in my rural town there aren't even enough players to fill out the positions in the band. One alto sax, one tenor sax, no oboe or bassoon, and just me on the horn and so on. And getting directors is tough.