Monday, 26 July 2010

Summer concerts

Summer brings a change of pace from the usual round of orchestra concerts. I find myself taking part in more chamber music. This summer is no exception.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to join players from Ealing Symphony Orchestra in their end-of-season chamber concert in St. Mary's Perivale. It happened to be on the night of the World Cup Final, so the audience was a bit thin, but never mind. I took part in a performance of the Strauss Suite for Winds. As the church is very small (seats about 100 max) and the Strauss uses 13 performers (2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 horns, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon) the loud passages really raised the roof! It's a thoroughly happy and optimistic piece, with some lovely delicate touches, especially in the Gavotte. And to think that Strauss was less than 20 years old when he composed it!

On Friday August 6th I'm taking part in the St Barnabas Last Night of the Proms. I'm playing in an arrangement of the Fantasia on Sea Songs. it promises to be a very jolly occasion. Sometimes classical musicians take themselves far too seriously, and I think these kinds of concert are a wonderful corrective to that.

But the main summer event for me, as it has been for the last few years, is St Clement's Wind Ensemble's concerts on the Edinburgh Fringe "Airy Delights". We are playing in Canongate Kirk on 19th and 20th August at 5pm.

This year the big piece we are doing is Brahms' Serenade No. 2. The instrumentation is a bit between that of a chamber ensemble and an orchestra. It requires 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 each of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, plus violas, cellos and double bass. But curiously , no violins. As far as I'm aware, there isn't anything else scored for quite the same group of instruments. This means that it doesn't get performed all that often, which I think is a great pity because it has some lovely music in it. I've listened to recordings but never played it before, and I'm really looking forward to it.

Taking advantage of the fact that we will have some strings with us this year, we are also playing Spohr's Grand Nonet. Again, an unjustly neglected work. I've had a run through this with friends, but never before performed it. This is one of the joys of playing chamber music if the majority of your playing is in an orchestra - there are all sorts of little gems to be found that you don't come across in the normal run of playing.

Michael Round has made an arrangement for double wind quintet of a Mozart Sonata for 2 pianos, which should be a thoroughly enjoyable and tuneful addition SCWE's repertoire of larger wind chamber works. Some people get a bit sniffy about arranging chamber works for groups other than those which the composer used. This of course is nonsense, composers themselves have re-arranged their pieces for all sorts of groups. Beethoven and Brahms both made arrangements of their symphonies for piano 4 hands, movements from Mozart's great Gran Partita serenade pop up again in one of his flute quartets, and abbreviated versions of the Beethoven Septet also exist as arrangements by the composer himself as a piano trio and as a string quintet. There's no reason to think that the composers would disapprove of others making arrangements for different ensembles, provided it is tastefully done. In pre-recording days it was a way of providing additional opportunities for their music to be heard.

And we are doing a couple of wind quintets, one by
Ketil Hvoslef, written in 1964, and also Lyle Sanford's Timepiece. I'm particularly looking forward to doing Timepiece, partly because I enjoy doing first performances and first UK performances, bringing a new piece to an audience, partly because it is an enjoyable piece and a worthwhile addition to the wind quintet repertoire, but mainly because of Lyle Sanford's obvious delight in seeing that the piece will be performed and his willingness to trust us on performance details. I hope that when he hears the concert recording he will still be as happy!

Friday, 23 July 2010

Brent Symphony Orchestra

Next season sees the centenary of the Brent Symphony Orchestra. In past times it used to be called the Willesden Symphony Orchestra, and before that I believe it was the Harlesden Symphony Orchestra. Because it used to be set up as an evening class nominally run by the local authority, it had to keep changing its name with each local government reorganisation.

In a way, I owe my existence to that orchestra. My parents met as a result of my father being asked by the orchestra's conductor Harry Legge to give my mother a lift to and from rehearsals, when she came down to London to study for a postgraduate music teaching diploma at the Royal College of Music. I also played in the orchestra under Harry Legge when I moved to London to study at university.

Members of the orchestra are compiling a history of the orchestra with the aim of making it available for sale during the centenary season. If you have ever played in the orchestra, or any members of your family have ever played in the orchestra, and you have anecdotes of events there, particularly from more distant times, please drop me a line at, and I'll put you in touch with those compiling the history.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010


I've just seen the obituary for the former BBC commentator Robert Hudson.

I have no memory of hearing him on the radio - he retired over 20 years ago. But some of the things in the obituary have struck me as having parallels with music making.

He made copious notes on every player that enabled him to fill the gaps in play easily. But, as he wrote in his 1993 book, Inside Outside Broadcasts: "Names are all very well and instant recognition is essential, but give a cricketer a mop of red hair and a cap slightly askew, and he begins to come to life."

It begins to come to life! If you make that happen, you can make an occasion memorable. As musicians we have to prepare, but we also have to find ways of bringing the music to life, to bring out emotions in the audience.

The other point concerns his meticulous preparation.

Hudson ... was well known for his radio coverage of state occasions – royal weddings, Remembrance Day services, investitures, funerals and five royal tours in 32 different countries. He commentated on 21 Trooping the Colours and would prepare for two weeks beforehand by interviewing every key figure. He would then make notes to himself on postcards, all written out in different coloured pencil. He would include everything from individuals' names to the times when he should not speak, such as when music was due to begin or the brigade majors would bark out their orders.

Two weeks of preparation, for one live broadcast (albeit a long one). It doesn't normally occur to us that commentators have to prepare as assiduously for a match as the sportsmen participating in it. So spare a thought for audiences who have no idea how much preparation goes into a concert. It is supposed to sound effortless, so you can hardly blame the audience for thinking that no effort was involved!

Friday, 9 July 2010

Growing up musical - 2

My parents moved to Norfolk when I was 12, and within a couple of years they started the Brundall Music Club.

This was quite an ambitious undertaking, and it just happened to be the right place and time for it. The idea was to put on nine concerts a year, one a month except in the summer. The concerts were given by amateurs (mainly members and their friends) for members. The concerts were held in the main hall of the village primary school. Nobody was ever paid to perform, though the club would pay for music hire for larger pieces on occasion.

It helped that my parents had rapidly acquired lots of good contacts. They were both playing in the Norwich Philharmonic Orchestra, and so had a ready supply of orchestral musicians who were interested in playing chamber music. The village already had an excellent church choir, who would also put on concerts as the Brundall Singers.

By that time I was playing the horn in the Norwich Students Orchestra, and so we also had a supply of good young musicians.

And John Barnett, the head of music at Thorpe St Andrew School, the nearest high school to the village, on the east side of Norwich, also turned out to be very keen on the idea.

Of vital importance to the success of the club was the fact that my mother was an outstanding accompanist and sight-reader. She probably played in over 3/4 of all the concerts - but very rarely as a soloist. It meant that if anybody had some pieces they wanted to put on as part of a programme, but needed an accompanist, she was available for the purpose - two short rehearsals was usually all that was needed to bring the piece to concert readiness.

So for about the next 10 years, through high school, university, and postgraduate studies at the RCM, I had a friendly audience of 100 or so happy to listen to anything I happened to be working on, and an accompanist capable of tackling the piano part of anything I might try!

For the first or second concert of the club, I got together a wind quintet from the Students Orchestra. We played Malcolm Arnold's Three Shanties, and a Haydn Divertimento (the one that includes the St Anthony Chorale, which Brahms famously did a load of variations on).

And we also put on all sorts of wind and strings or wind and piano chamber music. On different occasions we played the Beethoven Septet, both the Mozart and Beethoven quintents for piano and wind, the Schubert Octet and various other chamber works. I played brass quintets at the club with some local brass players.

But it was the chamber music in groups that included one or both of my parents that I remember most. It is from them that I learned most about the art of playing in chamber groups. The need for eye contact to co-ordinate changes of tempo. Working out who has the tune at any moment and has to be followed by all the others. Learning how by gesture to start everybody off in a way that they all know what speed is being chosen. Knowing how to gesture to end the final chord of a piece. Learning about how to maintain a steady tempo even through difficult passages - because the rest of the group can't stop and wait for you! (Learning how to cheat in those difficult passages and miss out a note or two so that you can keep up.) Learning whan you are accompanying and should play a notch or two quieter than the written dynamic.

And most importantly, the sheer fun of playing in a small group where you can all make a contribution to the interpretation. Where the other players are genuinely happy to congratulate you on a solo passage played well.

Quite often, when I was visiting home from university, I would be met at Norwich station by one of my parents with the words "Oh good, you have your horn with you. There's a Music Club concert this weekend, and somebody has dropped out. Do you have some music with you we can put on?" So, I would rehearse with Mum whatever I had been working on in lessons, and we would perform it on the Saturday evening. Because she was such a good accompanist, and I had had lots of training in chamber music through performing things at the club, whatever piece we had to hand wouldn't take much rehearsal to put together.

I have in my head vivid memories of perhaps a dozen concerts out of the hundreds I've played over the years. Two of those vivid memories are from the Brundall Music Club. One was that initial wind quintet. All the players were very good (at least two went on to become professional musicians) and a music teacher in the audience afterwards commented to my mother "that was good enough to be broadcast". It all just seemed to fit.

The other occasion was a time when, as sometimes happened, we got ambitious and tried to put on a larger work. The head of English at Thorpe St. Andrew School was a fine tenor, so with John Barnett conducting, the head of English singing the solo tenor part, me on the solo horn part, and strings made up of members of the club supplemented by friends and members of the Norwich Phil, we put on the Britten Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. I worked on the piece for a good long time with my horn teacher Douglas Moore prior to the concert. He put into my part all sorts of markings (I have them still). As he wrote them in, he would say "this is how Britten asked me to play it". The horn part is exceedingly difficult. At one point there is a pianissimo crescendo entry on a top C. And I nailed it in the performance! There is no recording of the Music Club performance. Probably just as well - it might turn out not to be as accomplished as my memory fondly has it. But that day and for some weeks afterwards, I was walking on air.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Growing up musical

I've mentioned in a previous blog the inspiring conductors who have been an important part of my musical upbringing. But I haven't mentioned the most important two people who formed my musical outlook - my parents.

They met as a result of both attending the very first Rehearsal Orchestra course in Edinburgh in 1957. The following autumn, my mother came down to London to study at the RCM for a postgraduate music teaching diploma and they both played in the Harlesdon Symphony Orchestra (now called the Brent Symphony Orchestra) under Harry Legge - one of my inspiring conductors.

My father started learning the clarinet at the age of about 15. At the time (during the war) his school had been evacuated away from Coventry (which was bombed heavily, destroying the cathedral) to Lincoln. One evening he heard on the radio a performance of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, and was completely blown away by the Allegretto, starting with a simple rhythm all on one note, and then developing all kinds of variations around it. He instantly decided that he wanted to be able to play that kind of music. It being wartime, no new musical instruments were being made, but his parents managed to find a second-hand clarinet for him to learn, and arranged lessons for him with a local teacher.

My mother learned the piano from an early age, and carried off all the prizes for years in the piano classes in music competitions in and around her home town of Fleetwood in Lancashire. She was very tall, the tallest in her class at school, and the head of music at the school asked if she would like to learn the viola. Mistakenly thinking it was a double-bass she would be learning, she accepted with alacrity, to be somewhat disappointed by the outsize violin she was given!

So, my father was a keen amateur clarinettist and my mother was a music teacher, teaching violin and piano and playing viola and piano. All four of the children learned musical instruments: my brother Matthew learned the violin, my elder sister Barbara the cello, and my younger sister Joanna also the violin. (She has gone on to become a professional musician in London.)

I started on the piano at the age of 5, under a wonderful teacher by the name of Mrs Lyndon. Then when I was about 8, my parents thought it would be a good idea for me also to learn an orchestral instrument. At the time, I used to have eczema on my hands, the skin was very dry and would crack and bleed. So playing a stringed instrument was out of the question for me, as it would have hurt to press the strings down with my fingers.

So one weekend my parents got together a wind quintet from players in their local orchestra, and invited them round to have a play through some music. When they stopped for a coffee break, I was invited to have a go on each of the instruments and see if I could make a sound on them.

Afterwards, I was asked which instrument I liked best. I said "the horn", and on being asked why, I apparently answered "it's nice and curly". On such small things are lives changed! In due course a horn appeared and lessons were started with a local teacher.

In those days, both sets of grandparents would visit us over Christmas every year, and the Christmas day routine would always be much the same. A special Christmas breakfast including half a grapefruit with a glace cherry on top. Then church, followed by Christmas lunch (turkey and all the trimmings), opening of presents, and then the family would put on a Christmas concert for the grandparents. We would play Christmas carols arranged by my father for the available instruments, and we would play whatever solo pieces we had been learning.

The photo above was taken during one of those Christmas family concerts when I was about 8 and had been learning the horn a few months. Back row left to right are my father, my mother and my brother Matthew. Front row is me, and my two sisters Joanna and Barbara.

Note my unconventional posture, resting the horn on my crossed legs. It was a heavy Chinese single F instrument, and it was too heavy for an 8-year-old to lift and play for any length of time. It was some time before my teacher insisted that I learn to play with the instrument held up properly.

My younger sister was about 2 1/2 in that photo, and had not long started learning the violin. As a toddler she liked to sit in on Mum's violin lessons, and was found upstairs one day playing a pair of knitting needles as if they were a violin, and holding the "bow" with the correct grip. A 1/8 size violin was soon found for her, which she is playing with great concentration in the picture!

So playing music and especially performing music has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I don't get performance nerves because I started performing when I was far too young to realise that people did get nervous about it. My parents never made a big deal of performing, it was just something you did. And of course, I loved people telling me how well I had played!

I joined my first youth orchestra at the age of 9. I think I was the youngest there by a couple of years, certainly the youngest horn player by a much larger margin. I remember the first piece I ever performed with the orchestra - the March from "Caractacus" by Elgar. Sitting down, my head only came up the the shoulders of the other horn players.

On going to high school at the age of 10, I was immediately drafted into the school 2nd orchestra and the school brass band. I remember my confusion on my first brass band rehearsal. We were playing Liberty Bell, and the horn part was written for an Eb tenor horn, and so was in in Eb. I had never come across this before. (For those of you unfamiliar with British brass bands and their instruments, the Eb tenor horn looks like a young tuba, it is pitched in Eb, has a tube length just over half that of the F side of a French horn, and is played using trumpet fingerings).

I brought the part home, and asked what I could do about this. Dad told me "Just this once, I'll write the part out for you in F. But after this, you will have to learn to transpose!" And that is exactly what I had to do.