How Musicians of a Previous Era Managed to Survive and Comments on the Present Day Situation. #2

It was WWII that put classical music on the map in England.  During the war an organization was formed, The Council For Encouragement of Music and the Arts, (C.E.M.A.), which sponsored concerts for the entertainment of the Troops and munitions workers. Later on it was taken over by a department of the British Council. The London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra were funded together with many smaller classical ensembles.  The concerts were well attended and so began the big post war classical music revival which lasted for over twenty years.  Then the economy changed, and also peoples tastes, plus there was a huge development in recording technique and television.

Walter Legge founded the. Philharmonia Orchestra in the mid ‘forties and a little later Sir Thomas Beecham founded the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  This meant five Symphony orchestras in London (if the BBC symphony Orchestra is included) fighting for a part of an ever diminishing pie.

Perhaps there was a surfeit of classical music or maybe the rise of rock bands contributed to the diminishing audience also the shortage of discretionary cash plus the proliferation of ipods has affected matters.

For the past few years much of the recording that was done in London has now given way to recording in some of the Eastern European countries where the fees are much less and as I mentioned in Blog #1 of this series technology  has developed so rapidly that virtual orchestras replace live musicians in the pit. Despite the doom and gloom that prevails I notice that many concerts still attract full audiences, the reason being, I think, is that these are superbly played and designed to give the classical music lovers not just a concert but a great experience. The old days of giving a Tchaikovsky Symphony, the Grieg piano concerto and the 1812 overture with military band and fireworks may be going out of the window.
The last surviving radio orchestra in North America, the CBC Vancouver Radio Orchestra was recently axed.  I read some comments in the newspapers where it was hinted that the idea behind it all was to recognize the huge ethnic community in Canada and play more ethnic music.  We may even see such instruments as pan-pipes, nakers, samisens etc. incorporated into our Western orchestras, who knows what the future will bring. There is certainly an increase in the number of Oriental, Middle Eastern and South Asian artists playing at concerts and on TV in Vancouver, B.C. and very good they are too.

I was in China recently, and interestingly enough I noticed that Western music was burgeoning there.  They had several symphony orchestras.

Perhaps in my next life I shall be known as Bob the samisen not Bob the bass!

The Double Bass and the Polar Bears

What an odd title for a blog, you might say, but reading all the news about global warming and the possible extinction of polar bears persuaded me to write this.

For 17 years I was principal bass of the CBC Vancouver Radio Chamber Orchestra. Funding was much better then, and nowadays they are barely hanging on, due to continual budget cuts. It may not be generally known but they are the only radio orchestra now in existence in North America.

In the 1970’s when the budget was larger we used to go on tours all over Canada and to Washington State, Idaho, Montana and Oregon.

It was, and is, an orchestra numbering about thirty players. Its mission was to play Canadian music, plus a hefty dose of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven etc. and was conducted by John Avison; the producer being Robert Turner. The tours were organized by George Zukerman, who was also a virtuoso bassoonist.

One of the tours in the Seventies was to the Arctic, where we played at Tuktoyaktuk, Inuvik, Alert Bay etc. playing mostly in school gyms and auditoriums to very appreciative audiences.

Although it was May, sometimes we had to travel on the Beaufort Sea, which was frozen, in Bombardier vehicles fitted with tank tracks,which made us very apprehensive. With global warming I think we would be much more apprehensive nowadays.

At Churchill, Hudson Bay, Manitoba, I took a walk out of town one morning to the local garbage dump where I was told there were polar bears. I wasn’t disappointed for there must have been more than a dozen there. I wonder how many are there today.

See also my Requiem for an Orchestra series, on the CBC Radio Orchestra, elsewhere in this blog.

Requiem 1, Requiem 2, Requiem 3, Requiem 4.

Requiem for an Orchestra (4)

I don’t really want to get into the subject of funding of the CBC, but I do believe it is important that it receive adequate funding because it is one of the few links that holds Canada together. This is recognized, too, by other countries. With all the talk of Arctic Sovereignty I would remind my readers that the CBC Radio Orchestra was touring the Arctic well over thirty years ago besides showing the flag all round Canada and the neighbouring States in the USA

Relentlessly, over many years the CBC budget has been gradually eroded, suffering the death of a thousand cuts. Probably there have been studies done already to find out what the heads of the CBC and the Canada Council are really doing for all the money that is expended on them. Enough of studies, just give them some more cash and resuscitate the CBC Radio Orchestra. There have been past studies that say that for every dollar expended on the Arts the return is ninefold. As the Orchestra is based in Vancouver, with the coming Winter Games in 2010, has anyone approached the Provincial Government for help?
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The Esterházy Princes were the patrons of so many great composers and musical events in the 17th and 18th centuries. Later came the 19th. century industrial barons who founded many orchestras throughout the world. When I was growing up in the Great Depression it wasn’t a good time for musicians. There were no subsidies, only donations from wealthy people and, on top of all that the talkies came in displacing hundreds of musicians from their livelihood.

The London Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1904 was only playing the occasional concert. The BBC Symphony, founded in 1930, was the only permanent full time orchestra that paid its members a pension, and the London Philharmonic was founded in 1932 by Sir Thomas Beecham with the help I am told, of Lady Cunard of the shipping line.

Opera was the same. The short seasons at Covent Garden were mainly élitist. Sadlers Wells opera hung on by a thread , but Lilian Bayliss,who was an indefatigable promoter of opera and theatre was on stage practically every night telling the audience that the whole endeavour was going to hell in a handcart if there were no more donations forthcoming, but somehow it survived. I remember going there as a kid and seeing and hearing much of the opera repertoire. Joan Cross was the prima donna whom I got to know later when I worked with Benjamin Britten in the English Opera Group. Another opera company that survived was the Carl Rosa with whom I played later on but because of some skullduggery going on between it and the British Council it was re-named Opera 1951 and went into oblivion. The British National Opera Company which did some good things was founded in 1922 but folded in 1929. The British Council was formed in 1935.
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When WWII broke out CEMA, The Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts was formed in Britain to entertain the masses, and another group, ENSA was devoted to more light entertainment,: Since that time music and the Arts flourished, so much so that every little hamlet seems to have had its own school of music and yearly festival, but now there is a decline in music; some orchestras are folding, people have less discretionary income and governments are spending money on other things deemed to be more pressing than music.

Some might say there has been a surfeit of music. I heard one owner of a large record company say that in ten years there won’t be any more shops left selling CD’s. A big Canadian chain has cut down on its stores and no longer sells many classical CD’s; you have to order them specially.

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Maybe we musicians should take a look at where modern technology is taking us, with its ipods, blackberries, virtual orchestras and recorded music played for shows and ballets with no orchestra in the pit. It is not nearly the same, or as good, as live.

I feel I have done more than my share in the past, putting on festivals, fund raising, building theatres and arts centres and forming a company to help young musicians, etc. etc. but perhaps some musicians and music lovers out there could and should make their voice heard and not let this fine Orchestra go into oblivion. It seems to me that it should be a part of a conductor’s mandate to use her/his power on the podium to encourage people to help the cause. Maybe also people behind the scenes in Radio and TV together with the paid mandarins in public arts organizations could get together and be a little bit more active in promotion of the Arts too. Save this Orchestra, it’s not yet too late, there could be a change of heart if sufficient people demand it. It wouldn’t be the first time it has happened.

Requiem for an Orchestra (3)

A year or two year ago Dr. Turner, the producer for the CBC Orchestra was awarded the Queen’s Medal and the Order of Canada for his work in keeping the CBC Vancouver Orchestra going together with John Avison, its conductor, giving so many young Canadian artists and composers a chance; I decided that as I had been its principal double bass for over seventeen years I would put on a concert with the kind permission of my friend, Mrs. Janette Chrysler at her concert hall in Sooke, B.C. to honour him, because as far as I knew,(or know), there were no other celebrations. The concert. for which all the professional musicians gave their services was followed by a reception afterwards and Bob Turner was overcome with emotion. A day or two before the concert I contacted the CBC person in charge of music in Victoria by phone and left a message of invitation, (there were no strings attached, we weren’t seeking a broadcast) Janette sent an email too but we never received a reply. Bob had done a lot for the CBC.

Requiem for an Orchestra (2)

Nearly forty three years ago when I came to Vancouver the CBC studio was in the centre of town in an old building that has since been demolished. The acoustics weren’t good, neither was the recording. Money (or the lack of it) was a big issue. As principal bass I had to play all the difficult solos such as Per Questa Bella Mano and the Ginastera Variaciones often with only one “take”. There was no time for balancing and listening to it and much of the time when I listened to it over the radio I was dissatisfied. I don’t know how Avison, the conductor managed to handle the strain but he did, and as a result he was often bad-tempered due to nerves.

When they built a new CBC centre including a then state of the art studio we in the orchestra thought that things were improving. But they weren’t, they went steadily downhill.

Requiem for an Orchestra (1)

I wrote a blog recently about the CBC Vancouver Radio Chamber Orchestra not realizing then that its days were numbered. Last night I tuned in to the CBC news and listened to a short announcement regarding its disbandment. Since then they have elaborated a little and I have listened to some people give their opinions about it. Some said that it’s all due to the high rate of immigration we have been experiencing and that for politically correct reasons they (the CBC) are going to broadcast more ethnic music. Others say that maybe the Vancouver Symphony will take it over. The VSO board and management couldn’t seem to create enough work for the VSO in my days with them so they they tried to take over the CBC work and the free- lance opera orchestra. At that time they didn’t succeed with the CBC because John Avison, the conductor of the CBC Orchestra and Dr. Robert Turner the producer fought tooth and nail against it. The VSO eventually did take over the opera orchestra for a while, but when Richard Bonynge came on the scene he reverted to the old opera orchestra.