Getting Around with a Double Bass

When you take up the double bass you do it literally. To learn how to cart it around – it’s quite an art. Some basses weigh over twenty five pounds and I’m sure the exercise helps the cardio-vascular system.

When I decided to free-lance after leaving the London Philharmonic in 1948, getting from one engagement to another became a daunting experience. You see, I had been used to putting the bass in its case and leaving it with the orchestral porters but now I was responsible for carting it around myself.

There was not a great deal of traffic on the roads in London in those days because there was petrol (gas) rationing. The London Underground allowed you to take the bass on the “tubes” but it was physically daunting to take it up and down the moving staircases. For a small sum you could leave it overnight in a railway parcels office after giving a liberal tip to the attendant. Nowadays it is easier to get around with a bass as somebody re-invented the wheel, I mean designing a wheel that fits on the bottom of the instrument.

As engagements became more frequent I realized that I really needed some form of motorized wheels, and I finally came across a new three wheeled van named “The Reliant” that had just come on the market. One of the advantages with this was that the license cost only five pounds, and, more important, it was classed as a trade vehicle, so I could be allowed unlimited petrol coupons. It was powered by an Austin Seven engine, but had one drawback that it was only capable of thirty miles an hour. Still, it made me mobile.

I wouldn’t like to be free-lancing in London nowadays. From my home in Mill Hill it was about ten miles and I could drive to the Royal Festival Hall in Central London in half-an-hour, but nowadays one has to allow three hours to arrive there in time. Then there is the nightmare of parking and the the tax to pay before entering the city.

I remember when I was playing at the Aldeburgh Festival I was driving down a country lane when I espied Benjamin Britten standing by his ancient Rolls Royce which had broken down. After stopping and seeing if I could help, Ben told me that a mechanic was on his way, so I just carried on sailing away in the Reliant, which always lived up to its name.

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What Makes a Conductor?

What makes a conductor and how do they get started?

There are many attributes a good conductor should have: first, musicianship; second a good, clear beat; third, a good rapport with the orchestra; and fourth, a sense of personal magnetism. There are several other requisites but these are the main ones.

Not many conductors have a good stick technique, but it is imperative when conducting opera and ballet. Just raising his/her eyes to Heaven and drooling over a Tchaikowsy symphony in the concert hall doesn’t come off in the opera. This is what separates the wheat from the chaff.

There are contradictions to this. Beecham (amongst many others) had a very poor conducting technique but he could obtain scintillating performances. Sargent, on the other hand, had an almost perfect technique- he was very clear and always gave excellent tempi but the results mainly were very pedestrian.

Nowadays conductors are being turned out by the thousand but only a handful have any success. It is a kind of lottery, and Lady Luck, plus other things plays a big part.

Looking back, Arturo Toscanini, who was a ‘cellist got his chance when the conductor was taken ill and Toscanini had to step in at a moment’s notice. From then on his career was made.

Colin Davis started out as a clarinetist. I remember playing children’s concerts with him. He had an urge to conduct, and somehow succeeded to start an opera programme in Chelsea, London, England.

One day, the conductor who was booked to appear at the Royal Festival Hall, London, was taken ill and Walter Legge, the founder and artistic director of the Philharmonia Orchestra got in touch with Colin who stepped in at the last moment and from then on his career was made.

Shortly afterwards Walter Legge complained about the shortage of young conductors and organized a competition. None of them were very competent. One of the pieces was a Beethoven piano concerto. After a cadenza in the last movement the orchestra has to come in after a run up by the piano. The trick is that the conductor should silently beat through the run up and then bring in the orchestra decisively, but not so with all the aspiring maestri. They all waited until the end of the run and tried to bring the orchestra in as though they were swatting a gigantic fly, which of course didn’t work. I forget who won but I know that Zubin Mehta came second. Legge later remarked that they were the best of a bad bunch.

Another way is to have plenty of money and either form your own orchestra or buy or bribe your way in. Norman del Mar was an example of this. It is said that his father paid Beecham to make him an apprentice conductor of the Royal Philharmonic. He was also engaged as a second conductor of the English Opera Group by Benjamin Britten in the days I was playing with them. We all complained about his ham-handedness, but Britten was adamant, he stayed.

Beecham was fortunate enough to be born into the famous laxative pill company which in those days were advertised as “being worth a guinea a box”. He also formed a liaison with Lady Cunard (of the shipping company) which no doubt helped him, but nobody should lose sight of the fact that he did much for music at no profit to himself.

In England, where the class system still flourishes, the education, station in society and accent plays a big part. There was one excellent young conductor who I thought should go far. Someone remarked to me that he would not succeed because of his Cockney accent. He was right. The conductor dropped out of sight and we never heard of him again.

Some conductors manage to wheedle their way around the old ladies and moneybags on the board. The orchestra is often consulted by giving them a score sheet to fill in. Sometimes the board heeds it but sometimes they do not.

In self-run orchestras they always choose their own conductor, and even that way is not infallible.

One day a little knot of us were gathered around Victor de Sabata, the director and chief conductor of La Scala Opera, Milan, and someone asked him how La Scala chose its young conductors. De Sabata said that after extensive tests the young tyro would sweep up the stage for the first seven years, occasionally assisting established conductors at rehearsals. Then, maybe, he would be allowed to take part of a rehearsal and later on a full rehearsal and a matinée. If all goes well he may be given a performance and if that is successful it could be the start a good career, but nothing is written in stone.

I was asked by a well known violinist who played no.3 first violin in the Royal Philharmonic if I would play for him in a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. He was a Canadian from Montreal and had studied under de Sabata. It had taken him years to save up for the concert and the orchestra was hand picked. All the orchestra thought he had done very well particularly in Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra, a notoriously difficult piece to conduct, however, the Press panned him and that ended his conducting career. It may have been politics. I asked him if he would attempt it again, as musically it had been a great success, but he told me he couldn’t afford it and so the world lost what could have been an exceptional talent.

Sometimes a recommendation from an established conductor helps. Lovro von Matačič, a fine conductor who had been a political prisoner in Yugoslavia was recommended to Legge by von Karajan. He conducted some good performances with the Philharmonia and was also able to obtain a lot of work in Europe.

I am glad to have had a very successful and rewarding career as a bassist. I sometimes had a yen to conduct, but on reflection I’m glad I didn’t. Conducting is a dicey profession to choose. If you succeed and, like von Karajan you are also a good business man you may be able to afford a mansion, your own plane and a yacht, but at least, as a successful bassist I was able to live well and bring up two kids and pay a mortgage.

Kunst nach brot!

I Cross Swords with von Karajan

The musicians’ fees for recordings and concerts were increased by the Musicians’ Union.  The increase was long overdue, but it didn’t seem to go down well with Walter Legge, the founder and artistic director of the Philharmonia.  He was heard to mutter to von Karajan that he might form an orchestra in Patagonia free of Union interference, to which von Karajan replied “Yes, Walter, we should have our own union.”

My stand partner, Gerald Brooks,  and I were paid extra for playing the five stringed bass of which von K was especially fond, but after the last concert we were not paid the extra fee for the five stringed bass although we were paid extra for the recording sessions, so we decided not to bring our five stringers to the next concert.

We were in the Royal Festival Hall rehearsing the next concert.  There was a piece by Richard Strauss and when we came to a part that was written for very low notes we never played them so von Karajan exclaimed, “Gentlemen, where is the low C ?” Brooks, usually very vociferous remained quiet, but I replied to von K. that we were paid for the extra notes at the sessions but not the concerts  and had not even been consulted about it.  I suppose I was rather hot headed in those days and had put my job on the line but Legge sprang up from the back of the hall  and exclaimed imperiously “Bring your instruments tonight, you will be paid”.

I arrived at the stage elevator complete with my five-stringer and who should be there waiting for it but von Karajan.  He smiled at me and rubbed his finger and thumb together and said “Ah, you brought it, did you get your money?” whereupon I rubbed my finger and thumb together and said “You’re not doing too badly are you?” (He owned a yacht, a ‘plane and a fabulous home.)  When the elevator stopped he patted me on the shoulder and said “See you on stage.”

Ever afterwards whenever we met he would grin and rub his finger and thumb together and I would do likewise to him.  My opinion of him went up because he showed that at least he had a sense of humour.

More on The Royal Festival Hall

I played at the Royal Festival Hall before it officially opened.   There was a conductor/entrepreneur named Leonard Rafter  who arranged for concerts to be given with a small orchestra so that visitors to the Festival of Britain who wanted to look inside the Festival Hall could judge the acoustics.  I was engaged as principal bass, and we played Mozart, Haydn, Rossini etc, pieces that did not require a large orchestra.

I did not play at the opening concert, however, but played there many times subsequently.

Personally, I didn’t like the acoustics at the time, I thought they were too dry, but I can remember some improvements being made later.

I commend the volunteers who are endeavouring to transform the Royal Festival Hall.   They can be reached here.

Royal Festival Hall

I became aware of a movement to transform the Royal Festival Hall when I was given a heart shaped button with the words “Love the Festival Hall” on it.

It doesn’t seem possible that it is over fifty years ago since the Festival Hall opened its doors. In London at that time the main concert venue had been the Royal Albert Hall, which is really a huge arena really only suitable for boxing matches, circuses, etc. Toscanini refused to conduct in it. Also, I remember in the winter of 1946 when I was a member of the London Philharmonic Orchestra we had to play in the Albert Hall dressed in our overcoats!

It was unfortunate that the Queen’s Hall was destroyed during WW II.  I remember going to a concert there in 1936.  It was a lovely hall with a wonderful ambiance and acoustics and it boasted of a fountain playing in the auditorium during the Proms season.  It is sad to note that many musicians lost their instruments there in the bombing.

The Royal Festival Hall was desperately needed.