Interview by Jason Heath

Thank you to Jason Heath for sending me this interview with me which I am very pleased to put on my blog site.

I really enjoy Jason’s blog, and as I tend to write about the past it’s nice to be brought up to date with present day bass happenings. He is doing a real service to the bass community.

Listen to the podcast of the interview here, at his Contrabass Conversations podcast site.

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?
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.
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.

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.

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.

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!

Abbey Road, the Beatles and the Symphony Orchestras

Abbey Road studios are situated in the genteel St. John’s Wood area a few miles from the centre of London, and were converted by HMV/Angel/EMI from a huge Victorian mansion into recording studios long before I entered the musical profession in 1945.

There is (or was) one very large studio and others accommodating only small groups. It is so well insulated that I doubt if it causes any annoyance to the private houses that surround it, although the parking of all the musicians’ vehicles well might.

I played in the large studio many times with various orchestras. It could house a large symphony orchestra as well as a choir. The conductors included Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir Adrian Boult, Herbert von Karajan, Benjamin Britten, Klemperer and Artur Rodzinski also many famous soloists and they all seemed to be very satisfied with the acoustics as well as the end product, the recording.
I can only remember once glancing in the studios where the Beatles recorded. They were very sparsely furnished and small.

As I mentioned in a previous blog posting, an official once told me that it was only because of the huge profits they made from the Beatles and jazz groups that EMI was able to afford to keep the Philharmonia Orchestra going.

Opening night in Copenhagen I nearly miss the performance

I had a free day in Copenhagen with a performance of Albert Herring in the evening, which was to be attended by the King of Denmark, himself an amateur conductor.

I thought I would leave Copenhagen early in the morning and take the ferry to Gothenburg, Sweden, and then return by an early afternoon ferry to be in time for the opera performance.

I had a good look round Gothenburg and went to catch the ferry back to Copenhagen. Going through customs I showed my British passport to a customs officer  who became very rude and obstreperous.  He sneered at the souvenirs I had bought and questioned me endlessly.  Just as the ferry’s whistle blew  he decided to let me go,so I ran up the gangplank just as they were about to raise it.  I would be in time to play the opera after all!

Published in: on October 27, 2006 at 5:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Benjamin Britten Receives a Laurel Wreath

In the late forties Benjamin Britten and the English Opera Group were invited to perform in Copenhagen, Denmark and Oslo, Norway. We had a great success and upon leaving Oslo, Ben was garlanded with a laurel wreath.

Ben was still disappointed over the coolness towards his music by the owner of Glyndebourne Opera, John Christie, but the laurel wreath made a great difference to his morale.

On our return to England we all gathered on deck and Ben ceremoniously cast the laurel wreath into the North Sea.

Published in: on October 26, 2006 at 1:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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My last meeting with Benjamin Britten

I arrived at the Kingsway Hall, London to record the War Requiem conducted by Benjamin Britten himself.  I had not seen him for some years and he looked much older, and sick too. We shook hands and chatted for a while and Peter Pears joined us.  That was the last I was to see of him.

Early in 1976 I was living in Vancouver, Canada where I had been principal bass of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for eight years, and wrote to Ben reminding him of a promise he had made to write me a piece.  I received a reply from a secretary saying that Ben was too ill to write.  He died a week later.

Published in: on October 25, 2006 at 1:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem

I was with Benjamin Britten’s English Opera Group for four years as solo double bassist and librarian. One of the reasons I left was that I had received a lucrative offer from the Philharmonia Orchestra. I had not seen Ben for several years but one day in the early ‘sixties I was phoned by the London Symphony Orchestra to ask if I would play at a performance of the War Requiem at the ruins of Coventry Cathedral and also record the War Requiem with Britten himself conducting.

I gladly accepted, because in WWII I was in an infantry regiment, the 7th. Royal Warwicks based in Coventry, and before we left for France in 1940 we laid up our colours in the Cathedral.

After being discharged from the Army in 1940 I went back to my home in Leamington Spa, about ten miles away from Coventry, and I well remember the Luftwaffe’s blitz on Coventry. That night searchlights lit up the sky and there was the roar of the ack-ack guns and the German bombs whistling down. My sister went to Coventry driving an ambulance and had some awful tales to tell.

When I arrived for the concert I was shocked to see the remains of what had once been a glorious cathedral. There were some blocks of Warwickshire red sandstone with weeds sprouting around them and not much more: I was deeply affected.

Published in: on October 22, 2006 at 2:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Benjamin Britten founds the Aldeburgh Festival

At the end of the 1947 season all the members of the English Opera Group were wondering if there would be any work at all considering the fact that we were no longer welcome at Glyndebourne, according to Ben Britten. Many suggestions were given but I think that perhaps Eric Crozier and Peter Pears together with Britten made the decision to hold a festival in Britten’s home town, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, England.

We were all approached and agreed to play for little or no fee. So, the Aldeburgh Festival was born in 1948. It was an immediate success, although the performing venues were not very good. There was the Moot Hall, a medieval sort of Town Hall situated on the sea front; it had a very small capacity. Then there was the Aldeburgh Parish Church, also of small capacity, but nevertheless by dint of hard work and much enthusiasm many obstacles were overcome and now the Aldeburgh Festival is a world class event.

Published in: on October 21, 2006 at 2:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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