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.


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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.

Fausto Cleva, conductor

My previous blog posting was of Fritz Reiner, an unsavoury man, and in that vein I am going to write about Fausto Cleva, an Opera conductor whom I came across in Vancouver, B.C., Canada in the mid-sixties when he conducted the Vancouver Opera in performances of “The Girl of the Golden West” by Puccini and I was playing principal bass.

He must have been in his seventies at the time and was living in San Francisco.  As a conductor he was very good and certainly knew what he was doing when he came into the orchestra pit tho’ he only obtained results which were good but not scintillating, the reason being that he intimidated the singers who gave careful, but not brilliant performances.

I don’t think he ever achieved recognition as a great conductor which was why, I think, that he acted the way he did.

On the night of the dress rehearsal he was particularly insulting, and Jack Kessler, the concertmaster came up to me and said “Bob, I don’t know whether to have a go at him now or in the next intermission”.  I had known Jack for many years as concertmaster in Benjamin Britten’s English Opera Group Chamber Orchestra, and also as first violinist in the Legge Philharmonia Orchestra when I was a member of it. He was a fine player but rather hot headed, so I did my best to calm him down, but whether or not he did “have a go” at Cleva or not I never knew, but I do know that Cleva was never again asked  to the Vancouver Opera.

Published in: on October 17, 2007 at 11:06 am  Comments (1)  
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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!

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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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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Chatting with Benjamin Britten

One day Ben and I were chatting and I asked him what had been his most embarrassing moment.

It was this:  H.M. Queen Mary had gone backstage after a performance of “Lucretia” and asked him why he had chosen such a subject.  He told me he didn’t know how to reply so he just said “Well, Ma’am, I rather like that sort of thing.”   The Dowager Queen wasn’t amused!

Published in: on October 3, 2006 at 5:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Touring with Britten

Ben had a large circle of admirers.  One of these was E.M.Forster who invited us to a party in his rooms in Cambridge.
It was a fun evening, Peter Pears and Margaret Ritchie, the soprano, gave some hilarious opera skits.  I chatted with Forster, a soft spoken, cultured man who was a bon viveur,  judging by the fabulous food and wine he presented.

Published in: on October 1, 2006 at 4:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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After Glyndebourne

We gave a week of “Albert Herring” interspersed with “The Rape of Lucretia” at Covent Garden Opera House. In one of the intervals, Ernest Ansermet, the famous conductor leaned over the orchestra pit rail and asked if I would be interested in joining his orchestra, the “Suisse  Romande”, based in Geneva, Switzerland  I met him in his hotel later and Ben urged me to take it as I could play the winter seasons in Geneva and then the summer seasons with him, but my wife was adamant; she wouldn’t move to Geneva.

Published in: on October 1, 2006 at 4:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Britten becomes dispirited

One day, at the end of our Glyndebourne season I was chatting with Ben and he told me he didn’t think we would be invited to Glyndebourne again because the owner, John Christie, liked Donizetti, Rossini and Mozart etc. but was averse to modern music, and he had let it be known that he didn’t like “Albert Herring”.   Ben was right, we were never asked there again. He was very sensitive and I could see he was most upset.

Published in: on September 26, 2006 at 11:31 am  Leave a Comment  
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