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!

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Unusual Concert Venues

I was playing in Israel with the London Symphony Orchestra. One of the concert venues was  Ein Gev, a kibbutz, situated in a rather remote spot.  It was very large, the biggest kibbutz in Israel, I was told.

It was a hive of industry inside although there was an underlying sense of tranquillity.  There was ample room for the orchestra to play before the enthusiastic audience.

Before the concert we were treated to a wonderful meal, prepared in a loving way and in return we did our very best to show how much we appreciated their lavish hospitality.  They never tired of the many encores we gave.

Next day we were invited to a reception given by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra where I met some musicians I had known in London.  It’s a small world, music.

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.


BBC Music Magazine article on Herbert von Karajan #4

The Philharmonia and the Berlin Philharmonic’s Sound

The Philharmonia and the Berlin Philharmonic’s sound, and also the “Karajan Sound” is discussed.  I venture to say that at that time, the fifties, although some could say I am biased, having been a member of the Philharmonia at that time, its sound was better than the Berlin Philharmonic.  This was because Legge scoured the world for the best players he could find, and also musicians were clamouring to get into the Philharmonia because of the take home pay. The Berlin Philharmonic’s strings did sound a little more robust than the Philharmonia’s strings, but Legge wanted, and got, a Philharmonia .string section with a wonderful shimmering , mellifluous sound.

I believe that the sound on the re-mastered CD’s one can buy today is only an approximation of the live sound each orchestra made. The live sound can be different in each venue and in each recording there are other factors to consider;  the recording studio, the tonmeister, the technicians and the conductor.

The conductor can set a good tempo and obtain the sound he wants but this can be altered drastically in the mastering, so that the final result can be a witches brew of the ideas of several people, and at the final listening session the conductor may have to accept a compromise of what he really wanted and what is presented to him.

I suppose the only way to judge would be to listen to each orchestra play live in the same concert hall, but alas, that is no longer possible, we have to rely on the approximation given by the CD’ s,  and everyone’s opinions are subjective.

Published in: Uncategorized on April 15, 2008 at 9:49 am  Leave a Comment  
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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.

Famous Orchestral Personalities of Yesteryear: John Solomons, trumpeter

John Solomons, Trumpeter
It was in the late 1940’s.  The London Symphony Orchestra asked me to play with them at the Royal Albert Hall, London,  in a performance of “Israel in Egypt”.  Sir Malcolm Sargent was conducting and the Royal Choral Society was singing.

Sargent was at his best when conducting choral music and I was looking forward to playing the engagement.  At the morning rehearsal we had arrived at the Plague Choruses and Sargent noticed that we were all anxious to have the intermission and a cup of coffee so we all trooped off stage and as I was exiting I noticed a well dressed old gentleman surrounded by a large group of the older players in the orchestra. I enquired of his name and was told Jack Solomons, and that he was over ninety years of age, although he did not look it. In his day  he was reckoned to be the best trumpeter in the country.  He could play all the exacting Bach stuff well, but his tour de force was the trumpet obbligato in “The Trumpet Shall Sound” from Handel’s “Messiah”.

He would arrive at the concert dressed immaculately, sporting a large diamond ring on his right hand, clutching a long ‘D’ trumpet.  He always brought the house down. In his day there were many choral societies scattered round Great Britain and Jack was always sent for to play the “Trumpet Shall Sound ” whenever it was on the programme so he must have made a killing with all those fees.  The long ‘D’ trumpet seems to have gone out of fashion now, but I have to admit I liked the sound and also it looked so dramatic

There is a moral to be drawn from this, especially by some of our younger players.  My teacher and mentor, Eugene Cruft, always drummed it into me that it was not only necessary to build up a good playing technique but also to present oneself on stage with a good air and presence, looking confident and well groomed. He was right!

Musical Families: The Cockerills

The Cockerills were a famous musical family who came from Birmingham, England.

Arthur Cockerill who was my first double bass teacher, held the position of principal bass in the City of Birmingham Orchestra as it was then called, and also principal bass in the BBC Midland Orchestra. He gave me a thorough grounding.  Later on I had to join the Army and off to France, but I did see him often later on in the ‘fifties.  He was a polite and courteous man, a true gentleman in the old fashioned  sense that you don’t see around much today.

His brother, Bert, was in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  He was killed in an air raid on Bristol to where the BBC Symphony Orchestra had been evacuated from London for “safety”!

There were two harpists, Winifred and John Cockerill, cousins of Arthur, who were principal harpists with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra respectively.

Winnie was a good harpist, the only woman in the orchestra.  She was a very compassionate lady and  took some of the men under her wing when they needed help.  Keeping up the tradition of bassists and harpists she was married to a very fine bassist, Jimmy Hunt.

John was always immaculate as was his playing.  He was reckoned to be among the best harpists in London at the time. Once, when I was sitting near him at a rehearsal I heard him singing a naughty little ditty to the ballet tunes.  At that time, callow youth that I was, I didn’t expect to hear a pillar of the profession such as John to be so earthy, but it showed me that some great men are only human at times.

Famous Orchestral Players of Yesteryear: Marie Wilson

Probably not many people have heard of Marie Wilson, violinist, who was a leader in all senses of the word.

She was an original member of the BBC Symphony orchestra that was founded in 1930 and which had a large proportion of women in it. A formidable player she often led when the BBC Symphony was divided into sections A,B,C, or D. and on occasion led the whole orchestra.

To realize what a remarkable thing this was for a woman to get that job in those days, you have to set your mind way back, even to the end of WW 1. At that time there was a woman, Dame Ethel Smythe, who championed the women’s movement. She was a composer and among her works was “The Wreckers” an opera, which I saw and also a piece written for the Suffragettes. She championed women composers and musicians and there was even a Women’s Symphony Orchestra but it was a hard struggle because of the prejudice against women at that time. There were other women whom I knew, Doris Greenish, a bassist, Nadia Boulanger and Kathleen Riddick both conductors whom I played for and who also advanced the cause.

Chief amongst the opponents to women musicians, in England at any rate, was Sir Thomas Beecham who vowed never to employ women “because if they were pretty they would distract him and if they were ugly that would distract him too”. Some of the remarks he made to women were particularly offensive. He was once engaged to conduct an orchestra that employed a young woman ‘cellist, and he said to her “My dear, you have that beautiful thing between your legs and all you can do is to scratch it”.

George Szell said after an auditioning a woman I know, a fine violinist, “Go home my dear and have babies”. That must have been fifty years ago.

When I joined the London Philharmonic Orchestra over sixty years ago, the only woman in the orchestra was the harpist. Likewise the London Symphony Orchestra, but when Marie Goossens, the harpist retired she was replaced by a man, Ossian Ellis, but gradually women were being engaged more and more. One event occurred when Leon Goossens made (or was alleged to have made) what was deemed to be an offensive remark. (see my blog, Leon Goossens) and this led to a minor protest and afterwards windows were installed on all the studios of that institution.. It wasn’t the catalyst but it was one small step towards women entering into the profession. They were finally being listened to.

WWll was the event which led to women coming into their own. It wasn’t done by burning bras but the simple fact that many of the men were away fighting in the front line. I came through Dunkirk and was discharged back into civilian life, so I was able to play occasionally with the City of Birmingham Orchestra. I was surprised to see the number of women. Sir Adrian Boult, a previous conductor of the CBO also helped this trend. Some of the women were fine players. I remember particularly well Lucy Vincent, a magnificent oboist who also trained many orchestra principals.

Later on when I was playing in the Legge Philharmonia Orchestra there were several women playing in it, including Marie Wilson who had left the BBC.

One bone of contention that the Philharmonia men had was that although the women received equal pay, some of them also expected to be treated with preference. I remember crossing the English Channel on the ferry to France. There weren’t enough sleeping berths for everyone in the orchestra but some women said “But of course the berths should be for the women”. I think things have changed since fifty years, but what does all this have to do with Marie Wilson? This: She was the only woman at that time who was allowed to demonstrate for all to hear that she was as capable or better than many men to lead a famous orchestra, and that was some feat.

I often used to chat with her, she was a charming lady and a good conversationalist. She retired when she was quite a good age and went to spend the rest of her days on the South Coast of England. Salut to Marie!

A Happy Concert in Istanbul

In 1964 the London Symphony Orchestra asked me if I would be available to play with them in Istanbul, Turkey. I had previously rehearsed the programme with them, so in Istanbul there were to be no rehearsals except for a seating rehearsal lasting only an hour. It was to be a nice little gig so I agreed gladly. The conductor was Sir Malcolm Sargent, a seasoned conductor with a very clear beat and easy to follow.I left early to catch the chartered plane to Istanbul. The pilot, “Lofty” I knew already from previous trips and I was very pleased when he invited me into the cockpit when we were landing at Istanbul.I had read in Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall” much about Constantinople and I was thrilled when Lofty pointed out the Bosphorous and various other landmarks. He couldn’t talk too much, as he told me that Istanbul was a very difficult place to land an aircraft.After a perfect landing I made my way to the Topkapi palace, looked at the Harem and the eunuchs section and also some treasures, then I made my way back to Istanbul to meet a friend of Adrian Cruft, a bass player and composer and son of Eugene. He had given me a piece of music to give to his friend, a Turkish composer. We sat down for a chat and he offered me some coffee, I’m afraid after all this time I cannot remember his name, and Adrian has passed away so I am unable to check on it. Upon leaving he presented me with a lovely box of Turkish Delight and then, after warm goodbyes I headed back to the hotel and dinner and bed.Early next morning I visited Haggia Sophia, that was once the church of Santa Sophia, and marvelled at some of the relics left from ancient times. There was part of a great iron chain that prevented enemy ships sailing in to Constantinople. All in all it was very fascinating.A visit to the Janissary Band’s headquarters and museum had been arranged and everybody in the orchestra turned out for the visit, including Sargent.The Band, all dressed in the old Ottoman Empire uniforms gave us a special performance which I really enjoyed. There were huge drums played by equally huge drummers and also a gentleman with a long pole on top of which was a crescent and beneath it some bells. There were also some other instruments I had not seen before, and so, after looking round the museum we went back to the hotel for a meal and to change for the concert, which was packed with an enthusiastic audience. And so to bed!

Leopold Stokowski, conductor

I first came across Stokowski in the early ‘sixties.  He was thinnish, fairly tall with a mane of white hair brushed back, with piercing eyes, and that, plus his artistic looking features gave him a rather distinguished look.

He was arrogant, a poseur if ever there was one and very egocentric.  What old man would go to a mother of a very young girl and say “I am going to marry your daughter whether you like it or not”?

It was the talk of orchestral players that he had been born in London’s East End with the name “Stokes” and had taken the name “Stokowski”.  He used to talk quietly with a phoney foreign accent and I think it was he, through the ‘thirties film “A Hundred Men and a Girl”, who was responsible for all this god-like veneration of the man on the podium that he exploited to the full.  I am reminded of Sigmund Freud in his book “Totem and Taboo” wherein he claims that the human animal always needs a totem figure to look up to and venerate.

His controversial attitude came out on one occasion when we were recording.  After a “take”, the musicians sometimes go into the recording booth to listen, sometimes practice the part or just stand around chatting.  Stokowski came out of the booth and saw two violinists standing by their music stand chatting and waiting for the next “take”.  He looked at them and said, to the amazement of everyone “No vun has privilege,” and demanded that the violinists be sent home.  To appease him and so as not to have a lengthy stand-off (time costs a lot of money in recording) the violinists were sent home but paid handsomely to avoid trouble.

Stuart Knussen, the principal bass was friendly with Stokowski and often had him over to dinner at his home just North of London. At dinner Stuart told him that he had broken his mute.  Next day at rehearsal there was a passage for the basses, muted.  Stokowski looked over at Stuart and said in front of the whole orchestra.  “Vy you don’t bring a mute Mr. Knussen?”

I was often booked by the London Symphony Orchestra  for some concerts and recordings around Christmas time.  He would arrange for the players to bring their wives and kids to an afternoon rehearsal where he would provide tea and goodies.  During the rehearsal, however, he would lambaste the players in front of them.  Some players thought he had a sexual problem.

Nasty attitude excepted, I have to put him in the top echelon of conductors.  He very often conducted without a baton,which was O.K. with a fine orchestra in front of him.  He had a remarkable ear and could tell in a flick of an eyebrow where any strange notes came from.  Most of all it was the exciting end result that he produced that made him stand out, particularly say, in a Tchaikovsky symphony.

He never threw himself around when conducting, but the music just welled out, mainly due to his personal magnetism.

His arrangements of some Bach pieces for full orchestra were not, in my mind, the real Bach, but they were wild and exciting and always received much applause.

He would be the first to arrive at rehearsal, and would stand and watch the players coming onto the platform.  Then he would rehearse meticulously, sometimes stopping in  places that some of  the musicians thought were inconsequential, but in the final performance made a world of difference.  That is what set him apart from lesser conductors.