Keeping a Shop; How Musicians of a Previous Era Managed to Survive #1

I entered the musical scene in London, England in mid 1945; which by then was rapidly changing.  I mentioned in previous blogposts the state of the musical profession pre.WWII which was a lot different compared with nowadays. In the old days not many people owned a telephone, so musicians were contacted by letter or telegram and also sought work in London by hanging around the Archer Street H.Q. of the Musicians’ Union in the West End which I visited  once in 1945.    Everyone carried a business card that they proferred to anybody whom they thought might give them work.  There was a small cafeteria and a notice board plus a poste restante and a telephone. It was all very primitive but it seemed to work.
Hitherto most musicians relied on what was called a “shop”, i.e. a theatre where they could be assured of an adequate (or barely adequate) living,  and most theatres allowed them to put in a deputy if they were offered a better paying gig outside the theatre.  There were many tea shops and restaurants that employed musicians and in the summer there was a migration to the seaside where practically all the major resorts employed a temporary summertime orchestra, also there were the dance bands and ships orchestras  that flourished.
During  the war many theatres had been bombed and were never repaired, and also the state of the economy had changed and developers eyed some of them for building supermarkets, Bingo halls and bowling alleys which were just coming into fashion, also so many fine theatres were demolished. Then there were technical improvements in the sound industry which have continued to this day.  We now have “virtual orchestras’, recorded music in the pit for ballet music etc,  home entertainment, the television, the telephone, the cell phone etc.etc.

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Published in: on June 2, 2008 at 3:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Unusual Concert Venues 2

I prefer playing in a concert hall to a church, where it is usually difficult to place the orchestra properly.  There are more accidents happening to basses when playing away from a concert hall, I know, I’ve seen them happen.  I made it a policy to always look around for a safe place to put the bass when I wasn’t actually playing it.  Leaving it on the platform is not safe.  The altar, lectern and choir stalls are often in the way so so if it is an important concert the organizers may want to spend  money on platforms etc.  Of course this may be expensive, and if the church is a small one it will almost surely put the concert  finances in the red.  A large cathedral is best suited for a temporary stage to be built because there is space for a big audience to justify costs.

Outdoor concerts, for me,were a bane. I remember on Hampstead Heath in London there was a permanent stage with an overhead canopy situated in front of  a lake. It was OK as regards adequate seating for the orchestra but the mosquitoes were terrible.  One had to take an ample supply of bug screen, but somehow or other one of the little pests would always bite.  Then there was the wind.  I always took some clothes pins along so the music would not disappear in  a sudden gust. You had to be careful of the bass as condensation appeared on it by the end of the concert, so I always gave my bass a good rub down and put it back in its case as soon as possible.

Just before the concert, the impresario would always say to us “Don’t hope for rain boys, it never rains for me”. He had been putting on these concerts for years and Fate was kind to him, it never did rain.

When I was playing with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra there were always concerts given on the top of Grouse Mountain which were well attended, but the orchestra still had to cope with bugs and gusts of wind. Too, there was the cold to consider and I always put my bass in its case as soon as possible even in the interval because it may be expensive if some repair patches become unglued and you have to take your bass in for repair, possibly having to have the belly removed.
Faced with costs like these it may be better for you to turn the date down and only accept dates in regular concert halls or own a second, cheap instrument and use that.

Published in: on May 15, 2008 at 2:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Professor Meyer’s musings on Beethoven’s Ninth Dr. Otto Klemperer #3

I performed this several times including a recording with Dr. Klemperer and the Philharmonia in the 1950’s.  He often conducted  with no baton as I believe he had problems with his hands, but although his directions were sometimes not very clear he obtained some remarkable performances

His tempi were interminably slow. One could nod off in the slow movement and in what is really the scherzo which to my mind should be light and joyful, sounded to me like a bum-slapping, clod-hopping ländler, but that being said the recitatives and the Ode to Joy leading up to a triumphal ending were truly great.

It must be remembered that Dr. Klemperer was struggling with his health, and, looking back, he had a grand overview of the work. Going back to the “scherzo” he insisted that we repeated Klem-perer  Klem- perer Klem-perer to ourselves so that we played the dotted quarters, eighths, and quarters correctly.  Of course I suppose he could have reminded us to think of Beet-hoven  Beet -hoven  Beet-hoven, but conductors are sometimes egotistical.

I mentioned in a previous blogpost that nowadays music tends to be taken faster, probably a sign of my old age and certainly if you listen to Toscanini then indeed Klemperer is slow and stately, but lately, after listening to many of his recordings a certain grandeur comes out which will make him remembered to posterity.

Professor Meyer’s musings on Beethoven’s Ninth. #2 Wilhelm Furtwängler

I played the Ninth with Furtwängler twice. One in the late 1940’s with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, London, and two with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the mid 1950’s at the Kunsthaus during the Lucerne International Festival, Switzerland. They were by far the best performances of the Ninth I’ve ever played.

Furtwängler didn’t have much of a beat. He was lank, bald with a fringe of white hair, had a slight stoop and stuck his belly out when conducting.

His approach was to transmit joy. It wasn’t a “Herrlich” performance as some conductors are wont to make of it, but impressed me with its musicality. Despite not having a very clear beat he could convey exactly what he wanted. It is hard to describe but it was uncanny.

The first movement just flowed. There were no overly loud chords. The same with the second movement. The third was full of fun, not like the usual renderings with the tympani being allowed to play fortissimo like a ton of bricks being dropped.

The last movement, beginning with the recitatives was just as Beethoven described his ideas to Sir George Smart during a meeting in September 1825. And I quote Sir George Smart “Beethoven gave the tempi of various sections of his symphonies etc, while he played them on the piano, including the Choral Symphony, which according to his reckoning took three quarters of an hour,which we know is impossible. In Vienna the recitative was played by four ‘celli and two basses which certainly is better than if one takes all the basses”.

Schindler states that Beethoven required all the basses to play in a singing style, not stiffly but in strict time, not dragged. Thus it was with Furtwängler who segued into the Ode to Joy to make a glorious, joyful Finale.

Link here to read a previous post on Furtwängler that you might care to peruse.

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.


Music Magazine’s Article on Herbert von Karajan #3

The row in Baltimore should never have happened.  We were all tired and, personally, I didn’t notice anything strange in the away von Karajan was conducting the anthems, but it was to have a serious effect on the Philharmonia’s future.  First, the number of recordings dropped dramatically, then there was the sad death of Dennis Brain, the first horn, the resignation of the concert master, Manoug Parikian,and others.  I decided to leave and go out into the big world outside the Philharmonia because I had a wife, two kids, a mortgage and school fees to find.  Shortly afterwards Legge dropped the bombshell that he was disbanding the orchestra, but it was resuscitated as a self-run orchestra under the title of the “New Philharmonia Orchestra”.  Dr. Otto Klemperer was made the permanent conductor and later on “Conductor for Life”.

Von Karajan continued to do well; he had the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Opera and the Scala Opera, but it seemed to go to his head.  Musicians all over the world talk to each other and I began to hear some odd things from the Berlin and the Vienna boys about him.  It seems his ego which was always inflated before  was now making it difficult for musicians to work with him and finally led years late to his downfall.

To summarize, I personally think he was a good all round conductor, but not a great one. One of his favourite pieces that I enjoyed was the “Concerto for Orchestra” by Bartok .  We recorded it.

He was aggressively ambitious and was a good business man but underneath it all there was a certain warmth.

I remember I had a dispute over fees with the management.  The fees went up but I was not paid extra for the five stringer.  The matter was settled, so I took the 5 stringer to the concert that night and who should I get into the elevator to the platform with but von Karajan.  He smiled at me and rubbed his forefinger and thumb together and said “Did you get the money?”  I rubbed my forefinger and thumb together and said “Yes, I did, but you aren’t doing too bad are you?” at which he smiled, patted me on the shoulder and said “See you on the platform”.  Ever afterwards whenever we saw each other we would grin and rub our finger and thumb together.  It showed me that he had a sense of humour and  I would never go so far as to say he was at all evil.

Herbert von Karajan #2

Comment on article in BBC Music Magazine:

I well believe von Karajan when he said he joined the Nazi Party only to further his career. It could have been normal for any young man to have done so if he thought it would help him, however, so far I have not heard of any involvement he had in committing atrocities. After all these years I am willing to forgive him for being a Nazi, but not if he had been in the S.S. and committed any atrocities.. I was on the battlefield with the British Army and certainly have no time for the S.S. after many of my comrades were murdered by them.

It was Walter Legge who discovered him in the late forties by listening to a record, so I’m told, and then built up his career. He paid back Legge and the Philharmonia in a rather bad way. It happened like this: The Philharmonia Orchestra was playing a concert in Baltimore at the end of a long, exhausting tour. There were demonstrations outside the concert hall about his Nazi past and as a result the hall was not packed as were all the other concerts we gave.

At the morning seating rehearsal a violinist, Peter Gibbs, an ex-fighter pilot, stood and berated von Karajan for conducting the British and American National Anthems in what he thought was a casual way. Legge stood up and told him to sit down and afterwards assured von Karajan that Gibbs would not be allowed to play that night. However, Gibbs came to the concert dressed and ready to play, at which von Karajan refused to go on stage unless Gibbs was sent away. Dennis Brain, the principal horn and Gareth Morris the principal flute and a few others said they would refuse to play unless Gibbs played .

After a long wait and some slow hand-clapping von Karajan came on after Gibbs had sat down in the orchestra. There was a second long wait after the interval.

Next day, in Washington, we were to board the plane home to England but Legge, von Karajan and Mattoni, his agent, were not with us.

A few days after we arrived home, the chairman of the orchestra members committee called a meeting and told us that he had received a letter from von Karajan’s lawyer in Vienna demanding an apology signed by every member of the orchestra. This was discussed, and as it was around Christmastide we sent him a card wishing him a happy Christmas.

Shortly afterwards we received another letter stating that although von Karajan was under contract with EMI the name of the Orchestra was not mentioned in it so henceforth von Karajan would be making the recordings solely with the Berlin Philharmonic.

He had already been approached by the Berlin Philharmonic to be their conductor so the row at Baltimore gave him an ideal excuse to leave the Philharmonia.

Herbert von Karajan #1

I was interested to read in the March 2008 copy of the BBC Music Magazine some accounts of Herbert von Karajan.  I knew him very well at first hand having played countless concerts, recordings and tours with him when I was a member of the Legge Philharmonia Orchestra for five years in the 1950’s.

I was engaged to play a five stringed double bass in the Philharmonia Orchestra at the express wish of Walter  Legge and von Karagan.   There had been pieces by Richard Strauss and other composers that called for low notes, but there was only one five stringed bass, Gerald Brooks, in the Orchestra.  We met in a pub near the Festival Hall and he told me that he had been sent as an emissary: They were offering me a position in the core orchestra, extra pay for the five-stringer, and that I would be allowed  to keep my freelance connection within reason.  The terms seemed fine to me so I accepted.

A few days later I played my first recording with him. That would have been in 1953. He was in his mid-forties with jet-black hair cut/ en brosse /in the old German style. He looked aristocratic and well suited to his adopted patrician “von”, (he was born Heribert Karijannis of Persian stock).  He was extremely polite to the orchestra, addressing everyone by name.  He had a good stick technique and his tempi seemed just right. The attack in the entrances was never ragged .  The nuances were all there but, overall, after all those years of playing for him I cannot say that he was one of the world’s “Greats”

Comparisons are invidious, but in the Music Magazine articles his name was linked with Furtwängler, but he was no Furtwängler, I know because I played for him too. The overall impression I got was that he was a good business man first and foremost.  That he was ruthless in his desire to get to the top and that he loved material things.  He had a yacht, a plane, a villa and, too, a beautiful second wife.  He employed an excellent manager, Mattoni, and a Viennese lawyer.

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.

Musicians and their Hobbies

When I was a kid there was a music hall song called  “Where do all the Flies go in the Wintertime?” One might just as well ask that of professional classical musicians.  What do they do in their spare time?  Well, it varies depending on the musician, if she/he is very busy , then it’s a humdrum life of just work and sleep. I can remember times when I would go for over three months without a day off.

Eugene Cruft, my teacher and mentor once told me that I should do all my practice before entering the musical profession because once I started I would be too busy to do anything but play, eat and sleep. And so it turned out.  All these oft quoted scenes of a Bohemian life are very rare.

To earn sufficient money to live, many musicians have to teach.  When I was freelancing in London there was no time to do that.  I was fortunate to be very successful, but it came with a price.  I bought a bigger house (with a bigger mortgage!), I sent my kids to good schools but it all had to be paid for, so I had to keep my nose to the grindstone , (or my bow on the strings).

But there were one or two who seemed to lead a more balanced life.  Two bassists were good photographers, a ‘cellist in the BBC Symphony  collected and repaired old clocks,. Two bassists in the London Philharmonic were skilled instrument repairers.  Bob Norris, sub-principal bassist with the BBC Symphony made tolerably good basses, and Cyril McArthur, a freelance bassist who sometimes played in the Philharmonia Orchestra was fed up with the rat race so he went to a little village in Italy and made bass bows.  I was told they were very good.

Looking back,  two profound statements were made to me that I didn’t realize at the time were so significant.  One, Jack Upchurch was a tolerably good bassist, but his hobby was making model steam trains from scratch .  One day I went to his house to see his model railway.  I asked him why he didn’t do more playing, and he answered “You can either live to work, or work to live”.  The second, which I mentioned in a previous blog came  from Francis Baines, a bassist in the London Philharmonic who also was a good composer.  He took leave from the LPO and went to live in a little cottage in the country for two years so that he could get down to serious composing.  When he returned to the LPO I asked him if he had learnt anything in his absence, and he said “Yes, I have. You don’t need as much money to live on as you are led to believe”.

The upshot of all this is that later on I studied painting, Tai Chi and cooking and it certainly has given me a more balanced life.  I now go to concerts to listen from the other side of the footlights and occasionally scrape the bass, but, dear friends and colleagues, try not to be as insular as I was, take time to smell the flowers, it’s wonderful!