Retiring From Playing the Double Bass #2

In my last blog I wrote at the end of it that there must be a moral somewhere in it.  Well I think there is.

Soon after I came to Canada in 1965 I heard from my friend, Gerry Drucker, who was Principal bass of the Philharmonia Orchestra of London that Frank Fuller, a member of his section had passed away.

They were playing at the Dome, Brighton Sussex one Saturday night, and Frank was so excited.  This was to be his last concert and he was going to retire.  However Fate stepped in, and the next day he suffered a heart attack and died.

I have thought about the moral and maybe it is this.  When you are fed up with playing  Beethoven’s Fifth for the thousandth time think of Dan Burton and Frank Fuller and be happy that you are still around to play it.

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Published in: on September 26, 2008 at 2:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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!

Donkey Shot in Vienna

About fifty years ago I was playing with the Philharmonia Orchestra on a European tour with Herbert von Karajan conducting and we were in Vienna.  It so happened that the Vienna Philharmonic boys had the evening off, as did the Philharmonia and we arranged a little party with them, about six of us altogether, all bassists.

It was Heurigen time, when the new wine had just been released.  All the cafés and restaurants had an evergreen branch hanging above their entrance to tell all the world that the new wine was in so we arranged to meet at a tram stop on the Schotten Ring and catch the tram to Grinzing, a suburb of Vienna where all the population went for a night out on the town.  It had many famous eateries and our Viennese friends knew the best ones, so we all trooped inside the restaurant of their choice and we ate a really gourmet meal and imbibed the delicious wine.

Conversation inevitably turned to what brand of strings we were using, and what type of rosin.  From there it turned onto conductors, and we solemnly agreed between us that they were all bastards, especially one, a certain Herr Doktor ——–  whom we all had encountered.  From there we started to talk about the repertoire, and any difficult pieces we had come across.  One bassist turned to me and asked if I had ever played what sounded to me like Donkey Shot.  I was nonplussed but suddenly realized he meant “Don Quixote” by Richard Strauss.

Don Quixote is not a very difficult piece for the bass compared with some of his other works, but there are two bars solo in a 3/4 # /# section that are not very difficult to play technically, but are difficult rhythmically, so I suggest that all you budding young players who are aiming to become a principal bass, sort out the rhythms, listen to a recording and put it in your scrap book.

After another round of the Heurigen wine the conversation became more relaxed and we turned to other subjects and then after a final round caught the tram back to Vienna, said our goodbyes, and I went back to the little hotel where I always stayed, the “Rote Hahn”.

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 #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.

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!

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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