Don’t be Another Domino King! Part One

Professor Robert Meyer’s Advice to Young Bassists: Don’t be Another Domino King! Part One.

A Domino King, in British slang is someone who persists in making false entries; this blog is an attempt to help all tyro bassists and maybe others to avoid coming in at the wrong place.

Maybe, after annoying your wife, family, girl/boy friend and your neighbours by your constant practicing you have landed, after audition, a place in a great orchestra. Now that you can play all the Bottesini pieces in fingered octaves you may think that you have at last arrived. Not so. You have your first foot on the ladder but you now have to learn the craft of playing in an orchestra.

I got my first job over sixty tears ago in the London Philharmonic Orchestra after giving an audition. Sir Thomas Beecham was the conductor at that time. Even though the audition was successful I still had to play next to Victor Watson, the principal bass at a rehearsal, to see what I was like in the orchestra. That was not all, I was hired on probation for three months and only after that was I given a contract.

I don’t know what the hiring procedures are for the entire world’s orchestras but most are stringent, therefore I thought I would write an article giving you tips you can follow in order that you not be dubbed a “Domino Queen/King” and thereby lose the job you have worked so hard to get.

Social mores may have changed since those days but human nature hasn’t, so believe me, as the new kid on the block you will be under silent scrutiny in your every move, and things have a habit of going back.

I had the misfortune of having to sit next to an old timer, Fred, who surely didn’t like the idea of “all these young chaps coming into the orchestra. Where was their experience?” He would never mark the part and castigated me if I did, looking down his nose and saying “After all my years in the business I don’t need to mark the parts, neither do you. You can only learn by experience”.

Fred was hoisted by his own petard when, in rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathètique” Symphony, last movement, where there is a loud chord preceded by a strong upbeat he came in too soon. Even Koussevitsky who was conducting roared with laughter.

In the next installment of this blog I’ll give you a few tips so you can avoid being like Fred.

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!

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!

Great Orchestral players of yesteryear. Victor Watson, double bass

Victor Watson, double bass

I first saw Victor Watson in 1937.   The London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham were coming to Coventry to play at the Coventry Hippodrome.   It was a great  event; a special train was bringing them from London,  and all tickets were snappped up in a day.  I had saved up and bought my ticket and was eagerly looking forward to the event.

Came the day and I was amazed to see all the great names playing in the orchestra which had been founded in 1932.  The basses were situated where the cellos often sit, in the front of the stage to the conductor’s right.  It might have been that Beecham wanted to show off his bass section which was really great.

I shall never forget the concert, Don Giovanni overture, Cézar Franck’s Symphony and a rousing encore, what else but Berlioz’s Hungarian March. The audience went wild. I had not long been studying the bass seriously and one of the main things that struck me was the clarity of the basses in the overture.  There is a fugal entrance with six notes played staccato followed by four notes played legato.  It often sounds just a jumble but at that concert all the notes came out sparkling and clear.

Later on, in 1945 after I had graduated as a solo performer on the double bass I gave an audition at the Royal Albert Hall and then had to play next to Mr. Watson, who had also graduated as a soloist, for him to see what I was like in the orchestra.  I had had two of the best teachers in England, Arthur Cockerill, principal bass of the City of Birmingham Orchestra and Eugene Cruft, principal bass of the BBC Symphony.  I thought I knew it all but when I started with the London Philharmonic I realised what a lot I still had to learn, and I was so fortunate to have Victor Watson as my mentor in orchestral playing.

Victor, (or Mr. Watson as I called him then)  must have been about 62 years of age at that time, and well steeped in the orchestral repertoire.  Concerts mainly consisted of all the old favourites plus an occasional modern piece. They couldn’t afford to be too venturesome.  He knew all the standard repertoire by heart, never counted bars rest and brought the bass section in on every important entrance.

I learned such a lot from the way he bowed the parts.  Many editions have  printed bowings put in by some eunuch and quite impossible to play.  Victor had a masterly approach and changed many of them, all for the better.  In parts that were notorious for “dominos”, i.e. coming in at the wrong place, he would change the bowing in order to avoid such problems.  He would change slurs and sometimes get the section to play ” off the string” for clarity.  The general effect of all this was to make the bass section sound terrific. If he had to play a solo, he would just brace himself and then produce a gorgeous, mellifluous sound.  One famous principal bass I knew was a fine player, but if he had to play a difficult solo would fortify himself with gin and aspirins, not so with Victor.  This taught me something, for although I have had to play some difficult solos in my career, I braced myself, like Victor and they came off.

Talking of solos, I was very glad to gain from his great experience in how to play them.  For instance  Koussevitsky, with whom he had played the Bottesini Duets and from de Sabata to whom he discussed and played various solos.   I once heard him play  Simandl’s arrangement of a Handel oboe sonata.  He played on a very fine Italian small, three stringed bass with gut strings.  I still think that a fine instrument fitted with gut strings can sound better than one with metal strings, although I use metal strings myself.

In appearance Victor was thin with a bald pate.  His index finger, right hand, was missing due to catching it in a clothes mangle when he was a kid but in no way did it affect his tone. He was far from being an intellectual.  In his spare time he liked to back horses and drink the occasional pint of beer.

Many great conductors came to the LPO in those days and it was remarked throughout the orchestra that they all went up to Victor and shook his hand or embraced him.  He well deserved his nickname of “The Master”.