I was very fortunate to meet Koussevitsky and play with Victor Watson when I was in the London Philharmonic Orchestra sixty years ago. They had played the Bottesini Duos together long before when Koussevitsky was performing as a bass soloist. I learned a lot from Victor about these Duos and vowed that one day I would record them as faithfully as I could to the directions Victor gave me. Well, I have just recorded the Polacca and some other bass pieces using the Orchestral tuning GDAE, and I have incorporated all of Victor Watson’s and Koussevitsky’s suggestions on its rendering, also Victor de Sabata’s observations on the performance of the “Otello” solo. This can be heard in my CD, Discovering the Double Bass.
Opera, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges by Ravel
You can always count on Ravel to put a few harmonics in the bass part; one piece I can think of is his “Mother Goose” Suite. At one time there were heated debates over suggested changes to some of the harmonics but now there is a general concensus of opinion that the printed part is correct.
I was fortunate enough to play a concert performance of “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges” in the late 1940’s with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Victor de Sabata the brilliant principal conductor and Director of la Scala Milan who had conducted the first performance. He got a wonderful performance and at rehearsal even corrected the pronunciation of a French choir that was brought over specially.
There is a big bass solo consisting of all harmonics combined with two flutes that starts near the beginning of the opera at Fig. 1 which goes on for 21 bars or so. It is very exposed. There are other difficult bits around Fig. 95 Adagio and 96. Victor Watson played the solo bass part which he found very difficult both technically and rhythmically.
Some years later I played the solo part. I got through it O.K. but I was glad when it was over!
In these brief videos I discuss some of my memories of working with the great conductors.
On Conductors: Part 1 What Makes a Good Conductor – Sir Thomas Beecham, Dr. Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Victor de Sabata, and others.
On Conductors: Part 2 Walter Legge’s Conductor Competition – “The best of a bad lot.”
On Conductors: Part 3 The Truly Great – What sets the truly great conductors apart from the also-rans.
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!
My life as an orchestral musician has been spent mainly on the concert platform, behind the footlights, and I suppose conductors come across to me differently to the audience on the other side.
There is a certain personal magnetism, electricity, penumbra, radiation or telepathy, call it what you will, that seems to exude from a really great conductor.
There are many fine conductors who set a good tempo, have a good stick technique and can accompany a soloist well but who do lack this personal magnetism. I don’t want to drop names but a few conductors including Victor de Sabata, Beecham, Bruno Walter, Furtwãngler and Nadia Boulanger certainly had it. Others that I met who possessed it included Anthony Eden, Laurence Olivier, Jiddu Krishnamurti and David Bohm, the theoretical physicist.
De Sabata was able to send shivers down one’s back, especially in such pieces as the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem or the Witches Sabbath in Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony. Those bulging brown eyes of his seemed to mesmerize us all.
Some conductors attempt to fake this magnetism or try to coax the atmosphere by dancing around on the podium, hectoring the orchestra whilst indulging in pyrotechnics, but however hard they try; if they don’t have it, they don’t just have it!
I first became aware of de Sabata being a ladies man after this anecdote, told to me by Felix Aprahamian who was on the staff of the LPO at that time but was later a writer for the “Times of London” and also a noted musicologist.
The LPO booked de Sabata into the Hyde Park Hotel in Knightsbridge and Felix went round to see if de Sabata needed anything. De Sabata had forgotten his pyjamas so Felix went across the road to Harrod’s and bought him some silk pyjamas. When he got back he presented the pyjamas to de Sabata and asked him if he liked the colour. De Sabata replied , ‘Yes, but where is the woman!’.
On another occasion we were rehearsing the Verdi Requiem and de Sabata went over to the famous soprano soloist, an attractive woman with an ample bosom. De Sabata was pointing out the finer points in the score, all the while clutching her bosom in front of the orchestra. Naturally all the orchestra smiled, and one wag quipped that it was all asp and tit. I must explain that the soprano was famous for singing Berlioz’s “The death of Cleopatra”. Everyone knows Shakespeare’s play wherein Cleopatra commits suicide by clutching an asp (viper) to her bosom.
On another occasion Adolf Borsdorf, another member of the LPO staff accompanied de Sabata in a hired limousine to York Minster where we were to perform the Verdi Requiem. On the journey there was a motor bike in front with a girl riding pillion. She glanced back and de Sabata was fascinated with her looks so he asked to driver to follow the motor bike and said to Adolf, ‘You never know, it might be all right!’. Adolf remonstrated with him saying, ‘Maestro, you have a concert to conduct at York, we shall be late’. With reluctance the driver was ordered to drive straight to York. I was incredulous and very sceptical when Adolf told me this, but he repeated over and over again to me that it was true.
The next season de Sabata was amiable and all smiles. He had brought over an auburn haired actress with him to break the solitude.
Although de Sabata was acclaimed by both the audience and the orchestra the critics really panned him, especially the right wing newspapers.
It really all started after Sir Thomas Beecham had formed the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Added to that there were one or two communists in the orchestra who didn’t go down too well in certain quarters. At that time it was being rumoured the Russians would march to the French North Coast thereby putting Great Britain in danger, and it was the beginning of the anti-Russian crusade that eventually led to the construction of the Berlin Wall.
Leningrad (as it was named then) was in dire straits, there was a shortage of beds and hospital supplies, so the London Philharmonic Orchestra members donated money for hospital supplies and a bed named after them which pleased the Russians but not the critics.
After one particularly damning critique it was proved that the critic wasn’t even at the concert!
De Sabata was most upset, he came for another season or two then quit.
I had to give an audition for Walter Legge, the Founder and Director of the Philharmonia Orchestra. I arrived at his house and played the Dragonetti Concerto. He was very pleased with my playing but didn’t think the Dragonetti was much of a piece musically. Afterwards he thawed out and we chatted for quite a while. I ventured to ask him if he would consider bringing over de Sabata to conduct the Philharmonia. He replied that he had offered him any fee, any programme, any location, any date and that he, Legge would go over personally in a private plane to collect him, but de Sabata refused. It is ironic that one critic wrote that de Sabata couldn’t be considered to be a world class conductor as he never appeared with the Philharmonia!
Some time later I was playing at La Scala, Milan, von Karajan conducting, and I was invited to a reception given for Arturo Toscanini. I happened to be introduced to de Sabata’s wife and daughter. His wife was, as usual with elderly ladies dressed in black, but his daughter was a beautiful girl, immaculately dressed and, I thought, very intelligent. I asked her why her Dad wouldn’t come to London as both the orchestra and the audiences loved him. She replied simply, ‘It is the critics’.
At the first rehearsal he conducted with the London Philharmonic Orchestra he was ushered into the rehearsal hall and he limped onto the dais. He then said ‘Good afternoon gentlemen, may we begin with the Dvorak?’ It was the “New World” symphony.
He positioned himself very carefully, looked down at his feet making sure they were at a certain distance from the front of the podium, then he commenced, with no score in front of him – everything was from memory. We went right through the symphony without stopping. After the intermission he said ‘The Cockaigne Overture of Elgar, please’. We went through that again without stopping.
At the end of the rehearsal I asked Victor Watson, the principal double bass (I was allowed to call him Victor by then) what he thought of de Sabata and he replied, ‘ He’s all right I suppose, just a typical Italian conductor’.
Next day however, de Sabata came into the rehearsal, mounted the podium and said ‘Gentlemen, yesterday I was getting to know the orchestra, now we rehearse’, and rehearse we certainly did. He dissected the “New World” bar by bar, correcting mistakes in the printed parts that had been played countless times before, made sure that dotted notes were played properly and not like triplets, corrected notes not being given their full value, and encouraged real pianissimos and then fortes in contrast, these nuances gave a new life to any work he conducted. He encouraged the woodwind to play together as a team. Altogether the effect was stunning. The “Cockaigne” Overture he made into a brilliant piece. Hitherto everyone had thought of it as one of Elgar’s lesser works, but not so with de Sabata.
At the concert at the Royal Albert Hall the audience went wild. He was recalled time and time again.
Ravel’s “Bolero” was played at the next concert. The side drum starts very, very softly and the solo instruments come in one by one. De Sabata beat a strict tempo for the side drum with his left hand, but with his right hand he made all kinds of rubato, he could beat independently with either hand. I tried to do so in front of a mirror but failed.
He was at his best in such pieces as Berlioz’s overture “Roman Carnival” or his “Fantastic Symphony”… Moussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”, and much of Debussy and Ravel. His “Ride of the Valkyries” that he always kept for an encore brought the house down.
There was a certain personal magnetism, electricity, call it what you will that sent tiny shivers down one’s back, but the crowning piece in his extensive repertoire was the Verdi “Requiem”. In the Dies Irae he seemed to go wild, inciting the throng of trumpets that festooned all the rear boxes in the hall to blow their hearts out. The special huge bass drum he encouraged by boxing away in the air with his fists tightly clenched. Naturally, the audience was very enthusiastic and recalled him many times.
At the end of that season the LPO crowned him on the stage with a laurel wreath and then put on a reception for him after the concert, the only one I can ever remember for any conductor’s performance.
When de Sabata left we were performing with lesser conductors such as Basil Cameron, who kept saying “Please, Please’ to the orchestra, who ignored him. After de Sabata everything was an anti-climax.
De Sabata was Director and Chief Conductor of La Scala Opera House, Milan, Italy, and he was undoubtedly the finest conductor I have ever encountered. I regarded him so highly that I named my boat after him. He came to the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946.
In appearance he was of moderate height, bald, with a fringe of white hair, walked with a limp, a legacy of the poliomyelitis that had struck him in his youth and although he was only fifty – three he looked considerably older. He was aristocratic-looking and reminded me of a Roman Senator.
He had a prodigious memory and never carried a musical score. Sometimes he would stop and say ‘Gentlemen, there is a mistake in bar number—‘ His knowledge of instruments, too, was astounding. One day we were recording Beethoven’s Second Symphony. In the Scherzo there is a difficult passage for the double basses. He looked over to us and said, ‘Contrabassi, you can play that in one position, why don’t you?’
On another occasion the principal cellist, Boris Rickelman, told him that one passage written for the ‘cello was impossible to play. He replied ‘Do you think so Mr. Rickelman? Give me your ‘cello and I will show you.’ De Sabata picked up the cello, sat down and played the passage perfectly.
Best of all was when Charlie Gregory, the first French horn also told de Sabata that a passage was unplayable. De Sabata replied ‘Do you think so Mr. Gregory? Give me your instrument and I will show you.’ De Sabata picked up the horn and played it perfectly.
De Sabata’s rare recordings have been digitalized and re-issued. In the programme notes to one CD, Felix Apprahamian whom I knew well, a noted musicologist and also writer for the London “Times” was present when these events occurred, and recounted them and added, ‘I suppose they (the London Philharmonic and de Sabata) are all dead by now’, so I wrote to him and told him I was alive and well and living in British Columbia, Canada. He never replied, but I heard that he was very ill and passed away not long afterwards.
When de Sabata retired he devoted his time to solving mathematical problems. He was very widely read and could quote Shakespeare and Dickens, Dante and Tasso etc. etc.
When we were performing Ravel’s opera “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges’, which de Sabata had premiéred, a French choir was brought over from Paris and de Sabata spent much time correcting their pronunciation!