Saturday, 12 February 2011

Conductors blog

I was at one time a member variously of what was then the Scottish National Orchestra Chorus, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the Scottish Philharmonic Singers. Here are some recollections on the performances, rehearsals and trips over the period from 1971 until 1987.

I have kept some thoughts on various conductors, some written just to remind me of performances, others preserved from either posts on a music site, or from E mails to people who asked me questions.

Of all the conductors I have sung for in choir, I still think Gary Bertini was one of the best; he used to work in Scotland a lot and I was in quite a few of his choral performances. He spoke about seven languages fluently and was comfortable in all kinds of music. Technically he was a superb musician. He adapted the sound of the orchestra to suit say French or German music. He could and did pick up not just wrong notes but I watched him in a thick texture drill down to find errors in the part scores. He was a good orchestral trainer, but testy and impatient.

I recall a completely wonderful Berlioz Romeo and Juliet, full of passion. The rehearsals were stormy, he got angry with the orchestra to the point that he threw a chair across the stage. About three minutes later and in the middle of a bar the orchestra walked out....the three hour session had elapsed. However on the night they played up a storm.

I also was in a terrific performance of the Berlioz Grande Messe in Milan, he was good at big scale pieces, This one in an enormous tent, The acoustics were surprisingly good, I recall feeling blotted out in the Tuba Mirum by the 10 sets of kettle drums as they made the air crackle. . Walton's Belshazzar's Feast became much more than a showpiece, he made it make sense in the context of singing it in Israel. The Bible setting clear to him,he explained it in its context as we stood in the country itself under threat at the time. Previn may have given it more bling-bling; but Bertini gave it a lot more depth.

The best performance of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex that I was involved with was again Bertini's; sledgehammer drama and deep regret. That may have worked against the distancing concept of Stravinsky, but it etched itself more deeply on my mind than several others who I sang it for, rather more famous names.

He was generally difficult and he could be scathing towards soloists if they were not absolutely accurate. The orchestras did not much enjoy his style. This rather than talent may have meant he had not been brought more into the limelight.

Gullini: He was immensely courteous, he spoke quietly and we had to strain to hear him. The rehearsals were rather like the sermon on the mount from ‘Life of Brian’ as we relayed to one another what we thought he had said. He liked to talk about the texts; we were singing the Verdi Four Sacred Pieces. I recall he wanted the words ‘Stabat mater’ to have a heaving sigh to express the meaning of what we were singing. He was very exact with breathing marks and although we had seemingly been rehearsing to his marked score, he changed quite a few and concentrated on certain parts of the score letting other stretches work through without comment. He used a stick and to my eyes his face looked as though his entrails were being pulled through his bum. He was god to a lot around me, but for the most part he left me cold. I think even then his best work was behind him. Everything was very slow. I have a theory that as conductors get older, then, with some exceptions, their music making slows down as the pulse of the music is related to their own slowing bodily pulse.

He was careful getting an initial balance within the choir. When it came to the orchestral rehearsal, he played through making almost no comments, then spoke some detail to the leader. He did chording with the LA Phil. brass, not to correct notes, but to obtain a blend. It all went for almost nothing as the performances were in the Hollywood Bowl. That whole set up with Carlo goes to Hollywood seemed a curious mismatch of culture to this private and aristocratic man. I seem to recall the fixer there was Ernest Fleicher or Fleichman who made his presence known, he seemed like the sort who could broker a deal to sell Hoovers to desert dwellers.

During the performance someone out in the picnic area let off a sparkling wine bottle with a report like a gunshot, Gullini clutched his heart and momentarily we wondered what had happened, the music flowed on. I felt he had little to say in terms of delivering the music. It was a strange combination.

Maazel: Very business-like, but also relaxed. Not seeming to be very interested, he produced an efficient but rather boring Beethoven 9th. He checked for markings in the orchestral scores in some detail, then played through pretty much without stopping. He seemed intent on having the music played to the markings of the score. He did not vary the pulse much. Unlike Sinopoli who pulled the Mahler 2 around like dough. Sinopoli intellectualised the music explaining his fix on the ideas within the score at great length both to the chorus in piano rehearsal and to the orchestral players, but they stayed attentive to him. He used a stick. He had a very clear beat and was one to eyeball a section when it was due to come in. He was able to use one arm to keep time and the other to shape the music and bring people in. But in fact his Mahler 2 was deathly boring. A great disappointment.

John Elliott Gardiner; Straight away, I want to make clear I think he produces superb results, especially in the last 15 years or so. When I was involved in his performances, he was the only conductor who ever gave me the impression that he did not like working with amateurs. He would spend a lot of time lecturing us on what he wanted before we were allowed to sing. He was an ultra interventionalist . He phrased everything in enormous detail and worked that detail to death. With the orchestra he was quite different in manner where there were shared jokes. But he was attentive to everything and put in an enormous amount of detail. For everything I saw him work on, he had gone back to the manuscripts and amended traditional performance practice. I got the impression he HAD to put his stamp on any working edition of a score and take issue with anyone else’s edition. I was in his very first attempt at Damnation of Faust. We did it in the town Berlioz was born in. Just a few days later and we were performing and recording it in Lyon, he had rethought it greatly to its benefit and produced a performance of much delicacy and drive. Although issued by Phillips, the sound is recessed and detail thereby lost, along with impact. This was an early recording by Anne Sophie von Otter, she was grave, beautiful voice at that time but impassive, not a patch on Diana Montague who had sung at La cote Saint Andre days previously and in my opinion is the better singer.
I saw Gardiner wait for players to write in the phrasing he wanted.

Sir John Pritchard . He spent all the coffee breaks going round and writing his marks into the part scores as they stood on the music stands. Pritchard used an unusually long stick, it was easy to see and he was a pleasure to work with. His was civilised music making, but without an individual stamp on it. Perhaps surprisingly hehad a larger admiring entourage than even Michael Tilson Thomas, but thereby hangs another tale. The best of him was a wonderful and joyous Haydn Creation.

Abbado wanted a well schooled sound, but not smooth. His French music sounded different in blend from his German music. He is good at building climaxes and sustaining sound, demands a very graded diminuendo. Abbado: calm, communicated with a very expressive face and hand gestures. Did not talk about the music, stuck to the technical terms for what he wanted then expanded these, Like so many, an acute ear for blend. Liked eye contact to bring in sections or specific instruments.
He could become angry if mucked about by the orchestra, then would make his specific irritations known in a tense but very quiet way. Had a good command of the orchestras, who tended to watch him closely. He used a stick and was clear with the beat. He did not waste time in rehearsals. Organised and a clear sense of the architecture of a piece. He conducted Act 2 of Lohengrin as a vast arc and an exciting and involving performance. This included the major debut of Rosalind Plowright, just before she made the Trovatore with Gullini. Abbado also oversaw a stellar Verdi Requiem with Margaret Price and Jessye Norman swaying in the Lacrimosa. He brought over from Italy a chorus coach who we were supposed to watch during the rehearsals and performance. We could not get used to him and found him a distraction. It was the only occasion I encountered this arrangement, which I was told was common in Italy. The performance has been issued on DVD. In rehearsal Carearas made the odd fluff. He started to blame the orchestra for distracting him by dropping pencils. For the rest of the rehearsal, Abbado had to suffer a plague of dropped pencils every time Carearas opened his mouth. Price sang superbly transcending an outfit that made her look like Miss Piggie.

Usually I felt his final rehearsal was better than the performances, they seemed to be free of tension, relaxed, like people there making music together for the love of it.
Very concentrated in rehearsal, never described the music, but communicated clearly. He would conduct with a stick and spend time conducting with his eyes closed. Does not bring in sections like they are idiots during performance, but would concentrate a lot on the sound of the string sections. Quite active on the podium, gave a lot of notes to the musicians. Built a rapport with people. He could get a quieter sound out of the Philharmonia than I have ever heard, quiet, but projected and intense.

I have sung in about a dozen Muti performances. I always enjoyed the experience. He could crack the whip with the orchestra. I recall a rehearsal with the Philharmonia, (London): a brass player, who had a bit of a playing gap was reading a newspaper. Muti noticed and stood on the podium looking at the reader, the orchestra fell silent, he waited and eventually the poor reader looked up. Then in tones of ice he quietly said, "We do not do that in THIS orchestra." The players always watched him, which was not the case with a number of orchestras.
I also recall a performance that had started when the corporate junket guests noisily filed into the front row of the circle. He became aware of the disturbance, stopped the music, turned round with arms folded and watched them. They got the message and settled down as quickly as they could, but he continued to stare at them, clearly furious and the silence seemed to stretch for a very long time. Finally he restarted the piece from the beginning.

I loved singing in the Albert Hall, the atmosphere at Proms time is buzzy. I did probably about half a dozen proms. We also used to go to London to sing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. One of these occasions was to do Berlioz Romeo and Juliet for Muti. For the Berlioz there is a section for the men offstage, this meant getting us on, off and then on. Muti refused to have this, so, on the night some professionals were hired to stand in the wings and sing to a TV screen of Muti. They went spectacularly flat, much to our mortification as the programme did not mention them, only us.
I think Muti live is quite different from the lower voltage Muti in the studio. At the Edinburgh Festival we did the Beethoven Choral Fantasia with him and Peter Frankel was the pianist. In rehearsal it was relaxed and like a chamber music performance, wonderful. That atmosphere was replaced at performance by a stiffer stilted style, a great shame.

In my experience, Rattle likes to talk to the singers about the concepts of the music, usually he is very enthusiastic. He then conducts without the score and mouths abstractly and manically. He is clearly interested in allowing people to hear what is written in the score. Live he takes more extreme risks than in the studio. He is thorough and methodical, usually polite, but also lets it be quietly known if he is unhappy. He has a sharp ear and tracks errors down. He likes choral singers to watch him and to sing without scores so as to facilitate contact with them.

It is generally easy to follow him, though not so easy to detect the first in the bar.
I sang in Rattle's first performance of the Beethoven Ninth, it had a chamber like feel to it and was quite swift, but it did not engage what I feel are the deeper aspects of the score and although organised and tidy and light on its feet, it did not have gravitas or beauty or a sense of exploration. When he arrived he demanded that we sing without scores, Birmingham always did this, but it was much too near the concert to pull a stunt like that on us. So he had to be content with us holding the scores.  Birmingham even managed the Glagolitic Mass without the music, a considerable achievement, but apart from it meaning everyone watching the conductor more attentively, I can’t say I can hear any difference than when a good choir is singing from scores and being properly attentive

I happened across a version of Mahler’s 8th conducted by Boulez and I was in the performance. I had no idea it had been preserved. Here are my recollections from 30 years ago and then I give as dispassionate as possible review of the discs.

In 1975 the Scottish National Orchestra Chorus was riding high often attracting engagements without the SNO orchestra and having an annual appearance at the London Proms. It was also when Pierre Boulez was the chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic. We joined them, the BBC singers and Choral Society plus the Wandsworth School Choir for the Mahler.

The rehearsals went Ok, though we found Boulez distant and uncommunicative. The behaviour of the teacher with the Wandsworth boys caused raised eyebrows as several times we encountered him sitting on the floor astride a boy tickling him. How the world has changed; now he would be subject to rather more than dirty looks should he be so unwise as to behave in such a way.

At the performance I almost needed binoculars to see Boulez, he semaphored like a bandmaster. During the performance one of a group of us, who was going to go out after the performance for dinner, left the platform. He went AWOL and eventually I tracked him to the nearest hospital, admitted dead on arrival after having thrown himself under a subway train. All this coloured my memory of an unsatisfactory and uninvolving performance. I have had little time for Boulez since, not enjoying his music or his philosophy…he did at one time advocate burning down all opera houses, presumably Bayreuth had him sign a contract foreswearing pyromania.

So, what of the performance on the discs. It is on a label called Living Stage, LS347.16, cost £9 from MDC on The Strand, London and has passionate excerpts from the Berlioz Romeo and Juliet as a makeweight at the start of the first disc.

I was very taken aback and have to eat a lot of hostile words. It is miles away from being the metronomic performance of my memory. It surges and is full of energy and of repose. The soloists mostly do well with one significant exception. Edda Moser and Linda Esther Gray lead the soaring soprano soloists with the brief rather forward, but beautifully poised appearance of Wendy Eathorne. Elisabeth Connell and Bernadette Greevy are first rate Mezzos and Sigmund Nimsgern and Marius Rintzler take good care of the lower voices. The blot is Alberto Remedios, ENOs famous Siegfried. He is superb in the first movement then falls apart completely in the second, he uses head voice where his voice is splintering, cracks on attempted high notes or even leaves them out, provides late entries and tries hard to gentle his way round the Jungfrau. It is a shocker.

Boulez sets off at a terrific pace and the choirs do well with the entries distinct, secure and well sung rather than shouted. The end of the first movement presses forward and the upward fountains of the choral parts come across exceptionally. The actual sound coming off the discs surprised me with no noticeable compression and forward sound, an unusually fine radio recording.

The second movement opens poetically, there is wonderful ebb and flow throughout and many textures are filigree. Very few fluffs from the orchestra, one or two ragged brass entries apart, they sound on great form. The long stretch of the second part is very well sung by committed soloists, except as already mentioned, Remedios. The ending has terrific sonority as the engineers capture the staggering noise of the Albert Hall organ in full flow.

So, I am happy to listen repeatedly for much more than nostalgic reasons and the noise you hear as you read is me eating many critical words about Boulez. On the night we had felt flat rather than elated. I recall another concert that undeservedly had a reverse effect. Gibson conducting Mahler 2 with Jessye Norman, we all thought it was wonderful, I saw it on TV months later and it was boring. Possibly at least sometimes the performers are not the best judges of what just happened.

I have heard and read several conductors say that the better orchestras go with not behind the beat. As a singer in choir, we got instantly used to whatever the band were doing and stuck with their method whether or not it reflected the way it had been timed in piano rehearsal. I would go as far as suggesting a lot of singers were never aware that they were automatically making an adjustment. It was vital you made the adjustment as exposed entries would become even more exposed if you came in ahead of the orchestra on the beat, but the orchestra was working behind it.

One year at the Edinburgh Festival we did the Missa Solemnis with Solti, went straight down to London and repeated it as a prom. I know he comes in for a lot of stick, but even those who would not have his Wagner as a doorstopper were eating out of his hand. He was not well at the first performance, but throughout the rehearsals he was good humoured. He was exact in what he wanted and asked for and got a Germanic pronunciation of the of the Latin. He shouted all the time, not aggressively, but to clarify what he wanted without stopping. He did not use a baton in piano rehearsals, but did when we got to the orchestral rehearsals. He was on good terms with the orchestra. In the two days between the performances he recovered and we were confronted by a dynamo for the second performance. I have a tape of the Prom and I don’t think the choir ever sounded better, the energy within the first two movements was remarkable, nor did he simply skate over the reflective passages. I maintain he is an across the score conductor as against an up and down the page guy, that is to say, he seems to grip the tempo and pace and accuracy of entries predominantly over the texture, though he certainly did not ignore colour. 

I got the impression he looked for momentum combined with detail. He asked for a very strange formation of the choir, I have never seen it before or since. In the Albert Hall we were behind the orchestra but on the platform, not in the Choir Stalls. He strung us out right along the platform and there were only four rows of us. I had tenors in front of me. I think it made us work harder as no one could rely on a block of sound and you could only hear a little of what the choir was producing. Siegfried Jerusalem was terrific in the tenor part and Helen Donath coped well with music I felt was a size too big for her.

I was fortunate to get into the SNO chorus without any real music education.... the chorus master was one who was especially interested in specific voices. I joined at 18, then the youngest bass in the choir. He took a liking to my voice and for a year he had me included in his training class, but I still got to sing in all the performances. I have a quick ear and once heard, I could repeat lines to him quite well. Also, because I had heard such a lot of music I knew the style of what we were doing. Lots of singers just turn up to sing and have no insight into the different style of say French rather than German composers, or Classical as against Romantic. Quite quickly he was putting newbies beside me which I took as a compliment. On one occasion in The Albert Hall. Missa Solemnis, I was put at the end of the one line of Bases because he told me he could rely on me keeping it together and coming in strongly on the entries.

This good ear thing is OK for Handel and Bach, but we did Penderecki in that first year and I had to go to a musical friend and be trained like a dog. We did his Stabat Mater and he conducted us. I was well scared, as the music was unaccompanied and he was about three feet from me. At one point all the singers had to produce a different semitone through about three octaves. He knew exactly what notes were missing and was very impatient about it. I managed not draw attention to myself, but was never sure whether I was on the right note or had stolen someone else's. There was only about a third of the choir used for the piece and I think John, the Chorus Master took a flyer on me to study the music at home.

I did a Mahler 8 at the Wolf Trap, 1975, Leinsdorf conducted. He seemed to be somewhat at sea, asked the choir to lead him rather than he lead the choir....A bit of a tall order as no doubt that would mean 500 different opinions. It was not a great performance, made memorable mainly for the terrific rolls of thunder that swept across some of the quiet passages. I did perhaps think Leinsdorf was just too old to cope with this piece, he had been a legendary name to me and I had been keen to sing for him during the tour, it works that way sometimes, then a name not known to you sets you on fire with excitement. He certainly in performance did not follow my lead; I got the impression he preferred to follow the Sopranos.

On that 1976 tour we performed in several of the summer out-doors venues. The oddest was at St Louis. It was a large tent cut in half with the performers in the tent facing out towards the audience. We did Verdi Requiem and Haydn's Creation there. It was boiling hot. The conductor, Alexander Gibson, forgot to give us any sit queues in the Verdi. I recall watching the shirt of the man in front of me turn to water as it stuck to him. It was the first time I had tasted watermelon. I had loads of it as soon as we came off stage.

This was part of a trip in 1976 something like 10 venues in three weeks and an astonishing number of pieces. Let me see what I can recall...
Beethoven's 9th Baremboim and Mehta.
Bach Wachet Auf Gibson
Verdi Requiem and Haydn Creation Gibson
Walton Belshazza's Feast Previn
Copeland Tender Land Mehta
Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky Conlon
Mahler 8th Leinsdorf and Rudel
Bruckner Motets and Handel Zadok the priest + Britten St Cecelia...That was in New York where the orchestra does not appear with amateurs, so it was in St. Pat. Cathedral with an organist.

One year for auditions; presumably to ring the changes we had to sing a couple of songs or arias. A few people got weeded out on that occasion. My wife was always sure she would get chucked out. Her nightmare was when there was a blend problem or a repeated error when the chorus master would go along a section one by one making them sing the problem passage.

As for long hard concerts, I did a Scottish prom consisting of Walton's Belshazzar’s Feast and Berlioz Te Deum...weird or what! It would have been OK except that the conductor, Alexander Gibson, was going through a bad patch. He gave us hell at the piano rehearsal claiming we were pushing him too fast on the Berlioz and he had rethought the piece and it was going to be slow. He went on and on. So we did it in rehearsal how he wanted it.

On the night of the performance, Gibson was worse the wear for drink and that meant real danger, we watched him like hawks. Near the beginning of the Walton there is quite a tricky unaccompanied passage for the men. He simply put his baton down, crossed his arms and stared into the middle distance. This was a sweat-instantly-on-the-backs-of-the-knees moment. I saw the Leader pulsing with his bow subtly and followed him, then he brought the orchestra in, Gibson suddenly came to life and conducted the whole thing with a scowl on his face.
Clearly in the interval further refreshment was consumed, we were then treated to probably the FASTEST ever performance of the Te Deum, the real problem being that no two bars were the same length. I especially recall looking at the chorus master standing right at the back of the hall with a broad grin on his face and shaking his head. That is one none of us were going to forget.
During the rehearsals for Gurrelieder the soloists turned up and were introduced to us. Amongst a famous line-up was Hans Hotter as The Speaker. The conductor was Alexander Gibson.
The story unfolded later, but during the break in rehearsal Hotter complained to Gibson that he had not been introduced appropriately for such a distinguished guest. So, when everyone appeared again, just as we were about to start, Gibson brought Hotter to his feet and gave a very supercilious, and at the time puzzling, re-introduction. Gibson's tone and body language said as much as the words. I recall one phrase, "Herr Hotter used to be a very famous singer, today he will speak for us."

Even if they had wanted Hotter back I cannot think he would have been willing.

Gibson could be terrific, but the misses started to outweigh the hits and he ended up retiring, very sad. The Verdi Requiem we did with him in St Louis was extravagantly praised, he was compared to de Sabata. He could be fantastically unprofessional. We were performing Bach’s Magnificat and there was a lot of fuss going on in the Cathedral because Princess Margaret would be present. He had not bothered with a piano rehearsal. He was distracted by the sniffer dogs and security people poking round. So, starting in a bad mood it got worse. At one point he looked at a played and said….I did not know there was one of you in this piece…..a dead give away that he had not opened the score. He went through it faster than Gardiner could possibly and we thought this was him just showing his temper, however at the performance, he went at it the same way. He clearly was not in sympathy with Bach and simply catapulted through the piece giving no help to the hard pressed soloists.

I recall Julius Rudel doing a passable impersonation of Erich von Stroheim. It seemed even more like life because in the humidity of St Louis he strode angrily about in long shorts, smacking his leg with his long baton almost like a riding crop. This was in preparation for what turned out to be a very fine Mahler 8th. He was superbly nasty, but I am afraid the only people he freaked out were the children's chorus who went silent with fear. The rest of us were not up for being terrorised, we had had to put up for years being alternatively kissed or bitten by Sir Alexander Gibson who several times strode off mid rehearsal because something or other was unendurable. On one occasion it was the puny electric organ which was meant to compete with the full orchestra in Berlioz Grande Messe. Although I could see his point, it did mean that we never did rehearse the final 20 minutes, as he had not managed to reach them in the piano rehearsal either and that kept us on out toes on the night. He did one of his classics on us during the performance. During the Lacrimosa while the Tenors are flagilating themselves with some very tricky whipping music, Gibson spread-eagled himself over the podium, stiff armed, he had not collapsed....the music flowed on in approximate time and Sir Alex eventually decided to rejoin us. Although I never encountered any of the conductors who used to make the orchestra wonder if they had a job in the morning, latterly with Gibson, a number actively looked on a regular basis.

After the declining Gibson years where drink took an increasing toll, Neeme Jarvi was a breath of fresh air. Although he was a good orchestral trainer and brought standards up significantly, he disliked rehearsal. He took a lot of risks in either changing things substantially in performance, or simply not rehearsing passages and taking a flyer. It was always exciting to perform with him. He was easy to follow, to the extent he conducted the Hungarian March in the Damnation of Faust entirely with his eyebrows and shoulders, and it came off terrifically well. His was among the best Mahler 8th I have been in, though he did not do much with the opening of the second movement. Early in his tenure he did Blest Pair of Sirens. by Parry. Although he was a quick learner, he came unstuck here in that he set a grotesquely slow pace, like a run down record. It was broadcast on radio and made us laugh out loud it was such a distortion. He soon got to grips with the ‘English’ idiom. But that was one of the few performances where I kept running out of breath.

Tippet conducted us in his own work Child of Our Time. This was very exciting to us. He was engaging and knew the score expertly, vital as his sight was very poor and he could not see the score unless his nose was touching it. He picked up the odd error in the orchestral parts. The performance itself was good, but he rocked us by having a sudden memory lapse and at a critically difficulty entry simply stood stock still until he came to again and the leader once again saved the day and kept things going.

Tilson-Thomas made an appearance in Edinburgh to inevitably conduct some Bernstein. He was certainly pleasant, knew what he wanted, but seemed to be very much painting by numbers and there was no freshness, no attempt to draw us in. We were however astonished by his extensive retinue. All men in their 20s or 30s. They did not directly give the game away as to whatever their function was, but they virtually constituted an audience. I never saw a conductor bring anyone to a piano rehearsal, but to bring seven?

Ricardo Chailly was a highlight, personality plus and electrifying. He was one who knew the parts in the score inside out, he somehow embraced everyone without a lot of talking. Precise in what he wanted, he used a stick and had a clear beat. He brought out colours from well known work you had not been aware of. He was young when he came to Edinburgh, but we all knew he was one to watch.

James Conlon, he seemed like a boy, very personable, but he quickly stamped his authority on us. We were doing Nevsky at the Hollywood Bowl, we had a second generation Russian émigré in the choir, she had been coaching us. However, Conlon was not having any of it. It turned out he spoke excellent Russian and he unpicked it and put it back together again, it sounded much more authentic and of course, we ate out of his hand. After the performance, a couple of the orchestra complemented us on our Russian and asked who had coached us…..they were not altogether surprised at the answer. That coaching did us well as we subsequently recorded the piece under Jarvi….who seemed to take what he got in that respect, so it was as well it was good. 

Temirkarnov was like Russian Royalty. His gestures were almost balletic with his hands, as though he was slicing the air and dividing it into quarters. He was relaxed and friendly, but as soon as the music started he became this hieratic figure his face withdrawn. One piece we did was Nevsky, we never saw the soloist until the actual concert, the legendary Irina Arkapova. The show was stopped to allow her entrance for her aria, then she swept off….I guess you can only sit through Nevsky so many times, but I should think her fee would have been fat and I was disappointed she could not be bothered to sit the whole thing out as her movements disturbed the flow of the piece.

Everyone enjoyed Previn, he was easygoing, but totally professional. He was one of the very few who made quips to the choir in the piano rehearsal. He was among the many who really used the ears of the chorus director to sit out in the auditorium and ask about balance. We did Belshazzar’s Feast with him conducting the Chicago S.O.. He gave a lot of notes on the score and they really listened to him, then the brass in particular played as thrillingly as possible with a wonderful swagger. Twice after than he was ‘ill’ when engaged to conduct us.

Other conductors I recall are Leppard, Mackerras, not at all a pleasure, but he got excellent results, Casadasu, hopeless as was Owen Arewll-Hughes, Janowski another I was happy never to see again, he managed to drain all the drama out of Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces, Lobos Cobos who we all rated very highly, Nick Kramer who was an early music guy, but without using early music instruments…odd. Hickox…a swine and deeply unpleasant, Dutoit who was so delighted with us he insisted his contract for the Edin Festival included concerts with us. Baremboim a Philidelphia Beethoven 9 where the players were caught out having not organized the repeats between them, boy was he annoyed about that, Willcocks and Salonon. Exciting days….long past.

Baremboim was in 1976. He was another of the ultra businesslike ones with no interest in small talk. I recall arguing with a couple of the choir who preferred Mehta. We had done the 9th with them both. Mehta had been charming, but again, I think that, compromised by the holiday atmosphere at the Hollywood Bowl, it simply was not anything other than an efficient performance.

The consensus was that Mehta was going to mature into a great conductor and Baremboim would not. I strongly disagreed. I sensed some interesting things, especially in the first and third movements. Years later I understood that Baremboim was influenced by Furtwangler, although it was not much like the Furtwangler performances I have heard, it was definitely an interpretation with ideas. Baremboim seemed diffident when some of the singers accidentally encountered him after rehearsal. He was concentrated, but the Orch was just not quite doing what he wanted.

Conductors are always very careful in front of the amateurs, they are usually fairly circumspect about whatever the problems were. But there were long discussions with the leader and I thought that had we not been there then he would have addressed his obvious unhappiness direct to the orchestra. I can remember Baremboim saying what repeats they were going to take, I saw some write it down, but at least two subsections got it wrong during the performance and his head whipped round while he angrily eyeballed them. I would have liked to work more for him, though he showed no understanding of what he wanted to get from the voices, basically there he took what we had and it was the orchestral detail that preoccupied him.

Mackerras had long been a hero, he was one we really looked forward to. He was doing the Delius Mass of Life and I got the impression he was not much into it. Heather Harper was the soprano and even in her twilight years she sang astonishingly well. It seemed as though only when she was singing that he blossomed. Other than that he was sour with everyone, not happy with the choir, though we thought we were doing just what he wanted. The performance was judged an all round success. I have just remembered our rehearsals were in a very odd hall with bad acoustics, that may have been the problem as I think there was a time lag that took time to overcome. He was very well prepared, but this felt like the fulfillment of a contract and I know from others that he was different to work with when he was performing music he is famous for.

Hickox came on like he was used to better, though we were well regarded. He was utterly impatient, rude, cut people off in the orchestra and used a lot of dismissive body language. It was the B Minor Mass. On the night it was fine, though he scowled at everyone apart from the audience.

Dutoit conducted us in the full Daphnis and Chloe. He was taken aback with our range of colour and accuracy without sounding drilled. He was communicative and very encouraging. It was a terrific performance. I have seen him since and not been very impressed, he did Sibelius that sounded under rehearsed and the chording of the brass was ragged, but back then, he worked in great detail with the orchestra.

One story about Gardiner. He gave us a very hard time in a Schumann piece, 'Paradise and the Peri', he also lectured us about how wonderful it was despite the feeling we had that it was drech. There was one part where the mezzos sang the same note for three pages. It was not difficult music in any way, but he was exacting and seemed unhappy.

I happened to meet him socially after the first rehersal. I guessed he would not recall my face, so innocently asked how his rehearsal had been. He said it was excellent, the singers are first rate. I then explained I was in the choir and we had the impression we could not do anything right for him and that if he liked what we were doing, he could try saying so. I have to say he looked nonplussed, but I never have been the sort to be intimidated. This was the only time I ever tried to speak to any of the conductors, but he had annoyed me so much.

He was markedly different in the following rehearsal with us, pleasant and encouraging....once we got to being with the orchestra, it was as though he was simply putting up with us. Having said this he then asked for us for Damnation of Faust and we were surprised at that. On that recording he brings out some of the most beautiful and graduated singing we ever achieved.
Menuhin was a legend to us and he had been conducting for quite a few years, for instance in the Bath Festival in the 1960s. We had read mixed accounts about his ability to conduct. He was coming for the Mozart Mass in C. At this point the chorus master was the newly returned to Edinburgh, Arthur Oldam.....quite a character. In between stints with us, he had been the chorus master simultaneously with the Paris Opera and the Concertgebouw. Arthur had tried to get a marked score out of Menuhin and meet him, however, Menuhin's diary was packed full. Eventually, a couple of days before the piano rehearsal Arthur flew over to Paris to see Menuhin and go over the score together. They sat opposite one another and started reading bar numbers out to confirm dynamics etc.

Very soon they discovered they were not working from the same score, ie not merely a different edition, but Menuhin thought he was to perform the Requiem, he had never seen the music for or heard the Mass in C. General consternation, no the choir could not learn the Requiem to standard in a few days, no, the soloists had been engaged for the Mass in C. He undertook to learn the piece.

He was utterly charming and gave no direct indication to us that he simply did not know the piece. The rehearsals were a bit fraught as he was virtually sight reading it. He was not clear on what he wanted and we got frankly confused over the markings he wanted. Arthur gave us notes to 'clarify'. It must have been a fairly scary experience for him, he was already elderly and his memory fallible. The performance was respectable, but not really Festival standard. Arthur did not tell us the story until after the performance.

The chorus master who had basically sponsored me was John Currie. He was a superb voice trainer and had aspirations to be a conductor. We did do several concerts with him, but he somehow did not reach the heights that many of our big guns did. I do recall in programmes his biog referred to his debut date at the Carnegie Hall, what it did not make clear was that this was a hall in Carnegie's native Scotland, not the one in New York. In that very hall we were singing after a performance of Les Nuits d'ete with Felicity Palmer, still at that point a soprano. I have always enjoyed her singing and the following just shows that even the very best can muck it up.

The first song started and Palmer came in three bars early. I was wide eyed wondering whether John would have to stop the piece and restart, then I saw him put three fingers to his chest and dive them down, he repeated this several times and the orchestra scrabbled to catch the singer....she had determinedly sailed on. I was pretty taken aback that the singers beside me had not been aware of any unusual sounds or that anything had gone wrong. It used to annoy me that a lot of them could not tell Ravel from Mendelssohn. I would have assumed anyone with a musical ear could tell when Berlioz suddenly sounds like Berio.

John had a good pair of ears, well used by most conductors who would be happy to take notes from him as he listened out in the hall during orchestral rehearsals and after every such rehearsal he would give very detailed notes. These we found vital and they would often be incorporated into a prematch pep talk in the green room. I only knew of one instance where he overruled the conductor and that was Simon Rattle. This was his first concert with us in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. It has odd acoustics. Shaped like the Albert Hall, but with a box at the platform end where the choir sit. You have to project very hard to make the sound come through the invisible barrier of the proscenium. We knew the hall well, but Rattle kept telling us we were too reality, 250 people singing the Faure would be grotesque now, possibly he thought so then. We went quieter and quieter.

Just before the performance, John told us that he had explained to Rattle that the sound was not coming into the hall at all. He said that we simply could not do it like Rattle insisted, we had to sing as we knew in that hall. We did. Although I know there was trouble about it subsequently, Rattle was assiduous in using John's ears in subsequent performances, I guess he learnt.

John subsequently went over to LA to be the director of the St Paul's Orchestra. I am not sure that it went very well. Eventually he came back to Scotland and basically retired, itself an odd thing for a musician to do.


  1. What an impressive story! I'm glad I've stumbled upon it. :)


  2. Thank you so much.
    And it's very interesting, no doubt.


  3. Highly entertaining and informative, many thanks!