A Rave Review

It’s rare for me to write or even think of writing a rave review, but I just must. For the last two nights (23rd and 24th, June 2013) I’ve sat down with my wife and listened to the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. What we heard on both nights ‘blew us away’ … please excuse the incoherent cliché. When the results on both nights were announced I have no shame in admitting that I, at least, found my arms punching up towards the ceiling in the standard ‘goal’ gesture, together with a loud ‘Yes! Our winner had won and it was a no-contest. No other finishers were within sight, or in this case, within earshot.

It wasn’t however just that. We had heard a musician of a magnitude on the Richter Scale of 9 or 10. We had heard a singer of the same scope, with a multitude of colours in her voice, inflections in her tone … innumerable tones … and perfectly pitched approaches to her wonderfully chosen music. Revelation piled on revelation. Earthquake on earthquake.

In case you are wondering what on earth a grown man of mature years is doing writing such stuff, I call my wife to witness that she thought exactly the same. (She often requires quite some persuasion to agree with me, and more often than not I don’t have enough persuasion in stock.)

Jamie Barton is an American mezzo-soprano, cast on generous lines with a hugely generous sound, and with a face that is one of the most expressive I have ever seen put to the use of music. I don’t just mean the usual stock expressions: her riveting characterisation of the Evil Witch in an excerpt from Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’ actually frightened me, whereas her calm and even demeanour was perfect when a very different composer, Sibelius, required her to simply present the music in all its plain glory. Her final masterstroke of Dido’s farewell from Berlioz‘ The Trojans was indescribable both vocally and dramatically. This was genius, ending her programme very quietly on a note of deep tragedy, when all about her were merely shouting banal top notes to whip up cheap applause, or scuttling up and down scales and arpeggios with the same intention. She also gave not a sign of any pre-packed ready-to-go interpretation lifted from other singers, the kind of thing that sounds as if picked up on a cardboard platter from the local take-away. She does her own hard yards that allow her to be completely certain of herself in the extraordinary range of her responses to such a variety of composers. She forges her own knowledge and therefore her own certainty.

What has this got to do with brass players, I hear you ask? Nothing at all if you are happy with the Charles Atlas kick-sand-in-their faces kind of instrumental demonstration all too prevalent in modern brass performance. If however the expressive possibilities that are revealed by different musicians from different genres shines a searchlight on other fascinating ways of doing things can that be other than good?

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The Great Wilko! But how many are there?

Looking forwards very much to the appearance of Mark Wilkinson’s CD with Fodens. (MILESTONE-Doyen CD310) He is a model player as well as person … he could be, in all round value terms for Fodens, the best band appointment I ever made. What heightens his musical gifts are three qualities that rarely go together: his steadiness of purpose, his intelligence and his impish sense of humour. (Even the other great Wilko … the saintly Jonny … can only manage two of those three qualities.) It must be remembered that Mark followed immediately after two other true greats of the cornet in the Fodens Solo Cornet position: Martin Winter directly preceded him for a limited period, but before that for many years, John Hudson led from the front in a similar way to Mark. Effervescent, always with a smile, brave, never shirking a challenge, John set the bar at a very high level. Mark has been clearing that bar for even more years than John and deserves all the plaudits that are consistently coming his way.

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One additional reason for my interest in the disc is that it includes a Fantasy that I wrote in 1988, dedicated to my father. He was a talented amateur brass musician, a multi-instrumentalist. A man sparing of unearned praise, he was a person of depth and character, the kind who go unremarked until the arrival of one of those sudden ‘cometh the hour‘ events. One did arrive in the 50s when his efforts during a mine rescue made him publicly remarkable. Ill health dogged his later years as the many tolls on his life increasingly added up.

As for the other Great Wilko … the Jonny one … the English sports press does not understand the degree to which he is worshipped in France. Perhaps they think he is not liked because he is English; but he is not just liked, he is respected and revered both for his performance and his conduct. More understood and appreciated here than in England, and seen to be a master in all aspects of the game, his new captaincy of Toulon is perhaps his most hidden but potentially his greatest achievement. Proven as a player on a thousand occasions, he has shown leadership, flair, loyalty and deep deep grit. Even fans of opposing teams signal their unalloyed respect in the rugby press … as if MU fans took to the correspondence columns to signal their unstinting appreciation of MC’s best player! This was not uncritically handed to him on the plate by the press and the public, but gradually accorded in a way that from now will always be there for him. If only Wilko had been given the chance to captain the England Rugby team, the chaos of quite a few years post-Woodward would have been years of glorious success, not scratchy failure. He conducts Toulon’s matches the way a great musician conducts performances.

(Having written this a couple of weeks ago, today Jonny has won the European Cup with Toulon. And it came to pass that he smiled! Ever seen before?)

The French Touch

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This pic is of a Kite Festival held on the beaches at Berk-on Sea (Berk-sur-Mer) on the northern coast of France, the Opal Coast as it is now called in marketing-speak. They fly kites there at many times of the year … try to catch it at non-Festival time before it all becomes too commercial. As it is, “the biggest-kite-in-the-world” competitions are getting quite silly, but they have a bizarre Disney-style attraction, one notch up from the horrible Carnival Procession that precedes the Tour de France.

France does community activities very well and enjoys itself in old-style ways that are rarely found now in Britain. Thank you, Health and Safety for your crass destruction of so many enjoyable traditional festive moments. (The Whit Marches in Lancashire are one of the few vestiges of the many old English Festivals that used to go off without any fuss: my Fantasy for Cornet, which has an outing in Mark Wilkinson’s new CD, ends with a musical painting of the old May Day celebration. NOT the modern political one. And there’s no safety for the soloist.) Every village and hamlet in France has a couple of feasts per year, with every one giving a helping hand.

Our’s is typical. The first, held at the end of May, is a simple lunchtime meal with everyone mixed up as they wish, no speeches, no formalities, stay as long as you wish and eat as much (or little) as you want. The second Feast, to bring the summer holidays to a close, marks the coming La Rentrée (The Re-entry) … the return to normal life, work, school and all the year’s rituals and the endless series of brief holidays that give France its old style attraction. May, by the way, is rumoured (according to a local source) to have 12 days of holidays, and of course the retirement age which was 62 (!) is due to drop to 60 (!!). This is called the French Exception. I confidently expect French gravity to be suspended any minute now.

La Rentrée, at the end of August, is the most substantial affair, spread over three days of very late evenings of eating, with dances for the younger and for the older, together with general socialising around a large jumble sale. To my knowledge there is never an outbreak of the kind of public behaviour that now scars every British weekend. Long may Les Fêtes and the French Exception continue. I fear that their Teutonic enemies across their Eastern borders are on the march, on land, sea and air, against such Glorious Exceptions to the dismal grind of modern life. Enjoy it while it lasts, I say!

Spring morning, looking east from our garden. When it’s really clear we can see for a hundred miles to the (extinct) volcanoes of the Auvergne.

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Hitting the High Notes

A Portrait of George Eskdale by Tully Potter

On an evening in 1935, the modern performance of baroque trumpet music was changed utterly by one of the most thrilling bursts of virtuosity ever heard on the concert stage. In one of those lucky chances which occasionally come the way of the gramophone, this interpretation was recorded the very next day; and it still sounds as thrilling as it did then. The place was Queen’s Hall, London, the music was Bach’s Second ‘Brandenburg’ Concerto and the trumpeter was an unassuming man with a slight limp called George Eskdale.
Born on 21 June 1897 in Tynemouth, George Salisbury Eskdale received his early musical education from his father, a well-known brass band conductor and adjudicator, and while still a boy was already a noted cornet soloist. Much of his childhood was spent in Greenock, Scotland, where his father owned two cinemas, and he was educated at the Greenock Academy. His father roped him into playing for the silent films, where he formed a quartet with his brother and two sisters, and his first professional job was on a pleasure craft sailing up and down the River Clyde. In 1911 he entered the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, where he studied with the legendary cornettist Charles Leggett, also learning the violin. During World War I he served in Palestine and Europe with the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment and at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 he was severely wounded in the leg; thereafter he qualified for a small disability pension.

 

T236_George Eskdale (Centre) Kneller Hall in 1916

Eskdale at Kneller Hall (middle front row)

 

After recuperation, he returned briefly to Kneller Hall as an instructor. Once hostilities were over, he settled in London, again playing for the silent cinema and then with dance ensembles including the Savoy Havana Band, in which he was the only non-American; already an efficient violinist, he taught himself the saxophone so that he could double on it in the band.

 

T235_George Eskdale in Savoy Havana Band c 1922

Eskdale with the Savoy Havana Band (second from right)

 

More serious music beckoned, however. He became a member of the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra and in 1928 gave the first broadcast of the Haydn Concerto. In 1930 he joined the New Symphony Orchestra as principal, moving in 1932 to the London Symphony Orchestra, with which he stayed until his death on 20 January 1960 – although he seems to have continued in the New SO as well, for some years. When the Glyndebourne Opera Festival was mooted in 1933, it was planned that Fritz Busch should conduct an orchestra led by his brother Adolf and the other members of the Busch Quartet, with the rank-and-file strings made up of Adolf’s friends and pupils. This idea was vetoed by the Musicians’ Union and so members of the LSO, including Eskdale, played at the pre-war Glyndebourne festivals.
Adolf Busch went ahead anyway with the plan for a chamber orchestra but based it in Basel, where he then lived. The idea was to have a corps of strings and pick up wind and brass players wherever the Busch Chamber Players gave concerts; but he acquired two permanent flautists as well, the father and son Marcel and Louis Moyse. His first assignment was to play all six Brandenburg Concertos at the second Maggio Musicale in Florence in 1935; he had more than 70 hours of rehearsals and brought a new lightness and grace to the music, based on experience gained with small pick-up orchestras during the 1920s. The fiendish clarino trumpet part in the Second Concerto proved to be the only bugbear: an American trumpeter and then a Parisian were sent packing before Busch settled on an Italian who proved satisfactory. The concerts in Florence were triumphs and Busch planned to repeat the two evenings in London. Needing local extras, he booked Aubrey Brain – with whom he had already worked on the Brahms Horn Trio on record and in concert – then turned to brother Fritz for advice and ended up with several LSO players, including the oboist Evelyn Rothwell and Eskdale. The latter had a small trumpet in F specially made by Besson and Company, took time off to adapt his embouchure and created an astounding effect.
Eskdale’s playing was the highlight of the second evening on 16 October, attracting headlines such as ‘A brilliant trumpeter’ (The Daily Telegraph) and ‘Trumpeter’s art’ (Daily Mail). In the wonderful Queen’s Hall acoustic, he stood out even among such colleagues as Busch himself, Moyse senior and Rothwell. His achievement stimulated Constant Lambert to write: ‘I have never heard a greater piece of virtuosity on any instrument’ (The Sunday Times). Richard Capell of The Daily Telegraph felt that Eskdale was ‘the hero’ of the F major Concerto: ‘He played the famous and taxing part in the upper octave (that is, as written, and not transposed down), using a piccolo trumpet in the upper F. […] The effect was charmingly musical, the tone blending to perfection with the woodwind, and the execution was extraordinarily accurate and brilliant.’
Adolf Busch recorded for HMV but that label was not interested in the Brandenburgs, having only recently done them with Alfred Cortot. Fred Gaisberg passed the idea over to colleagues at Columbia, who showed interest; but the project was in doubt until the last moment, when – as happened with so many of EMI’s prestige issues in the 1930s – Japanese subscriptions came in. Busch was given £500 with which to pay the players and the sessions at Abbey Road Studios actually began on 10 October, the day of the first concert, with the Third Concerto – which had been well rehearsed in Switzerland. The First, Sixth and Fourth Concertos followed on the 13th, 14th and 15th, the latter two being set down before the concert performance. The Second Concerto, however, was done on the day after the concert, the 17th, when everyone was still buoyed up and elated – not least Eskdale, who managed to repeat in the studio the extraordinary frisson he had created on his Besson the previous evening. The set (Columbia LX439/40; EMI 2 12699 2) was a tremendous success, quite eclipsing the quirky Cortot version, and the entire cycle of Busch Brandenburgs has hardly been out of the catalogue since.
Eskdale took part in all the Busch Chamber Players’ subsequent European concerts that required a trumpet. The following autumn, Adolf Busch introduced Bach’s four orchestral Suites to his little orchestra’s repertoire and Eskdale flew out to Basel to lead the trumpets in the Third and Fourth Suites. He then repeated the feat at the Queen’s Hall concerts – which also included the Brandenburgs – and led the trumpets in the recordings of the Third and Fourth Suites made at Abbey Road on October 28 (HMV DB3018/22; EMI 2 12699 2). His LSO colleagues were also at the studios that day, recording Bach and Mozart concertos with Artur and Karl-Ulrich Schnabel and Adrian Boult; but fortunately they did not require a trumpet – although the oboists had to be replaced, as Busch had first call on all three LSO players, Rothwell, Natalie Caine and Joy Boughton. The Busch Chamber Players also took their Brandenburgs to Brussels, for two acclaimed concerts in the Grande Salle du Palais des Beaux-Arts, and it looked as if their autumn series would become a fixture in Basel, London and the Belgian capital.
Eskdale continued his solo recording career with the Tarantella from Alfredo Casella’s Serenata, done on 15 February 1937 for the Columbia History of Music with Reginald Kell, Paul Draper, Jean Pougnet and Anthony Pini (Columbia DB1788). The next landmark was his participation in the orchestra at the 1937 Coronation of King George VI in Westminster Abbey, an event which was recorded live (HMV RG1/14). The 1938 Busch Chamber Players series was held under the shadow of the Munich crisis and by autumn 1939 Europe was at war.
Eskdale did, however, give at least one London performance of Brandenburg No. 2 that fateful year, in the Everyman Concerts at the Wigmore Hall on April 4, with Boyd Neel conducting his own orchestra. The Brandenburg ended an all-Bach programme in style. Two days later Eskdale was in the studio with the conductor Walter Goehr and a pick-up orchestra for his second ‘hit’, the première recording of the Haydn Concerto. For some reason only the last two movements were done, in a rescoring by Goehr (Columbia DX933). Even so, the disc had meteoric sales and millions of listeners came to know the work through it. It also had a fascinating discographical history: the original issue used the first takes of both matrices, CAX8537 and 8538, but by 1948 the matrix of the Andante needed renewing, so on 28 May a second take of CAX8537 was recorded; on 4 May 1950 a second take of CAX8538 was done; and the disc was not deleted until April 1959. It beggars belief that even on the two post-war occasions the opportunity was not taken to record a disc of the first movement; but those were pioneering days in which Haydn was treated rather casually.
Boyd Neel’s first major post-war project was to perform and record the Brandenburgs. Naturally Eskdale was his choice for the Second Concerto and although a national tour petered out in disarray, the London concerts – at Chelsea Town Hall, Queen’s Hall having been destroyed by bombing – and the sessions went better. Eskdale’s colleagues in the studio were Evelyn Rothwell again, Arthur Gleghorn, flute, and Frederick Grinke, violin; alas, Boyd Neel was no Busch and by comparison with the pre-war version, the recording of 20 April 1946 lacked panache (Decca K1550/1). Later that year Eskdale appeared in a movie, leading the LSO trumpets under Malcolm Sargent’s baton in the Crown Film Unit production Instruments of the Orchestra. The music played was The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, specially written by Benjamin Britten. This historic documentary is now on video (Beulah RT152). At the 1947 Proms, Eskdale premièred the Elegy and Capriccio by Anthony Lewis; and in 1948 he played with Adolf Busch for the last time, when the Chamber Players gave a Bach and Handel series at the Kingsway Hall, London. The following January, on a trip to Denmark, he recorded Knudage Riisager’s delightful Concertino at the composer’s special request, with Thomas Jensen conducting the Danish State Radio SO (Tono X25145/6; Danacord DACOCD523/4). It was a good way to finish his 78rpm recording career and the finale was used by many a teacher as a locus classicus of triple tonguing.
The 1950s brought more accolades for Eskdale. In 1952 he premièred John Addison’s Concerto in Belfast; in 1953 he played at his second Coronation, which again was recorded (HMV ALP1056/8; EMI CMS5 66582-2) and for which he received four guineas in expenses and a medal; not long after that he featured in his only recording of Handel’s Messiah, under Hermann Scherchen (Nixa NLP907); and the following year he finally recorded the Haydn Concerto complete, in the original scoring, with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra under Franz Litschauer (Vanguard PVL7012). Although one senses no special chemistry between soloist and conductor, this performance – produced by H.C. Robbins Landon – is very fine, with ample phrasing, and a CD reissue might ameliorate the effect of the resonant acoustic. A 45rpm disc featured Eskdale in Jeremiah Clarke’s ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ or The Prince of Denmark’s March, with the LSO under Charles Mackerras (HMV 7EP7031). His magnificent tone was also to the fore in Michael Tippett’s fine recording of Purcell’s ode Hail Bright Cecilia (Nixa NCL16021; Vanguard VCD72013).
Of course Eskdale can be heard on many orchestral records, among which his son Julian identifies these: from before the war, Yehudi Menuhin’s performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto (HMV DB1751/6; EMI CDM5 66979-2), Sir Hamilton Harty’s interpretation of the first version of Walton’s Symphony No. 1 (Decca X108/13; Dutton CDAX8003) and Bruno Walter’s Schubert Ninth (HMV DB3607/12; Dutton CDEA5003); from the LP era, the Rossini-Respighi La boutique fantasque under Ernest Ansermet (Decca LXT2555); Walton’s Façade Suite under Robert Irving (LXT2791); Elgar’s Enigma Variations (LXT2786) and Pomp and Circumstance Marches Nos 1 and 4, Bax’s Coronation March and Walton’s Orb and Sceptre (LXT2793), all under Sir Malcolm Sargent; and Josef Krips’s Schubert Ninth (SXL2045; 452 390-2DF2).
No one, least of all Eskdale himself, would suggest that he was the only trumpeter of quality during his era, even in Britain. Those interested in the evolution of the modern trumpet style can find excellent examples of the playing of Ernest Hall, Arthur Lockwood and Harry Mortimer: the soprano Isobel Baillie recorded ‘Let the bright Seraphim’ from Handel’s Samson with Hall in 1928 (Columbia 9670) and Lockwood in 1943 (Columbia DX1113); and Harry Mortimer recorded the Haydn Concerto and the ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ in 1946 with the Philharmonia under George Weldon (Columbia DX1535/6). Eskdale was friendly with Hall and sometimes took his BBC rival’s classes at the Royal College of Music during World War II, when Hall was stuck in Bedford – where the BBC SO had been evacuated. ‘George’s influence on the trumpet profession through his flexible style was broader,’ wrote Philip Jones in 1992, ‘but the specialisms of Ernest Hall meant that orchestral playing was very strongly influenced by Ernest’s style.’
Eskdale’s prowess in Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 – which, to quote Philip Jones, ‘was considered virtually unplayable by most trumpet players in the world’ – can be measured by comparing him with the best player on the European mainland. The Swiss trumpeter Paul Spörri, principal of the Berlin Philharmonic and 12 years Eskdale’s junior, took part in recordings directed by Alois Melichar (Polydor 27293/4, Decca LY6061/2) and Edwin Fischer (HMV DB7612/3; Koch 3-7701-2H1), omitting one high note and pecking at many others. When you move to other performances, the Cortot (HMV DB2035/6; EMI Références CHS5 67211-2; Koch 37705-2) or the laughably transposed wartime version directed by Fernand Oubradous (Odéon 123868/9; Dante LYS412), your admiration for Eskdale becomes all the greater. In the old days conductors sometimes substituted a clarinet for the high trumpet in this work; even after World War II, Klemperer (Polydor 566212/3) and Casals (Am Col. ML54345) had Marcel Mule play the part on a saxophone; Thurston Dart proposed a horn; and as recently as the early 1990s, Sigiswald Kuijken had it played by a horn because he felt a trumpeter could not do justice to it. Eskdale took a uniquely musical approach, his superb technique enabling him to phrase almost like a violin at times. Perhaps this propensity stemmed from his early days in the silent cinema and dance bands, when he had to be a credible part of a small ensemble.
George Eskdale had quite a list of solo works in his repertoire, among them concertos by Karl Pilss, Timothy Moore and Arthur Meulemans. He took part in more than 60 performances of Messiah by the Royal Choral Society at the Royal Albert Hall; and he was the regular trumpet soloist for Bach Choir performances, including cantata broadcasts under Reginald Jacques. ‘His flexibility of approach both to his instrument and to styles of music meant that he was in great demand in the film studios and the many light orchestras that broadcast in those days,’ wrote Jones. ‘His position as principal in the LSO meant that he was playing for distinguished conductors throughout his career.’ He gave hundreds of lecture recitals and taught at Trinity College of Music, London, from 1937 and the Royal Academy of Music from 1938, his myriad pupils including Bram Wiggins – a longtime LSO colleague – and Howard Snell. Contemplating those old Busch records, Wiggins commented: ‘It should be noted how he balances with the other instruments even in the highest register, never becoming obtrusive. He was a very thoughtful performer and brought a more lyrical style to trumpet playing than the more heroic, and sometimes brash, playing of his predecessors. The present style of English trumpet playing owes much to him and his great colleague, Ernest Hall.’

The One and Only

George Eskdale, Principal Trumpet, The London Symphony Orchestra, 1932-57

GEORGE ESKDALE, Principal Trumpet, The London Symphony Orchestra, 1932-57.

I have always found the lives of musicians interesting. No surprise there. Anything at all, regarding musicians of all kinds, whether it is what Beethoven had for breakfast or how a gigging saxophonist threaded a living together in the London of the 1950s.

I know a bit about the latter because, when a student, I rented a room in a house where the landlady’s son was a tenor sax jazzer, as they were called then. From time to time we had a natter on whichever landing we passed. When he died a few years back, and I found virtually a full-page obituary in The Times, I was surprised, pleased and a little bit moist-y eyed. Yes, Harry Robinson, you deserved it too, as well as Beethoven, even though the two of you would never have met in Archer Street, Soho, on a Friday morning. (More of that maybe some other time.)

It was in the 50s that I first met George Eskdale at the Royal Academy of Music in London, not in my first week there, because he sent a dep, but thereafter he was my trumpet teacher, my Professor, a Wizard of a player to me, a veritable child of only just 17 as I was then. Since then, while threading my own unpredictable path through music, he remains someone I have continued to revere as a musician and as a person. Attentive, kind, friendly but not familiar … there were manners in those days … he could not have been a better role model. Truth to tell, he was a teacher by example only, but there are many ways to be a teacher and he was the only one I knew.

Recently in clearing out my library with a view to downsizing … or more truly taking pity on my children having to sort my stuff when I have passed on … I came across a lovely appreciation of George in a record magazine. International Classical Record Collector was an ideal of its type, and is still in existence although under a new banner. Tully Potter, its editor at the time, a writer of relaxed and wide understanding of both music and musicians, had written a perfect pen portrait of the great man.

Together with some pictures from George’s early years and containing facts about his early life of which I was quite unaware, the article begins with a key moment (1935) in trumpet history: the first recording of Bach’s 2nd Brandenburg Concerto. I once asked George about it during a lesson, ignorant as I was at that time of anything to do with recording processes of any kind: it was still mainly the days of 78rpm records. At that time, he said, there were no retakes possible to cover blips and the recording a long work was made as a series of chunks each fitted one side of a record. The Brandenburg was done in an afternoon and he was paid 40 guineas (40 x £1/1/- , in modern terms 40 x £1.05) and supplied with a crate of Guinness. Guinness and Guineas. That was George to a T.

I am very grateful to Tully for allowing me to post on my blog his appreciation of George Eskdale, of whom one final word from me. (I will post it in a couple of days.) As a schoolboy, I soaked up every moment of music that I could squeeze out of our old Sobell radio (after doing my homework and my practice), twirling the dial in desperation for anything of interest, whether it was ancient or modern. Whether Bach from London or Kenton from the American Forces’ Network in Germany. I chanced one evening on the LSO playing Vaughan Williams’ 5th from the BBC and was enraptured by the pure singing tone of the trumpet solos in the 1st movement. “I must study with him, whoever he is” I told my parents.

My father managed to find out who ‘he’ was, and a year or two and many family worries later, there I was with George Eskdale, the one and only, having just bought a trumpet for the first time a week before (as instructed via the Academy, a Besson C and Bb and having auditioned on an ancient cornet), ready to start my own musical adventure. His special sound continued to inspire me through the years. Thank you George.
To be continued.

Magician or Charlatan? My Favourite Conductor …

An email from the Archivist at the London Symphony Orchestra Office a couple of days ago brought back the memory of a particular set of recording sessions with the Orchestra. Someone had contacted the Orchestra wanting to know who had played Principal Trumpet on these sessions. The Archivist thought I would like to know. The Kingsway Hall in central London was the venue, in the days when you could still park within three hundred yards of anywhere. I was there in plenty of time and feeling good. What else could there be? Just great repertoire to record, and a conductor that I loved playing for.

Not that he didn’t have the capacity to scare me! And everyone else probably. Once I had seen him dealing with anyone whose concentration was not of the best, whether musician or recording engineer, I watched him like the possible prey watches the hawk. His pre-session technique was to sit quietly at the conducting desk slouched over his score, marking it in various coloured pencils and in general doing conductor’s housework — or so it seemed. In fact, he was watching for anyone not seriously preparing to play, and if a player came in very close to the start-time of the session, then started chatting rather than warming up, the first victim of the day was marked out. Once hands had been clapped for quiet, “You Sir” would be his first words, accompanied by a pointed finger at the end of a scaly hand. “Why you not warm-up?” On a very bad day, I have seen the player thrown out of the session at that point. “Do not ever come back!” would follow the unfortunate out of the studio. And he remembered.

But on this day, all was serene. Messiaen’s ‘L’Ascension’ was to be done in a couple of sessions, with some other bits thrown in if there was time. (On one little Chopin Mazurka arrangement I had to play a very moody Flugel Horn!) Recording started almost at once, because the recording engineers knew that they would draw his ire and fire if they dawdled in their usual way. If they weren’t ready the scaly hand would be pointing at them and the monologue would go something like “Are you professionals? We are ready. Why are you not ready? Are you sure you are professionals? Take one.” This had happened once before and only once was necessary. Then all of this had occurred before we had played a note. The sound of running engineers had amused everyone, but most importantly the starting atmosphere of any session was thereafter on tip-toe, ready to go at once.

It was all done so easily. From memory the first, brass only, movement of ‘L’Ascension’ took two takes, the first of which was the read-through. Had we prepared? Of course. After each subsequent take, as was his usual practice, he asked if there was anything anyone wanted to do again, either from the players or the control room. “Now we go home,” came at the right moment, without hurry, without dawdling. Whenever I played for him, I always hoped to see him again, and was lucky enough to do so many times in concert and on recordings over a period of 16 years. Finally, when I was on the point of closing my playing career, I played for him on his last-ever sessions (1977) at Abbey Road, no longer with the LSO, but with a freelance orchestra of stunning technical quality. I knew it was the end. He knew also, I think. He died some months later. Thank you, Leopold Stokowski.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Franck-Symphony-Messiaen-LAscension-Chopin/dp/B00349Q92C/ref=sr_shvl_album_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1359471714&sr=301-1

A Must-read for Brass-ists

Louis Armstrong Producers Showcase 1956

Anyone interested in the story of the trumpet or cornet should read ‘THE TRUMPET’ by John Wallace and Alexander McGrattan. Behind the particular instrumental story is a more general but just as interesting one: a long panorama of musicians and music. The book is published by Yale University Press in the US and the UK, is dedicated to the Tullis Russell Mills Band, and to their respective fathers and teachers. As well as a being a gripping story, a real page turner, it is also history in the formal sense.

I won’t attempt an kind of summary except to say that it is a  tale to follow from start to finish, beautifully clear in the telling. There is a level of clarity and flow to the text that comes at a price. That price is paid by the authors, who must have worked constantly to shape and re-polish every phrase and sentence until, as here, the words and the meaning are unmistakably right.

Looking at just one section will tell you all you need to know about the book’s quality. In my own book, The Trumpet, A Guide for Students (1996), I touched very briefly on the degree to which the coming of jazz had released an explosion of technical invention. The authors have taken the same starting point to open up the subject much more fully. Indeed they open it up in a most enlightening way.

Firstly, jazz performance simply by-passes the constraints that art-music composers place on players and their technique. Jazz, together with band playing, has ripped brass playing for ever out of this rut. Secondly, the authors  describe the meeting, inter-breeding and then the parting of the ways of the cornet and the trumpet in the early years of the 20th century.

These changes are personified by Louis Armstrong and his career, a man whose musical genius turned his technical virtuosity into something more than the sum of the parts. He became, in the authors‘ view, the key figure in the story of the modern trumpet, the figure around which the story hinges. This assertion places Armstrong, in his own special way, among the ranks of the greatest performers and creators in the history of Western Music, shoulder to shoulder with Bach (the organ), with Paganini (the violin), with Liszt (the piano). That Armstrong was to give up the gentler cornet to pass on to the bolder trumpet midway through his career did not alter his trajectory in the slightest: it gave him new powers.

Whether the strand was musical (the quality of invention), whether sociological (the group format in which the playing takes place) or psychological (the types of personalities who take up the instrument in the first place), the different elements of the trumpet’s development at this crucial time were all blended in Armstrong’s output. The authors’ detail in supporting their thesis is impeccable. Of course none of these musicians invented the whole story of their instruments’ development from scratch: they all had precursors who were continuously lifting the bar, as if (with hindsight) preparing the ground for the coming of the Superstar, the Supernova.

In later life, always the luminous star wherever he was, whatever he was doing, Louis’ career became centered around repetitions of ‘hits’. This in no way detracted from his overall achievement, as he followed the well-trodden track of musicians of whom Pavarotti (tenor) is the best known modern example. (He certainly didn’t follow the example of Liszt, who became a monk. He was a trumpet player after all!) These are real musicians who have earned their reputation in their earlier years with real work, before easing more comfortably and lucratively into the realm of celebrity hits-for-the-masses in their later years. For me they served the public well and deserved their success.

This book also serves us mightily well, and deserves to be read and read while the next chapter in the story of ‘The Trumpet’ is being acted out … now, at this very moment … but is not yet understood and written down. Its track will be unexpected and surprising. It always has been.

Conducting? … what’s the problem?

Writing a short book about conducting is harder than writing a long book: for a start, there are many more of the latter than the former, but that is what I have now begun to do: write a short book on the subject. As short as I can make it, certainly nowhere near a hundred pages. There will be no pages as in a well-known Tutor for Bass-Trombonists that has a full illustrated page dedicated to 1: The WRONG way to open the case and 2: The RIGHT way to open the case.

So where to start? Where better than with a quotation. Anyone will do. Napoleon’s second-best-known one fills the bill …”Every (French) soldier carries a Field Marshall’s baton in their knapsack,” … is much truer if one changes a few words, as in “Every playing musician carries a conductor’s baton in their instrument case.” Many, many more players have taken up the conductor’s baton than soldiers have succeeded in becoming Field Marshals! (One could also alter the Little Corporal Napoleon’s best-known quotation to suit the player-turned-conductor … “Not tonight, Josephine, I have a big concert tomorrow!” On second thoughts, that doesn’t sound like the musicians I know.)

Every now and again a player, generally a very good one, asks me for advice about starting out in conducting, or if they have started, how to proceed further. One such, who had studied the trumpet with me in the distant past, called me up to plug into my supposed know-how and once we had settled down in a pleasant lunch venue in central London I asked him what he had in mind. He outlined his questions. He had done “some” ensemble conducting, found it “easy” and just wanted ideas as to “how to get work”. It seemed all rather straightforward to him, and my general impression was that we were in “falling off a log” and “what’s the problem” country as far as he was concerned. He just needed the key to that particular door.

Thinking about it later I had to agree that he was right. The starting is easy, as is the continuing … at first. It is only with time that one notices the very slight but persistant incline upwards, with not too many downs to allow one to recover a little. Once one has noticed the climb becoming stiffer, one also becomes aware of the players’ pairs of eyes throwing brief questioning glances in one’s direction. One or two of these looks take on the character of a stare. A definite effort is now needed to keep going. And so on.

Years later … many many years later, when the sunlit uplands appear and one can catch one’s breath … in fact no longer ever lose it … one is too old to care. Perhaps that sentence should be written the other way round … When, after many years, one is too old to care, the sunlit uplands appear and one can catch one’s breath. Even enjoy the view. Cue The Alpine Symphony.

As for him, my tyro conductor, at this moment I don’t know how well or otherwise he did. If he did get going, by now he will be into the steeper parts of the conducting slope. As for me, I am also back on the lower slopes, in my case in the very early stages of  this short book, and I know the further I go the harder it will get … rather like learning to conduct, but slower and much lonelier. Why do it? Is it like Sisyphus condemned to roll his stone to the top of the hill and always not quite making it? No, it’s not a curse of the Gods. It’s simpler. It is exciting to try to make sense of what one does. And what else is there but excitement? You might say that there are other easier excitements that deliver without pain and are win-win. This one is like distilling as opposed to brewing: the taste is very different.

We left the restaurant after an excellent lunch, having paid my half of the bill, and we parted with my thinking that he could go far! Perhaps I had learned something too.

Now back to the slope.