Federation of Recorded Music Societies West Midlands Region Conference
Birmingham and Midland Institute Saturday October 23rd 1999
This was the fourth annual regional conference arranged and introduced by Gordon Wainwright and Grahame Kiteley who provided an attractive programme deserving more support than it received. The 35 or so who did attend found it an entertaining and worthwhile day out accompanied by a copious lunch. The speakers before lunch were John Charles, former Orchestral Manager of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, the RPO, CBSO and RLPO followed by Ron Bleach of the Bantock Society. The afternoon speaker was Professor Andrew Downes, Head of School of Composition and Creative Studies at the Birmingham Conservatoire.
John Charles was Concert Manager at the RLPO for 11 years before coming to Birmingham in 1966 and he recalled that he almost never made it as his Austin A40 divested its big end near the Keele Services with the result that he missed his interview with Arthur Baker. There followed a trip down memory lane for many of the audience as he recalled the late sixties and early seventies at the CBSO. Much of that time Hugo Rignold was the conductor who admired the style of Toscanini and as a good string player himself, was able to get the orchestral string section to produce a defined sound on the beat. John had come from the RLPO who had Philharmonic Hall at their disposal for both concerts and rehearsals whereas the CBSO were forced to rehearse in all manner of unsuitable and uncomfortable accommodations. Unfortunately only one recording by Rignold with the CBSO made it onto LP (Bliss Music for Strings for Lyrita - never released on CD) because he would not pass the recordings as being acceptable to him. We were able to hear some of that recording and then we had a special treat of hearing Jacqueline DuPré playing the Shostakovich first cello concerto for the only time. Due to a mix-up in her diary she had failed to turn up for a concert in Birmingham the month before so was somewhat embarrassed to be there and had then dropped and rendered unrepairable an irreplaceable antique borrowed bow so it was not a happy occasion for her. She played the Shostakovich with romantic overtones unsuited to the spiky rhythms of the piece and sounded quite unidiomatic. She was not happy with that performance and did not play the work again but what a rewarding archival treasure to be able to hear! John had engaging and amusing tales to tell of the CBSO Education Programmes that sent them into local schools and of calamities when supporting the Welsh National Opera season and how, on the Eastern European Tour, they only just got home from Czechoslovakia as the Russians entered. Rignold and Baker, who were travelling privately, were stopped and had their passports withheld as they appeared rather suspicious characters! John proceeded to make light of the difficulties facing an Orchestral Manager who, due to the illness of a player, requires a contra-bassoonist for a live broadcast at only a few hours notice.
Granville Bantock lived and worked in Birmingham for 34 years having accepted a post in the new Music School simultaneously turning down an offer from the Royal Academy which he felt would not offer him so much freedom to do his own thing. He would have known well the very building in which we were housed for the day and both he and the BMI received financial support from the Cadbury family. Because of these associations and knowing there was to be a conference in Birmingham Ron Bleach rang to ask if he could attend and what it might cost. The tables were turned and here he now was giving us the history of the Bantock years. Bantock had come from New Brighton where in the tower (which was larger than Blackpool's) he had set up a brass band, then a tea orchestra and finally a full orchestra with programmes so popular the Mersey ferry timetables had to be altered to accommodate them. He was well known to British composers because he was willing to programme their works: Parry, Mackenzie, Elgar etc. Both he and his wife Helena were linguists and she provided many of the texts to his works. They were both so closely attuned that fitting music to them was not a problems and he was able to produce hundreds of drawing room ballads which were an important source of income to composers in those days. Helena was rather moody which was illustrated by an extract from the Helena variations. It was Bantock who invited Sibelius to Birmingham and Ron had brought along an interesting collection of photographs and letters including one signed on behalf of Adrian Boult declaring that Sibelius should only be offered half-fee. Sibelius came bearing only a few guineas and a box of cigars. The cigars were confiscated at customs and he was fined the guineas for illegally importing tobacco into the country. His whole stay was at the entire expense of Bantock and from gratitude Sibelius dedicated his third symphony to him. When the Bantock Society was formed in 1946 Sibelius became the first president. We heard Beecham introducing Fifine at the Fair before hearing parts of Beecham's recording - the only part of a planned British Council sponsored series of Bantock recordings to emerge. Of more recent recordings we were treated to part of Hyperion's Sappho which I discussed at some length a few issues ago when that recording appeared. We were also treated to an excerpt of Omar Khyam from BBC production conducted by Norman del Mar with Sarah Walker. The producer, Pope, arranged for the studio to be illuminated by changing coloured lights. We heard the caravan scene which takes place at a watering hole in the desert and the approaching camels were signalled by genuine camel bells. The piece was atmospheric with chorus - rather 'Kismet'. Ron showed a photograph of Bantock on a camel and regaled us with the fascinating information that a camel takes 200 pints of water at a drink. We ended with a recording of Bantock talking about Sibelius and a rare Paxton recording of Bantock conducting one of his lighter pieces.
The afternoon was given over to Andrew Downes in a talk entitled the "Process of composing a new oratorio for the Millennium" This work, 'New Dawn', is to be premièred at 19.30 in the Adrian Boult Hall on Friday February the 18th - as we were reminded several times! The work, like many others by Downes it transpired, is in five movements and based on American Indian texts embracing their philosophy that all aspects of life are part of one landscape so there is no forward movement in time but life leads to death leads to after-life in resurrection and a return to our ancestors. New Dawn has five movements; three choral with orchestra, one unaccompanied choral and two orchestral. Andrew explored the background to this work through earlier pieces he had written. The first to be heard was The Marshes of Glynn. This was a choral setting of the 19th century American poet and teacher Sidney Lanier although the marshes, we learned, are now covered in skyscrapers. The extract we heard featured John Mitchinson and, like all Andrew Downes' music, it was immediately approachable and tonal. That work had been a commission for the opening of The Adrian Boult hall in 1986. This led to the Sonata for eight horns played by the horns of the Czechoslovak Philharmonic which had been commissioned by the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; a piece inspired by that cactus dominated landscape. The two movements we heard were christened by a friend 'Wagon Train' and 'Pegleg'. This piece led to the commission of a number of other pieces for eight players including a sonata for eight pianos to be premièred next year and his most performed work - for 8 flutes (5 concert flutes, 2 alto flutes and a bass flute - in five movements of course!) which was premièred at the 1996 Annual USA flute convention. The work for eight horns led to the fourth symphony for symphonic wind band, again commissioned by the University of New Mexico but yet to be played there. Instead it has been take up by the RAF Central Band who will play it at the next BASWE festival. The fourth symphony, in five movements, is a programmatic description of the Indian landscape and cities. One of the movements we heard was entitled 'Sky City', describing Albuquerque in the desert, followed by Sand dunes in the desert.. This produced two simultaneous concerto commissions. The first, for two pianos, was written for an Italian Cathedral that had just been restored but before the première could take place it was badly affected by earthquake damage and is having to undergo further restoration. The work has since been played in Paris and London. The other concerto illustrated was for guitar, bass-guitar and string orchestra with Jazz and African influences in the outer movements but with a central adagio described as Mozart-like. The Oratorio 'New Dawn' has a body of first and second guitars as part of the orchestration. Also linked to the new oratorio is the third symphony 'Spirits of the Earth' (in five movements) (1992-3) written for the NSPCC and representing the pagan idea of Man belonging to the Earth and the need to preserve it for our children. This fascinating talk concluded with two works: Centenary Firedances (five movements) for Birmingham's Centenary Festival of music and fireworks (1989) at which 30,000 attended and 3000 copies of the CD were sold on the night. How many composers can boast of the sale of 3000 CDs in a single day? This work attempted to illustrate and bring together the many ethnic origins and influences to be found in Birmingham. The final work was a commission to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Institute of mechanical Engineering and is a celebration of Western progress and material prosperity which I suppose reflects the other side of humanity.
Gordon Wainwright and Graham Kiteley are again to be congratulated on an inspirational trio of speakers.
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