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© Basil Tschaikov 2006
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Back to Chapter 21


No longer a performer

The National Centre – Conservatoires around the world. Hong Kong – orchestral problems. The Chinese Orchestra. Financial difficulties at the NCOS. Competitions – opposing views.

When I became a member of The Committee of Enquiry into the Training of Musicians while I was still in the Philharmonia it had not crossed my mind that I might quite soon be ceasing to be a professional musician. Nor that I would have the opportunity to be involved in so many and diverse areas of the music world.

The National Centre for Orchestral Studies

The first news that a plan to create a training orchestra was being considered appeared in Classical Music in January 1978. Under the headline ‘Training orchestral musicians for the 1980s’ it stated that ‘Following the publication of the Gulbenkian Report on Training Musicians, exciting moves are afoot to establish a major new training orchestra in London. The plan is the brainchild of Basil Tschaikov, Philharmonia clarinettist (and chairman of the orchestra’s board) and professor at the Royal College of Music. He has prepared a paper on the establishment of a National Centre for Orchestral Studies at Goldsmiths’ College, New Cross in south London. This has been presented to and approved by a working party (the Advanced Orchestral Training Working Party) comprising representatives of the BBC – the demise of whose own Academy training orchestra was a direct spur to the new scheme – the Musicians’ Union, The Arts Council, the Association of British Orchestras and Goldsmiths’.’

Then in August the Times reported ‘A national centre to bring young musicians up to the standards of the leading orchestras will open in September next year at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London. The National Centre for Orchestra Studies (NCOS) will provide a year-long diploma course for about seventy-five student musicians at a time. They are likely to have graduated from music colleges and universities. There is little organised training for young musicians who aspire to join leading orchestras but need to improve their skills. A similar organisation, the Academy of the BBC, closed last year because of a lack of funds. Students, who will be coached by leading conductors and performers, will be eligible for local authority grants but the cost of running the course is to be met for the first five years by such organisations as the BBC, the Independent Broadcasting Authority, the Arts Council, the Musicians’ Union and the Performing Rights Society.’

At about the same time Goldsmiths’ issued a Press Notice in which the representatives of the three organisations that provided support throughout the life of the NCOS stated their belief in this new enterprise. Dr Richard Hoggart, Warden of Goldsmiths’ College and Chairman of the NCOS Executive committee, is quoted as saying: ‘We think a Centre of this kind is essential if we are not going to waste the talents of many of these young musicians and if the standard of British orchestral playing is to be maintained and improved to the highest international level.’ John Morton, General Secretary of the Musicians’ Union claimed it as: ‘A valuable step, which will improve the status and recognition of the music profession. I hope this initiative will give greater impetus to music in the state education system.’ The BBC’s Controller of Music, Robert Ponsonby, welcomed the scheme: ‘This proposal for the creation of a centre for orchestral training in Britain is very exciting indeed and the BBC is very glad to be involved as a sponsor of it. The centre deserves enthusiastic support from every sector of the profession.’
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During 1978 and 1979 the Advanced Orchestral Training Working Party made great progress and before long evolved into the NCOS Executive Committee. Once the National Centre was established with The Lord Perry of Walton as Chairman of the Board of Trustees – he was also the Chairman of the University of London Goldsmiths’ College Delegacy, its governing body – the Executive Committee became the Management Committee. One of the remarkable aspects of the NCOS was the way representatives of organisations that normally confronted each other across the negotiating table worked happily together on the Management Committee, made up of representatives of Goldsmiths’ College, the Independent Television Companies Association (ITCA), the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), the BBC, the Musicians’ Union (MU) and the Association of British Orchestras (ABO), with the Warden of Goldsmiths’ College as Chairman.

The launch and press conference at the Royal Festival Hall in December 1978 attracted a good deal of favourable coverage in the newspapers and by February 1979 it was possible to insert advertisements inviting application for the first course starting in September 1979. There were a great many applicants and the auditions in April lasted for several weeks until an orchestra of 70 was finally selected.

In order to prepare these young players for the profession the course provided the opportunity for them to study and perform the symphonic and chamber orchestra repertoire from the baroque, classical, romantic and contemporary periods, opera, light and session music, and to do so not only on the concert platform but also in the opera pit and in the broadcasting and recording studio. In a normal week they would be involved in about 25 hours of rehearsals, coaching sessions and concerts. In addition to their normal daily practise they usually found they needed to spend time preparing the new music they were faced with each week before the first rehearsal. This was especially the case for the strings. The NCOS paid for them to have a certain number of lessons with a teacher of their own choice. The number of lessons was determined by how much their teacher charged.

To take advantage of the outstanding international conductors that were attracted to London by the four London orchestras, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and two opera houses, the timetable was kept flexible so as to accommodate their availability. In this way the NCOS was able to persuade a considerable number of them to work with the orchestra. The orchestra would prepare the repertoire they were going to conduct by having sectional rehearsals with coaches and some full rehearsals, usually with a talented young conductor. It was fortunate that George Hurst who conducted the orchestra several times each year was not only an excellent orchestral trainer but had also taught many of those who later would go on to have successful conducting careers. Through him the NCOS were introduced to some of his ex-pupils. Adrian Leaper, Martyn Brabbins, Peter Stark and Mark Shanahan all gained valuable experience at the start of their careers both by conducting the orchestra and then attending the rehearsals and concert given by the conductor for whom they had prepared the orchestra.

Over ten years we were fortunate that Richard Armstrong, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Rudolf Barshai, Paavo Berglund, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, Harry Christophers, Nicholas Cleobury, Colin Davis, Edward Downes, Mark Ermler, Robert Farnon, John Eliot Gardiner, Roy Goodman, Charles Groves, Vernon Handley, Richard Hickox, Lorin Maazel, Diego Masson, Charles Mackerras, Norman Del Mar, Yehudi Menuhin, Roger Norrington, Harry Rabinowitz, Simon Rattle, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Kurt Sanderling, Vilem Tausky and Barry Wordsworth all agreed to conduct the NCOS orchestras. Some of them came back a number of times. Because of the insight into the performance of the music that they had gained through years of conducting great orchestras all over the world, with so many of the best instrumentalists, they did far more than just rehearse and conduct performances. They gave the young musicians the benefit of their knowledge and understanding that turned their visits into wonderful master-classes in the art of orchestral playing.

We were usually able to prevail upon them to conduct repertoire that from my own experience I knew they did particularly well, though on one or two occasions I had to dissuade, in as diplomatic a way as possible, a conductor who wanted to conduct something he would not usually get the opportunity of conducting or to tryout a work he might like to add to his repertoire. From time to time I was approached by conductors who wanted to conduct the NCOS orchestra who, again from my own experience, I felt were unsuitable. Dealing with them could be very difficult. But it had to be done because it was essential that the young musicians’ time should not be wasted. It would be bad enough when they were in the profession and being paid for their trouble.

Whilst the young musicians were on the NCOS course they were given the opportunity to play as wide a range of music as possible. I always encouraged conductors to conduct music they had a particular interest in, be it contemporary music or the music of British composers, opera, light music, or those dedicated to the ‘authenticity’ movement and performance on period instruments.

Throughout each year there were sectional coaching sessions and, after the first year when we were fortunate to have an American student who was already quite experienced, we increasingly had a professional violinist to lead the orchestra whenever possible. From 1983 that was virtually all the time. For several years it was Peter Thomas, who was later captured by Simon Rattle to lead the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and then James Coles, who had led several orchestras. They both took enormous pains to help the string players learn how to play in an orchestra. Learning to play in an orchestra is more difficult for string players, especially violinists. The concentration on the solo and chamber music repertoire they will have experienced at music college and at private lessons, where individual expressiveness is so important, does not prepare them for the discipline required within a violin section of perhaps anything from 16 to 20 players. It can sometimes be even more difficult for a very good violinist to come to terms with the restraints imposed within a section.

Bearing in mind the concern expressed in the Gulbenkian report and by the ABO about the standard of the string instrumentalists applying for positions, especially in the regional orchestras, the NCOS arranged for regular visits by the leaders of the London orchestras: Hugh Bean, Iona Brown, Rodney Friend, Barry Griffiths, Emmanuel Hurwitz, John Ludlow, Manoug Parikian, Carl Pini. In addition we were fortunate that Michel Schwalbé, Leader Emeritus of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Herbert von Karajan’s leader for 30 years, agreed to work with the orchestra every year coaching and conducting the whole orchestra, concentrating on the string sections. Another particularly inspirational coach was the outstanding orchestral, chamber music and solo violist Frederick Riddle. Many of the most distinguished string, woodwind, brass and percussion principals in the London orchestras were also regular coaches and examiners.

The orchestra worked very hard, preparing the young musicians for life in the profession. The schedule for the very first week , in September 1979, is typical of how intensive the course was:

Monday 2.00 –5.00 full orchestra rehearsal, conductor John Forster
Brahms Symphony No. 2 and the Symphony in 3 movements by Stravinsky  
6.00 – 9,00 woodwind, brass and percussion, piano and harp (cond. Forster)

Tuesday 10.00 - 1.00 strings only with John Forster
2.00 – 5.00 full orchestra with Simon Rattle
Wednesday free
Thursday 10.00 – 1.00 strings only and 2.00 – 5.00 woodwind and brass, both with Simon Rattle
Friday 6.30 – 9.30 full orchestra Simon Rattle
 Saturday 2.30 full orchestra with Simon Rattle preceding a concert at 4.00 in the Great Hall, Goldsmiths’ College.

As well as covering the standard classical and romantic repertoire it was felt that the orchestra should become acquainted with and play a good deal of contemporary music. Edwin Roxburgh, himself a composer, rehearsed and conducted an extremely demanding and difficult programme:: s

Goehr Metamorphosis
Varese Integrales,
Stravinsky Symphonies of wind instruments
Schoenberg Kammersymphonie, op.9b

Throughout the following week the orchestra worked with Vernon Handley, who was a regular visitor and particularly helpful to the orchestra on every occasion. His programme this time consisted of Leonora Overture No. 3 by Beethoven, Moeran’s Symphony in G minor and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. The concert at the end of the week was in Greenwich Borough Hall, an excellent hall seating about 1000. This is the hall where the orchestra rehearsed and gave the majority of their concerts.

A week or so later, because on this occasion Colin Davis could only come for two days, the orchestra had several preparatory rehearsals before he arrived to conduct Sibelius Symphony No. 1 and the Symphonic Variations by Dvorak.

The orchestra’s first Concert in the Goldsmiths’ Great Hall was given before an invited audience at the end of the seventh week. There had been three days of full orchestra and sectional rehearsals with John Forster, and two days when the strings worked with Manoug Parikian and the wind with Jack Brymer, before Charles Mackerras arrived. He then had three more rehearsals with the full orchestra followed by the concert:

Walton Overture Portsmouth Point
Elgar Enigma Variations
Brahms Symphony No.1

During that first year the orchestra played a repertoire ranging from Handel to Lutoslawski and Messiaen, including opera in collaboration with the National Opera Studio and the Guildhall School of Music and light music. It recorded for broadcasting in the BBC studios at Maida Vale with Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, and a concert in the Greenwich Festival conducted by Sir Charles Groves was recorded for Capital
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Radio. An exciting element in the final term was when the orchestra went to France to take part in the Saintes Music Festival, where they gave two performances and recorded the Brahms German Requiem. They then went to Angoulême to give another performance of the Requiem in the Cathedral and to Royan to play an orchestral programme.

Every year, in the second half of the last term we held the Diploma exams. There were four elements: the performance of a piece of one’s own choice – a movement from a sonata or concerto, or some other suitable piece; the performance of any of the passages for their instrument from a number of extracts from the orchestral repertoire performed during the year, received a few weeks before the exam, as selected by the examiners, and some sight reading. This was a demanding experience for the students. They had to face two of the very best players of their instrument, just as they would when auditioning for one of the orchestras, as well as myself.

The fourth element was a 5000 word essay on any topic concerned with music, or a five-minute composition or arrangement. The 5000 word essay was the cause of a good deal of unhappiness to the students and a good deal of trouble to me. Many of the students who had been to music college objected to what they felt was an imposition and quite unnecessary for someone taking a course preparing them for the orchestral profession. The students who had been to university (always a minority) had no difficulty in writing an essay, but the majority of the students at the NCOS had been to a music college where the curriculum does not as a rule require any written work and had not done any for the past four years since they had left school. They were therefore quite unprepared for this element of the diploma. Even at school they had never had to write a self-motivated piece of this length. However, the University of London Delegacy insisted on this academic element if they were to award the Diploma. Assistance from lecturers in the large and excellent Goldsmiths’ College music department was available, but the difference between their much more academic approach to music and the usually wholly practical performance orientated attitude of the members of the orchestra did not often lead to a very collaborative relationship.

Despite my warnings, every year one or two students, finding they had nothing original to say themselves, resorted, often in desperation, to copying fairly lengthy passages from books on their chosen topic. Of course, the well-read lecturers quickly recognised the source of their plagiarism. In academia this was considered a capital offence and could well lead to the dismissal of the guilty student. Within a culture in which to speak and write well is considered far more valuable than any manual skill, however much artistry is involved, the status of musicians has suffered. A good many of the most outstanding artists, used to expressing themselves through music, often have considerable difficulty in expressing their feelings in words. This has been more of a problem in Britain than in some other countries where there are courses within the universities for those wanting to become performing musicians.

It was generally recognised that it would have been absurd for a student who had done extremely well in all the practical elements to fail the Diploma because of failure in the written element. Equally, it would be ridiculous if a student whose practical work had been poor, but whose written work had been excellent, received a Diploma. In the end I was able to persuade the University that neither failure nor success in the written element should be a deciding factor in obtaining the Diploma.

During the first term of year two, on the 4th and 5th December 1980, the NCOS faced its most severe test. Her Majesty’s Inspectors from the Department of Education and Science (DES) arrived. If the University of London was to continue to validate the Diploma it was essential that the Inspectors gave the NCOS a satisfactory report. Fortunately they did. Their conclusion was:

It is gratifying to be able to record the successful launching of this enterprise, brought into being in the face of considerable odds. In these early days, the main emphasis has been upon securing adequate recruitment, establishing vocational credibility and maintaining financial solvency. No doubt, as the Centre develops, and as the profession learns to accept better trained entrants into orchestral work, it will prove possible to extend some more of the educational aspects of the course without changing its essentially vocational nature. Meanwhile, the formation of the Centre is seen as an ambitious and imaginative initiative which deserves continuing support; even in the fourth term of its life, the results already achieved must be particularly encouraging to those whose faith and vision have followed this venture through to fruition.

Naturally, every one was delighted. Coupled with the enthusiasm of the conductors who came to work with the orchestra everyone was happy. Simon Rattle in a video interview made for Goldsmiths’ said, ‘At the colleges playing in the orchestra seems to be something to be avoided …. Here, for the first time people leaving college will get a proper orchestral background instead of having to make mistakes … the people they’ve got working here and the schedule is absolutely marvellous. Any orchestra that has any sense would take a good deal of notice that students have been here. It is very exciting. There’s no other training anywhere else in the world like this.’ Colin Davis said ‘To give these kids this kind of opportunity seems to me to be invaluable. The opportunity to find out about themselves – whether they really want to do this. The good ones will get tremendous confidence from doing this kind of thing. Speaking about string players in particular he said, ‘It will help them accommodate themselves not only musically but humanly.’

However, as Director I was already grappling with insufficient financial resources and a lack of co-operation from the managements of the orchestras and the organisation to which they belonged. These problems were to plague the NCOS throughout its existence.

Another problem was finding somewhere for the orchestra to rehearse and give concerts as Goldsmiths’ Great Hall was in constant use. The Orchestra gave about three or four concerts a year there. Fortunately Lewisham Council came to our rescue by making Greenwich Borough Hall, always referred to as GBH, available. This provided the NCOS with a ‘home’ where the orchestra could rehearse and give concerts and where it also had a room that doubled as the office for the personnel manager and librarian. However, it had the disadvantage that there were no other rooms in which sectional rehearsals could take place. The rooms really needed to be in the same building as the hall so that after each section – the violins, violas, cellos and basses – had been with their individual coach they could come together to rehearse in the hall. The same applied to the woodwind and brass sections. Accommodation in other places was found , but it was never entirely satisfactory.

The NCOS thought that it had solved the problem when I learned about the Blackheath Halls, only a mile or two away, in a much more salubrious neighbourhood. From 1939, throughout the war and until 1960, it had served as offices for various government departments and then for a further 16 years it did no more than house thousands of National Insurance cards. In fact it had not been used as a concert hall for more than 40 years. When I first saw the Hall it was empty and in a state of serious neglect. Vandals had taken the lead off the roof and removed, with some violence, the central heating radiators. Evidence of pigeons was thick throughout the building.

The Hall, a fine 19th century building, had been opened in 1895 by Lord Hugh Cecil. It had a main concert hall seating about 850, a recital room seating 300, a music room, excellent for lectures and a number of smaller rooms in which small groups could rehearse. From 1895 until the outbreak of the First World War, many major artists had appeared there; Sir Edward Elgar, Mark Hambourg, Clara Butt, Mischa Elman, Vladimir de Pachmann, Fritz Kreisler, Wilhelm Backhaus, Coleridge-Taylor and many others.

It was clear this building would provide all the accommodation the NCOS needed for rehearsal and performance and there would also be enough suitable rooms for the occasions when the orchestra divided into a number of groups for sectional rehearsals. Additionally, the offices, library and storage of instruments, as well as some social
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facilities for the orchestra could be in the same building. By 1985 the NCOS had reclaimed the Hall from the derelict condition in which they had found it, and it was widely reported that they would be taking up residence in 1987.
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However it was not to be. There were too many objections from local residents that it would not be sufficiently available to them for a wide variety of activities to take place, such as art exhibitions, workshops, film shows and several other activities, because of the amount of use the NCOS required. This severely restricted fund raising and the whole project collapsed.

Some years later the money was found to open the halls to the public. Though for a time chamber concerts were given there and sometimes the main hall was used for recording sessions by the London orchestras, it was never available to the local residents as they had wished and the venture proved to be uneconomic. The hall again became empty. It has now been acquired by Trinity College of Music, which after leaving London is resident in the truly splendid Old Royal Naval College in nearby Greenwich.

So, the NCOS remained in GBH, rehearsing and giving concerts. But, in order to give those on the course an overall experience of the life of a professional orchestral musician, they were also given the opportunity of playing in the opera pit, in the broadcasting studio and of experiencing the tension felt when the red light goes on in the recording studio and having to play the same difficult passage over and over again.

Playing in the orchestra did not yet usually require an orchestral musician to have to stand up and play as a soloist – since then educational work has played an increasingly important part in maintaining many orchestra’s finances and so this has become very much more common. Now the musicians in a symphony orchestra, and not only the principals, frequently go into schools in small groups and are often required also to play a solo role. Back in the 1980s it was only the principals who would be asked to demonstrate the sound and range of their instrument and perhaps play a short solo passage in a work to be performed in the programme. The need to assume a soloist’s stance, if only for a very short time, only really occurred at children’s concerts when introducing the instruments of the orchestra. The NCOS established a relationship with several schools in the neighbourhood and gave regular concerts especially devised for them. For part of the concert some of the children were encouraged to come and sit in the orchestra next to the musicians. At the end of the concert the children had the opportunity of meeting members of the orchestra and have a closer look at the instruments and be shown how they worked. Sometimes a few of the braver musicians allowed the children to handle and even try to play a few notes on their instruments.

To play in the orchestra pit is quite a different experience from playing on the concert platform, both musically and psychologically. I never came to enjoy it as much as playing on the concert platform or in the studio. Some musicians prefer it. For the first few years the NCOS could only give the student the impression of playing in the opera pit. The orchestra would be joined by students at the National Opera Studio to perform a concert version of extracts from the operatic repertoire – arias, duets, trios, etc. on stage – while the orchestra were assembled on the floor below the level of the stage.

From 1983 onwards the orchestra was invited each year to take part in the Brighton Festival to play for a production put on by the New Sussex Opera Company. There were always four performances during the Festival which were performed in the Dome, a large hall where I had played many times in the past with the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra. Over the years the NCOS took part in productions of two Verdi operas, Aida and The Masked Ball, The Flying Dutchman by Wagner, Gounod’s Faust, Andrea Chenier by Giordano and Benvenuto Cellini by Berlioz.

The orchestra stayed in Brighton for a week taking part in other events as well as playing for the opera. As well as the experience of being away from ‘home’ for a week and so as to prepare the young musicians for the joys of touring the orchestra went on a short tour in England or abroad each year and did several ‘one night stands’ giving concerts some distance from London. This meant leaving quite early in the morning travelling by coach, a short rehearsal, a concert and then returning home at midnight or later. This gave rise to some complaining. During their professional life they were likely to find they would do perhaps three or four or more of these ‘out of town’ engagements on succeeding days, often much less enjoyable.

The most demanding performances the orchestra gave were those that were broadcast either in the BBC studios or relayed from one of their concerts. These were fully professional in the sense that they had to stand comparison with the BBC orchestras and relays of concerts by the major orchestras. As a rule the BBC chose unusual repertoire so as not to clash with or create too great a comparison with other orchestras. The broadcasts were usually with very good conductors. There were a number with Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Sir Charles Groves and George Hurst, but probably the most exciting was the broadcast of Sir Michael Tippett’s 4th Symphony, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

With financial assistance from the Holst Foundation it was possible to instigate a composer-in residence scheme. Each year from 1983 onwards a composer had the opportunity of working with the orchestra. Their compositions were included in NCOS concerts and at least one was always broadcast. Mark-Anthony Turnage related particularly well with the orchestra, perhaps because he was not much older than the players at that time. He dedicated his Ekaya to Adrian Leaper and ‘my friends at NCOS’. He said, ‘I think this course has changed a lot of my attitudes and prejudices towards players, and vice versa. This was part of the intention of the scheme though it was not always as successful as it was with Turnage. A few of the young composers behaved as if the members of the orchestra were keys on a piano and could be treated as unfortunate necessities. For their part the orchestra did not always show sufficient understanding of the compositions that were still immature and perhaps contained impractical or impossible passages. Another composer who did have a good relationship with the orchestra was John Woolrich. Both Turnage and Woolrich have gone on to have very successful composing careers.

I was very keen that the young musicians at the NCOS should have the opportunity to experience the music of other cultures – Chinese, Indian, Asian, and African – at first hand. I especially remember an outstanding Chinese musician from Hong Kong who came to play to us. She was a virtuoso on the pipa, a beautiful Chinese pear-shaped fretted lute that sounds like a very delicate guitar. On another occasion two fine Indian musicians came to play to the members of the orchestra. For me the best of all was when we were allowed to play and receive instruction on the Gamelan at the Royal Festival Hall. This was a wonderful experience and an insight into a quite different kind of orchestra. It is made up of gongs, metallophones, xylophones, cymbals and drums and involves a different way of making music collectively.

It was a great disappointment to me that on every occasion when there was an event of this kind or when I had invited someone to give a talk on various aspects of music – jazz, changes in performance style, the music of other cultures and times – a number of those on the course were so disinterested that they did not attend. Between 1979 and 1990 their number increased. When I asked them why they had not taken advantage of learning more about other kinds of music they replied that they did not think these events furthered their future professional prospects and that they could spend their time more profitably by practising their instrument. I was sad to see a less vocational and a more commercial approach to being a musician develop as we progressed through the 1980s. On one occasion, when I was complaining to Philip Jones, the very distinguished trumpet player and Head of the Wind department at the Guildhall School of Music, that only about sixty percent of the students attended these events, he said that I was very fortunate and that he was lucky if twenty percent of his students attended similar events. Friends in other professions told me they were experiencing the same thing.

By 1986 I realised that the fees to conductors and coaches were continuing to rise as were staff salaries. Unless the income the NCOS was receiving could be increased it would be impossible to maintain the course at an acceptable standard for more than a couple of years. I knew that the colleges of music had already found that students from overseas were keen to come to Britain to study and that the fees they could be charged could be higher than those for British students.

When I expressed my fears for the future to the NCOS management committee and suggested that perhaps we should follow the colleges’ lead I met with considerable opposition from the BBC, the MU and the ABO representatives. They had always been opposed to the NCOS accepting more than one or two overseas students each year, and then only if there was not a suitable British student. I felt I had to persist, as unless they could propose another method by which our income could be increased, the future looked very bleak. Perhaps the BBC, MU and the TV companies could increase their financial support for the Centre? Or the committee knew of some other source of funding that might be available. Otherwise the only solution seemed to be to try to attract more students from other countries. In the end it was reluctantly agreed that I should visit a number of conservatoires to find out what orchestral training was being provided elsewhere and what demand there might be for the course we were offering and if possible to encourage that demand.

Visiting Conservatoires

I already knew about the situation in many of the European countries but little about the Scandinavian countries so I decided I should begin by visiting four, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway, and then return to base for two weeks to see that everything was going well with the course before setting off for the next four and a half weeks to visit the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, China, Japan and Taiwan. Unlike the many years I was in an orchestra and at the mercy of orchestral managements, this time I made all the travel and hotel arrangements myself. Though my schedule included visiting as many conservatoires and meeting as many people as possible in a short time (the NCOS management committee were naturally anxious that I should not turn these trips into an extended holiday), it was the most enjoyable and stress-free foreign travel I have ever undertaken. This was partly because I had decided to take my wife with me, at my own expense. Not only would this be a wonderful opportunity for her but I would be spared the loneliness so often experienced by soloists and conductors when travelling and having to stay in many hotels on their own.

In 1987, in mid-January, we set off for Denmark. I had not been to Scandinavia before and though I knew it would be cold at this time of year I was unprepared for just how cold it proved to be. I was surprised when I looked out of the hotel bedroom window in Copenhagen to see a ferryboat stranded, stuck in the ice on a canal near the hotel. In fact, a couple of days later it was my intention to take the hydrofoil to Malmo in Sweden, a short sea journey. But when we arrived at the hydrofoil we found that because it was so cold the sea was completely frozen over and we had instead to go on a ferryboat with two ice-breaking tugs dragging us through the ice. It was a wonderful, magical journey. During the two weeks in Scandinavia we experienced snowstorms and blizzards – on the train journey from Stockholm to Gavle the wind was so strong that it brought the overhead wires down and we were stuck there for several hours. Norway and Finland proved to be just as cold – not the dreadful damp cold we experience in Britain, generally accompanied by grey overcast skies, but bracing and with blue sky and the bright sunlight making the snow sparkle.

While I was making the arrangements for the tour I had been to the British Council Office in London to discuss the possibility of receiving assistance from their officers in the countries I was about to visit. Until then I had not had any dealings with the British Council and was delighted to find that I was met by charming, well-informed and extremely helpful members of the Council wherever I went. The first time I experienced this was in Copenhagen. I had had a meeting with the vice-principal of the conservatoire and been disappointed to find that there did not appear to be much enthusiasm for sending any of their students to the NCOS. However, James Moore the British Council Officer in Copenhagen raised my spirits. He was keen that the NCOS orchestra should visit Denmark and said he would help if our programmes included some music by younger British composers. He introduced me to an agent who was also keen the orchestra should visit and thought that some funding for an NCOS tour could be achieved. It would be wonderful if this could be arranged and this might well lead to the orchestra’s performances inspiring some of the best students in Denmark deciding to come to the NCOS.

I found the conditions in the concert halls and conservatoires in the Scandinavia countries I visited to be excellent, especially so in Sweden. The Music School in Malmo, where I met the Assistant Director Martin Mastinson, was new and purpose built. The very fine concert hall, seating about 450, had a sound/vision control-room and was fully ‘miked’ as well as being extremely comfortable. But for me, used to the less than satisfactory teaching accommodation in the conservatoires in Britain, it was the teaching rooms that were most impressive. Each room had been built to acoustic principles with a sloping ceiling and non-symmetrical walls. The acoustics could be easily adjusted electronically; the floating ceiling panels could be moved to suit whichever instrument was being taught – making it less resonant for a trumpet lesson than one for the guitar. Each room had state of the art recording facilities. Equally valuable was the complete sound separation between the rooms and the corridors. In addition there were many practise rooms for the 450 students who also had the use of a good library, canteen and storage for the larger instruments.

The beautiful concert hall in Malmo seating 1300 was only a year old in 1988 when we were there. The conditions for the orchestra on the platform and back stage are quite remarkable. On the stage the height, angle of the back and seat of each player’s chair was adjustable and there were Perspex, transparent baffles for those sitting in front of the brass and percussion players, at that time only used at rehearsals. Backstage the members of the orchestra had ample room for changing and resting.

In Gothenburg, a four-hour train journey from Malmo, we were met at the station and whisked off to the University for lunch. The teachers in Gothenburg already knew about the NCOS as several of their students had gained entry to the NCOS course in previous years and they were keen for us to hear some more of their pupils. I auditioned several who would come the following year to audition again in England for a place on the course.

The co-principal clarinet in the Gothenburg Orchestra Urban Claesson who had been at the NCOS only a couple of years before invited us to the orchestra’s rehearsal the following morning. After the rehearsal he and another ex-NCOS student Roger Carlssen, now the principal percussionist in the orchestra took us out for a splendid lunch. It was most rewarding for me to meet these two young men again, now established and well regarded, so soon after I had known them only as students.

In Stockholm I auditioned a number of potential students who later gained places at the NCOS. Several are now working in one or other of the orchestras – one is now the principal clarinet in the very good radio orchestra that also regularly gives concerts in Stockholm. The next day to Gavle a town several hours by train from Stockholm to meet an ex-pupil of mine who was now principal clarinet in the Gavle Orchestra. That evening we went to one of their concerts. Again, a delightful concert hall, and a good, though small orchestra. After the concert we had to return to Stockholm. It was well after midnight by the time we arrived back; the streets were deserted and there was a blizzard that made being able to see where you were going extremely difficult. As we did not know Stockholm and have no sense of direction, we wondered if we would ever find our hotel. By chance we did, which was fortunate as the next morning I had arranged to listen to some more student auditions before we left in the afternoon for Helsinki.

In a country with a population of only 5 million Finland has a remarkable number of orchestras: twelve are professional and about the same number are semi-professional. I had hoped that we might be able to recruit a number of students, but it seemed that at that time some of those who did not go to the Sibelius Academy probably went to Russia to study. The standard of the players in the Academy Orchestra, which the Rector Ellen Urho, in charge at the Sibelius Academy, took me to listen to, was good. (Recently Finland has produced an astonishing number of very talented young conductors).

That same evening we left Helsinki to fly to Oslo. The next morning, before meeting the Dean of Studies Einer Solbu at the Conservatoire there was time to explore this charming city. I already knew Solbu from my involvement in ISME, the International Society for Music in Education. In 1986 the NCOS orchestra gave two concerts at their Biennial Conference held that year in Innsbruck. During the two days I spent in Oslo I heard a number of the students. Again the standard of performance was generally very good. My last day in Norway was in Bergen where it proved impossible to arrange to hear any students in the short time I was able to stay there. As a consolation the Principal of the conservatoire Rolf Davidson took us to lunch at a wonderful fish restaurant in the Old City before we caught a plane back to London.

It had been a hectic but enjoyable two weeks during which as well as going to the conservatoires and concert halls I had also visited a number of the Music Information Centres. These were all very well appointed with informed and helpful staff and had a wealth of sheet music and scores as well as many recordings of solo, chamber and orchestral music, jazz and popular music, particularly by contemporary Scandinavian composers. I felt I had made some very useful contacts that could lead to an increasing number of young musicians applying to the NCOS after they had completed their conservatoire courses, but who still needed to hone their orchestral skills.

On the second leg of my travels I was looking forward to learning more about the conditions in conservatoires and finding out what degree of preparation for the orchestra was available around the world. Equally important, perhaps even more so, I wanted to learn to what extent it might be possible to interest those who might influence suitable students to apply to spend a year at the NCOS.

In New York I met the members of the National Orchestra Association who expressed interest in the NCOS. It seemed that the opportunities for gaining some experience was greater in the music faculties within the universities than in some of the conservatoires. This was confirmed when I met the President of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. His views on preparing musicians for an orchestral career was very similar to that held in Britain at that time: though not expressed openly, in fact, the orchestra was really seen as the last refuge for those not good enough to be soloists, chamber music players or teachers.

My visit to the wonderful Banff Centre for Continuing Education was delightful and inspiring. An arts, cultural and education institution, usually just referred to as the Banff Centre is situated in the Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. Here, in beautiful, peaceful surroundings (the first morning we were there I opened the bedroom curtains to find two moose quietly browsing just outside) there are facilities for writers and composers to stay for a while, away from the stress of city life. There were also courses for classical and jazz musicians, orchestral and ensemble courses under the direction of outstanding musicians. Tom Ralston and his wife, in charge of all the music activities introduced me to a number of performers and teachers that enabled me to make contacts that would be valuable in the future.

We then flew down to Los Angeles, before flying to Auckland, New Zealand, a twenty-hour flight, the longest I have ever undertaken. We spent four days in New Zealand meeting musicians and administrators in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch in the universities and music colleges. I found that they were making an effort to provide some orchestral training and had a small post-conservatoire orchestra in Wellington supported by the radio authorities. Unfortunately, a lack of sufficient funds only allowed for a small orchestra that could really only tackle the chamber orchestra repertoire satisfactorily, and not long after my visit this brave attempt was obliged to close.

My next stop was Sydney, Australia. At that time there were ABC (Australian Broadcasting Company) symphony orchestras in the main cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Queensland – and smaller orchestras elsewhere. A few British musicians had gone out to join some of these orchestras and quite a number of Australian musicians had come to Britain, either to study or join the profession. As a result I already had contacts with teachers in the university, conservatoire and within the profession. It seemed that there might be a good chance that some young musicians wanting to become orchestral musicians would be interested in coming to the NCOS.

We had some free time in Sydney and as the weather was very warm we took the opportunity to take the ferry across to Manley, about a half-hour journey. In the evening we went to the Sydney Opera House to see Eugene Onegin for which the principal of the Conservatoire had booked us the best seats in the house – his. But the very fine building that is called the Sydney Opera House turned out, in fact, to contain an excellent, large concert hall and a small theatre where the opera performances took place. The performance was rather a disappointment (Eugene Onegin is one of my favourite operas). The acoustic was not good and some of the singing was not of a very high standard.

Hong Kong

From Sydney we flew to Hong Kong where we stayed for just one night on the way to China. I had been to Hong Kong on two previous occasions. The first time in April 1981 was when I was invited by the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club Music Fund to audition some young musicians with a view to them coming to the NCOS. The Jockey Club was incredibly rich and supported many charities. One was to pay for young Chinese musicians to go on to advanced music education not available in Hong Kong at that time. Several students did come to the NCOS. I realised that unlike the conservatoires that could accept a student on the recommendation of a distinguished teacher in another country, the NCOS had to take much greater care in selecting which students it could accept. A student accepted by a music college may prove to be less talented than expected or even not satisfactory in other ways. Accepting someone into an orchestra is very different. It only needs one player to wreck a whole string section; two or three can have a profound effect on the standard of the whole orchestra.

The day after I had returned to the National Centre, after the auditions at the Jockey Club, I received a telegram from the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HKPO) asking me to return as soon as possible as they were experiencing some major problems in the orchestra. The most serious was that the orchestra were refusing to play for their principal conductor. He was Ling Tung, a Chinese-American who had been a violinist in the Philadelphia Orchestra. He later decided to be a conductor and for many years from 1968 until 1996 was the conductor of the Grand Teton Music Festival, held each summer in Wyoming. As about a third of the Hong Kong Philharmonic were Americans and another third Hong Kong Chinese he must have seemed to those making the appointment a good choice of conductor.

I already knew Ling Tung because it was with his co-operation that the New Philharmonia was able to regain the use of its original name, Philharmonia. When in 1964 Walter Legge decided to disband the Philharmonia and take the orchestra’s name as well, for reasons that remain obscure the name was acquired by Mr Tung. Many years later when the orchestra learnt about this it negotiated with him and in 1977, in return for being engaged by the orchestra to do a Royal Festival Hall concert and make two recordings, the Rakhmaninov Second Symphony and Don Juan by Richard Strauss, it was agreed that we could have our old name back. As a conductor he was competent enough but uninspiring.

In 1980 he was appointed the principal conductor of the HKPO. However by the following year it seems he had upset both the Chinese and the American musicians to such an extent that they were refusing to play for him and demanding his immediate dismissal. None of the members of the General Committee of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Society Committee had either the experience or the understanding needed to manage an orchestra, particularly in a crisis of this kind and did not feel sufficiently confident in their General Manager. In desperation they invited me to Hong Kong to try to sort things out.

The members of the Committee, which unusually combined both administrative and executive powers, were mainly appointed by the Hong Kong Government, (at that time Hong Kong was still a British Crown Colony) and the Hong Kong Urban Council, plus several wealthy British and Chinese directors of large companies. Nearly all the funding for the orchestra was provided by the Urban Council and the Government.

It was not until July that I was able to respond to their request and return to Hong Kong. The brief they sent me was, to say the least, somewhat daunting.

1. To review the day-to-day operation of the orchestra.
2. To assess the problems which have arisen at the player’s level and to put forward proposals for solutions.
3. To review the management structure and responsibilities in respect of the operation of the orchestra
4. To review the salary structure within the orchestra and put forward proposals for simplifying the structure and eliminating the anomalies.
5. To advise on the inter-relationship between the General Committee, General Manager and Music Director, and on the role that a new Music Director should be expected to play.
6. To advise on the terms of reference for the International Music Advisory Panel.
7. To give an assessment of the present standard of the orchestra in international terms and its strengths and weaknesses.
8. To examine: a). the role and contribution of the Philharmonic in the development of music in Hong Kong at all levels; b). the orchestra’s declared policy of encouraging local players and to discuss with the Music Office and the Conservatory how this policy can best be achieved.

I soon found that John Duffus, their General Manager was both charming and extremely capable but not strong enough to deal with the high-powered members of the Committee. They were all used to exercising authority. and wanted to make the decisions as to how the orchestra should be run. They were unwilling to let their manager do his job without interfering, believing that their ability to be successful in their particular field of administration gave them the skills required to run an orchestra. This attitude has at times created similar problems for orchestras and opera houses elsewhere over the years.

It was only going to be a year after my visit that talks were to begin between the British Government and the People’s Republic of China that would lead to Hong Kong ceasing to be a British Crown Colony and those on the Committee representing the Urban Council were already keen to start exercising increased control of everything in Hong Kong. In the past, when I had been in discussion with politicians, both Conservative and Labour, such as Edward Heath (later Sir Edward), Sebastian Coe (now Lord Coe), Edward Short and Tony Banks, I had sheltered to some extent within a group. Now, in Hong Kong I was in a much trickier political situation and having to deal with conflicting cultures and the political aspirations of the Chinese and British government representatives on my own. My meetings with Sir Murray MacLehose the Governor (now Lord Murray), and the other civil servants were relatively straightforward, but when I met members of the Legislative Council and especially the Urban Council I needed to take much more care.

As usual, the discontent in the orchestra was not only their feelings about the conductor, though I have always found that if members of an orchestra are happy in their music making – and that most often depends on the conductor – other problems can be dealt with fairly easily. This was a classic case, containing all the problems I had seen in other orchestras (but never altogether in one orchestra), in a tiny country with two cultures.

The orchestra complained that the principal conductor had far too many rehearsals during which he kept repeating the same passages over and over for no apparent purpose and without improving the performance. Also that the guest conductors were not of a standard the orchestra felt was suitable. Though the orchestra was capable of giving satisfactory performances with a good conductor who understood the standard he could get from a smallish regional orchestra where some players were of modest accomplishment, Ling Tung seemed to have arrived with expectations far beyond what was possible and without the skill to make the best of what was available

They also complained that player/management communication was poor, which was not surprising as the librarian and the orchestral/personnel manager were both also playing members of the orchestra.

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