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When my telephone rang at 11.00 a.m. on Wednesday 10 September, and Lewis Foreman told me that he had just heard from Roger Wright that Tod Handley had died two hours earlier, my reaction was one of great sadness, but tinged with a feeling of frustration – frustration that something was unfinished, that there was so much still to be said and done.
He was a great musician who never quite achieved the fame he deserved – and, perhaps, so much desired. The reason for this was a combination of ill-health (some of it self-induced) and bad luck. So many were the occasions that I had beaten a path to some out-of-town concert to hear Tod conduct, sometimes involving an overnight stay, only to find that he had cancelled and someone else – who did not fulfil expectations in quite the same way – had stepped into the breach at the last moment. The last straw was perhaps the car accident in which he was involved while conducting in Germany, resulting in frequent spells in hospital at Abergavenny, near where he lived, and the necessity for crutches or sticks to aid mobility. I remember talking to him on the telephone in hospital one Christmas morning and, at around 11.15, as our conversation was drawing to a close, he said, ‘And now I must deal with this Christmas pudding!’, an indication that even this great man was not exempt from the strange chronology of hospital catering!
I first got to know him when I was secretary of the Elgar Society London Branch and he gave a marvellous one-day course at Guildford in the early 1980s called ‘Elgar from the conductor’s point of view’ (though he quickly made it clear that it was really ‘Elgar from this conductor’s point-of-view’). This was a real tour-de-force for, although he had his programme worked out, and recorded illustrations all arranged in the correct order, to be managed by his assistant Alan Forrow of the Guildford Philharmonic Society, his own delivery appeared to be entirely spontaneous and without reference to notes. Comparisons of various recorded interpretations of Elgar’s music were involved, and how they matched (or didn’t match!) the printed score. He brought the house down, and had us eating out of his hand, by stating early on that he was not going to identify the conductors of the various excerpts, for ‘after all, some of these idiots are my friends’!
Tod had immense musical integrity, and for him – as with his mentor Sir Adrian Boult – the score was always the starting point, resulting in superb performances that reject the endless recycling of received opinions and get back to what is actually on the page, often with revelatory results. I remember a small but utterly illuminating moment in one of his brilliant talks to the Elgar Society, where he pointed out that at the words ‘The mind bold and independent’ (The Dream of Gerontius, fig. 44), almost everybody, in recorded and live performances makes the note value of ‘The’ a semi-quaver, whereas it is actually a quaver. He was right – and the difference is actually very telling!
What also attracted me was of course the stick technique – an example of ‘real’ conducting rather than ‘waving yourself about’ in front of an orchestra. After the death of Rudolf Kempe in 1976 I had felt that there was no-one else who conducted properly any more, but Tod filled the gap, I think with a marvellous performance of Rakhmaninoff’s Second Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, where I realized that beneath all those big romantic tunes so much was happening to give the music a whole new dimension of passion and excitement. I’ve always admired those successful disciples of Nikisch who could say so much with their sticks and so make the music more powerful and telling as a result. The art that conceals art.
So once again my post-Kempe thought gloomily returns: ‘Who else conducts like that now?’ – Hilary Davan-Wetton perhaps? Bryan Fairfax (but alas he doesn’t conduct any more)? Very few, I think …
It was also apparent that after so many of Tod’s performances, orchestras – jaded or played out, perhaps – seemed utterly invigorated, though it is for the members of those orchestras to say whether or not this is correct. When he was invited back as guest conductor of the First Orchestra at the Royal College of Music (where he had previously been Professor for Conducting), the students had been impressed not only by his rehearsing and conducting, but also by the fact that he had taken the trouble to memorize the names of players and so addressed them personally (‘Marcus’, rather than ‘First Trombone’) as required during the rehearsals. This was another occasion where he did not appear at the actual concert owing to being taken ill, the excellent John Forster (an ardent disciple of the maestro) standing in at very short notice.
In the latter years he would often look terrible, and totter to the rostrum for rehearsals, concerts, or recordings but, as soon as the stick came down and the music began, the years would fall away and energy and inspiration would emanate from him. I remember the same experience at Sir Adrian Boult’s concerts towards the end of his career.
On a personal level he was always approachable, though he did not always follow up the things he said. When he rang up to congratulate my wife and me on the birth of our daughter in 1998 he promised to call in on the way back from that year’s bird-watching holiday with ‘a gift for the little one’, but this never happened. However, once in response to the news in our Christmas letter that we had decided to home-educate our daughter, he rang and spoke at length to both my wife and me with great enthusiasm about this, congratulating us on our decision, which shows, at least, that he had read the letter! My wife has never forgotten this, and my friend Andrew Neill tells me how much Tod loved children, and I bitterly regret that my daughter, now a ten year old cellist and singer, never met her ‘Uncle Tod’ or saw him conduct. We had hoped this might have come to pass at Prom No. 2 this year.
I tried to pin him down of several occasions over my idea for a book called Vernon Handley and the art of real conducting, which appealed to him greatly, but would have involved a high level of personal input from him. Nothing came of it because of the difficulty of arranging the necessary meetings. Perhaps something along these lines may now appear posthumously. He deserves to be remembered and honoured for his contributions to music in so many ways additional to his performances, live and on record. I shall miss him enormously.
Garry Humphreys © 2008

see also Richard Adams interviews Vernon Handley


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