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Arthur Butterworth

It is almost an axiom that brass playing is a thirsty business. Orchestral brass players, not to mention their even more ardent cousins in the brass band fraternity, have ever been notable for their fanatical devotions at the ubiquitous shrines of Bacchus, of which there is traditionally one at the stage door of every concert hall and opera house. Now, wind instruments and especially brass playing, can indeed make exhausting physical demands on the lips, the mouth and the lungs, in the vigorous use of which a lot of breath is required. Breath expels vast quantities of moisture and, this not unreasonably, needs replacing after the exertions of playing a wind instrument. However, it is unlikely that the demands on a wind player are more than that expended by singers involved in similar vigorous physical effort. Since our ancestors were used to far longer concerts — to say nothing of opera - than is the norm nowadays, it is understandable that the pub across the road was such an immediate attraction as soon as the interval, or even more looked—forward to, the end of the whole performance mercifully came along. This was natural enough, and, in order not to be thought unsociable, their string-playing companions went along to keep them company, not just to make conversation you understand, but to refresh themselves with a very necessary drink too, since even string—playing can be thirsty work: all that vigorous bowing can make for much perspiration and expenditure of nervous physical energy. So, the interval was quite a high in the whole evening’s proceedings.

However, it would appear that in recent years, performers (even string players) have come to the conclusion that this is just not good enough; their human rights threatened as it were, by having to wait all that time - maybe almost a whole hour! — before being afforded the opportunity to demonstrate such civil liberties as the need to have a drink. A few years ago with the proliferation of the plastic bottle, it began to be a habit to take their very necessary drink with them into the rehearsal. Nowadays this has even gone a stage further: not only are plastic bottles of so—called "spring water" (in other words ordinary tap water in a bottle with a fancy label) seen at rehearsals but quite unashamedly appear on the concert platform as well.

(One wonders what next: a similar plastic bottle to relieve themselves?) This is a ridiculously self-indulgent, namby—pamby behaviour; it suggests that many present—day performers (forgive the pun!) just have not got the bottle to withstand a gruelling public performance without liquid support. It also suggests that there is a lack off stamina, both physical and moral in this need to be so reliant on stimulants, even one so mild as a swig of water. How did their forebears manage? That they did so is obvious: there were not the drinks—machines in every corridor of a public place; they had to be self—reliant and strong enough to manage without self—molly-coddling resort to a plastic bottle. Bassoon players are even known to take a little plastic cup on stage to wet their spare reeds, but players in earlier times needed no such assistance. Real professional performers — whether players or singers — display no such physical weakness as to have to show their audience that their powers are all—too—soon exhausted.

This regrettable concert custom has also been accompanied of late years by other less—admirable manifestations of behaviour, not at all unrelated it might be thought, to what goes on in sport. It seems not enough for sports personalities in acknowledging a point scored — goals, runs, or whatever — by a modest bow or wave of the hand, but must regard the incident as if it were a significant victory in some nation—threatening major war, by an emotional outburst out of all proportion to what has actually taken place: the wild, uncontrolled jumping into each other’s arms, the contorted grimaces and over—the—top exultation. This did not happen in the really great days of cricket or football, we were a nobler race then, got things in proportion, like real men and women always did. On the concert platform this kind of behaviour now threatens modest behaviour: In former times, the leader would come on to acknowledge his especial role as representative of the actual players (although in Germany the leader makes no individual entrance, this is a peculiarly British custom), followed by the conductor, sometimes, but not invariably did the players stand up as a mark of respect for him — but there always seemed to me ever such a slight hint of fore—lock touching in this obsequious gesture to someone, who after all was no more than a person whose role was to encourage and lead the actual performers (for he himself utters no sound at all!); conductor worship has gone to absurd lengths in modern times. He then nowadays goes through a silly ritual of clicking his heels together as if in some Ruritanian comic opera, asking for the honour of a lady’s consent to dance with him, bowing in an obsequious way and limply shaking hands with the leader - male or female it matters not which - before the concert can begin. This is ritual carried to excess. After the performance it has now become an even more irritating custom — aping sports— to hug, kiss and embrace the soloists, even the leader on occasion, when a modest graceful shaking of hands would be quite sufficient to express satisfaction of the performance just enjoyed.

In my orchestral—playing days we did not, as a rule, invariably stand at the entrance of our very, very distinguished, world class conductor, he would have been embarrassed by all the fuss. Then arriving on the rostrum he would then invite us, the players, to share with him the welcome of the audience. At the close of the performance he would acknowledge the applause, and perhaps return a few times to take further applause, but the audience did not — as is so often the custom nowadays — further applaud the departing leader, this is an unnecessary gesture since the concert has formally ended with the departure of the conductor and calls for nothing more from the audience. It was my practice as an orchestral conductor not to shake the hand of the leader before the concert commenced, but at the end of the performance, before even turning to acknowledge audience’s approbation, I always felt it the prime obligation to shake hands with the leader and then invite the orchestra to stand to share the applause. But drinks on the stage, and all that kissing and hugging..., never!


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