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Wrong Sex, Wrong Instrument
by Maggie Cotton
Foreword: Christopher Morley
Pages: 364
ISBN: 1-904444-71-7; 978-1-904444-71-8
Price: £9.99

The CBSO seems to have been part of my life’s horizon for a very long time yet to my shame I have been to very few of their concerts. I was born in Birmingham. My father sang the praises of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and when I was a student in Bristol (1971-75) I went to several of their concerts at the Colston Hall. In fact I attended far more concerts by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. That said, there are affection and respect there. It’s borne of tradition, borne of memorable recordings and of the CBSO’s determined allegiance – emphasised during Sakari Oramo’s tenure – to the byways of the repertoire.

My father also extolled the virtues of the founder conductor who was in post long before Maggie Cotton’s day and long before Boult took over the orchestra: T. Appleby Mathews (b. 1890s? - d. 1949). That was when the orchestra was simply the City of Birmingham Orchestra - CBO. Boult who held the CBO reins from 1924 to 1930 recorded the Bantock Hebridean Symphony with them under that shorter name on acoustic 78s. These were never issued - a fascinating revival project there for some dedicated engineer with access to the masters.

The orchestra’s first LP recording was made in the 1960s with Hugo Rignold (1905-1976). As far as I know they never made any 78s. That LP was a Lyrita (SRCS33) of Bliss’s Blow Meditations and the Music for Strings. These remain fine interpretations and we can only hope that they will not be neglected in the latest Lyrita reissue deal struck with Nimbus.

From my Bristol days I recall one not-wonderful concert conducted by Harold Gray and several luminous ones under Louis Frémaux (b. 1921) including an indelibly memorable Ma Mère l’Oye suite. Frémaux also impressed me enormously with a stunning EMI Studio 4 (EMI’s riposte to Decca’s Phase Four) recording of Massenet’s ballet music from El Cid. From 1977 there came the Walton coronation marches plus Te Deum and Gloria – still unequalled.

After such an introduction you might be expecting Maggie Cotton’s book to be entirely about the trials and tribulations of the CBSO written from the exalted podium vantage point of the percussionist. Music is certainly central to this beefy book but in addition we get lots of vivid 1950s and 1960s detail that will set readers of a certain age reminiscing. Scenes in mother’s kitchen, seasonal celebrations, a jam-making granddad, vintage sweets, appalling comments from teachers and a host of teeming period flavour.

The author was born in 1937 in Yorkshire. Her passion for music was inflamed by a performance Sibelius’s First Symphony by the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra given in Huddersfield Town Hall. In that connection I should mention the book’s dedication to the late Adrian Smith (a one-time reviewer for this site) the conductor of the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra who often directed concerts in Huddersfield and whose attitude to repertoire was wonderfully refreshing and ambitious.

Maggie Cotton’s prentice efforts in local youth orchestras led to a successful audition for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in 1954. An early part involved playing the tambourine in Dvořák’s Carnival Overture. Thus were the foundations laid. Among her fellows in the NYO were Iona Brown, Rohan de Saram and Nicholas Braithwaite. There she also encountered conductors who were to have a major impact on her CBSO life: Hugo Rignold and Adrian Boult. But that would be after her studies at the RAM. Those years included participating in the multifarious percussion-encrusted A Grand Grand Overture by Malcolm Arnold – one of the Hoffnung concerts in 1956 and playing the xylophone in Holst’s Choral Symphony. The role played by the supportively benevolent James Blades should also be mentioned alongside her page-turning assignments for Wilfred Lehman and Alfredo Campoli.

In 1959 came her sub-principal percussionist job with the CBSO and at last financial security … even a van. Boult was there at first. There are a couple of anecdotes that will leave you shivering. Maggie must have developed a thick skin as the target of sexist banter in the very different man’s world of the orchestra at that time. And Boult was no exception, as we read. A very different world and one also conjured by the title. Boult stood down in 1960 with his place being taken by Hugo ‘Riggy’ Rignold.

Little character vignettes are dotted here and there throughout including a vivid pen portrait of RVW; one to add to the composer’s literature. There’s plenty of detail about Boult and Rattle and Oramo and Riggy. The latter’s instant dismissal of the tardy, defiant, foolhardily hot-headed and desperately unwise CBSO principal percussionist elevated Maggie to the lead percussion place. We also encounter the podium-dancing Louis Frémaux; he of the French Resistance and French Foreign Legion service. His years with the CBSO were a delight but they ended in bitterness.

There is much about Simon Rattle and not all of it very favourable. However his dynamic work ethic and vivid bawdy way with words and music are communicated with stunning vigour and touching sincerity. Rabelaisian - or is it Chaucerian - references to farts (think woodwind and brass) and sex were part of getting his message across to the orchestra at rehearsals. A particularly slinky passage had to be played not so much sensually ‘off the shoulder’ but shamelessly ‘topless’.

Maggie is delightfully direct – she leaves us in no doubt about her preferences – on retiring from the CBSO she cited one of her pleasures as the relief in not having to perform any more Elgar or Vaughan Williams. Coincidentally that was very much the Rattle line as well if I recall correctly his programmes on twentieth century music.

The book is smashing value combining what amounts to a musical biography over 239 pages with a further 140 pages of chapters reflecting on various themes in the music world into which are woven anecdotes, insights and experiences. We read about recording sessions, new music, composers with no idea what is practical for an instrumentalist, introducing children to classical music (how to do it and how not to do it), international tours, encounters with animals, work as an orchestral fixer for Northern concerts, dress codes, experience of conductors including those with a tendency to lecture the orchestra and much else. At other times the reader is treated to a delicious image of the orchestral players as a Chaucerian melee of bullies and misers, dipsos and Lotharios … and the rest.

Maggie also writes about of her excitement and pride in Birmingham. The Birmingham that was taking shape in the 1960s as the Bullring was built. There’s evident and fully justified pleasure in the orchestra’s new concert hall which makes even worse the small-minded slights or oversights by the scandalously thoughtless management who invited only part of the orchestra as guests to the official reception to launch the hall.

‘A weird old hag hitting things’? I think not!

Plenty to interest, provoke and reveal but precious it ain’t.

A perfect Christmas-New Year read.

Rob Barnett

See also review by Paul Serotsky

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