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Sarah Beth Briggs
Sir Edward Downes: A memory
It’s been a bad, no a dreadful twelve months
as far as conductors are concerned; ‘Tod’ Handley,
Richard Hickox and now Ted Downes have all left life’s
podium. While the first two are a particular loss to the music
own country, it
is the opera world, and in particular the music of Verdi and
the Russian schools of the 19th and 20th century which will feel
the loss of Downes. The obituaries in the press have filled in
the biographical detail, and will also cover his choice of death,
in a way which one hopes that sadness mingled with admiration
will be the driving force of emotion rather than any intrusive
interest. There follows just a handful of my memories to sprinkle
I met Ted Downes very infrequently but was always glad to be
in his company. In conversation he was straight-talking, witty,
cultured, interesting and interested. As a young lad I was part
of a Croydon-based orchestra which met on a Sunday afternoon
for a couple of hours, never performed in public, and was run
by a wonderfully dotty lady with an even dottier name, Dorothy
Crump. She became my musical ‘granny’ because in
the 1960s I formed an orchestra at the age of 16, much the same
as she had done after the First World War. She was immensely
proud of the ‘professionals’ as we were called, those
who went in to the music profession as conductors or players;
Norman Del Mar was one, bassoonist William Waterhouse another.
I can remember Del Mar guiding me through the wonders of Beethoven’s
ninth one Sunday afternoon after Mrs Crump had rung me during
the week and asked me to come and conduct the first three movements.
Ted Downes also went to the ‘Crumpery’ as it was
called, when he was a student at the RCM.
Many years later we met at Heathrow airport and travelled on
the bus back to Victoria bus station; I had returned from a conducting
engagement in Germany, he from further afield. I never forgot
the interest he took in me, my career, our musical tastes, views
of the business and general gossip. After we had shared our memories
of our respectively different eras at the ‘Crumpery’ the
subject turned to his great passion and love, Verdi; I was then
Director of Music at University College London (Bloomsbury Theatre)
and responsible for the annual outing of an operatic rarity (among
which was the British staged premiere of Verdi’s Oberto in
1982, some time before Opera North did it). I loved the early
and middle period Verdi operas and went on to conduct Giovanna
D’Arco, Il Corsaro and Un giorno di regno.
We discussed the non-standard repertoire works of Verdi at length
(Jérusalem, the French version of I Lombardi was
planned but eventually thwarted by the unavailability of the
orchestral parts), and having an encyclopaedic knowledge of them
all, he gave me a wonderful insight.
Back in 1993 he conducted Verdi’s Aroldo for Chelsea
Opera Group, and was heard to say to the orchestra at the end
of the morning dress rehearsal, ‘Enjoy yourselves this
evening; don’t sit there scrubbing away like bank clerks’.
As chorus master for the Group for several years I again met
up with Ted in 2000 when he conducted our 50th anniversary concert.
As it happens, the four items he conducted did not involve the
chorus, but during the morning rehearsal on the South Bank, after
they had sung ‘Patria oppressa’ from Verdi’s Macbeth under
another conductor, he warned the chorus that it was singing a
particular Italian word just wrong enough to turn it from something
poetic into something lewd. He spared no-one’s sensitivity, ‘suona
a morto ognor la squilla’ means ‘a bell always tolls
for the dead’, but if you sing ‘suona a morto ognor
la squillo’, it means ‘a call girl always rings for
the dead’. One sensed that in fact they were not getting
it wrong, but Ted wanted to get his funny, and I suspect oft-told,
story in, come what may.
He will be sorely missed, probably more by us musicians than
the general public. As no seeker of the limelight, he kept a
far lower profile than some of his podium peacock colleagues,
but those who mattered, his players and his singers, knew his
worth as a man and musician.
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