Oh lucky, lucky Preston!
This book records one man's vision, supported by enlightened corporate
sponsorship. As I am sure Bill Bryson would concur, it is one of the endearing
facets of British life that here can flourish such an incredible variety
of hobby clubs, societies and affiliations, many because of the spirit of
enterprise and unstinting self-sacrifice of one or two individuals, often
meeting in the most unprepossessing surrounding - dingy church halls or back
rooms of institutes usually on uncomfortable plastic stacking chairs. Each
one adds to a rich cultural heritage and serves as an important focus to
the social life of its members. I t was this spirit that used to inspire
Gustav Holst to trek across hedgerows and fields in order to
conduct the Bourton-on-the-Water Choral Society (now long gone, along with
the railway branch-line and halt). In spite of the immense social changes
over the last 100 years it is remarkable that so many still survive, even
if in declining numbers. There are still colliery brass bands even where
the colliery no longer exists - there are more colliery brass bands than
there are working pits.
In spite of declining government support and diminishing musical tuition
in schools, one of the deciding factors in our loss of Sir Simon Rattle from
Birmingham, there still flourish over 2000 music and recorded music societies
as well as many choral societies, amateur orchestras and brass bands. Living
in Coventry, I have the choice of three competing Jazz Festivals each summer,
all within 20 miles of my house - and jazz is a decidedly minority interest
(or is it? Rumour has it that Jazz now outsells Classical CDs). However few
organizations can show the 30 year success story of the Building Design
Partnership (BDP) Music Society.
Here we find a blue-print for the running of a successful society.
The idea for the music society was Keith Scott's. Having just graduated as
an architect from MIT Boston, he was in the Arizona desert to meet Frank
Lloyd Wright who had been one of his tutors. Frank spent his winters just
south of the Grand Canyon. In his house he had a large room with a stepped
floor where he used to invite artists to stay for the weekend and put on
cultural entertainment, there being nothing else available in the desert.
When Keith Scott joined the Building Design Partnership in Preston, Lancashire,
he found himself in another cultural desert. However, a few miles away in
Whitehaven lived the fabric designer, Sir Nicholas Sekers who, having a similar
idea to Wright's, had transformed a derelict barn into a replica Venetian
Palace and invited some of the world's star performers to play there; Brendle,
Richter, Schwartzkopf. He found this a valuable marketing tool in attracting
and maintaining clients and. more importantly, in retaining his own talented
The Building Design Partnership was a real partnership with the staff putting
up the money for the development of their own premises. The staff had grown
from 35 when Keith Scott joined in 1958 to around 400 a decade later and
those early experiences coalesced into the idea of providing artistic stimulation
for the staff in an attractive setting that would enable them to invite top
artists. So a Music Society and an Arts Society were born and a 1901 Steinway
purchased and an old burnt-out bowling alley refurbished as an art gallery
and concert hall. The BDP partners offered a guarantee to cover artist's
costs. There was also a buffet area so that both society members and artists
could eat, mingle and chat after the performance - which Scott stresses as
highly important. Through a willing band of helpers food was provided at
This book presents a 30 year success story, is beautifully illustrated with
contemporary photographs of the artists taken (mainly) by Roger Park, a
nationally acclaimed architectural photographer (the caption of one of which
has been reversed when naming the artists). "Would you care to say something?"
was the invitation extended to all artists and, in the intimate atmosphere
of the gallery, added a bonus to the performance. However, not all artists,
including Jill Gomez, were prepared to say something!
The first recital was by Colin Horsley in January 1969 (who later returned
to mark the 10th anniversary). In two further recitals that year Léon
Goossens with John Wilson on piano and later Sheila Armstrong with Martin
Jones were to perform. What is amazing are the fees they were paid - £260
in total. To put that into perspective I was paid £1800 pa at that time
as a University lecturer. The society subscription stood at £1. Even
today they find it possible to engage "about to become" world-class artists
for £1000 - although for a Pollini or Brendel it would be ten times
that! The subscription has risen to £75 - about £8 per event
including the wine and buffet -gulp! All the concerts are detailed in the
appendix and each bears some discussion in the main text. It is a panoply
of artists of international stature and it is the anecdotes that make this
book such a compelling read. Sir John Manduell, then Head of Music at Lancaster
University ( and who provided a foreword), suggested that University students
should provide a concert, and this became an annual event. The second season
had 8 concert and most seasons from then on had between 8 and 10.
In 1970 they were able to purchase the Whitehaven Steinway for £1000
(now valued at £25,000) and for a short while they had both pianos and
were used by Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick. The earlier Steinway was eventually
purchased by david Wild.
For a few years in the 70's the society also invited Jazz musicians but could
not attract sufficient audiences to make it a viable proposition. There is
seeming intolerance of other styles in Jazz aficionados but at least they
tried. My own Society is even more intolerant of Jazz. The only other slight
shadows on the Society's history was the local singer Amanda Roocroft, in
an episode that reflects well on the music society and very badly upon her.
This is not the place for details - you will have to buy the book for those.
The other shadow was cast by Yuri Bashmet who failed to appear three times
in a row.
I cannot resist one or two anecdotes:
Alfred Brendel to a young pianist who made grunting noises as he played:
"We must never make noises when we play - I make horrible faces but nobody
can hear them".
A military man who asked Gerald Moore "Mr Moore, have you ever in the course
of your long and distinguished career given any thought to the idea of becoming
Alfred Brendel again, outdoing Keith Scott in his knowledge of Bavarian Rococo
churches - of which Keith had made a personal study!
Anthony Hopkins's party piece of sitting with his back to the piano and playing
it with his hands behind him
Sidney harrison on pianists who affect an elaborate swooning of the body
and windmill sweep of the arms before the fingers actually touched the keyboard:
"Always remember the piano couldn't care less".
Alfredo Campoli suffering a sever attack of cramp in Saint-Saëns Havanaise
Richter judging a piano competition with all categories judged on a scale
of 0 - 20. All his marks were either 0 or 20."Well to me it's quite simple.
They can either play or they can't".
In 1994 BDP moved out of Preston but the University bought the premises and
carries on the tradition.By 1996 the membership has risen again to match
that before BDP and its staff departed.
So here's to the next thirty years!
There is an "alternative" review of this book by David Wright