Back in England, my course at the College was nearing its end, but the
recent tour had given me a bit of “cred”, with the profession. I contacted
George Yates, the principal bass of the LSO and started taking lessons from
him, as I liked his way of playing and the big, round sound he made. He
suggested I audition for the London Symphony Orchestra and I was
encouraged when he told me he would be one of those auditioning me.
The LSO, London’s oldest Symphony Orchestra is self-governing, run by
its own members, at that time, although nowadays it has a more complex
management structure with its own general manager and staff and a far bigger
profile with the public. The work load is also much heavier because, despite
extra ways of making money, such as film sessions and foreign touring, this
country is not orchestra friendly and modern music is sometimes not audience
friendly either, so keeping the orchestra employed and the audience plentiful
is a struggle. I felt quite proud to be even a junior member of this famous
In 1955 we were still emerging from wartime conditions and the main
elements of the arts, such as concert halls and art galleries were only just
being built. Until 1951, there had been only one venue, the Albert Hall, but
then the South Bank Complex was built, and the Festival Hall, which is where
the LSO’s first concert after I joined was given.
With sixteen first and fourteen second violins, twelve violas, ten cellos
and eight basses, you have this magnificent section of sixty strings: the heart
of the orchestra. At the back and usually raised up slightly, the basses form
one of the prominent features of the layout with their long necks and elegant
scrolls. Buried in the centre, in ranks, sit the woodwind. Above and behind
the violins sit the four or five horns. To their left, spread out across the centre,
are percussion and timpani while, to the right and still on this upper level
come two or three trumpets, three trombones and a tuba. Sometimes, in a gap
between the first and second violins, there may be one or two harps and even
a keyboard such as a celesta or a grand piano.
People who say man’s greatest invention was the wheel have forgotten the
symphony orchestra. I know I said this before, but its worth saying again I
Conductors that we saw a lot of were Josef Krips, a burly German and the
orchestra’s chief conductor; Sir Malcolm Sargent, always perfectly turned out
but not popular with the players, who called him “Flash”; Basil Cameron,
quiet and a bit colourless; and Sir Adrian Boult, who was the resident
conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. When it was first formed in the
early twenties, the BBC ruthlessly pilfered the best players from around the
country to produce a really fine orchestra. It seemed a poor decision to place
so mediocre a man at its head, yet Boult remained there for years and years,
despite the grumbling of both players and public. In my day he was thought of
as second rate, but by dint of living so long he has become respected for his
Then there were visits from foreign conductors, like Bruno Walther, and
Otto Klemperer, to show us how modest was the local talent. My two
favourite English conductors, Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Thomas Beecham,
were hardly ever seen by us. Barbirolli came once but Beecham never, as he
had his own orchestra to conduct.
In its need to provide work for the orchestra the directors were also
obliged to accept engagements from lesser lights who, unfortunately, could
afford to pay an orchestra to play while they conducted. Some of these dates were so pitiful they were best forgotten. We knew it was the players who
were leading the conductor.
Symphony concerts were the bread and butter of our lives but
unfortunately the pay for a rehearsal and concert at that time was so low you
couldn’t live on concert work alone. Fortunately, I was able to find other
work. Sometimes a ballet season would come up, or if we were lucky a string
of recordings which paid much better.
The best paid work of all was film work. But it was usually the preserve
of the nucleus of principal players as the size of the orchestra was always
reduced for film sessions.
While I was with the LSO, there was a major row among the principal
woodwind and brass players because they wanted to get off the orchestra’s
lower paid dates in order to do more films. This row simmered for months
until at a final meeting about a dozen of the main players left to form a new
group, mainly for film work. This crisis, losing the first flute, first clarinet,
first horn, first trumpet and other key players, was a body blow to the LSO. It
meant auditioning new players and, even harder, forming a new ensemble
used to each other’s styles. This took a long time but eventually André Previn
joined as chief conductor.
Previn brought a lot of recording and film work and after a general
weeding out of less gifted players, a new LSO emerged that was a great
improvement on the old one. Nowadays, they have their own concert hall at
the Barbican, their own rehearsal hall at Sir Henry Wood Hall, and they get a
month’s paid holiday in the summer.
A world away from the old days, and a good job too.