Stories

from 60 years in the Music business

For the last thirty years I have been a Music arranger and orchestrator, a job that entails being alone, writing, for much of the time. But, previously, I had been a playing musician, a Double Bass player to be precise, and the life of a player is, naturally, a sociable one; you are in contact with other musicians all the time through the medium of Music. However, there comes a time when the Music has to stop and the players are at liberty to socialise in the more familiar way. During rehearsals, at recording sessions and after work, groups of players meet for a coffee or a couple of drinks and a gossip and these meetings can go on for hours sometimes as musicians are often amusing and bright people. I had the good luck to be playing during the late 50s and early 60s when the Music profession was under much less pressure than today. Also, there seemed to have been more “characters” , unconventional, rather odd players whose very oddness ( often allied to a keen comic sense) spawned stories and anecdotes that players who knew them would spread around, and, in the spreading, would embroider the stories to get a better effect. I have wanted to collect some of these together and, although many of them took place years ago, the re-telling of their stories brings them back to life. So, here goes with one of the most famous “characters” of them all; Sir Thomas Beecham,the great conductor and wit.
Tommy conducting

It was to Edinburgh, in the late 50s, that Sir Thomas ( he was always referred to in that form, never “ Tommy ” , as he was called behind his back ) brought the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, an orchestra that he had formed a few years previously, to the Festival that is held there every summer. And it was after a rehearsal in the Usher Hall that I was walking along Princes Street looking for a bank to cash a cheque (no cash machines in those days.) I spotted Tommy strolling along in front of me and was surprised to see him turn into the bank that I was going to use, so I followed him in and stood nearby while he walked up to the counter and addressed the teller in the familiar, rather pompous voice that all musicians recognised. “ I am Sir Thomas Beecham, ” he announced “ and I need some money ”. The teller’ impressed and a little flurried, kept his head and passed the buck deftly:  “ I ’ll get the manager, Sir Thomas ” he said and departed . A few moments later a door opened at the end of the room and the manager appeared, smiling as he came forward and shook Tommy’s hand,“ Good morning, Sir Thomas, and welcome to our city– what can we do for you today? “Well,” said Tommy, “I require some money”. The manager smiled again,” That’s what we’re here for ; how much do you require?” “ Well,” said Tommy again,“ How much have you got?”

Tommy’s relationship with the orchestra was, as you might expect, very close. He took an interest in their lives and like to have players, especially the principals such as Leader, First Flute, First Horn etc., with whom he could exchange musical ideas as well as witticisms. There are so many stories about these witticisms that anthologies have been assembled. Here’s one that I’ve never seen in an anthology….

H.Matthew Spearling, or “Matt” ( to give him a fictitious name ) played Bass Clarinet in the orchestra. He was a veteran player, having played in the Royal Marines band on the Royal Yacht for King Edward VII. A tall, handsome seventy-year old, he was immensely attractive to women and was often surrounded with them, many of them young . He had charm by the truck load and also another useful quality for a charmer, he was either un-married or a widower, I can’t remember which, and was thus available for anything that came along without having to hurt anyone. He had been in hospital for some minor operation and, during his stay had charmed one of the young nurses to the extent that they had decided to live together. Only one detail spoiled their happiness: Matt’s un-married sister, who kept house for him and who put her foot down in the face of this wicked immorality forbidding the lovers entry to the house ( bear in mind, this was the late 50s when this kind of life-style was much rarer than today) Matt and his lady-love solved this by Matt collecting a bell-tent that he had kept from his Royal Marine days, setting it up in the back garden and moving in. Amazing. Needless to say, the whole orchestra knew of Matt’s love nest and his reputation simply spread so, of course, it had come to Tommy’s ears. One morning, the orchestra was rehearsing at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Matt had not been involved with an earlier work and had appeared later plus bass clarinet to find that no chair had been provided for him at the end of the clarinet section and was standing,undecided as to what to do next , when Tommy spotted him from the rostrum. “What seems to be the trouble, Mr Spearling ?” he called out. “Sorry, Sir Thomas,” answered Matt,“ but I don’t seem to be able to get in here.” indicating the crowded wind section. “Really, Mr Spearling,” said Tommy, and in a lower voice so that only the nearby players could hear,” I should have thought you could get in anywhere.”
Tommy was also the master of the quickfire reply. In an interview he was once asked if he ever played any Stockhausen; “No,” he replied, “but I stepped in some once”.

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Barbirolli conductingSir John Barbirolli, for many years conductor of the Halle Orchestra in Manchester and, while still only Mister Barbirolli had gone to the city to give a concert which was by way of an audition, as he hoped to become the orchestra’s new regular conductor. It was a full concert with an Overture and a Concerto which were duly performed. In the Interval as Barbirolli was resting with a drink and probably having changed his shirt( conducting is hot work ) when suddenly a knock at the door was followed by the entry of The Mayor and a number of senior Aldermen of the city.

“Well,well,Mr Barbirolli” boomed the mayor coming forward and shaking hands, ” it all seems to be going well,” he paused for a moment to secure Barbiroli’s full attention, “SO FAR!”

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Another conductor, who, though not exactly famous for wit, rather, feared for the demands he placed on players, was Otto Klemperer. At that time I was playing in the London Symphony Orchestra and Klemperer’s reputation as a martinet had preceded him from the USA where he had lived for many years and where, recently, he had suffered a stroke that forced him to conduct sitting down and affected his already German-inflected English so that he seemed to gargle words rather than speak them………

Once again the venue was the Royal Festival Hall in London where Klemperer was to give his first concert since his return to Europe. He came onto the platform slowly, accompanied by a retinue of persons that always hang around great men, and was introduced to the orchestra who responded with some rather nervous clapping. When he sat down on the chair provided he seemed to grow bigger as he called out in this strange gargle, “Braaaghms’ Zhurrd Zymfonieghhh ” (“ Brahms’ Third Symphony”,for those who didn’t understand his accent) . A rustle of music parts was followed by attentive silence as he began to conduct, without a baton, as was his habit. We had only played a few bars when all the power seemed to go out of the Maestro; he dropped his hands into his lap, let his head fall and sat there silently. The chairman of the orchestra, Harry Dugarde, who also played the cello, stood up uncertainly and asked the great man what was the trouble. “ Ze orkhhesstraaagh iss too far away from meegh”, gargled Klemperer. “I see,” said Harry, “in that case, we can move your rostrum in closer to the orchestra; will that be alright for you ?” Harry’s voice sounded strained as he aired this suggestion, almost as though he knew what the answer was going to be. “ No,” came the gargle, “ I shall zit here und de orkhesstraaagh vill kom to me”.

Though Otto Klemperer was a serious, even frightening figure,he did have a sense of humour which showed in this story.

During the interval at a concert , and while the maestro was relaxing in his dressing room and talking with the Orchestral Manager, Ben Mendelssohn, there was a knock at the door. Mendelssohn opened it to reveal a young American student who, very nervously, apologised for disturbing the maestro but explained he was catching a plane immediately after the concert and wanted to express his admiration . Overhearing the conversation, Klemperer called, ” Kom in, my boy , Vat is it you wish”? “Oh, Doctor Klemperer, stuttered the student, ” I,I,I, just wanted to say…” Klemperer interrupted, ” Just a moment, tell me, what is your name, young man?” “Well, sir, I am almost ashamed to say, but my name is Schubert, Frank Schubert”, he blushed “” But you should not be ashamed, Schubert, ” smiled the Maestro’ now beginning to giggle a bit, while he prepared his joke. ” Today is going to be a vonderful day for you,” he called forward his orchestral manager, ” Meet Mendelssohn!”
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We were playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall in London with Nathan Millstein, a very distinguished player as the soloist. For those people who are not familiar with the Albert Hall, I should explain that it is an enormous oval shaped building modelled on a Roman Coliseum, but with the addition of a roof,as we are in London and not Rome. Inside, seats on the floor are surrounded by ten ranked rows of stalls; around the walls is a double row of boxes and finally, at the top, a colonaded gallery that runs practically the whole way round the hall, about sixty feet from the floor. The whole interior finished in scarlet and gold: very impressive. We had reached the cadenza,towards the end of the first movement; Millstein, alone, was executing it with great style when, unseen by anyone, a member of the audience launched a large white paper dart from the gallery. It began a slow descent in great circles, catching the eyes of more and more people as it descended with an increasingly noticeable sound of suppressed giggles as it continued down. The dart finally swooped down to the stage, passing literally by Millsteins nose as he followed it with his eyes and body to where it landed at his feet. The audience erupted , the mood of the music was utterly broken, but Millstein never faltered but sailed gracefully on to the end of the movement when he was loudly applauded for not flapping when he was dive bombed.

When ‘West Side Story’ was scheduled to open
in London in 1960, the director and composer, knowing how complex the
score was, decided that they would engage the best players available( and
pay them accordingly.) The result, on opening night, is a matter of
theatre history and the show went on to be one of the biggest successes
of the 20th century. For, apart from the singers and actors on stage, the
orchestra pit was full of the best players from Ted Heath’s band
and other players ..the creme de la creme. And the drummer who drew
everyone’s attention with his explosive playing was the great Phil
Seaman.

Phil Seaman, a ‘character’ if there ever was one had
achieved the reputation of being the best swinging drummer in England inthe last days of the great Dance Band Era. A delightful, funny and unaffected Londoner, he was popular with everyone and when it came to choosing the players for the show, Phil was the one chosen to drive this great score along. Sadly, and along with many other great players at that
time, he took drugs and, although it never seemed to affect his playing,he would be noticeably stoned at times. On one particular night, Phil appeared at Her MajestysTheatre, where the show was playing,
along with his black Labrador who, unknown to the conductor, would join
his owner in the pit, settle down under the player’s stool, and goto sleep. Phil was definitely stoned that evening as the show started but, as usual, he played beautifully even though he was probably on auto-pilot for most of the time. Apart from his duty as drummer he also had to take care of a set of Tubular Bells which had been set up on the further side of the drum kit from where Phil sat. When the time came to strike the bells, Phil had to stand up holding a large
mallet and reach across the drum kit to strike the bell with a great clang! Unfortunately, due to his condition that night and having stoodup, with mallet raised to strike the bell, Phil lost his balance and fell forward THROUGH the kit AND the bells to the accompaniment of such acolossal din that the entire show ground to a halt.( Don’t try thisat home!!) People on stage as well as members of the public in thecircle, rushed to the footlights or the circle rail to see what had happened.  In the midst of this chaos, Phil’s Labrador, awakened suddenly by all the noise, gave vent to its feelings with a mad ‘Woof, woof,woof'”. In the centre of all this lay Phil who began topick himself up. With every eye in the house on him, he turned to theaudience, bowed deeply and, in sepuchral tone announced, “Ladiesand gentlemen, Dinner is served”.

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Having spent many years orchestrating Movie scores and
watching Movie composers enjoying their hour of glory recording their
music by taking the stick and Conducting the orchestra, often with far
less skill than they had whilst composing, I love the remark made by one
of the players in a Session orchestra that had just completed such a
Movie who, on being asked whether or not the Composer had conducted,
answered, “Dunno, didn’t look.”

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Gary Kettel is another ‘character’ to be found
mainly in the world of Session Musicians although, at one time, he played
Timpani in the BBC Symphony Orchestra when their Music Director was the
famous French composer and conductor, Pierre Boulez. Boulez, an absolute
perfectionist and a superb musician found that he had much to learn when
he came into contact with the English sense of humour as typified by
Gary.

Maestro Boulez was rehearsing a section of a piece that involved the
percussion section in some very difficult playing. Even the conductor
himself was having problems with actually conducting the piece. Boulez,
like Klemperer doesn’t use a baton,( which most musicians prefer)
and was having to go back many times through this section, yet still not
getting it right. He was about to make the players go through it yet
again when Gary raised his hand and drawled, ” Hang on,
Pierre,…….I THINK I KNOW WHERE YOU’RE GOING WRONG”
Another time Gary, who by now had left the orchestra, was working at the
BBC Studios in Maida Vale when he came across Boulez in a corridor.
Boulez asked Gary what he was doing there and Gary told him adding
“What are you doing here today,Pierre?” ” Oh,
I’m taking an audition”, replied the Maestro. ” Well,
I hope you get the job”, said Gary.

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The subject of auditions reminds me of another character.
This was James Buck, a French Horn player and another of those cockney
wits that delight the world with their repartee.

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, was giving auditions. Before a
committee of the Intendant, Sir David Webster, The Conductor, Karl Rankl,
the Leader of the Orchestra and other members of the Governing body,
aspiring players were going through their paces. One of the positions
being auditioned for was Third Horn and Jimmy Buck was up for it.
Entering the room with a large bundle of music under one arm, he threw it
onto the piano, “There you are, gents,” he announced,”
The ‘orn repertoire; take your pick”. The Brahms Horn Sonata
being chosen, Jimmy prepared to play. There was a pause; ” Well,
who’s going to play the piano accompaniment?”, asked Jim.
“ Oh,I vill play for you,Mr Buck,” said Rankl, sitting down
at the keyboard. He started the introduction but made a mistake, went
back and started again only to make another mistake and was about to
start again for a third time when Jim interjected, ” ‘ang on
a minute, who’s givin’ the bloomin’ audition, you or
me?”

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Charles Mackerras,( now Sir Charles) was going to record Handel’s “Music
for the Royal Fireworks in its original orchestration. This stipulates 24
Oboes, 12 bassoons, 9 horns as well as 9 trumpets, 3 timpanists and strings;
quite a band, you’ll admit.  In order to find this huge quantity of oboes and
bassoons he decided to record at night,starting at midnight, in order to allow
all these players to be free from their other work and be present.  Some players
had to come down from Birmingham and Manchester to make up the numbers as
Mackerras,( who had been himself an oboeist) wanted only the best players.
Rows and rows of music stands were set out at the recording studio to accommodate
this army of wind instruments while, along the wall, nervously waiting to be seated,
stood all 24 oboe players among whom was Jame MacGillivray,  a noted character
and wit.  Looking along the serried ranks of players he drily observed, ” Well,
fellers, if you aren’t on THIS date, you’re on the way out!”

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We were playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall in London with Nathan Millstein, a very famous, distinguished player as the soloist. For those people who are not familiar with the Albert Hall, I should explain that it is an enormous oval shaped building modelled on a Roman Coliseum, but with the addition of a roof,as we are in London and not Rome. Inside, seats on the floor are surrounded by ten ranked rows of stalls; around the walls is a double row of boxes and finally, at the top,a colonaded gallery that runs practically the whole way round the hall, about sixty feet from the floor. The whole interior finished in scarlet and gold: very impressive. We had reached the cadenza,towards the end of the first movement; Millstein, alone, was executing it with great style when, unseen by anyone, a member of the audience launched a large white paper dart from the gallery. It began a slow descent in great circles, catching the eyes of more and more people as it descended with an increasingly noticeable sound of suppressed giggles as it continued down. The dart finally swooped down to the stage, passing literally by Millsteins nose as he followed it with his eyes and body to where it landed at his feet. The audience erupted , the mood of the music was utterly broken, but Millstein never faltered but sailed gracefully on to the end of the movement when he was loudly applauded for not flapping when he was dive bombed.

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Arthur Rubinstein, the great pianist, told us a story once about George Enescu, the Romanian violinist and composer, whose talent had been encouraged by a wealthy patron who sent him to Paris and paid for him to to study there.  Some time later, when Enescu was beginning to be established, he received a letter from his patron telling him that he  was sending him another young violinist, whose career he wanted George to assist just as he himself had been helped.

Poor man, what could he do? He was under an obligation here so, gracefully accepting his fate , he enrolled the young hopeful with a teacher and watched over his musical education like a friend. It was therefore a surprise when, some time later, he received another letter  from the patron asking him to arrange a Debut Concert for this young hopeful. Reluctantly, realising that the boy really didnt have any great talent, George went ahead and organised the concert.

At the Debut, a curious audience applauded Enescu and the young debutant who bowed and took their places on the platform where a pause ensued. Enesu, at the piano, suddenly realised that he had no one to turn the pages of the music for him. Looking out in to the audience, ne noticed Alfred Cortot, at that time the most famous pianist in France.  Calling across to him, he invited him to come up on to the stage and turn his pages for him,  To laughter, Cortot obliged, sat down next to Enescu and the concert continued.

Next morning a newspaper review of the concert appeared thus: ” Last night, at the Salle Erard, a curious event took place. It was a violin and piano recital at which the man who played the piano should have been playing the violin and the man turning the pages should have been playing the piano, while the man playing the violin should have been turning the pages!

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Sir John Gielgud, the great actor / director sometimes worked in a different medium.  He produced several Operas and, on this occasion, was directing “Don Giovanni ” at Covent Garden.  The orchestra was conducted by Sir Colin Davis.  The relationship betwen Director and Conductor in Opera is a rather delicate one as technically, the Production is under the Director’s control whilst the Music is in the hands of the Conductor. Tact has to be exercised between these two but tact is not one of Sir John’s gifts, as he is famous for committing his “Gielgud’s Gaffes”, as they are called.

Standing in the stalls and watching the action on stage, he noticed something wrong in the positioning of several members of the Chorus,so, coming down to the orchestral rail, he endeavoured to direct them. “Ladies of the chorus, please move more up stage “, the orchestra continued to play, the ladies of the chorus didnt move. Sir John tried again as the orchestra continued, ” Ladies of the chorus  Ladies, can you hear me……”? Sir John by now thoroughly frustrated ,suddenly turned to the Conductor, ” Oh, DO STOP THAT DREADFUL MUSIC, WILL YOU “, he yelled