Principal Horn - vacancy - trials ongoing
Second Horn - John Pratt
John hails from Newcastle, where he had horn lessons with Martin Shillito. He studied at the RNCM with Bob Ashworth and enjoyed a lively freelance career, throughout the North and Scotland, before settling down as 2nd horn at Opera North. A self-confessed horn geek, he is never happier than with horn in hand, be it Vienna horn, trompe de chasse or, if he's very lucky, the Wagner tuba.
Instruments: Alexander 103 and Holton 180
Third Horn (co-principal) - Alex Hamilton
Born in Manchester, Alex began playing the horn at the age of 9 and was taught by Lizzie Davis. Shortly after, Alex joined Chetham's School of Music where he gained the Dip.ABRSM and LRSM diplomas. During his time at Chetham's, Alex was a brass finalist in the BBC Young Musician of the Year, principal horn of the National Youth Wind Ensemble and a member of the National Youth Orchestra.
Fourth Horn - Sam Yates
Sam graduated from the Royal Northern College of Music in 2013, having studied with Tim Jackson and Julian Plummer. Since then, he has performed symphonic and opera repertoire throughout the UK, notably Opera North’s Ring cycle in 2016, tours to Japan and China with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and several concerts at the BBC Proms with the BBC Philharmonic.
In the summer of 2022, after a trial period including Parsifal, Sam was appointed as 4th horn at the orchestra of Opera North, and is enjoying being a part of the rich culture of Leeds.
Alongside playing, Sam is currently a tutor at the University of Liverpool and Junior RNCM.
|Previous Principal horns:
Bob Ashworth - (1978-2022)
Born in Salford in 1955, Bob Ashworth started singing lessons at the age of eight. Trained privately as a chorister he was eventually encouraged to play the horn at the age of twelve, eventually gaining a place in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. He decided to stay in Manchester for four years of study with Sydney Coulston at the Royal Northern College of Music, gaining a 1st class diploma and the award of Laureate.
Since 1978 he was Principal Horn with the Orchestra of Opera North. He made several appearances as soloist and chamber music player. He is an active member of both the British Horn Society and the International Horn Society, performing at many of the former's local and national seminars and writing for their respective journals, The Horn Call (IHS) and The Horn Player (BHS). With his Opera North colleagues, he founded the Opera North Horn Club - providing a regular forum for professional, amateur and student horn players.
Having taught at the RNCM and a number of universities for several years he now limits his horn teaching more towards private tuition and problem solving. He has written two booklets, on warming up and general exercises, for maintenance of good playing habits. In addition to his Opera North commitments has played guest principal horn with several British orchestras, including period instrument work on hand horn and baroque horn.
For the past few years he has run a small publishing house which has now quite a number of varied titles in its catalogue. www.editiondb.com
Instruments: Alexander 403S, Alexander 90, Paxman 40L, Webb/Halstead handhorn, trompe de chasse.
Previous 2nd horns:
Mark Brook (1978-1980) - from 1980-2017 4th horn in BBC Philharmonic in Manchester - now retired.
Always a keen cricketer he now writes the match reports for Marple Cricket Club for whom he used to play on a regular basis!
Alison Davies (née Jenkins) (1982-1986) - studied music at Surrey University and then horn with the legendary James Brown O.B.E. at the Royal Academy of Music. She worked as a freelance player in London from 1978 to 1982, and then played second horn in Leeds with Opera North.
Having stopped playing Alison embarked on studying Dalcroze Eurhythmics with Karin Greenhead at the Royal Northern College of Music between 1992 and 1995. Improvisation and composition were part of the course, as well as the study of music through movement. Alison began to write a lot, mostly for piano, but included pieces for horn which reflect the joyful kinaesthetic approach that eurhythmics brings to music - her piece 'Four Studies' for horn solo was a result of one of the courses composition assignments.
Alison spent 12 years teaching at Gateways School in Harewood, West Yorkshire (latterly as Head of Music at the Preparatory Department) but now teaches music and piano in several schools.
Michael Murray - currently 2nd horn in BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Dougie Scarfe (1989-2000) - was a member of the Orchestra of Opera North for twelve years. Whilst at school he was Principal Horn in the National Youth Orchestra and won the Peter Morrison award for his contribution to NYO. He studied at the Royal Northern College of Music with Hugh Potts winning the Hiles Medal for Orchestral playing and has performed concertos in the Ryedale Festival and at events organised by the British Horn Society.
Dougie was much in demand as a teacher. For many years he was Assistant Director of Music at Aysgarth School. In addition he has held the position of Horn Tutor at the Universities of Huddersfield, Hull and Leeds and also at Chethams School of Music. As a coach Douglas has coached the National Youth Orchestra as well as Youth Orchestras in Lancashire, Merseyside and Sheffield and Leeds.
In 2000 a serious playing related jaw condition ended Douglas' performing career. He has recently combined a new position of Orchestra, Chorus & Concerts Manager at Opera North with his other freelance work. In 2002 Dougie was responsible for organising the North of England's celebration of the centenary of the birth of composer Sir William Walton - Walton Comes Home. With seventy events spread over two and a half months from thirty participating organisations, Walton Comes Home was Britain's largest ever collaborative music festival. In 2003 Dougie was appointed Associate Musical Director of the Sinfonia of Leeds.
In 2012 Dougie took up a new post as Chief Executive of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
Previous 3rd horns:
Stuart Bower (1978–1983) was brought up on a farm in Nottinghamshire and first met the fifteen year old Bob Ashworth during his 3 year stint with the National Youth Orchestra. After four years at the Royal College of Music studying with Julian Baker and Douglas Moore he emerged with a London University degree and very little else, not even a hangover! And so, miraculously, he was picked by Alan Civil and Bob Ashworth as third horn in the newly formed English National Opera North in 1978.
After some years freelancing in the North, the pull of the farm and connections back home then lured him away from horn playing for quite some time, and he eventually became Sales and Marketing Director of a confectionery company he helped to grow from scratch to an annual £3m turnover, studying part-time at Loughborough and gaining a Masters degree in Business Administration - the two things he now realises he is worst at! The company was quite successful however, making hand-decorated little fruit cakes with messages on – a million of which sold each year throughout the UK in Clinton Cards. However, music was never far from his thoughts and, in a moment of impulse (and not for the first time in his life), he resigned his secure post in 2004, and thus began the process of re-inventing a career in music.
Stuart now teaches part time for Lincolnshire Music Service, but his main passion is examining (for Trinity College London) and adjudicating at Festivals. These activities have taken him all over the world, and during the past 12 months alone has visited Japan, Oman, Dubai, Lebanon, Ireland and New Zealand. He is currently working on the new Trinity horn syllabus with fellow horn player, examiner and BHS council member John Humphries, and he also takes on a range of other 'consultancy' roles for Trinity. Overseas examining is a privilege which is much appreciated, and this includes assessing Rock and Pop and marking Theory papers too.
Playing-wise Stuart plays horn and Wagner tuba in local orchestras and loves accompanying, the outstanding memory being a performance of the Brahms Horn Trio at the York horn festival in 1983 with Mike Thompson and David Greed.
In 2009 Stuart purchased a carbon alphorn from Switzerland which he takes all over the world, most notably playing at sunrise on the summit of Mount Fuji in 2012. In 2013 he formed Edelweiss Alphorns with fellow players David Leeder and Malcolm Goodman, and together they play trios in Bavarian costume - for dinners, school demonstrations and concerts.
Also in 2013 he purchased a serpent, and playing this has become a passion. He describes the sound as a cross between a prehistoric bassoon, primordial bartone horn and a buffalo on heat, and he enjoys participating in West Gallery Quire music and English folk music. The most interesting recent development involves the recent formation of a group called 'Brasso Profundo' with ex-Black Dyke player Jim Stretton and London freelance tuba player John Elliott, and their debut at the Savage Club in London. Together they deliver a full-length scripted show full of highly eccentric and hilarious music performed on sousaphone, ophicleide, serpent, slide trumpet, alphorn, carrot, didgeridoo and the utterly unforgettable 'catastrophone'.
Angus West - recently (2023) retired as Principal Horn in Welsh National Opera - see section archive page for picture
Maggie Houlding (née Ayres) - see section archive page for picture
Andrew Littlemore began learning to play the horn at the age of 8 when he was a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral and studied with Simon de Souza. When he was 12 he became principal horn of National Youth Sinfonia for two years. He was the in NYO for three years, his last year as Principal Horn and went on to study with Jeff Bryant at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
From 2003, as well as being at school at Bryanston, Andrew studied at the Royal Academy of Music’s junior department. In 2002-2004 Andrew broadened his experience of chamber music on ‘Chamber Music International’ at The Purcell School. Andrew has given several solo recitals in the South of England, and won the Senior Brass Prize Competition at RAMJD. In his final year at RAMJD he won the concerto competition and performed Gliere’s horn concerto with the symphony orchestra. He has given recitals at St. Martin in the Fields and St. John Smith Square and been soloist in concertos by Mozart, Haydn and Richard Strauss. Andrew was a member of the European Union Youth Orchestra worked with the London Symphony Orchestra but in Summer 2008 was appointed 3rd horn (co-principal) with the Orchestra of Opera North. In between the Opera North schedule he squeezed in regular work with the London Philharmonic and the Philharmonia as well as doing trials for Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (1st hn), Royal Scottish National Orchestra (3rd) and Birmingham Royal Ballet (1st). In autumn 2013 he was appointed 1st horn with the Birmingham Royal Ballet.
Previous 4th horns:
Instruments: Conn 8D Heritage
Paul Kampen - Here is Paul's history from way back - interesting reading!
Please see section archive page for picture of Paul.
I first took up the horn in 1963, having previously been a church choirboy. I also played the piano and violin which I enjoyed without ever feeling that they were 'my' instruments. I took the piano to about Grade 6 standard when I was a full time student but I am now just a rheumatic fumbler on the keyboard. My first horn teacher was Wilfred Heaton who is best remembered as a composer for brass band. However, he earned his living as a horn player and brass teacher in Yorkshire and was also, at various times, Musical Director of Black Dyke Mills band and conductor of the Leeds Symphony and other local amateur orchestras. Wilf wrote a wide variety of music which is currently in vogue in the USA; I was recently interviewed by Paul Hindmarsh for a book that he is writing about Wilf for the Wilfred Heaton Trust.
My first orchestral experience was in the Keighley Orchestral Society which is now called the Airedale Symphony Orchestra, although I think that there is only one player left whom I remember from that time. The first horn was Keith Burdett who has just become one of our Honorary Members; 3rd was the late Ken Greaves – a real Yorkshireman of the old school - and the 4th was the late Hugh Brooksbank who was a very wise man; he was not going to give up this best of all seats for a spotty-faced kid so I played 2nd! I also played in the Yorkshire Youth Orchestra; other horn players there included Dave Lee – now a leading London session player – and another horn club member Hugh Norris.
I went to the Northern School of Music in 1966. There I was taught the horn by Julian Baker (then 1st horn of the Halle) and then by Ken Monks (of the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra). Another horn player, the irascible Maurice Handford (ex 1st horn of the Halle) conducted the college's concert orchestra; as a first-year student I went straight into this and it was a baptism of fire – Handford not being the easiest of men to please. Other horn players at the NSM included Dave Garbutt (recently retired from the BBC Philharmonic), Peter Davies (ex of the BBC Northern Radio and BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestras), Steve Caldicott (ex of the Ulster Orchestra and Royal Marines School of Music at Deal), Xen Kelsey – now Xen Kelsey M.B.E. - a real mover and shaker of music in North Yorkshire, Henryk Sienkiewicz (ex of the English National Ballet and Scottish Opera Orchestras) and Bill Keene (for many years, a brass teacher in the North-east)..
The Northern was a very odd place – ruled with a gentle rod of iron by the late Ida Carroll O.B.E. Anybody who wants to know more should consult the book 'Walter Carroll and his Daughters' by the late Basil Howitt and published by Forsyth's of Manchester. By the way, I am very sorry about all these 'the lates' but I am afraid that I have got to that age! One of the advantages of the NSM was that Ida liked to put her students into the world of work whilst she could still keep an eye on them; thus she called me to her office one day and informed me that I was to commence work the following Monday as horn and trombone teacher at Stretford Girls School. A house-mate of mine – Roy Sydney - was to start there as trumpet teacher at the same time. To that end she told me to report later that day for a trombone lesson with the NSM's teacher Stan Cox. A thorough training?
I then picked up brass teaching jobs at Bury Grammar School and at St Ambrose College, Hale Barns, which enabled me to finance myself for an extra year at the college – mainly taking horn lessons, playing in the concert and opera orchestras plus brass ensembles. Towards the end of this fourth year I applied for the job of 4th horn in the Halle orchestra and, despite doing an indifferent audition, was given a trial – largely due to the influence of Maurice Handford who was the Halle's Associate Conductor. I then did a further trial for 2nd horn with the now defunct BBC Midland Light Orchestra in Birmingham and several doors immediately started to open. At that time, the great North of England choral tradition was still alive although, little did we know it, we were witnessing its final years. Once you were 'in' with the fixers you could almost guarantee having a choral gig somewhere on a Saturday between September and the following May; and occasionally during the week as well. This and some teaching could keep you afloat. The two main orchestras in Manchester which played for choral societies were the Manchester Mozart Orchestra (fixed by 'cellist the late Paul Ward and later by the composer Ernest Tomlinson) and the Manchester Concert Orchestra (fixed by the legendary Frank Needham); in Yorkshire there were the Northern Concert Artists Orchestra (fixed by the late Ian Linford) and the Yorkshire Sinfonia (fixed by Harry Tolson). This orchestra also gave concerts in its own right (conducted for a time by the late Meredith Davies who had presided over the world premiere of Britten's War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral in 1962). It was by no means unknown for two orchestras with the same name to appear on the same night in different venues; this was not without its dangers – one day eight horn players turned up to play the Verdi Requiem in Sunderland. There were frantic stage-door to stage-door phone calls (no mobiles in those days) which established that the other Manchester Mozart Orchestra was rehearsing the ‘Verdi Wreck’ without any horns! The Manchester Mozart Orchestra, in the guise of the Manchester Concert Orchestra, also did regular recordings of light music on Friday mornings in the Milton Hall, Manchester, for BBC Radio 3 (then called 'The Music Programme'). I also began to be offered regular work with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra and thus can boast that I worked next to Sydney Coulston on several occasions – the last time a week or so before he retired when I played 2nd to him in Sibelius' Violin Concerto.
However my first permanent job, albeit on a temporary basis, was in Salford. Ida Carroll introduced me to the Music Adviser, Jack Fryer, who said that he had created a new brass teaching post but the person appointed was still serving in an army band – could I fill in for a term? For some reason which I cannot recall, I did two terms towards the end of which an old college friend who had got a job as a viola player with D'Oyly Carte - Alan Perkins, a multi-talented musician who died in tragic circumstances about a year later – rang to say that the 2nd horn of that orchestra had got a better job and was anxious to be away. As I had played with the Halle I could take over without an audition or trial as long as I could start in two weeks. So I found myself touring Gilbert and Sullivan under the direction of the late James 'Jimmy' Walker and also Royston Nash who later became MD of D'Oyly Carte. Jimmy Walker was an Australian who was one of Decca's recording team for the Solti Der Ring des Nibelungen series of recordings. The first horn was Rod Paton who had studied with Joseph Solc at Brno and was in Czechoslovakia during 1968 when the Russians invaded – he had stories to tell of this. At this time the D'Oyly Carte Orchestra had several old-school players whose careers had started before WW2 and could tell many tales of working on the great ocean liners and the variety theatres. As was usual, most of the orchestra were laid off for the summer whilst London-based players were engaged for the season at the Savoy theatre. I thus expected to start there again when they went back on the road and was lucky to be engaged in the interim to play in the stage band for Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Edinburgh Festival and conducted by Daniel Barenboim. I well remember an incident when he was not satisfied with our intonation and called us all backstage; he built up a chord from the bottom and when it was my turn he fixed me with a glare. Feeling like a rabbit caught in car headlights I held the note and awaited his criticism. This never came – he finally pointed to the 1st horn – Bob Clayton – then to someone else and so on. He just wanted to show who was the boss! But why me? In the end we were re-engaged for the next year when the production was repeated so we cannot have been too bad!
I was then approached in a Manchester pub by the Music Adviser for Rochdale, the late Ken Millington. He was looking for a horn player to make up a staff brass quintet and wanted to know if I was interested; one of his brass teachers had just left and I could have this work as well. As the 1st trumpet, Winston Leese, and tuba player, Edmond Owenson, were friends from college this was an offer that I could not refuse. The 2nd trumpet was also the Head of Brass, the late John Siswick, and the trombone player was Quentin Duerden who has recently retired from a senior music-teaching post in Staffordshire. With Ken Austin, and then Mike Briggs, replacing John, we started to do regular brass quintet concerts independently from the Rochdale job (first as the 'New Brass Quintet' and when Mike took over 'Century Brass') around the Manchester area and this work earned us all quite a lot of money up to the early 80s. I worked in Rochdale for the next four years – basically playing in demonstration concerts on Thursday mornings, teaching the rest of that day, teaching Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays plus Friday evenings. I also taught at Bingley Teacher Training College and Huddersfield Technical College. I have got to say that, when playing work was on offer during the week, which it was more-and-more often, I was allowed leeway which I should never have been given. Some of the schools were complaining and the crunch came when I needed a whole month off to play with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. I was given an ultimatum – was I one of the Rochdale staff or was I a freelance musician? I chose the latter with some sadness as I had got very fond of Rochdale and made many friends there. In fact it was not the complete parting of the ways; Ken Millington changed jobs to become Head of Music in Further Education and I continued to coach on day courses for the West Pennine Symphony Orchestra which he ran until his retirement in the 80s.
The RLPO started to book me regularly; for some reason, the 1st horns – Andy Woodburn and the late Jim Dowling – took it into their heads that I was a high register player (which I never was) and I occasionally worked there as 3rd horn. This gave me a couple of sleepless nights and nervous moments but I always seemed to cope somehow and this broadened my experience. I was helped by the fact that I was a founder member of the Northern Chamber Orchestra which gave its first concert at Crewe in 1967; it was then a student ensemble which eventually went fully professional. As is to be expected in this kind of orchestra, even the second horn is playing in the high register a lot of the time. In the last year of my free-lance days I was also regular 2nd horn of the Manchester Camerata – the NCO's great rival. I did play 1st horn on free-lance gigs fairly regularly – especially with the Northern Chamber Orchestra if the usual 1st horn – Dave Garbutt – was not available. I also played 1st horn for part of a British tour by a German orchestra – Kammerorchester Schwabish-Gmund. This was basically a string orchestra and, like the Manchester Camerata at that time, was run by the local radio station. They employed freelance wind players at home and rather than bring them on the tour they employed British players. This led to an amusing incident when the 2nd horn (Tony Ward) and myself were approached by a member of the audience in York Minster who asked us “do you speak English”. I will not say which of us responded “Aye Lad!” Just once, I played 1st horn in the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in dire emergency (I should have been bumping) – Debussy’s Iberia and Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony conducted by Edo de Waart in a Milton Hall recording. Of course when playing in brass ensembles I was playing high parts and I was also the regular horn player for the Sheffield-based Vogel Wind Quintet for a number of years. So why did I feel more comfortable in these roles (as soloist all the time with nowhere to hide) than playing 1st or 3rd horn? – discuss!
Another door which opened was the Northern Radio Orchestra. This was a reorganisation of what had been the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra under the direction of the late Neil Richardson (MD for one of Barry Tuckwell's light music LPs) and, later, the late Brian Fitzgerald (who people of my age may remember as the MD for the Jimmy Clitheroe Show). Three horns were added to the combo – they were David Hills, Stephen Roberts and Peter Davies. I was a regular dep and, when Dave left to return to London where he worked with the Philharmonia before giving up professional horn-playing to join the Metropolitan Police, I filled in on contract whilst they reduced the pad to two horns. Just before I joined Opera North I was again employed there for a while on a permanent contract when Steve left.
In another turning point I was auditioned (in Manchester) by Frank Lloyd and Charles Floyd for the job of 2nd horn in the Scottish National Orchestra. A trial followed which was quite memorable; for one thing the first week included Mahler's Resurrection Symphony; and later, the soloist in the Grieg and Beethoven 3rd piano concertos was an all-time legend – Artur Rubinstein – then well into his eighties. This marvellous old roué was nearly blind and sprayed the piano keys with ladies' hair lacquer to get a better feel. And he had a curvaceous, blonde 'secretary' in tow who was all of 20 years old. On the last day of the trial the Orchestral Manager – Eric Knussen – said that the Scottish Chamber Orchestra were short of a horn for a pair of concerts the week after which included the rarely-performed Mozart Serenata Notturna for Four Orchestras – could I stay in Scotland and take the gig? This I did and had a very enjoyable week. I thought no more about it until nine months later when the SCO rang and said that, as the Scottish Philharmonia, which is the name that they used when playing for Scottish Opera (which then did not have a permanent orchestra), they needed a second horn for a week in Inverness. I said that I would need one night off to play in a rehearsal with the Dance Theatre of Harlem in Manchester; this they agreed to. This led to three years when I spent about a third of my time in Scotland; the SCO's two regular horns – Chris Griffiths and Dick Wakeford – played 1st and 3rd, I played 2nd and Bob Clayton played 4th. Of course, being a freelance orchestra, there were exceptions with a lot of deps for shows to which some conductors (especially Richard Armstrong) objected. Eventually, Chris and Dick decided to play 1st and 2nd all the time, Bob became too busy around Manchester and I dropped to 4th. The regular 3rd horn for the next year was then John Stobart who, for many years now, has been 3rd horn in the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra in Germany.
One other source of income for several years was Leeds Grand Theatre; like the other large TMA theatres it had an agreement with the Musicians Union that only professional players would be used for productions there – even for amateur societies (actually, as a concession, the MU allowed the societies to use their own pianists). Therefore I became the regular horn player at the Grand for several societies who tended to have a 'no deps' rule so this meant that I had a rest from travelling long distances. There were occasional professional shows which used the local players; one which I remember was a production of The Dancing Years with John Hanson; this was conducted by Derek Taverner (who did the music for BBC TV's 'It Ain't 'alf Hot Mum'). He regularly conducted with one hand and did the Times crossword with the other – never 'dropping a stitch'. He asked the harpist and myself to go out on the road with him and this we did for about a month. This was the only experience which I ever had of three performances of the same show in a day – I think that they were at 1.30, 4.30 and 7.30 with a two and a half hour running time to the show – a common practice before WW2 but now, mercifully, unknown although three-session playing days certainly are not. The Musical Director at Leeds Grand was the late Stanley Berkeley who was then in his eighties and officially retired but the Grand kept him on under some kind of retainer contract. He was from Somerset and had never lost his accent despite the fact that he had been at the Grand all his working life – starting in the 2nd violins and ending as MD. He used to relate how, in World War 2, the Grand orchestra would do the evening show – possibly with a matinee as well – go home for a couple of hours and then travel during the night in the blackout to the old BBC studios at Woodhouse Lane in order to broadcast live to the troops; this reminds us that all the theatres had resident orchestras then and, at a large theatre like the Grand this would be more-or-less full-time; also that musicians worked hard to support the war effort. He also told tales of the Grand orchestra's horn player – Tommy Tasker – who was a great MU stalwart and, as Leeds Branch Secretary, would always go to see visiting orchestras and welcome them to Leeds. Like the choral societies, this kind of work is now much reduced and, with the 'closed shop' illegal, is often very badly paid. Sadly, Stanley Berkeley came into the theatre one day to find all his belongings on the corridor and his office being made into a private toilet for the Opera North Music Director. This caused a lot of ill-feeling from local musicians. The last time that I spoke to him he complained bitterly about how the theatre had been 'ruined' backstage. He was complaining because two new bandrooms had been constructed; previously there had only been one and 'mixed bathing' was the rule when getting changed. Despite more liberal views today, this would not now be tolerated. I suspect that what had really upset him was the removal of a unique stage lift (which, under the stage, was a serious health & safety hazard but we were not yet into that kind of thing) up which generations of pantomime characters had suddenly appeared; this had been removed to make way for the rooms. Incidentally, when English National Opera North was set up, the policy was to always be in the theatre at Christmas. The Leeds tradition of the ‘Leeds Grand Panto’ was lost and this led to resentment in the city. I always tried to tell people that there were ‘Christmassy’ shows on offer – Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, Lehar’s The Merry Widow etc., but my propaganda always fell on deaf ears. Perhaps Stanley was more than a bit of a dinosaur but one it was a privilege to have known.
One other source of work which is worth a mention was recording. There was some of this at the Yorkshire TV studios in Leeds where the Musical Director was the late Peter Husband. David Wise and myself did a few episodes of the Stars on Sunday programme - once being in full camera for a dreadful arrangement for strings and horns of Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Infanta. There was also the odd date at Granada in Manchester: these recordings were normally the preserve of Halle Orchestra's players working as freelancers but if they were not available freelance players would get the work – I remember amongst other things taking part in the theme music for a programme called Hypotheticals which was used for several years. I also remember, with Peter Davies, doing a TV Times ad in an independent studio in central Manchester. However, most of this work was in – of all places – Stockport. Two studios behind Stockport Town Hall had opened: these were called Strawberry 1 and Strawberry 2 - one being a converted pub and the other, I think, a converted mill. One or two of the sessions were 'vanity recordings' – often rich businessmen's wives who booked musicians and a studio to record their own singing – for what I do not know. Once, we recorded with one such lady singing The Lord's Prayer and I expected a thunderbolt to descend and cut-off the warbling. I remember albums with the late Don Estelle – Private ‘Lofty’ Sugden in It Ai’nt Half Hot Mum - who insisted on greeting every player personally and handing over each cheque with a friendly handshake. Another was with the legendary Norman George playing violin solos to our accompaniment. Norman had been leader of the BBC Northern Variety Orchestra – the precursor of the Northern Dance Orchestra – and, when its string section had been dispensed with, he had gone freelance and led many of the choral dates. However his heart was in light music. He had a trick of throwing his violin bow between his legs and up his back, quickly moving his arm to catch it over his head. This was very amusing in a rehearsal or even in a light music concert; but not appropriate when coming on to take his leader's bow for a performance of Elgar's The Kingdom! Other sessions which I remember were playing backing tracks for Paul McCartney's 'Wings' group. Why he had moved these out of London I do not know but we took advantage and found him a thoroughly nice individual. Once he asked for a 'whooping' sound from the horns; David Wise said “you mean a glissando?” He answered “yes” and David pointed to the music and asked “there?” He responded - “I am sorry, that means nothing to me whatsoever!” I was once asked to take a 'hunting horn' to Strawberry 2 to play a hunting call which was apparently for an ad showing a painting of a huntsman. Not owning such a thing, but guessing that the people involved would not know any different, I took one of my old Brown and Co. peashooters from which Keith Burdett had removed the valves so that I could use it as a hand horn. They asked me to play as a test so I just whacked out as raucously as possible something that I remembered from the Wiener Horn Verein LP. They said - “oh, right, that's it then!” and gave me my money – I was out of the building in less than 20 minutes, the easiest fee that I ever earned. My one regret was that I had paid to park for four hours!
Perhaps an unlikely source of work was the night club singer Tony Christie; he had two horns in his backing combo for a while and I was one of several players who shared this work out according to availability. This could be useful as you never ‘went on’ before 10.30 pm so could occasionally get there having done another gig first – I remember once going from a Beethoven concert to ‘Amarillo’ and ‘McArthur Park’. And it took me into some interesting venues! One such was the Stardust Theatre Club in Bolton where Peter Davies and I turned up in good time and asked the stage doorman where the bandroom was. He was far too interested in the fish and chips which he was eating out of newspaper and he gestured with a greasy thumb to a room down the corridor. This we entered to find a man sitting on a couch with his face in his hands. A lady (his wife?) was putting a gold lame dinner jacket into a suit bag. As we entered we heard her say “this is the worstest club wot yer ‘ave ever played chuck; but chuck – yer not ready to go full-time pro yet”. We later found out that he was the warm up comedian whom the management had had to ‘pull’ to stop the audience throwing things at him. Shades of the late Les Dawson who said that “at the Glasgow Empire, if they liked you they didn’t applaud – they just let you live”. I wonder if ‘chuck’ ever did go ‘full-time pro?’ Incidentally, I cannot claim to have worked with Les Dawson but I met him a couple of times as some of the NRO players were friends of his and he would occasionally meet up with them in pubs. Few of his army of fans will be aware that he was something of an opera buff and had attended an Opera North performance of Puccini’s La Boheme in the Manchester Palace Theatre the night before he died. His widow said later that this meant that he died happy.
Rumours of ‘a new professional orchestra’ being founded in Yorkshire were going the rounds when I first started playing in amateur groups. Leeds had had a full time professional orchestra from 1947 to 1955 in the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra; I heard many stories about how it had been run by the corporation parks department and was never well supported in the corridors of power; this was partly because its Musical Director – Maurice Miles – had views which grated with many people. In its last year, with the writing firmly on the wall, a new MD – Nicolai Malko, who was then a genuinely international name but is now largely forgotten apart from some recordings of Russian music which can still be found in second hand shops – was raising the standards. Before the YSO, a professional orchestra called the Northern Philharmonic Orchestra had given regular concerts in Leeds; little seems to be on record about the NPO but it was possibly players from various theatres who got together to play symphonic music: its Chief Conductor for a time was a youngster called John Barbirolli so it cannot have been too bad. Incidentally, people at Opera North and elsewhere have implied that nothing went on in Leeds before the company was founded. This is very far from the truth: the idea of full-time orchestras was unknown in Britain until the BBC Symphony Orchestra was founded – at one time the Halle, BBC Northern and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic were basically the same players who also did seaside shows in the summer. So too in Leeds there was a pool of professional musicians doing different things – there are websites which carry some interesting information. A re-formed YSO is what people dreamed of; however, sometime in the 1970s, the rumours began to revolve round a new opera company. And such was announced in September 1977 – to begin operations in late 1978. It cannot be said that the announcement was universally popular: some players working at Scottish Opera saw it as a threat to that company and once, in the bandroom at Leeds Grand Theatre, I heard a locally well-known viola player say “it will fold after about three years and there are too many unemployed musicians in Leeds already!” In fact, this prophesy came very near to being proved true. The management of the Halle Orchestra also saw it as a threat and made an unsuccessful attempt to get the Musicians Union to put a ‘no concert work’ clause in the new orchestra’s contracts.
In due course an advertisement for players appeared in the Daily Telegraph and I applied. I was called to an audition in the Grand Hall of the Grand Theatre – the panel being David Lloyd-Jones (who was to be the company’s Musical Director) and Ian Killik (Orchestral Manager). I had played for DL-J some years previously, in a BBC studio recording and a concert performance at the Chester festival of Rachmaninov’s opera Francesca da Rimini. Ironically, this would become one of the last operas which I played at Opera North including my penultimate night in the pit with the company. Players also auditioning that evening included Geoff Brown – ex of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and then oboe player in the University of Leeds Wind Quintet – who was to become the orchestra’s first regular Cor Anglais player. I played one of my party-pieces – Haydn’s Second Horn Concerto – and the accompanist turned a page of the music over with a flourish – succeeding in throwing it right across the room! As it was a new organisation, trials as such were not possible (some of the first members of the orchestra were on trial for their jobs although all were given the substantive positions before the first performances) and all successful candidates were asked to do a second audition; at that time having two auditions was unusual although these days it seems to have become the norm. I was then asked to go down to London to do a second audition in the Coliseum Theatre. This was in a late afternoon so I did the morning session at the NRO, then drove to Piccadilly station to get the Manchester-London Euston train. This was foolish; I had difficulty finding somewhere to park and nearly missed the train. Hoping that this was not a bad omen I entered the warm-up room to find a well-known London player there whose girlfriend told me that “he’s only doing it for the larf!” The panel was DL-J (as we always called him) and Ian, plus Bob Ashworth – who had been appointed Principal horn – and Charles Coverman, Orchestral Manager at English National Opera and well-known as one of the old school. A couple of weeks later I got a letter offering me the 4th horn position and was apparently the fourth player appointed to the orchestra after Ian (who was also to play in the viola section), Bob and David Greed – the Leader. This was several months before we were due to start work and I filled them mainly at the NRO where Stephen Roberts had left and I had been offered his job on a permanent basis. My last week as a freelancer was spent at the NRO during the day and playing Gigi at Leeds Grand in the evenings. Just before this I played 1st horn in what was supposed to be another new ‘permanent’ orchestra for Yorkshire; conducted by one of the county music advisers, this disappeared after just the one concert in the City Hall, Hull. On the programme was the Sibelius Karelia Suite. In the rehearsal I played the notorious high B flat at the end of the first movement to which the carver responded “well done 1st horn, I hope that you can do it again tonight”. The second horn was a woman with whom I had been in the Yorkshire Youth Orchestra but had not seen for over 12 years; nor did I know anything of her life-history since then. I turned to her and said “that’s put the mockers on it - what a complete buerk”. She responded “and I should know – I am married to him!” Did I do it again in the evening? – I don’t remember.
The new orchestra assembled for the first time in the auditorium of the Leeds City Varieties on the 18th October 1978. It was not quite the superannuated youth orchestra which the press claimed: there were some very experienced string players in the ranks. One surprise was the Sub-leader, Reginald ‘Reggie’ Stead, who had retired some years earlier as Leader of the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra and must have been in his early 70s. He stayed with us for about ten months: incidentally, the last time that I saw Reggie was a couple of years later at a house party in the Lake District. He was one of the guests and the Century Brass had been booked to serenade the party; I was not needed at English National Opera North (or ENON) - as it was called to start with - and could accept the date. We were shown to a bedroom and requested to play there – which we did for all of five minutes before somebody came stomping up the stairs and angrily slammed the door shut. We collapsed in fits of laughter and I do not think that we bothered to play much more before setting off for home - having been paid in advance. Did we help ourselves from the buffet and bar before leaving? I do not remember.
The first horn section comprised Bob Ashworth – whom I already knew as a rising star amongst the young professionals of Manchester, Mark Brook, a superbly accurate player whose style complemented that of Bob perfectly and, on third and thus my ‘partner’ (or was I his?) was Stuart Bower – a real multi-talent (we used to joke about his pre-natal ARCM diploma).
The first item which the new orchestra played was Wagner’s overture to Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg before we started work on the first opera which ENON was to perform – Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila. David Greed was to write much later that the players were “all eyeing each other up suspiciously!” This was certainly true; I knew several and a few were old friends. Others were unknown quantities and it is a tribute to DL-J and Ian Killik that they had chosen well. Twelve operas, in groups of three, were scheduled for the first year. Besides ‘Samson’, the first trio included Puccini’s La Boheme and a double bill of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas – which of course has no horn parts – and Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tiresias which needs only two horns and gave me my first nights off although I played it on 2nd horn when it was revived a couple of years later. This was of note as it got the company its first complaints: I went into the theatre one night and found a group of people round one of the noticeboards falling about with laughter. I looked to find the source of their mirth and it was an indignant letter from ‘Disgusted of Harrogate’ complaining about the ‘obscene’ storyline of ‘Mamelles’ and trusting that such an abomination would not, in future, be seen on the stage of the Grand Theatre. Basically, the storyline revolves around a man who acquires female bodily attributes and is complete with stock characters – comic policemen etc. This is cloaked in Poulenc’s typically tuneful, witty but spiky music. At the end of the first season we made our initial forays into the world of the concert orchestra and faced a very hard winter – more of this anon. The company quickly took on what seemed like an unstoppable momentum, buoyed up by big audiences and glowing press reports. I was lucky in being able to continue with some of my freelance career as well – in particular with the Northern Chamber Orchestra and with teaching; also doing a few more sessions at the NRO and going over to Liverpool to play 8th horn in Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben with the RLPO and Walter Weller.
It cannot be said that, after we returned from holiday in September 1979, the company momentum was continued. There were several factors in this and people present then will have their own opinions but, for a start, some promised local authority funding had not been forthcoming which did affect morale. Secondly, a leading role in one of the operas had been seriously miscast to the point of the shows being an embarrassment: this is always the danger – what sounds good in an audition studio can be anything but on stage – especially on the tenth performance on tour. It is to the credit of the orchestra – and indeed the whole company – that the ‘take the money and run’ attitude, which I had been experiencing on a regular basis, was never prevalent there in my time and I understand that this is still the case. This is very good for standards but not always for morale. As was to be expected, one or two personality clashes had emerged and there were people who decided that a life in Leeds and/or playing opera every day was not for them. And the winter of 1979/80 proved to be the second extremely severe one in a row. This did have its comical side; those of us required for performances of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld trudged, slipped and skidded three days in a row to the ABC cinema in Doncaster (once a theatre and pressed into service as such once more). The soprano singing Juno – the late great Sheila Rex (who, despite being a star of Sadlers Wells and English National Opera lived in Leeds all of her life and, her singing days finally over, worked behind a counter in Lewis’s before retirement) plugged a defective hair-dryer into a power socket in her dressing room and fused all the lights. The artists on stage carried on and the orchestra played from memory, or busked, and tried to follow the stage until somebody fixed the lights. Later, for the only time in my career, I missed half a performance sitting on the M6 in fog when I should have been playing Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in Wolverhampton. I was not the only one and in fact was not the last to get there; the orchestra started with a full horn section – two of whom were wearing pullovers and jeans having gone expecting just to play the off-stage horn calls (which once, incidentally, in a rehearsal they sang, rather than played, with the words “Hello Joe” to general amusement). The lowest point was reached in Sunderland when another performance of ‘Dutchman’ ended at nearly midnight due to technical difficulties. The orchestra which assembled at 10.00am in freezing weather the next morning to rehearse Bizet’s Carmen was somewhat less enthusiastic than usual.
This was one of two low periods in the life of the company during my 26 years there when people were seriously questioning what they were doing and why they were doing it. Happily for me, my own moments of doubt did not last very long and eventually the sun began to shine; we started to work on Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier with DL-J and, in a very important development, we started to see guest conductors. It is no disrespect to the three fine musicians who had conducted all the company’s performances in the first year that an orchestra playing five, six, sometimes seven days per week every week needs a constant change of jockey to keep fresh and alert. The lack of guests was probably down to the wish to consolidate and establish a house style but it was a bit unhealthy. Our first guest for a concert was the late Albert Rosen – the Musical Director of the RTE Symphony Orchestra in Dublin and for opera, Elgar Howarth started what was to be a long association with the company, in particular the orchestra.
In the early years of the company, we toured to many locations which do not usually host a full-sized opera company: places such as Doncaster, Ashton-under-Lyne and Darlington spring to mind. This reminded me of the Scottish Opera 'midi' tour where we performed Mozart's The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro back to back in locations such as Barrow-in-Furness, Crewe, Darlington and Motherwell for several weeks.
Right from the start, we also performed regularly as a concert orchestra. The first ever concert by 'The English Northern Philharmonia' as we were then known was in Newcastle City Hall where we were joined by the Newcastle Festival Chorus. Our first purely orchestral concert was in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon and included Dvorak's New World Symphony. This was on the Sunday after a week of opera performances in this apology for an international theatre. As previously mentioned, it was a hard winter and one night during that week, Stratford was almost totally cut off by snow. We could not start the performance as an entire section of the orchestra was missing. An announcement was made - "ladies and gentlemen, some of our musicians are delayed by the weather; we will start as soon as they arrive!" Actually, they were staying in the row of cottages opposite the theatre where they were found, fast asleep in front of a roaring coal fire, by an emissary sent to look for them. I myself stayed that week in a guest house run by a retired naval officer, whose sole staff consisted of his old steward who always addressed him as 'Commander'.
A period of consolidation in the first few years of the company saw a regular touring pattern emerging. At first, virtually all productions which we performed in Leeds toured to Nottingham, Sunderland, Hull and Norwich, with occasional visits to Coventry plus the smaller venues alluded to earlier. Manchester was not then included, apart from a single week at Manchester Opera House during the Spring of 1979. That season also saw our first visit abroad - to Dortmund in Germany where, one day, I went down to the bandroom to warm up on the afternoon of a performance. There I met one of the resident bassoon players - a very friendly man of late middle age who asked, in rather fractured English, why all the men in the orchestra piled into one bandroom and all the women used another. They had several band rooms for both men and women plus instrument rooms for brass, strings etc. Those were the days when many British theatres (even Leeds Grand) did not provide separate orchestral changing facilities for men and women - at best it could be 'mixed bathing' and at worst, in a few theatres there were no proper dressing rooms at all for the orchestra. This situation has changed over the last 35 years but in certain cases this has been achieved by some rather rudimentary methods (there was one theatre which, for a time, had a tent pitched backstage to be used as a gent's changing room - although it was not then part of Opera North's touring circuit).
As previously mentioned, the company's first foreign trip was to Dortmund and we subsequently made a return call on that modern city on the Ruhr. We also visited Wiesbaden twice (I was not involved in another German trip - to Munich), plus several visits to Rotterdam. I was not present for the company's tour to the old Eastern bloc - Halle and Leipzig (it was a Handel opera with no horns) - but those who made the trip came home with some interesting tales to relate. The biggest foreign tour was to the world famous and newly refurbished Liceu Theatre in Barcelona, which must count as one of the real 'never to be forgotten' ventures of my time at Opera North. No disrespect to Leeds but going home from work in a bus by the shores of the Mediterranean beats driving down Kirkstall Road any time – to say nothing of spending a free morning on the sea in a catamaran! As a concert orchestra, we also made several trips to France (there was also one concert in Vienna for which I was absent). One not so good memory of playing abroad was when the nuclear accident at Chernobyl took place - we were in Wiesbaden at the time, right under the track of the fall-out.
In an opera job, your thinking is of necessity on a longer term than in a symphony orchestra where you play the same programme three or four times in a week and then move on to a different programme. However, one of my biggest memories is of a concert. We were performing Britten's War Requiem with the Huddersfield Choral Society at the Royal Festival Hall in London (Jane Glover conducting) on the day that the Berlin Wall was being torn down. This came on the end of a week when we recorded a CD of music by Sir Michael Tippett with the composer - how shall I put it? - standing making gestures with a white stick. Sir Michael was a wonderful man who wrote some marvellous music (also some real dross!) but, conductor he was not. The CD is a lovely memento of my career but it has to be said that the actual sessions are a bad memory.
There are one or two other bad memories - the 'orchestra riot' in Manchester; a player having a potentially fatal accident during a live broadcast; a player being knocked unconscious by a prop flying into the pit (that is why there is always a net); trying to get home from Sunderland in bad weather when the police were advising people not to travel; getting to Leeds at 10.00 pm (having left home in snow at 4.00 pm) for a performance, only to be told by players coming the other way that "you should have turned round and gone back, the show was cancelled"; disputes with the management (and occasionally between colleagues) in which I got involved during my eighteen years as Musicians Union Steward; and one or two conductors (well more than one or two actually) who I would have been very happy to have avoided. There were embarrassing moments too: I was once in Settle indulging in one of my hobbies on a bright early-summer’s day. I received a call on my mobile from Helen Stephens who first of all commented on what a nice day it was and then noted that it was obviously too nice to attend a rehearsal in Leeds. Only then did I find that I had written up my diary a day out.
I have mentioned the early scare with funding from Kirklees and Calderdale; even more serious was the now infamous ‘Glory of the Garden’ report from the Arts Council where the company’s survival was seriously under threat. Looking back, the formation of the company in 1978 – just before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister – was a leap of faith which, had it been taken a year later, would have quickly been stopped. ‘Glory of the Garden’ came after about five years and, ironically, one of its authors was Graham Marchant, ENON’s first General Manager who was to say later that this was one fight that he was glad to have lost. His opponent was his successor at ENON – Nicholas Payne – to whom Leeds owes a big vote of thanks.
I played through the tenures of three Musical Directors and a 'Musical Advisor' with the company; and I was present to see a fourth Musical Director appointed. The founder Musical Director was David Lloyd-Jones, a wonderfully witty and erudite man who possessed the rare combination of breadth and depth of knowledge – plus superb ‘people skills’ (half the job of the conductor but many are sadly lacking in this quality). He was followed by Paul Daniel - a much more mercurial character who could seem disorganised but who presided over some extremely inspired performances. They were followed by an interregnum overseen by Elgar Howarth as Musical Advisor. Gary was also once Chief Guest Conductor for the orchestra and his input to its development must never be underestimated. The third holder of the MD's post was Steven Sloane, an outwardly very serious man - totally at odds with the British sense of humour - who conducted some of the orchestra's very best symphony concerts, of which Mahler's Second Symphony and two performances of Beethoven's 7th Symphony (in which I 'bumped' second horn) will always stay in my memory. Other great experiences with Steven were the series of 'semi-staged' performances of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde which we gave at Leeds Town Hall and which were, for me, one of the company's greatest achievements in over 25 years. I had left by the time that Richard Farnes took over but I played for him several times – the first time in Norwich where I went in to play 2nd horn in a performance of a Mozart opera. We were not working a rota on that one (as we often did for ‘two-horn’ shows) so, as far as he was concerned, I was just a dep. Nevertheless, he knew exactly who I was and why I was there; and he came and thanked me afterwards. This can by no means be taken for granted from a conductor.
Guest conductors are always an important part of an orchestra's life. We saw a fair selection of them, from those late-lamented British grand-masters Sir John Pritchard and Sir Charles Groves, through two younger British conductors who both died before their time – Richard Hickox and Vernon ‘Tod’ Handley to that 'one-off' of musical life, Gennadi Rozdhestvensky. This latter Russian gentleman lived up to his reputation for disliking rehearsals when he was given two purely orchestral sessions with us at Huddersfield Town Hall, for what was a choral concert of music by Schnitke. After about half of the first session his huge voice boomed "We rehearse again tomorrow when we have sin-G-ers!"
Oliver von Dohnanyi (a cousin of the Hungarian conductor and some relation to the composer of Variations on a Nursery Song) showed an almost Beechamesque talent for making third rate music (e.g., Ponchielli's La Gioconda and Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet) sound like a masterpiece. A protege of Von Karajan's - the Iranian Alexander Rahbari - was an early guest for opera and concerts; he proved to be bit of a hooligan who made it obvious what he thought of the company's production of Carmen, entertaining himself in Bradford Alhambra by resting his baton on the shoes of an audience member, whose feet were sticking through the bottom of the pit rail. Another closet hooligan is Andras Ligeti (nephew of the composer) with whom the orchestra performed some very special concerts, as it did with Dietfried Bernet, a very popular guest for the whole company who almost succeeded in making me enjoy Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. It was wonderful to experience Bruckner’s 8th Symphony with Dietfried at the end of my time with the orchestra - something to remember with intense pleasure. Sadly, Dietfried – never in the best of health – passed away during 2011. Then there was the delightful Italian Giuliano Carella who amused the orchestra by always addressing us as 'Professore'. Sadly the run of Verdi's Aida which he conducted did not lead on to any further work with this 'Real Mcoy' of Italian opera; others in the same mould were the dynamic Stefano Ranzanni (who tried to refuse to rehearse in Leeds Town Hall because he could not stand the acoustics) and Carlo Rizzi - who became MD of WNO and now conducts at the New York Metropolitan Opera - whose first British dates were with us. These are some of the people who stand out when I look at old programmes; however there are a few whose names I can barely recognise, or whom I remember mainly for their nicknames (e.g., 'Mr Nuisance') or anagrams of their names (Dr Chan OBE).
As the resident orchestra for the Leeds Conductors Competition, we launched a few careers of whom Martyn Brabbins, Grant Llwellyn and Sian Edwards are probably so far the best known but watch out for Garry Walker - a real star in the making..
As to horn players, Mark was the first member of the section to leave when he achieved a long-held ambition to become a member of the BBC Philharmonic in 1981. He was replaced by Alison Jenkins, another superb all-round musician, who had been working with the Philharmonia Orchestra and with Kent Opera. When she left to start a family, Mike Murray, a Lancashire lad who is also a talented conductor, joined the orchestra; his outstanding playing can now be heard in the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Mike's replacement was Dougie Scarfe, a real multi-talent who eventually became the company’s Orchestral and Chorus Director and is soon to depart to become General Manager of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. And now the second horn chair is held by John Pratt – it was great to see his special talent quickly start to blossom in the orchestra.
As to 3rd horns, Stuart Bower left to try freelance life in 1982 and was replaced by Angus West who moved to the Co-Principal seat at the Halle in 1986, before the lure of the opera pit proved too strong and he moved on again, to be Principal horn at Welsh National Opera. The section was then livened up by Maggie Houlding - one of horn playing's real 'naturals'.
As I said, opera playing compels one to think long term and, it is runs of opera rather than individual performances which stick in the memory. I must admit to being a fan of 'these you have loathed' - operas which the orchestra as a body dislikes playing (e.g., Carmen and The Bartered Bride) but which I will always remember with pleasure. I was never bored by Puccini, Mozart or Verdi - I will always count La Boheme as one of my favourites despite the fact that I must have played going on for 200 performances over 25 years (mainly on 4th horn). The Strauss and Janacek operas never failed to thrill and, in the Autumn of 2002, we did a really memorable run of Der Rosenkavilier with Dietfried Bernet. I would be hard put to choose between Peter Grimes and Billy Budd as my favourite Benjamin Britten - whether as music or as great pieces to play. But it is Britten's Gloriana which was the most memorable in Opera North's history. The combination of Dame Josephine Barstow's portrayal of the ageing Queen Elizabeth the First, and Phillyda Lloyd's production provided much mileage for the company - including a national TV performance, a visit to the Royal Opera House and the Barcelona tour.
And the Russian operas - David Lloyd-Jones' influence meant that these loomed large and the production of A Love for Three Oranges by Prokofiev got us on to national TV for the first time. Borodin's Prince Igor was sadly never revived and Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin perhaps never showed the company at its best in any of the three runs in which I played. However, Moussorgsky's Boris Godunov is another thing that I will never forget - this we took abroad, recorded for Chandos and took to the Henry Wood Proms for the company's first visit to the country's most famous concert season.
Wagner has been represented, apart from Tristan, with several runs of The Flying Dutchman, Die Meistersinger (at 6 hours, one of the longest operas in the repertoire which was not a great success for us) and Tannhauser. This will always bring to mind the much lamented Keith Latham (who died of a heart attack in the interval of a show with WNO) and a truly phenomenal concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall, London.
Dislikes? - much as I love Carmen, I could never summon up much enthusiasm for Bizet's The Pearl Fishers despite the fact that it has a nice 4th horn part. Although I always enjoyed Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld (in both the inflated and the original versions) I did not like the same composer's The Tales of Hoffman at all. And I am sure that the musicologist who persuaded Opera North to do Roberto Gerhard's The Duenna was sincere in his enthusiasm but, I obtained a copy of the CD which we made of it and this remains sealed and unplayed to this day!
Sadly, the only time that we did Beethoven's Fidelio (of which I have happy Scottish Opera memories of many performances - especially those conducted by Walter Weller) it was one of Opera North's biggest flops. One or two attempts to vary the operatic diet met with a proverbial banana skin on the stage level corridor - did anybody in the audience stay to the end of 'Forest Gump' - oops - I meant Forest Murmers? However, I did enjoy Schumann's Genoveva which, I think, a lot of people were prejudiced against for non-musical reasons.
If you want to hear what a marvellous company Opera North is, just listen to the CD of Boris Godunov Highlights (Chandos CHAN 3007) - specifically, the 'St Basil Scene' with the chorus on top form. And, consider what a versatile orchestra it has. The same players who play those operas day in, day out can easily turn their hands to a big symphony concert, accompany a local choral society, do a 'rehearse-record' session of unfamiliar music or perform a date with a TV personality, playing to an audience of inebriated Pontins Bingo winners in Blackpool. After a week of opera on tour, they will turn out on a Sunday to play lighter fare in a Film Music concert somewhere and bring the name of Opera North before people who would not dream of attending an opera performance. I don't say that they will always do it without complaining - they are orchestral players after all - but they will do it.
One aspect of my activities was one which I would never have imagined for myself: my involvement with the Musicians Union. I joined the Manchester branch of the MU during 1969 and, as was the policy with the Manchester branch then, I attended a branch meeting to be given my first union card and be introduced to the branch committee. This was at the Briton’s Protection Inn – still a musician’s watering-hole today. Within five minutes I was treated to the spectacle of two very well-known Manchester musicians (one of whom later became a full-time union official) hurling quite vicious personal abuse at each other. I resolved to stay a paid-up member for the benefits (and of course, all genuine professional work was a strict ‘closed shop’ then) but to steer clear of the union otherwise. The old branch system was still in force when ENON began operations in 1978 and we were asked to transfer our memberships to the Leeds branch. As a matter of fact, some people – in particular those with Central London membership – tried to refuse the transfer and it was eventually done for them against their will. Democracy in action. Transfer seemed quite logical to me and, once I was in the Leeds branch, I went along to a meeting to see what it was like in Leeds. The Chairman was Ken Baxter – a well-known professional on the jazz scene and also a regular extra in TV drama productions – and the Vice-Chairman was the late Brian Greensmith. Brian was the son of Harold Greensmith who had been 1st trombone in both the Bournemouth and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestras and had founded the school for blind musicians in Birmingham. Brian had studied medicine but dropped out to pursue a career as a ‘cellist; he had held positions in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the RTE Symphony Orchestra in Dublin and the BBC Scottish Radio Orchestra. He had come to Yorkshire (his family roots were in Leeds) to teach for the West Riding and had then moved on to run the peripatetic instrumental music service in Barnsley and to freelance as a ‘cellist. I got to know him on gigs in the 70s and, after the Yorkshire Sinfonia started to book London-based players (hence fielding what David Wise described as ‘deputy’s deputies!’), he had set up the ‘Yorkshire Philharmonic Orchestra’ which quickly cornered the choral society work in Yorkshire. Incidentally, Brian claimed that the name of ‘English Northern Philharmonia’ was forced onto the Opera North orchestra because he had registered every conceivable name for an orchestra in Yorkshire as his own trading names. Ken and Brian persuaded me to join the Leeds branch committee and, in hindsight, it was then inevitable that I eventually became MU steward at English National Opera North. In any case I had quickly been roped into the orchestra committee. At the orchestra’s first ever orchestral meeting, one of the violinists who was well into his 50s and had served in the RAF, described the job of MU Steward as “a sort of Flack-Johnny”. This is certainly true – keeping on good terms with the management was easy – everyone regarded the many arguments as ‘business’. But it could create friction with colleagues – there were 60 contracted players in the orchestra and 60 different opinions on how things should operate. I was also, in effect, secretary to the orchestral committee and for a time Health and Safety Officer as well. This particular dual-role was not liked either by the management or the MU. MU stewarding is all about negotiation and finding the ‘least-worst option’ that will keep everybody reasonably happy. H&S is right and wrong – no negotiation. I was MU steward for over 15 years and thereby hangs many a tale – some of which may be told one day - not yet I think. But one anecdote will do no harm: meetings were often held in the Grand Theatre Boardroom. This is a small room – often used as an audition warm up/waiting room – with a heavy iron fire door in one corner which leads to the backstage area of the theatre. In the other corner is a sliding door which leads into the Dress Circle landing - near to which is the Dress Circle bar. A particular meeting, attended by the MU Assistant General Secretary from London, was going badly; the argument was getting heated, tension was rising and there was no agreement in sight. Suddenly the sliding door opened and a little man entered pushing a trolley on which there was a tub filled with empty bottles. Ian Killik said tersely “this is not a good time!” The man responded in a flat, deadpan Yorkshire accent “sorry mate, it’s the only way that I can go!” and he trundled his trolley, bottles rattling together, past us and out of the other door. For a few seconds there was a stunned silence until somebody made an unsuccessful attempt to stifle a guffaw. This quickly spread round the table and we all retired smiling for a coffee. Did we finally reach an agreement – no!
I served the union in many roles – local and national: these included being Leeds Branch Chairman, NE District Council member, National Opera and Ballet Orchestras committee (for a time as vice-chairman), delegate to the National Conference three times and, after the re-organisation of 2004, delegate to the North Regional Committee and member of a national steering-group to set up a teachers’ section. In the main I found this a rewarding and beneficial experience. I met many musicians from other genres of the kind with whom I would have never rubbed shoulders in my normal working life (is your hair really that colour Robin?). I was impressed by the dedication of many activists who worked hard for the wellbeing of their colleagues for no financial reward. If the truth be told, I was also involved in some very unpleasant situations and met some people that I would like to forget if I ever can. But who, in any walk of life, who has not opted for a ‘9 to 5 then pipe and slippers’ existence, can say any different?
A final word on Brian Greensmith: the local branches of the MU were closed down at the end of 2004 – about four months after I had left Opera North. The branch committee met in early December for its annual Christmas dinner and to say farewell to the branch. Brian talked enthusiastically about the Lake District where he was to spend Christmas with his wife Magda. Ten days later we attended his funeral in Wakefield. He was certainly a dinosaur but of the right kind – passionate about everything he did and caring deeply about music and musicians. The photo on his coffin showed him as I am sure that he would like to be remembered – by the shore of a Scottish loch where he kept a boat – fishing rod in hand.
In 2004 the time had come to say goodbye to Opera North. My last week in the pit was at Sadlers Wells Theatre in London and my last day as a member of the orchestra was at Roundhay Park in Leeds with the annual ‘Opera in the Park’ event. Since then I have played with the orchestra several times as an extra player for concerts and as a member of the stage band for opera productions and a CD recording of Verdi’s Nabucco. Only once have I returned to play in the pit – four performances of Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie in Leeds and at Salford Quays. Otherwise I have played opera just once – performances of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti in the unlikely venue of the Skipton Auction Mart. I have however rediscovered the delights of playing shows including Oklahoma, Les Miserables, Crazy for You, Jesus Christ Superstar and, a rare luxury, part of a full horn section (usually you are on your own trying to play two or more parts) for Menken’s Beauty and the Beast. I have continued to be offered gigs of various kinds and play in three different brass quintets including one run by Frank Mathison – bass trombone of the LSO through the Previn and Abbado years – and also in a Bavarian Oompah band playing the euphonium parts on my horn if a proper euphonium cannot be found. Which reminds me of my third year exams at the Northern School of Music: the brass examiner was the great Alan Civil. He gave me a good report and, under ‘General Comments’, had written ‘Euphonius tone!’ I waved this around for some days until somebody, kindly but firmly, told me that Alan Civil could not stand horn players who sounded like euphoniums. That ‘somebody’ was Malcolm Holland who became the last Orchestral Manager for whom I worked at Opera North. In a way several things have turned full circle: I am now brass teacher at Guiseley Music Centre where, in 1964, I first sat in an orchestra – playing Haydn’s Symphony No 101 The Clock. I recently made my debut as second horn with the Isle of Man Symphony Orchestra. It was in King William’s College, Castletown, Isle of Man where, in 1967, I earned my first full fee (rather than ‘a few pounds and all the grass that you can eat’) for playing the horn. And in November I will play Lloyd-Webber’s Chess in Huddersfield where, in 1969, I was first paid for theatre work (I had done some G&S for my bus fare whilst I was still at school). That was for Verdi’s La Traviata, conducted by the late Stanford Robinson and starring a young soprano called Josephine Barstow (also the tenor Robert Ferguson who became a stalwart of Opera North in its early years) in an earlier professional operatic venture called Yorkshire Opera.
Throughout my career I have taught in various schools; in Salford and then in Rochdale I was teaching general brass: otherwise the work tended to be where a specialist horn teacher was needed although I taught general brass at Giggleswick School for some years. On leaving Opera North I became a regular supply teacher for Education Leeds Artforms and also worked for three years on their ‘Bassline’ scheme. A similar scheme, called ‘Big Brass’ was set up in North East Lincolnshire and I travelled over to Grimsby, Cleethorpes and Immingham every Wednesday for three years to teach on this project. At various times I have also taught at Leeds Music College, Huddersfield Technical College, Huddersfield University (taking the 2nd study players for the then horn teacher – John Gulley) and Bradford University. Apart from Guiseley Music Centre, I also teach the brass at Moorlands School in Leeds having set up a brass department from scratch and now having a very promising brass ensemble there. I have seen several pupils become very good players: at least two have become professional players and three more have become successful brass teachers. Whether my input into their training was a help or a hindrance is for them to say!
I feel lucky that, being six months away from state pension age, I am still being employed to play the horn for money. Will this last much longer? Everybody has their own playing problems and mine get more pronounced with age – for example I was never very happy playing first thing in the morning (making the NRO difficult as they expected to get at least three numbers ‘in the can’ by 10.30 as most had other jobs and tried to get both sessions done before lunch – usually taken at the Sir Henry Royce pub in Hulme!). This problem now means that, if I have to play something that counts in the morning, I need to play last thing the previous night and then get up very early – something that I have never been programmed to do! I have seen players paid off from gigs several times and it is not a happy thing to witness; the first time that I experienced it I thought to myself “I will never let that happen to me”. And I will not!
Annelise Martinsen - see section archive page for picture