I joined the String Orchestra in 1976 and was in the main orchestra viola section from 1977 to 1980. I still think of it as the foundation of my musical life. For the last 30 years my musical career has been mostly in chamber music and I have just finished a busy patch of concerts with the Schubert Ensemble. This month I seemed to be constantly crossing paths with one HCYO friend after another; at the Wigmore Hall the other night, who should turn up but Michael Whight, HCYO clarinettist, then principal in the Philharmonia and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO), and now record producer. I haven’t seen him for years. Last week we played a piano quartet written for us by Martin Butler, pianist, HCYO oboist, and now composer. Just before that we were in Los Angeles and I noticed the next concert in the series was to include Roger Tapping, my former desk partner in HCYO, previously viola player in the Takacs Quartet, now with the Julliard Quartet.
While I was in the HCYO I also got a place in the National Youth Orchestra (NYO). I met some great people, but the NYO was not a particularly pleasant experience for me. At that time it was run by the large and fearsome Ivy Dickson, who did not tolerate “divided loyalties”. I remember coming back from an NYO course, straight into a final HCYO rehearsal at the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth. I immediately realised how much I appreciated my musical home and my friends there. Gary Holmes, our conductor at that time, used to convey a perfect balance of seriousness with humour and sheer love of music. I also remember the cheerful viola sectionals with Tim Griffiths (yes, the very same!), with his practical tips and his home-made metronome. That warm, positive spirit seems to have remained an HCYO tradition to this day.
In the summer of 1979, after much negotiation, Ivy Dickson agreed to release me from the two weeks of NYO rehearsal at a dreary school in Ramsgate to join the HCYO tour to Australia (playing Rachmaninov 2, how could I miss it?). Following this Ivy decreed that my playing was “not of a sufficient standard” to return to the NYO the next year. I thought my musical career had come to an end. My teacher, Margaret Major was furious and insisted I immediately audition for the European Community Youth Orchestra, (now the EUYO). As one of ten thousand applicants from across Europe, I was somewhat surprised to get in, having been so recently and comprehensively crushed by the weighty Ivy Dickson. It was a useful lesson; there will always be some people who believe in you and some who don’t. The important thing is to realise that those who don’t are wrong.
Fortunately, Gary Holmes was one of those who believed in me and he invited me back a couple of years later to play the Bartok Viola Concerto with the HCYO. It was the first seriously hard piece I had played and the pressure of six performances in a row forced my technique up to a higher level at an important stage in my career.
The ECYO was mind-blowing; we were whisked around the world, conducted by people like Abbado, Barenboim, Dorati and Bernstein, staying in five-star hotels, all expenses paid; it was a dream world. I did five years of ECYO and I will never forget my last concert, one of the most intense musical experiences of my life. It was in the Vienna Musikverein; Abbado conducting Mahler 2 with the LSO Chorus, with Karita Mattila and Jesse Norman as soloists.
While I was in the ECYO I went to university rather than music college (UCL, Geography), largely because I had always wanted to take over the family farm rather than be a musician. However, most of my friends were musicians and after UCL I decided to give music a whirl and see where it would lead. My first job was as associate member of the RPO. At first it seemed similar to being in the HCYO and ECYO, with the added bonus of being paid; too good to be true. The RPO was a very hard-working orchestra but with a great spirit, and I really enjoyed the jokes. They could pull together impressive concerts under the toughest conditions and very little rehearsal. As time went on, though, I realised I was not really suited to life in a London orchestra, constantly touring, often playing standard commercial programmes with dismal conductors. My playing and my enthusiasm were starting to suffer. In 1986 I auditioned for the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and, at the same time, was invited to join the Hanson String Quartet.
I had to learn the quartet repertoire quickly and adjust to a very different life-style. It was a monastic sort of existence. On the other hand, the COE was very privileged compared to being in a London orchestra. We had residencies in Berlin, Vienna, Graz, Ferrara, London, and Paris, and would rehearse and perform there over a period of a week or two rather than constantly touring. In some ways it was an ideal way of life. We were conducted by the likes of Abbado, Solti, Harnoncourt, Berglund, Haitink, Giulini and played with soloists like Perahia, Kremer, Mutter, Rostropovich, Argerich – we were totally spoilt.
Back in London I also started playing with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner, and in the string ensembles of Iona Brown and Ken Sillitoe. It was quite different in character and culture from the COE. Whereas the COE was run as a radical democracy, the Academy was more of a benevolent dictatorship under Neville. The COE was extraordinary, but the Academy was calmer and less political. The first trip I did with the Academy Octet was a re-run of the venues we had visited in Australia with the HCYO nearly ten years earlier.
Although I was enjoying my varied musical life, after four years in the profession I decided to apply to do an MPhil in Social and Political Theory at Cambridge. I hoped to follow on with a PhD, and this would provide the punctuation mark in my career before returning to the farm. I spent a fantastic year at Gonville and Caius College, and developed a good PhD topic, something to do with the history of environmental thought (I wish I had followed it through, looking back) but part way down this path I was offered two musical positions which both seemed too good to miss. One was the principal viola seat in the COE and the other was to join the Schubert Ensemble, playing piano quartets and quintets.
I played with the COE for another three years (with ex HCYO members Lucy and Kate Gould) and did some wonderful projects, but I decided it was time to go back to the family farm. My last trip as principal with the COE was Salzburg, where we coincided with the LSO playing Petroushka. My HCYO friend Liz Greaves (now Pigram) was playing and smuggled me in to watch from the wings. I couldn’t work out how the orchestra could follow Solti in such a tricky piece. He conducted everything with his elbows and yet it sounded immaculate.
The Schubert Ensemble was, at that time, doing about 30 concerts a year and I thought that would be manageable alongside running the farm. However, things picked up over the next few years and by the late 90s we were doing about 75 concerts a year. We had tours of South and Central America, Asia, USA and Canada, as well as Europe. Over the following years we recorded about thirty CDs and commissioned nearly 50 works from contemporary composers. It is a fantastic musical life, being paid to travel the world with some of your best friends. These were tough years for farming with BSE, Foot and Mouth and low prices, so it was good to have a distraction.
In 1999 Alfred and Adrian Brendel invited me to join them to play Mozart Piano Quartets as part of Alfred’s 70th birthday celebrations. Suddenly I found myself on the super-star circuit – Carnegie Hall, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Paris, Vienna, Brussels, Tokyo, and so on. Alfred’s 70th birthday was spread across three years. He was the most wonderful global guide, shepherding us around his favourite restaurants and art galleries, entertaining us with his bizarre sense of humour, and introducing us to his high-powered friends in different parts of the world. That included a very jolly dinner with Simon Rattle in Tokyo, who was on tour with the Vienna Philharmonic. He had not forgotten his concerts as a student conductor with the HCYO back in the 1970s, when Gary Holmes used to refer to him as “Baby Rattle”.
This year the Schubert Ensemble will be retiring from the concert platform after 35 years and although I will continue performing with various chamber orchestras and chamber ensembles, I am looking forward to a quieter life with more time for farming and more time at home. Now that I am an HCYO parent I would like to be there to enjoy hearing the orchestra again.
It’s been great being a musician but it’s time to slow down a little. When I mentioned to my wife Miranda one day recently that I had enjoyed a couple of days off she said, “Yes, that was a weekend; most people have them”.