After 30 years of playing professionally as a double bass player (based in London for most of that time), I thought it would be fun to relate a few of the amusing things that have happened to me along the way, and maybe to share a few insights into music that I’ve acquired in that time.
Soloistic virtuosity (The Times) A truly great achievement (The Guardian) the excellent Garsington Opera Orchestra (The Sunday Times) fine playing from members of the Garsington Opera Orchestra, proving once again that outstanding operatic performances begin in the pit (Mail on Sunday) Garsington Opera Orchestra, in their last season, played with flair and expertise (The Observer) superb playing (Oxford Times) mesmerising playing (Culture Whisper) Großartig auch das nuancierte Spiel der dreizehn Instrumentalisten (Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung)
The Garsington Opera Orchestra, playing in its 26th and final season for the company, has been garnering praise from critics and audience alike. The orchestra, led by Robert Salter and managed by Chris West, has appeared in 85 productions and around 600 performances in their quarter century as the house orchestra at Garsington. They hope to continue working together for other companies in the future.
Musically, an opera such as this [Don Giovanni] presents something like an acid test of a house’s overall quality and all the signs are good. The Garsington Opera Orchestra was excellent.
Roger Parker, Opera magazine
But it is [Garsington Opera] orchestra — carefully tracing the music’s path from fairytale delicacy, through charming sentimentality, to grandeur — that make the strongest case for this long-neglected work [Fantasio].
Richard Farnes drew excellent playing from the 13 members of the Garsington Opera Orchestra, a scintillating account where every note of Britten’s most compactly composed opera [Turn of the Screw] was pricked with precision.
Mark Pullinger, Bachtrack
Farnes binds it into an unbroken totality, creating a superbly controlled long dramatic line, while at the same time extracting every detail of instrumental colour and making Britten’s thirteen instruments, superbly played, sound like every kind of orchestra, from a gamelan up to the LSO. There were thrilling sonorities in this performance that I’ve never heard in a Britten chamber score
Nobody is ever going to ask me to give a conducting masterclass so I’m just going to write my thoughts down in case any conductor who happens to come across this post is interested in finding out what an orchestral player might want to see
I have never harboured any illusions that I would have been particularly good as a conductor. I took conducting classes at music college and on a good day I can get a section of eight double bass players to follow my lead, but it has always been the collaborative aspect of music that has suited me more. There’s a huge range of qualities required to conduct orchestras well – among others you need musicianship, charisma and authority, and it helps to have good looks, ambition and a thick skin – but in this article I’m going to focus on one skill that is needed to make the lives of orchestral players easier – a clear beat. Some conductors, even very famous ones, are so blessed with other talents that they manage to be successful despite having a poor technique.
I have spent the best part of half a century watching other people having a go at conducting so I have a fair idea of what works and what doesn’t. I’ve played under hundreds of different maestri including famous names like Abbado, Boulez, Giulini, Haitink, Mackerras, Marriner, Mehta, Rattle and many others. Even though I’ve undoubtedly watched many more conductors in action than anyone who actually earns a living as a conductor has, nobody is ever going to ask me to give a conducting masterclass (and I’m certainly not going to offer any advice to someone who is standing on the podium in front of me!) so I’m just going to write my thoughts down in case any conductor who happens to come across this post is interested in finding out what an orchestral player might want to see.
A good orchestra can play together 95% of the time without any input at all from a conductor so it’s quite possible for the man or woman on the box to get away with an unclear beat without the audience (or the conductor themselves!) being aware of it. Some of the problems I describe below have become so prevalent among conductors that I worry that some of them are being taught as good practice by conducting professors.
The basic movement
I’m only going to talk about conducting 4 in a bar, although everything I write applies equally to other beat patterns. The basic movement for 4 beats is down, left, right, up. (In fact one of my colleagues once saw the letters D, L, R and U written above every beat in the score of a famous instrumentalist making his first recording as a conductor.) But conducting in straight lines doesn’t give a precise indication of when the click of each beat actually happens. It’s fine for showing which beat of the bar you are on in an aural test, but it won’t get an orchestra to play together.
(Even showing which beat of the bar you are on is beyond some conductors. The very worst conductor I have ever played under at any level from school orchestra upwards was a famous pianist who has somehow carved an international career for himself as a conductor despite having no discernible ability. At times he conducted by poking a finger at the start of each one of these imaginary straight lines. This meant that during the first beat of the bar his finger was travelling upwards and so on. It was exactly the same as having someone constantly beating a beat behind.)
The time-tested way of conducting clearly is to have an imaginary horizontal line in the air that you only touch at the click of each beat. It’s as though you have a drum in mid-air in front of you and you are beating time on it. The initial upbeat shows the orchestra where the line is and after that, they can predict when each beat will happen because they can see when the baton is approaching the imaginary line. It’s best if the movement continues at a smooth pace. If you want to delay a beat, you make a larger loop before it rather than slowing your beat down. The orchestra knows when to play because they can see when you are approaching the imaginary line.
If you conduct using this pattern, you can vary the size of the beats, the angle at which you approach the line and all sorts of other things while still giving a clear beat. There is no doubt where to play, the ensemble will be good and everybody will be happy. So what can go wrong?
The first thing that can go wrong is if the clicks of your beat are at different heights. The orchestra will not play together if the click of your beat happens away from your imaginary line. The pattern shown here has the fourth beat at a different height from all the others so the players will not be able to foresee when it’s going to happen. You see diagrams like this all the time. Presumably they are thought less confusing to interpret than diagrams where the lines cross but your fourth beats won’t be together if you conduct like this.
Another important thing is that your baton (or finger or pencil or whatever you are using to indicate the beat) should never stop moving. Every time you suddenly change direction you stop even if only for a moment. This creates uncertainty and makes it harder to predict where the next beat comes. That’s why the pattern shown here (which is based on several diagrams you will find on the web if you google conducting in 4) is not as easy for the orchestra to follow. Every abrupt change of direction between the beats means your baton is not moving at a constant speed. If your movement is not smooth the orchestra cannot predict when you will reach the imaginary line.
It’s worth noticing that the clicks of the beats come roughly at the end of the straight lines of the basic pattern except the last beat. Sometimes you see conductors make the correct pattern but put the click of the fourth beat at the top of their beat. This is extremely offputting because it means they touch the imaginary line long before they should. It feels like they are conducting the fourth beat consistently early.
Occasionally one sees a conductor conduct with an extra loop so that the fourth beat goes to the right instead of the left. You would think that this makes no difference for timekeeping, but it has the effect of repeating the movement of beat 3. It looks to the orchestra like you are subdividing the third beat (123+) and never get to the fourth beat. Once again it is extremely offputting.
Conductors say that they have to beat ahead of the orchestra to stop the performance grinding to a halt. They say orchestras need time to react to what they see. I’m sure there is a case for this (although not at the moments when there is something that is very difficult to get together). If conductors use a clear pattern slightly ahead of the beat then there is no problem.
Unfortunately, though, beating ahead very often degenerates to the situation where the click of the beat occurs at the end of the beat with a stationary baton as it changes direction rather than on the imaginary line where the baton is moving. The beating pattern shown here manages to incorporate most of the common errors I have described above – the baton stops between each beat and the clicks of the beats are all at different heights. Conducting like this gives the impression of conducting upside down because the energy goes upwards on most beats. It is very hard to follow at the moments when you need a clear beat yet it seems that more and more conductors show time this way. Is someone teaching them to do this? If they are then please can they stop! It is impossible to get a ritardando together if it depends on everyone guessing when a decelerating baton will stop moving.
If you are conducting like this and the orchestra is always absolutely together, then congratulations. You are lucky enough to be working with a fine orchestra that can play together without your help. You can just relax and enjoy yourself without worrying about the ensemble!
Thank you for reading this far, especially if you’re a conductor. If you agree with what I’ve written then I’m pleased and I hope we work together some time. If you disagree and think that the last diagram is the correct way to conduct, I hope you will at least give it some further consideration now that you know orchestral players don’t like it!
It’s the middle of May and I’m just starting rehearsals for my 25th season of Garsington Opera. It’s always a happy time, reconnecting with my orchestral colleagues, many of whom have made this part of their summer routine for as long as I have.
These days it’s a slick organisation with an enviable international reputation. The gleaming opera pavilion set in the Wormsley estate owned by the Getty family has won architectural prizes. Top directors, singers and conductors take part in the festival which extends from May to August, encompassing schools’ performances, community operas, song recitals, broadcasts to giant screens on beaches, radio and internet transmissions, collaborations with other artistic organisations, and of course the main opera performances which are the epicentre of the activity. All of this is achieved without any public funding.
It’s amazing how far we’ve come since the early days when one great English eccentric decided to set up an opera festival in his back garden so that he could watch operas that nobody else would stage.
Leonard Ingrams owned the 17th century Garsington Manor, previously a favourite haunt of the Bloomsbury set. Initially he invited Opera 80 (now English Touring Opera) to bring their Mozart productions to perform on the terrace at the back of the house. Encouraged by the success of this, Leonard decided he would like to hear operas by Haydn. Nobody had staged them within living memory so new productions had to be commissioned and Garsington Opera was born.
The group I played in, the Guildhall String Ensemble, was asked to form the orchestra for one of these early Haydn operas and we became the core of the orchestra for subsequent seasons. An early review of our Barber of Seville described the orchestra as the company’s “strongest artistic card” which helped cement our place. Most of us are still there. The conductors and singers appreciate the vast operatic experience of the Garsington Opera Orchestra, even if the occasional reviewer unthinkingly refers to us as a scratch band now and then.
The really special thing about old Garsington, apart from the ravishingly beautiful setting that kept three full-time gardeners in employment, was that Leonard watched every performance himself from the front row. This wasn’t a season put on by people who knew what other people should be listening to. It was a way for a real enthusiast to watch the operas he wanted to see. He chose the directors and conductors, he auditioned the chorus and cast (travelling widely to hear young singers in competitions), and he selected the operas to be performed. He wasn’t quite an aristocrat but he was certainly an autocrat.
And the breadth of rare repertoire was astonishing – 7 Haydn operas, 10 Rossini operas, 8 unknown Richard Strauss operas, Schumann’s Genoveva, Janacek, Martinu, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky… the list goes on. Hardly any of these works had ever been staged in Britain before. Der Rosenkavalier is one of the ten most often performed operas. How is it possible that none of the five companies who receive millions of pounds of public money every year had ever bothered to discover that Daphne, Die Ägyptische Helena and Die Liebe der Danae have equally breathtaking music?
It was such a privilege getting to know these forgotten masterpieces together. In Rossini’s L’equivoco stravagante I even managed to provide an alternative translation of an obscure Italian pun for the surtitles and was very proud when it got a laugh every night.
I got very cross at a party recently when an executive from Covent Garden tried to tell me that country house opera only dealt in popular repertoire.
Our Haydn operas were usually conducted by Wasfi Kani, a super-intelligent woman whose sharp financial acumen had put the festival on a sound footing. She had already founded Pimlico Opera and after falling out with Leonard she went on to start three more country house opera companies (though she no longer conducts.) She really ought to be running one of our national companies by now. If she was, they wouldn’t have to resort to staging Broadway musicals to make ends meet.
Garsington Opera learnt as it went along. Originally the performances were all completely in the open-air until a thunderstorm meant that one of Opera 80’s performances had to be relocated to the dining barn (where Leonard installed panelling he had bought from the old auditorium at Glyndebourne.) After that there was a canopy overhead.
Even then the rain could blow in from the sides so we had an additional polythene cover that could be brought down to give the orchestra extra protection. It was hard to persuade Leonard to let us use it, though. After one confrontation I went round to the house after the performance to apologise for having to stop him retracting the cover. I explained that there were really valuable instruments that had to be protected. One of our viola players was playing on a Grancino. This seemed to get through to him because he said, “I’ve got one of those!”
Another thing came as a surprise to Leonard. It turned out his neighbours didn’t want to listen to opera coming from his garden every night and the council received several complaints about noise pollution. I always felt sorry for the neighbours because even if they won the argument at a local level, it always went to a higher court where the judges were very likely to be part of Leonard’s audience! An uneasy truce was settled on where performances were limited to 20 a season and had to finish by 10.15pm. An enormous black screen was placed along the boundary of the property as a sound baffle. Shortly afterwards an audience member donated a reputed £20000 to replace it with one with pictures of trees because it would be nicer to look at from the temporary seating that was the auditorium.
I have so many other memories – barbecues outside the orchestra barn; my co-principal falling into a flower bed at an end of season party and creating his own crop circle trying to get up; the fuss when a prominent politician took away the camera of someone who had photographed him; the conductor shouting “Why are we carrying on?” as a performance of Figaro was literally drowned out by torrential rain (Answer: as long as you keep waving your arms around, we’ll carry on playing); the magnificent poppies in the formal garden that sadly shed their petals each year before the rehearsals ended. I would tell anyone who would listen that you could work out the number of different routes through the formal garden using Pascal’s Triangle.
Tragically, Leonard died in 2005 aged only 63, suffering a heart attack while driving back from a performance at Glyndebourne. Even after attending 20 performances of his own festival he had still been hungry for more opera. His untimely death was mourned by the whole operatic community.
Leonard’s vision goes on. The company moved to its new home at Wormsley in 2011 (can it really be 7 years ago?) and the absence of near neighbours has allowed it to expand its activity greatly. But it still brought a lump to my throat when the set parted for Act IV of Figaro last year to reveal the backdrop for the garden scene. I wondered how many of the much larger audience who now attend our performances recognised it as a painting of the terrace of Garsington Manor, the setting for those early days of this extraordinary enterprise.
So this is how it ends, I thought. Not even 30 years old, crushed by a cart containing four of the greatest musicians of the late twentieth century, with me as a flattened fifth.
The largest audience I have ever performed to was on the Three Tenors Tour in 1996. Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras had launched their collaboration at the football (or soccer if you’re American) World Cup in Italy in 1990. After a further appearance at the 1994 World Cup and a recording that became the biggest-selling classical disc of all time, they embarked on a stadium tour in the summer of 1996 and engaged the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by James Levine to back them in most of the concerts.
I played guest principal double bass in some of the concerts and sat in the section at others. The concert at Munich Olympic Stadium was attended by around 86000 people. The front row was occupied by A list Germans including politicians like Helmut Kohl and sportsmen like Boris Becker if my memory serves me correctly. The amount of money that concert made was unbelievable (and the arguments as to whether it should be taxed as a classical concert or a pop concert rumbled on for years with one of the promoters being jailed as a result.)
The start of the concert was a little unnerving. As we launched into Bernstein’s Candide Overture, we became aware of angry calls from the audience. The Philharmonia had recently been booed in Paris by a claque from the French Musicians’ Union at the start of an opera residency and I was worried that we were in for a repeat, but it transpired that it had started to rain lightly and the VIPs in the front row had put up umbrellas which were obscuring the view for the people in the (extremely expensive) seats behind. They reluctantly had to put them down and were rained on like everyone else.
The concert was stunning. Carreras was heartfelt and Domingo was the great artist he always was but Pavarotti was out of this world. His voice was like a Ferrari, always having something in reserve to thrill his audience with. The finesse of his turns of phrase tugged at your heartstrings but the sheer power of his vocals was such that it almost seemed he could have filled the stadium without amplification.
By that stage in his life Pavarotti was an enormous man. His knees could scarcely bear his weight. The promoters provided him with a golf buggy and chauffeur to drive between his dressing room and the stage. Of course, if one Tenor had a golf buggy, that meant the others had to as well, and James Levine, who was no mean size himself, also got in on the act. So the backstage area was full of ramps between the various levels.
At the end of the concert, I headed swiftly off to my flight case to pack up my double bass like the well-trained touring musician I was. As I reached my bass box, I heard the sound of approaching thunder and turned to see a golf buggy hurtling down a slope towards me, driven by Pavarotti and containing James Levine and the other two tenors. This was serious tonnage coming my way, and even more alarmingly, Pavarotti was gleefully shouting ‘I don’t want to brake! I don’t want to brake!’
So this is how it ends, I thought. Not even 30 years old, crushed by a cart containing four of the greatest musicians of the late twentieth century, with me as a flattened fifth.
But just as my life was flashing before me, the great Italian summoned the vocabulary to finish the sentence he was trying to get out – ‘I don’t want to break your double bass!’
The buggy slowed to a halt giving me time to move out of the firing line, and the laughing quartet trundled on their way to whatever magnificent post-concert entertainment had been laid on for them while we bought ourselves a beer each at a hot dog stand.