Memories of old Garsington

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 on the terrace at Garsington

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.

Le Nozze Di Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at Garsington Opera
Old Garsington recreated at new Garsington 2017

How I was nearly run over by Pavarotti

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.

Me and the Three Tenors in Gothenburg

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.


My new music blog

Welcome to my new blog.

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.

I was inspired by Jason Heath’s wonderful Contrabass Conversations. I was lucky enough to be invited onto his podcast recently to talk about my new book Reaching The Heights – Thumb Position for the Double Bass and the appearance gave a significant boost to the release. Jason’s blog is entertaining and informative at the same time and I will be pleased if my attempt has a fraction of the appeal!