The music men

The music men

by Peter Morley, director of the programme

A terrible clanging as the bells are lifted over the tailboard … A grating screech as £400 worth of timpani in its heavy crate is slid across the pavement … The clatter of 90 music stands as they pursue the instruments … These are the sounds that are as much part of the orchestra as the music it lives by.

A recording session at Wembley Town Hall in the morning; an orchestral rehearsal at Duke’s Hall in the afternoon; a concert in the Royal Festival Hall that evening. Nine hours of music-making, three hours of travelling and, more often than not, for seven days every week.

The pre-occupation with their own artistic standard is so intense that the critical moment when overwork and exhaustion must impinge on it, is cautiously held off at arm’s length – though it can never be far off.

This, apart from the sheer joy of the sound the LSO makes when they play, is what impressed this outsider most.

How many who go to concerts, let alone those who don’t, think of an orchestra in terms of individuals? Collectively they are regarded as musicians, hardly ever as people and never as the workers of this world, and that is what this documentary is about.

Should we care that their home lives barely exist; that they get no sick-pay or pensions; that they are deeply disturbed by the failure to recruit new orchestral blood of the right standard?

To begin to understand their problems, and there are many, one must first sense the feeling of belonging to an orchestra, of being proud to belong, dedicating your whole existence to corporate music-making to the exclusion of almost everything else.

To put this across in a one-hour documentary in itself becomes a musical problem. It is not a film about music, yet there is a lot of music in it. This is not a film about how music is made, but what it feels like to make it. To capture this, the cameras went in to observe, not to recreate.

It was arbitrarily decided to concentrate on two music-making activities, a recording session and a concert. And so the Philips session, with Colin Davis conducting the Enigma Variations, at Wembley Town Hall became the backbone of the film, with part of the Monteux Memorial Concert at the Festival Hall, conducted by Istvan Kertesz, as the climax.

These two events then began to dictate what is finally stated and what, alas, had to be left unstated. During the filming at Wembley one player emerged, the man who became the point of focus – the individual with a corporate identity. Stuart Knussen was chosen not because he is a brilliant principal double bass, which he is, but because his professionalism is typical of each individual player. He was chosen not because he happens to speak with a rich Mancunian accent, which he does, but because there happen to be as many accents in this multi-class group as there are instruments. He was chosen not because he has a son with great musical talent, which he has, but because with young Oliver it was possible to explore the grave shortcoming of musical training in this country – the supply of the next generation of LSO players.

And by focusing on this one player the feeling of belonging to and working with a top orchestra is established, and incidental to this it is possible to combine the marvellous noise these men make, with all the little human details which we take for granted in ourselves, but never credit a musician to indulge in.

Colin Davis picks up the rostrum telephone and checks the balance of the brass with the recording engineer, and during this 20 second conversation the 3rd cello picks up his crossword; the contra bassoon the Sunday Telegraph, the trombone his yachting magazine; the clarinetist his new camera fresh from the Japan tour; the 4th horn examines the sandwiches his wife has packed; matches flare; world tour snapshots are passed from desk to desk. Then in a flash they are back playing Elgar again like never before. This facility to relax totally the moment playing stops and to concentrate immediately it starts is essential to the orchestral player’s temperament – without it he would go out of his mind.

Now they are playing Variation 7, short, fast and very exciting. After the last note Colin Davis and the orchestra freeze for three seconds – a moment of total silence essential to a recording – and then all hell is let loose as they stampede recklessly out of the hall to be first in the coffee queue. Like a classroom emptying when the school holidays start, with the same excited babble and laughter, the tension of making music is switched off, the batteries are recharged. In a few minutes they are back at their desks – professional music-makers again. Colin Davis is back on the rostrum, a retake on Variation 7 is called for – the last one was spoilt by a jet flying overhead. He puts his hand into his lightweight conductor’s jacket, pulls out a crumpled piece of paper and announces, ‘good God, I’ve found a cheque for £34!’ The orchestra bursts with laughter – five seconds later the red light goes on and they are off again.

Next day, sandwiched in between two sessions, there is a shareholders’ meeting. Each member of the LSO is obliged to take on this extraordinary role – a personal stake in the artistic and financial affairs of this non-profit making company (even if there was a profit to make). There is a board of directors, all players, elected by the members with their outstanding principal horn, Barry Tuckwell, as chairman. They meet to make a historic decision, to appoint a new principal conductor to fill the vacuum left by the late and dearly loved Pierre Monteux. Jealous of their independence, they decide that cameras are not to be allowed to record this meeting. Arriving for the meeting, yes; Barry Tuckwell calling the meeting to order, yes; and then the doors are bolted with the outsiders where they belong – outside.

After the vote there is a mad dash by Tuckwell and Ernest Fleichmann, the dynamic general secretary, to Cologne to confront the orchestra’s new choice, Istvan Kertesz.

No, he did not realise that the orchestra retained full artistic and financial control. ‘Exactly how much power will I have as principal conductor?’ he asks, as the cameras record the making of the principal conductor.

And so to a milestone in the history of the LSO: the Memorial Concert which was to mark Monteux’s retirement on his 90th birthday, and instead is Kertesz’s first appearance since his new appointment. In contrast to the shirtsleeves, hacking jackets and jeans of the Wembley sessions out come the platform uniforms. The only outward signs now which reflect the players’ individuality are the 90 different ways of knotting a white tie. There is the last drag on a cigarette and the march on to the platform. In front there is a packed house. Beethoven’s 7th Symphony is the music and Stuart Knussen says: ‘This is what makes our life worth living’.

Rapturous applause, fans pour backstage, the LSO breaks up to snatch a night’s sleep. At 10 a.m. next morning back to Elgar, the glamour of the concert is forgotten, replaced by the discipline of yet another recording session. It’s tough work being an orchestral player and it is their dedication which this documentary tries to capture.