A host of octogenarians!

In the Summer of 2000 I had the great pleasure of meeting James Gillespie, editor of The Clarinet Journal, during the International Clarinet Association (ICA) convention in Oklahoma. James asked me if I would like to contribute a regular column. These personal reflections are now reprinted with his permission. The following ‘Letter from the UK’ was first published in May 2006 in The Clarinet Journal, the official publication of the ICA. 

The audience at Gervase de Peyer’s eightieth birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall in London last month were treated to a staggering display of clarinet playing. It was a big programme to say the least – even the most energetic of players would have thought twice about taking on quite so much in one evening! But de Peyer gave us both Mendelssohn Concert Pieces; the Schumann Trio; Bartok’s Contrasts; a movement from the beautiful Bliss Quintet; two movements of the Schubert Octet; the Ponchielli duo and, perhaps the piece that de Peyer is best known for, the Horowitz Sonatina, written for him in 1981. Jo Horowitz was there too – also, coincidentally, celebrating his eightieth birthday this year. And what a performance it was. Gervase de Peyer still has all the verve, wit and imagination necessary to bring off a scintillating performance (I don’t think I’ve ever heard the final movement performed so fast!). Quite a cast of players were assembled for the event – William Waterhouse, another member of the original Melos Ensemble was playing, as well as Robin Ireland, son of Patrick Ireland, another original Melos player. It was a memorable evening.
On a more sombre note, Professor Sir Nicholas John Shackleton was very sadly only sixty-nine when he died in January. His memorial service, held at Great St Mary’s Church in Cambridge on 6th May, was well attended and demonstrated the warmth and high regard in which he was held by both the scientific and clarinet worlds. Professor Elderfield gave a tribute about his scientific achievements and William Waterhouse spoke of his musicianship and skill as a collector of clarinets – perhaps his greatest achievement. Evidently Nick’s wonderful collection will go to the Reid Concert Hall Museum of Instruments in Edinburgh, though a few of his playing instrument may go elsewhere, possibly to the Royal College of Music.At the memorial, the Clare College Choir sang beautifully and Alan Hacker led a clarinet quartet in some of Nick’s favourite music. I last met Nick at the clarinet’s 300th birthday celebrations in Berlin last year, where he impressed me deeply with his extraordinary knowledge of the instrument and its history. Happily he has left a rich cache of scholarly articles and chapters on his subject from which we all can benefit. 

As well as marking some important octogenarian birthdays this year, 2006 also sees the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the great English composer Gerald Finzi. A very readable and warm-hearted new biography entitled Gerald Finzi – his life and music by Diana McVeagh has just published, and is a must for all Finzi fans. I thought it would be nice to take a pupil, Charlotte Swift, to play the concerto to Kiffer Finzi (Gerald’s son) who still lives in the sprawling farm at Ashmansworth in the Newbury Hills, built by Gerald in 1939. Charlotte gave a lovely performance to a small audience in Gerald’s old study, her accompanist using the same piano that the composer had tried out his original ideas on some fifty-seven years ago. At the end of the performance we discussed Gerald’s feelings about the work, and in particular how he disliked an overly sentimental approach. ‘My father never liked those rallentandos to be anything more than just glanced at’, Kiffer commented. In her research, Diana McVeagh uncovered an interesting letter from Gerald to his friend (and fellow composer) Robin Milford in which he writes how pleased he was with the work, and that he’d ‘like to write another clarinet concerto, but saying something completely different’. Alas he never did. Charlotte gave another delightful performance, this time of the Mozart concerto, at the University Concert Hall in Cambridge last Friday and will be playing again at the Malcolm Arnold Festival in October – I do hope to see some of you there.

Another performance of the Mozart concerto will be given at the Royal Albert Hall at a very special Prom this year – at yet another eightieth birthday – this time it’s the Queen’s! And I am thrilled that it will be played by a very distinguished former pupil, Julian Bliss. The concert will begin with a new royal commission A Little Birthday Music from the Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, and will conclude with the Dvorak New World Symphony – evidently one of the Queen’s favourites. I hope I may see some of you there too!