Lazarus, Thurston, Blackpool and the Eldorado Ice Cream Company

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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 September 2010 in The Clarinet Journal, the official publication of the ICA. 

Any guesses for what, or rather who is the connection? The answer is the distinguished clarinettist Colin Bradbury – and all will be revealed shortly. 

I recently invited Colin to speak at my sixth Malcolm Arnold Festival. Being the 90th anniversary of Sir Malcolm’s birth we’ve decided to programme all the nine great symphonies and I thought it would be of considerable interest to invite nine celebrities, each to introduce the Symphony with which they have a special association. The Fourth was given its first performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, first clarinet Colin Bradbury. I was delighted when Colin agreed to come and share his recollections of that memorable first performance. And as we chatted on the phone I thought the time was ripe to write about Colin’s illustrious career. We met for lunch a week or two ago and explored his highly significant contribution to the clarinet world.

Colin was born in Blackpool and was lucky enough to attend a school whose Headmaster was a keen music lover with a special penchant for Mendelssohn. One particular term the Head decided to buy a number of clarinets - most in C, but one in B flat. Colin, who was already quite a star on the recorder was chosen to be the lucky recipient of the B flat instrument. His lessons with Tom Smith, member of the Blackpool Grand Theatre Orchestra, were going well and when the school received notification that a new orchestra for very talented young players was to be formed, young Colin was encouraged to apply for an audition. It was to be called The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and Colin became a founder member. It was on the first course that he met Malcolm Arnold who was both composer-in-residence and an unlikely ‘housemaster’. Colin recalls, ‘As a housemaster he ended up joining in all the pillow fights!’

Colin also met Jack Thurston who was coaching the clarinets (and, incidentally, gave perhaps the first performance of Arnold’s Sonatina from the manuscript during one of the courses). Thurston became the decisive factor. Colin soon decided to take playing the clarinet seriously. After a performance of the Mozart Concerto with the NYO at the Edinburgh Festival he won a scholarship that saw him move to London and the chance to study with Thurston at the Royal College of Music. What of Thurston the teacher? ‘He was a very serious musician, tremendous musical integrity, faithfulness to the composer’s intentions. Technically, he wasn’t much help to me, but the musical inspiration made up for it fifty-fold.’ 

After the RCM, Colin found himself playing in Summer Song, a West End musical built on some fantasy on the life of Dvorak. ‘On the strength of it I bought myself a 1936, two and a half litre SS Jaguar.’ But the show soon folded, ‘So I had to drive ice cream trucks in the summer to keep myself alive. The Eldorado Ice Cream Company!’ But in 1956 Colin joined Sadler’s Wells Opera Orchestra, becoming principal a year later, and then in 1960 he began an enormously distinguished thirty-three years with the BBC Symphony orchestra. I asked Colin about the highlights. ‘The transforming thing, in my opinion, was when Boulez came in 1970. It was a Golden age. Then of course there was the Kempe period, some stunning performances – people still talk about our performance of the New World. Of course, people probably know me best for all those televised Last Night of the Proms.’ Colin is particularly referring to his yearly performance of the famous clarinet cadenza (originally written for Haydn Draper) in the Fantasia on British Sea Songs arranged by Henry Wood. 

The late 70s saw the start of Colin’s great interest in the Victorian clarinet repertoire. ‘In 1978 I met the pianist Oliver Davies, and, through his great enthusiasm, we began to rediscover all this wonderful 19th Century clarinet music. Oliver had albums and albums of 19th century clarinet music. We ended up recording The Victorian Clarinettist and I think it’s been the only record I’ve made that was a real commercial success! It was on the radio a lot and received good reviews.’

In fact the record found it’s way into the ‘fills’ box at BBC Radio 3 continuity studios: if a programme finished early, instead being filled with waffle, they would put on a track from The Victorian Clarinettist. Colin and Oliver went on to do three more recordings of Victorian repertoire. Not content with simply performing and recording this music Colin then began his own publishing company, Lazarus Edition through which he has made many of these fine works available again. 

Colin is still working hard today: playing, teaching, publishing and adjudicating. What about his views on contemporary clarinet playing? ‘When it comes to what people have to say musically, I find myself increasingly criticising performances, not for the technique, but for what I think is over-fluency, sometimes even flippancy - does he really need to play it as fast as that? If there was a little more space given... I’ve always said that technique isn’t something you build up, it’s lack of technique that is something you break down. Between the performer and the audience is a huge mountain, which is a lack of technique. All the work we do slowly breaks that mountain down and makes communication much more direct.’

Colin doesn’t go to Blackpool much these days and The Eldorado Ice Cream Company has long since melted away but Lazarus’s name will remain with us through Colin’s important publishing venture. As we were concluding our fascinating afternoon’s conversation, Colin went to his bookcase and removed a slim volume – it was Jack Thurston’s attendance register. We looked through it – virtually all the names are completely forgotten except for Colin’s of course.