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Brighton Fringe 2016

Conductors Unbecoming: Scenes from Orchestral Life

The Old Courtroom

Genre: Fringe Theatre, Solo Show, Spoken Word, Talk

Venue: The Old Courtroom


Low Down

Gavin Henderson’s rollercoaster rise from precocious brat to prime instigator of keeping an orchestra afloat as it was written off, to return to the Festival, is told self-deprecatingly with illustrations. It’s a run of the same talk designed to help fundraise for the Brighton Hippodrome.


Sometime Director of Brighton Festival (1984-92) Gavin Henderson gave an illustrated talk to help raise funds for the Brighton Hippodrome at the Courthouse, curated and introduced by Tony Jaffe. This account will be of interest to musicians and those who enjoy insights into how high culture is haggled.

Henderson presents well, relaxed, concise, knowingly good on slight pauses though avoiding drama. This is anecdote shaped and clean as a Macallan malt. Image projection was equally crisp, with multiple images – just two or three – of some musicians and others.

The visionary Ian Hunter who directed both Edinburgh and Bath Festivals founded the Brighton in 1968. If Hunter’s the begetter Henderson remains by common consent its greatest director. It started with a local student protest against Hunter. Hunter didn’t include Brighton-dwellers in his imported Festival, so Henderson mounted a very 1968 évenément and found himself assistant to Hunter, whom he took over from in 1984 after managing the Philharmonia. It says much for the times and Hunter – as well as brattish twenty-year-old trumpeter Henderson – that this could happen.

This wasn’t about Henderson but the stories reveal the kind of negotiator he is, outstripping even that morning’s rather different discussion over the future of the Hippodrome. During Henderson’s management of the struggling Philharmonia the great conductor Carlo Maria Giulini was engaged. The Board’s proviso was not more than £2,000 per concert – top end of hefty for the 1970s. Giulini’s wife demanded the £4,000 the Board dreaded. Henderson accepted and suggested that tickets being necessarily so pricey that all the old, poor and students couldn’t afford them, could he possibly conduct a charity concert in South Croydon for them? Yes. So Henderson was able to truthfully report two concerts had cost him £2,000 each.

As a boy he scampered errands for the Pier orchestras. A substitute pianist had to be engaged one night. ‘We always end with ‘These Foolish Things’ said the 15-year-old. ‘Could you?’ The pianist later said ‘I’m glad you asked me to, since I wrote it.’ This was Jack Strachey, illustrating Henderson’s contention that Brighton musicians were uniquely unstuffy and someone as well-known as Strachey cheerfully helped out a struggling Pier.

Henderson was engaged by Hunter to help Harrison Birtwistle in mounting his opera Down By the Greenwood Side on the West Pier in 1969. Birtwistle saw him and remarked ‘here’s Henderson to muck in, now you two bugger off’ the two in question being Lawrence Oliver and William Walton.

There were illustrations of the old Piers including the old Palace Pier concert hall, Henderson attesting to Richard Attenborough’s enormous help as Festival President, blocking workdays, conjuring timetabled miracles.

Some tales involved friends. Jasha Horenstein was rehearsing in camera – absolutely no-one else permitted entry – Bruckner 8 with the struggling Capetown orchestra. Two musical boys crept in all week through a skylight and hid in the gods. On the last day Horenstein said. ‘OK boys you can come out now, and we’ll play it right through just for you.’

Some conductors remain nightmares. Ricardo Muti refused to conduct till two all-night sessions had removed the last squeaks on curtains – which he demanded be raised as he came on stage. Muti worked with Henderson’s Philharmonia: every Monday Henderson wakes up saying ‘at least I’ve not got to work with Ricardo Muti.’ Muti and Henderson attended a performance of Beethoven 7 conducted by the great then ailing Vittorio Gui (famous for opera recordings). A disaster, booed. Henderson for once prevailed on Muti that they had to meet him, Gui knew they were there. They found him in tears, and melted. Then Gui said ‘You see, nearly two hundred years and still they can’t take Beethoven.’

Some impresarios remain nightmares too, like EMI’s soi-disant supremo Walter Legge, whose decision to found then disband the Philharmonia after 19 years caused musical ructions that still shape London’s musical landscape. Hero of this hour was Otto Klemperer Conductor for Life who kept the orchestra going and found ingenious ways to meet young women players even trying to change hotels (he brought in a pair of scales to decide his own accommodation fate). But his conducting became terminally slow. Legendary baritone Dietrich Fischer-Diskau had an idea. ‘Maestro, I had this amazing dream, Beethoven came to me and said sing it like that, faster.’ ‘Amazing’ said Klemperer. ‘I had a similar dream last night. Beethoven came to me and said you know, I’ve never heard of this Fischer-Diskau.’ Then the nearly 90 year old Pierre Monteux (on a 25 year contract!) who premiered The Rite of Spring gradually asking his direction through a line of sopranos. ‘Second row, sixth on the right. Blonde. Dinner tonight.’

Henderson was tasked after Andrew Davis left for Toronto to find extra conductors behind the Iron Curtain. Tricky. Kiril Kondrashin (who championed late Shostakovich) was approached, and agreed a set of dates. Later in front of his wife he angrily denied ever having entertained such absurd ideas leaving Henderson bewildered – and the orchestra was about to fail. Days later he defected leaving his KGB wife for a Dutch girlfriend and honoured every engagement he’d made with Henderson, though dying tragically young.

The second Soviet conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov – famed for his fiery traversal of all Russian repertoire including Myakovsky’s 27 symphonies and his own fine First – was engaged but found the appalling conditions intolerable. The stage was so small they’d had to lose a desk each of strings. He stormed off resigning: even a bottle of vodka was angrily rejected for once. Then a bass player, one Walter, arrived with a picture of a fish, as everyone was having breakdowns: this would mean the end. ‘Show him this.’ It was the last straw but Walter was persistent, and Henderson had nothing more to lose. The picture was sent in. Svetlanov shot out passionately embracing Walter. They’d spent two idyllic days fishing together 18 years before. ‘You will conduct now, won’t you?’ said Walter. Svetlanov duly became Associate Conductor.


Some conductors like Charles Mackerras (Henderson worked with him at Dartington) were incredibly unassuming. At the end of a long rehearsal he announced ‘I just wanted to say –‘ ‘No time maestro, we’re over today’ returned the leader. ‘I was just trying to –‘ ‘No time.’ They all duly assembled next morning. Mackerras then completed his sentence. ‘What I wanted to say was that you all rehearsed so well that we didn’t need to meet today. Off you go.’

Henderson spotted the young Simon Rattle and brought him over to conduct the Philharmonia. Was it Henderson who commissioned Rattle to record a sizzling 1978 account of Maxwell Davies’ Symphony No. 1? I should’ve known. We need Rattle in more contemporary British music. Henderson will be waiting for Rattle’s British return to the LSO, and I’m certain will pounce.

As for Henderson’s spirit getting everywhere, the Festival’s second production of Down by the Greenwood Side was negotiated for the 2014 season in a disused space of Harvey’s brewery, Lewes, which my cousin directs. Harry Birtwistle and Henderson were there, and we all sat on beer crates to watch it.