Memoirs of a Music Man - Part Five: Marlborough and the Subscription Concerts

Written by Robin Nelson.


Now in Marlborough, Robin Nelson has close encounters with some very individual musicians...

Once appointed Director of Music at Marlborough, I found that one of my more interesting duties was the overseeing of the College Subscription Concert Series first initiated during World War Two.

It was not exactly in great shape when I took over in September 1982: the treasurer pointed out at a doom-laden committee meeting that reserves were running low. In view of the precarious state of the finances, might it be appropriate to draw stumps at the end of the forthcoming season?

Having been appointed to broaden the musical spectrum at Marlborough, this struck me as a very bad idea: my answer was to ensure there was a big-name artist early on in each season and go for variety, economy and pupil-appeal with the other four.
Meantime a pre-arranged season of concerts was upon us, starting with pianist John Lill.

Our on-the-day duties included hosting the artist and arranging a post-concert reception involving pupils, friends, fellow-teachers and general hangers-on.
Any fears my wife had about having to discuss the finer points of Beethoven’s piano sonatas with him were quickly dispelled: Lill wanted to talk football and his agent had prescribed tea, digestive biscuits and a long lie down before the concert.

We soon got into the swing of things, and our close encounters with some great and highly individual artists were full of colourful surprises.

Kyung Wha Chung was, as you might expect of a violinist, highly strung. She played on a Stradivarius which she told me was so valuable that the insurers refused to put a value on it. I collected her for her rehearsal from the Castle and Ball Hotel in the High Street: her Strad was placed in the back of my car and I was told to stand guard while she returned to the hotel to collect her mother.

Whilst she was away a member of the peripatetic staff accosted me on the pavement: was I loitering with intent he asked? I must have moved a few feet away from the car as we chatted, and then all hell broke loose: Kyung Wha reappeared with her mother and screamed at me:  "My violin, you leave my violin!!”

At the Memorial Hall she introduced me to Peter Frankl. “Ah, you are accompanying Miss Chung today,” I said, ineptly…a silence, and then: “I am the Pianist today, if that is what you mean.”

They played Brahms, all three sonatas, and she told me of her latest nightmare:
“I see horrible film of Mr. Ken Russell about Brahms, and now when I play his music I see always these terrible pictures coming to haunt me.”

Her playing was wonderful, but the programme was not for the under 18’s! And for an encore?   Obvious really - more Brahms!

The Ukranian born pianist Shura Cherkassky came with a reputation for being very awkward. He had selected a piano from Steinway Hall to replace the College one and a tuner was booked for the whole day. My colleague Chris Rathbone and I sat in the Hall on the afternoon of the Friday before…flowers in place, curtains reasonably presentable, all clutter removed from the stage….so what could possibly go wrong?

I noticed that Chris’s head was gently rotating as he looked to the stage and followed his gaze: two bats were rhythmically circling above the piano.

We called the Estate Department and they seemed to think it funny.  Did I know that bats are a protected species? In due course someone was dispatched to join us and he hatched a plan. The following morning we returned to find a piece of hessian covering a hole in the cupola above one of the entrances into the hall, and that, it turned out, saved the day.

Maestro Sherkassky arrived, already in tails, at 1.00pm on the concert day, bringing with him two fur-coated, elegant ladies which we decided were his elderly groupies. He was slicing up a pear with a very sharp knife and eying the tuner with a conspiratorial look.

We had heard that he was particularly fussy about piano stools and had a selection of four ready for him in the back of Chris Rathbone’s Deux Chevaux, as well as the one supplied by Steinways. Sure enough he was not happy with the one in position on the stage.

“They always do this to me, Steinways, they give me bad stool!!”

So we presented one of ours: “This stool too creaky!”   And then another: “I don’t like these buttons on stool”.  And the next one was “too wobbly”.

We got to the end of our selection and in desperation I told Chris to put the first one back in position:  “This stool is good stool! You try!” He was happy.

His hands were curiously crooked and covered in hairs…the story went that the Nazis had systematically broken each of his fingers before he fled to the U.S.A. True or not his playing of Rachmaninov was masterful in the concert.

“And what do you play?” he asked my daughter when I told him she was having piano lessons. “Grade three” she said, in a nervous whisper. “Gretry, Gretry, I do not know this composer………”

As to the artists with more universal appeal, Evelyn Glennie was a delight - bringing her van load of fantastic percussion and presenting her programme so vivaciously. It seemed uncanny to us all that this bare-footed, deaf percussionist was so brilliantly coordinated in her playing and so easy in conversation.

She stayed the night and at the last moment I realised I hadn’t asked what time she would like her wake-up call. So I called out the question outside the bedroom door….no reply, and I realised why…she hadn’t seen my lips articulating the question.

Then there was N.Y.J.O. - the National Youth Jazz Orchestra - more popular with the students than the adults. Two quite elderly ladies asked at the interval if I might tell the technicians at the back of the hall to turn down the volume on their control panel. It was red rag to a bull: they racked it up to a higher level and the ladies promptly left!

Nigel Kennedy played an all-jazz programme with his mates, wearing a velvet
coat with a depiction of the last supper woven into it. They started off-stage with a spoof, out-of-tune rendering of the national anthem, for which he blamed his 'second-hand bit of kit' - his Guaneri violin, no less!

We had violin pupils, violin teachers and David Cope our violin-playing Headmaster lined up at the house for the post-concert party, but of Nigel Kennedy there was no sign. The Head of Strings hurried to the West Room to wrest him from his impromptu drinks party with his jazzmen and Kennedy eventually arrived after the students' curfew time.

He greeted the Headmaster at the door with “All right, monster! and where’s the John?”  He then told some great stories about his days at the Yehudi Menuhin School.  The sadness was that the boys and girls were not there to hear them.

Peter Knapp knocked up wonderful, accessible travelling opera productions in English - here today, gone tomorrow. His 'Barber of Seville' was on the lines of Fawlty Towers, hilarious to watch, but exhausting in the preparation.

Peter was a last-minute operator who needed lots of on-the-day extras: desks and chairs, an iron and an ironing board, mirrors, lamps, the list went on. At 7.29pm I finally said to Peter, who was playing Figaro, “Are you ready to go?” He looked me up and down and said: “Hold on! Do you mind if I borrow your tie?”

The artists often came with what the Agents call 'riders' written into their contract - extra requirements beyond the agreed fee. When Jacques Loussier’s Trio came could we provide them with two bottles of Chateauneuf du Pape red wine of a particularly good vintage? The College sommelier, Bob Sanderson, looked into the wine cupboard and by a miracle was able to oblige at a cut-down price.

Interestingly, the shell pupils, who I had primed in advance preferred the original version of Vivaldi Four Seasons to the Trio's jazzed up one.
Then there were the Pekinel Sisters, a delectable and highly talented piano duo of Turkish origin who knocked us sideways with a rendering of Stravinsky’s 'Rite of Spring' on two pianos.

For them we needed to provide a second Grand Piano, two identical changing rooms with mirrors, bottles of eaux de toilette, special padded stools and standard lamps.  

The Burser thought I was making it all up. We both had a strong sense of the ridiculous and shortly after started a fictitious correspondence about a Balalaika Trio called the Ballyeks. Would it be possible, I asked in a note, for them to be granted grazing rights for their pet goats for the weekend in the centre of court? He played along with a suitably deadpan response.

It was quite a coup getting The Vienna Boys Choir to come, and they stayed in the college for two nights. They went about in their sailor suits and caps usually in single file, led by the Head Chorister. When they filed into my classroom to play on the Casio keyboards, it was hats off, then on again when they marched out.

They had some free time on the concert day so we took them by coach to see the Avebury stone circle. They processed up one ridge in their capes and caps, in between stones and down the other side and out of sight.
I turned to my wife and said “Good idea this - gives them a bit of exercise!” At this point a mist began to envelop the stones and visibility was suddenly rather poor. Where exactly were the choristers we began to wonder?

A parent of one of the College Music Scholars appeared alongside us and came up cheerily with “Hello Robin, Hello Sally, enjoying some free time? How is it all going?"
“Actually,” I replied, “I appear to have just lost The Vienna Boys Choir!”

And then they appeared, alongside a flock of sheep, walking back towards us in single file!

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