A World Away – the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra [an article by John Boyden]

Written by: John Boyden

The distinguished founder of the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra writes on the Orchestra as it begins its Twentieth Season. September 13 sees the NQHO appear at St Martin-in-the Fields and November 23 they give a concert at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, conducted by John Farrer, with Lydia Mordkovich as soloist in Bruch’s G minor Violin Concerto. The programme also includes Beethoven’s ‘Egmont’ Overture and Brahms’s Fourth Symphony…

On September 13 my cup will run over. Not only will the revived New Queen’s Hall Orchestra be opening its twentieth season, but, at midnight with the concert lodged in my memory I shall celebrate my 75th birthday. Even so, I should like the reader to be in no doubt that I am far happier about the Orchestra’s survival than I am about my own, as reaching seventy-five is no longer as remarkable an event as was the case when the original NQHO reached its 20th season in 1915.

The truth is that happiness comes from working on something worthwhile and essentially unachievable. The pursuit of happiness, as Jefferson had it, seems to me to be naïve and wrong-headed. Happiness comes from immersing oneself in something bigger and more lasting than the individual. For me, it continues to be via the exaltation of an endangered art-form through the reformation of the NQHO in 1992.

Even so, few activities could have been more thankless than forming a symphony orchestra at a time when the most famous(and therefore best-funded) ensembles were already becoming irrelevant to society at large. It was obvious that there were too many orchestras. Only a lunatic would want to launch another, when the competition was already struggling for survival, as was certainly the case in February, 1992. I was that lunatic. To pursue my ambition I had to be sure that the NQHO would fulfil my dream my dream of an orchestra that would restore an aesthetic and a sound-world that had completely died out. The rapid disappearance of individual orchestral personalities – and the march of engineering progress – had by the 1990s killed off any discernible difference between one orchestra and another, save for precision.

A year or two after forming the NQHO, I lunched with a couple of friends from one of London’s principal orchestras. Each of them put the same question: ‘Why on earth do you want to start another one?’ They knew I had a fair insight into the difficulties facing what used to be called serious music. What they didn’t appear to grasp was that their orchestra, and the hundreds of others like it across the globe, had taken to worshipping false gods.

For all their experience, they accepted the world as it had been presented to them. They knew of the great changes that overtook orchestras in the 1950s, when large-bore American dance-band brass instruments began to dominate, and they recognised (as did many others) the insidious creep of standardisation. But they had no idea how to reverse the process and never questioned the appropriateness of their players’ attitudes (or the suitability of their instruments) when performing the great symphonic scores – or the expectations of the minds (and cultures) that composed them and formed the performing traditions that came to represent the ideal. Indeed, Furtwängler’s elevated status speaks not only of the man but of the culture that created him. He didn’t seek to recreate Beethoven’s sound-world – and would have found the idea both hideous and pointless – but instead pursued a process of renewal that had meaning and invited analysis.

Few people in the ‘business’ bothered to listen to his (or anyone else’s) early recordings. Why should they when they believe in the perfection of progress as an industrial concept. But there is no progress in the arts, merely change. To imagine that improvement flows from making an instrument easier to play in tune, or better able to produce a bigger sound, is simpleminded. But that is what has always happened and will almost certainly continue to happen, until orchestral concerts match stadium events with the weight of their sound. Charles Nicholson, a celebrated flautist of the early 19th-century, played a flute with enlarged tone-holes and embouchure. Such adaptations blessed him with a number of advantages, one of which included a more powerful tone and an improved ability to ‘glide’, a type of fashionable glissando.

Theodore Böhm wrote, ‘I did as well as any continental flautist could have done, in London, in 1831, but I could not match Nicholson in power of tone, hence I remodelled my flute. Had I not heard him, probably the Böhm flute would never have been made.’ He added, ‘I was struck with the volume of Nicholson’s tone. He was then in the full vigour of his talent. This power was the consequence of the extraordinary size of the holes of his flute, but it required his marvellous skill and his excellent embouchure to mask the want of accuracy of intonation and equality of tone resulting from the position of the holes…..’

From all accounts Nicholson had uncommonly large hands, and had even larger holes on his personal flute than those that bore his name. Böhm promptly designed and marketed a new flute, embodying the earliest recognisable features of the modern instrument.

These developments were an expression of nothing less (and certainly nothing more) than fashion, an inevitable evil that permeates every walk of life. But change is not analogous to improvement, and I was sufficiently concerned by the ruinous consequences of fashion in orchestral sound and performance to do something about it. I determined to stand up and be counted. My fellow trustees on the NQHO’s board are forever telling me that I ought not to remark on the failings on our orchestra’s competitors, and no doubt they are right. The trouble is that reforming the NQHO was (and remains) a criticism of every other orchestra performing the established repertoire. It could be nothing else. Indeed, how was I ever going to explain so radical a departure from the norm without listing the reasons that prompted the departure in the first place?

I do not deny that this has led to a certain tension between the NQHO and the managements of the UK’s existing major orchestras, each of whom holds a well-defended and generously funded position. They have something to lose, and the NQHO can only gain from any depletion in the competition’s status and financial security. It would be remarkable is that competition were not to protect its interests. But the preservation of an interest does not, in and of itself, say anything about the virtue of the interest being preserved.

Most of my life has been spent raising money and producing recordings. Ever since 1960, I have created employment for thousands of musicians, printers, cardboard manufacturers, salesmen, copyright owners, retailers and critics. God Bless them all. Even the critics! In those 50 years, I worked for only one government quango. For about eight months, I was the first Managing Director of the London Symphony Orchestra. It was not a great experience musically, but amusing enough otherwise. When I was given the push it was by the whole orchestra. 85 furious players were ranged down one side of the appropriately named Waterloo Room, at the Royal Festival Hall, with the orchestra’s board opposing them. Instead of being cowed, I rather enjoyed the experience. This is not the time for me to recall the details of this story. I mention it now only to make the point that the world assumes that the managing directors of the LSO, or the LPO, have the power of a chief executive, when the players know that it is their creature. In truth, the self-governing London orchestra is essentially a workers’ co-operative, run in the interests of its members, the players. The internal politics of such outfits is tangible, and unsurprising.

It falls to be asked: how did the free-wheeling, energetic insecure world of the symphony orchestra become transformed into the lumbering institutional behemoth it has become in recent decades? When I ran the LSO in 1975 I had a staff of seven. Today, it has over eighty! It is clear that a great transition took place during the post-war years not only in how state-aided institutions should be run, but also in the sound an international orchestra ought to make. Instead of someone questioning the wisdom of individual instruments being metamorphosed into something new and threatening to an orchestra’s balance, single players became several times louder than their colleagues.

I well remember the LPO’s trombone section becoming lopsided with Tony Moore acquired an instrument with enough plumbing to distil whisky and with a bell the size of a horn of a wind-up gramophone. Within weeks, his colleagues had ditched their ‘old-fashioned’ trombones, transforming the section into a group that was not only many times too loud for the context, but which also added a thickness of sound that introduced a new level of stodginess into the orchestra.

The arrival of these trombones forced the trumpets to follow suit, and soon the brass section began to sound more like Stan Kenton’s or Count Basie’s than the variegated palette of a pre-war orchestra, in which there was still a chance of hearing a well-turned phrase from an individual of genius, such as Léon Goossens or Aubrey Brain. My thoughts became more focused on such balance problems when I came to exploit the opportunities that flowed from the first major commercial sponsorship of classical records, which I arranged in 1970. By encouraging WD & HO Wills, a division of Imperial Tobacco, to sponsor new recordings of the London Philharmonic, I created the foundation for Classics for Pleasure, a label that had gained a sixth of the UK classical market by volume of sales when I quit four years later.

For the first time in my recording life I came face to face with a large and powerful orchestra of the latest instruments. Where the LSO of Elgar’s day had been recorded with a single microphone, the LPO of 1970 demanded at least half-a-dozen, otherwise the inner wind and middle strings would have been lost beneath a wall of sound that now spread from other ever-louder instruments. To say that I was blown away was to state the obvious. String playing had to adapt in the teeth of such a gale. All thoughts of gut strings and portamento had long gone, leaving the ruthless anonymity of post-war string-playing unchallenged. Displays of power mingled with displays of dynamic-free, lifeless pianissimos were now the goal.

Producing such recordings led me to realise that the whiplash ensemble and excellence of tuning that followed hours of editing master-tapes failed to deliver either excitement or expression. But they did lead to imitation, and before long I heard performances in the concert-hall that reproduced the slightly awkward edits dropped into a previous recording by the same forces. Indeed, the recording process had been reduced to a superficially perfect industrial product, even though removing ‘mistakes’ from a performance is no artistic policy, especially when each and every bar has been made to conform to a metronome in order to make the tape editable. Without such a process few listeners from the edge of the known world were a match for the superior outfits of the greatest western cities. The idea that any beat should not have a chiselled front or a flexibility that suggested the involvement of human fallibility was no longer acceptable.

Where a natural performance bends to the landscape of a work by the heart beating faster or slower depending on the rise and fall of the terrain, these new and highly manufactured versions had the listener ripping through mountains and across valleys of inspiration as though driven by the ruthless thrust of a machine.

Even school-children mastered the rules, with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and other youth orchestras being invited to play at the Proms. Where major youth orchestras of the `1940s sound like school orchestras, those of the 1980s and onwards deliver an accuracy of detail unknown to most professional orchestras of the 1950s. Aiming at targets of limited ambition, such as ‘perfect’ tuning, cutting-edge ensemble and with every note accorded its full value regardless of its place in the musical conversation, children were able to imitate their highly trained and vastly more experienced teachers. Such a position would have been impossible in Furtwängler’s time: a time when the composer-conductor approached the score as an opportunity to recreate a work of genius with the bravery of an original artist and not that of someone seeing the score as an end in itself, as an engineering blueprint, as though a literal reading much inevitably be more ‘truthful’.

In short, by allowing individual instruments to wreck the balance of an orchestra, by limiting individual players to conformity of expression and by imposing the restricted ambitions of the recording studio on living human-beings every orchestra was ready to deliver sameness. So it was that I concluded the time had come to form an orchestra that freed players from these straight-jackets. After all, if conductors of vast willpower and imagination were rarer than hens’ teeth, I had to start where I could make a difference, and as fast as possible. Ever since, the NQHO has been an orchestra of players able and willing to embrace a degree of individuality that the modern world considers anarchic.

Yet such a degree of control-freakery denies the possibility of anything magical emerging from a concert. How could it be otherwise when every aspect of randomness has been rehearsed from it? If we accept, as we must after more than fifty years, that the existing system of running orchestras is never going to produce the spiritual and emotional depths necessary for the discovery of a new Furtwängler, we must find another way. From the outset, the NQHO was formed to provide the launch-pad for conductors who would rather justify their performances by referring to their feelings and ideas rather than by citing a footnote in an old book in Prague or someone else’s CD. Most music is concerned with feelings and feelings can only be released by people concerned with such matters and not with the mind-numbing delivery of the text.

By requiring the strings to adopt long-ignored approaches to their craft and by using less noisy brass and percussion from a century ago, the NQHO fulfils Oscar Wilde’s observation that, ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.’ In other words, players will adopt approaches to performance in the NQHO which they would refuse to contemplate when playing in a modern orchestra. To quote Wilde again, ’I don’t play accurately, anyone can play accurately – but I play with wonderful expression.’ It is these two facets of our orchestra which most entertain the musical soul. If slavish attention to the detail of the notation is your forte then the NQHO will never please. Does that matter? Not when there are a thousand orchestras happy and willing to fulfil a wish for yet soul-less repetition.

My faith in the NQHO’s ultimate triumph is total. It may not yet be world-famous, but I now see, somewhat ruefully, that it will outlive me. Many happy returns!

  • This article was written for Musical Opinion and published in the September-October 2011 issue
  • It is reproduced on The Classical Source with permission from the author and the magazine’s editor
  • Musical Opinion
  • New Queen’s Hall Orchestra

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