Written by: Robert Matthew-Walker
I learned of Bill Newman’s recent death through a colleague with great sadness. I understand he passed away sometime in June, and although the news of his death was a shock, it was not entirely unexpected, for his health had clearly deteriorated in recent years.
Despite the problems he had in travelling to concerts, Bill (a man of Kent, born in October 1932) was still able to make his own way to events until a few weeks before he died – a determination in the service of art that is humbling in retrospect, and which was the manifestation of his commitment to classical music of all kinds.
I had known Bill for over 50 years, since he worked at EMI in the artists-and-repertoire department, but I got to know him much better after I joined CBS in 1970, where he was manager of the company’s British classical operations in succession to Quita Chavez and her assistant Katherine Wilkinson.
Quita, still with us at 97, has had a wide range of experience in the record business, in retailing (before World War Two), at Gramophone magazine, and at CBS, Decca and Philips. Katherine went on to head the Press Office of the Royal Opera House, leading that Department to its one-time excellence.
But Bill remained a ‘record man’, as the saying goes, throughout his life. His record collection was legendary in its range and scope. At EMI, he had been in charge of the HMV20 Series, masterminding reissues of twentieth-century British music recordings, and he was also in charge of the EMI issues of the Mercury and Epic catalogues.
Bill’s personal interests lay in chamber and piano music, and soon after joining CBS he had the opportunity to record Charles Rosen in a magnificent series of late-Beethoven Sonatas, but the demands of the CBS job included a greater concentration on commercial marketing, and in that field Bill was not entirely at home. He left CBS in 1971 to join Boosey & Hawkes, and I succeeded him as head of the classical department.
Bill also had a great interest in horticulture, and after retirement from B&H he took a small job with Hendon Council in the Parks Department, before his wide range in music and in recording led him to write more and more about his experiences and become a noted critic and interviewer of classical artists.
He was occasionally drawn back from retirement by EMI to produce recordings, particularly with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Louis Frémaux, most notably including award-winning releases of John McCabe’s music. Bill sent me a letter, describing how the sessions arose:
“A telephone call came through to me asking whether I would like to produce the recording sessions for EMI. My old boss John Whittle explained that Kinloch Anderson was ill and no other producer was available. McCabe’s music was very much admired by me so I accepted the challenge. The composer’s Notturni ed Alba and Symphony 2 were the works on the programme and Jill Gomez was the soloist. McCabe and I travelled on the train from Paddington overnight and next day teamed up with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and their Principal Conductor Louis Frémaux.
Both works had already received live performances and been well received with praise from discerning critics and the musical public alike. The location was The Great Hall at Edgbaston on the outskirts of the City and Stuart Eltham was the Sound Engineer. Retakes were few from the magnificent CBSO so I was able to mark up the full scores accordingly, celebrations afterwards taking place at Frémaux’s home. Playback sessions at Abbey Road Studios were instructive: Alan Barlow – who had his own Chamber Orchestra – was sitting in as Tape Engineer. Was the composer’s music primarily cyclic? I learnt much from their argument! A few months elapsed and Whittle rang to inform me that Gramophone magazine nominated it First Prize for Sound. I could not attend the reception as I was working for Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers. Such is life!”
In recent decades Bill’s coverage of many hundreds, if not thousands, of recitals at Wigmore Hall and elsewhere cemented him as a greatly-admired and vastly-experienced commentator. Bill’s health was never robust, and a series of major operations plus the debilitating condition of Krohn’s Disease, weakened him further, yet he would still make the journey from his North London home to the concert-halls in the centre of town to hear, and write about, the performance.
Bill remained an avid record collector, full of wonderful stories of artists he had known and worked with. His gentle and civilised approach to life endeared him to many, and his unassuming character will be missed by all who knew him.