Tributes to Tod

Written by: Various Friends of Vernon Handley

Vernon Handley will be 75 on 11 November 2005. This Feature consists of Tributes to Tod…

Andrew Achenbach:

Everybody knows him simply as ‘Tod’, and there can be few more disarmingly modest, approachable, witty or personable musicians. Not for Tod the distracting podium gymnastics of some of his glitzier colleagues: his stick-technique is the very embodiment of clarity and economy (‘less is more’ indeed). Throw in an unerring ability to extract the essence and communicate the individuality of a huge range of repertoire and you have a conductor of rare gifts. In other words, the music always comes first.

Of course, Tod’s indefatigable promotion of British fare both old and new is the very stuff of legend, but how many concert promoters realise just how far-reaching his sympathies actually are? Haydn, Dvořák, Rachmaninov, Grieg, Sibelius, Nielsen, Holmboe, Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, Copland, Blacher – the list goes on and on. Stenhammar’s Serenade, Honegger’s Fifth Symphony and Prokofiev’s Sixth are but three non-British masterpieces particularly close to his heart. Tod is also the most self-effacing and understanding of accompanists, and, as a recent Eroica with the London Mozart Players amply demonstrated, his unaffected approach in the core classics continues to stimulate and delight.

On a personal note, I count myself incredibly fortunate to have been able to witness Tod rehearsing Bax’s Third Symphony with the student orchestra at London’s Royal Academy of Music over the course of a memorable day in October 2003. He was a model of encouragement, attentiveness and patience, offering many a pithy and wise observation (“Do you know the most expressive way to play a triplet? In time!”). And to sit inside BBC Manchester’s Studio 7 one morning last April as Tod gave an absolutely spellbinding account of Bax’s November Woods with the BBC Philharmonic was an experience I shall never forget; look out next spring for what promises to be a stunning follow-up to these artists’ landmark Chandos set of all seven Bax symphonies.

In the meantime, raise a glass and toast a national treasure: ‘Happy 75th, dearest Tod!’

Richard R. Adams:

I was a Vernon Handley ‘fan’ long before I had the privilege of meeting him for an interview for my Arnold Bax website. I become familiar with this great musician as an early teen when I started collecting records and I remember the introduction came through his first recording of Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony on Classics for Pleasure (an absolutely classic performance just reissued). That recording’s combination of searing passion, sensitivity and directness made me realise even at that early stage in my musical development that I had encountered a conductor with very special abilities – and from that point on I collected every recording he made. As I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, I didn’t have opportunities to see him conduct live — that came late — but every Vernon Handley LP and CD release was a special occasion and I grew to value this conductor above all others.

I discovered the music of Bax at about that same time I discovered Handley and I’ve been a passionate advocate of Sir Arnold ever since. (It’s a joke with some of my friends that I routinely go backstage after symphony concerts to corner conductors and ask them when they will start conducting Bax. You should have seen the look on Sir Simon Rattle’s face when I asked him!) I developed the Bax website ten years ago as a way of furthering Bax’s cause and naturally the musician I most wanted to interview was Tod. It took some arranging to make it happen but eventually I secured an invitation to his home in Wales.

I was overcome with anxiety the morning of our meeting and I was certain I’d be unable to speak coherently. But even before I had reached his front door, Tod came bounding out of his cottage and greeted with me the warmest and most enthusiastic handshake I think I have ever received. He seemed in no hurry to get to the interview or more importantly to get it over with — rather he showed me around his spacious, wooded yard and then casually brought me inside his home where he saw to it that I was equipped with a large mug of tea and a plate of various cheese and biscuits to snack on. Then he started interviewing me!

His first question was how I had come to know and love Bax’s music. He seemed intrigued and genuinely pleased to be talking to a fellow Baxian, especially one from America. Eventually I was able to turn the interview around so he was the subject and we spoke for nearly four hours; interrupted only by the offer of a bowl of his own home-made leek soup for lunch. I left that day in a daze and also with four hours of tape to transcribe. I really didn’t expect to meet him again but we were brought back together for a follow-up interview once his Bax symphony recordings began and also I attended a couple of those sessions.

I could go on for pages detailing the many impressions I formed about Tod from our meetings but I will limit it to a few. I suspect the first impression anyone gets from meeting Tod is that for an artist of his stature, he is remarkably down-to-earth and unaffected. I’d go so far as to say he is one of the most naturally warm and expressive people I’ve ever met. There isn’t a trace of self-importance or arrogance to be found in his nature and he abhors displays of self-promotion or self-importance. His motto is that nothing should get in the way of the music and his role is to serve the composer’s intentions as best as he knows how.

All who have followed Tod’s career believe that he could have been a superstar conductor (he certainly has that kind of talent) if he’d been more willing to engage in the politics and showmanship required to secure the big positions – but that just isn’t his way. He has preferred to devote his energies to promoting music he believes has been undervalued. Bax is certainly a case in point. I made the mistake during our interview to admit I thought Bax had written some rather second-rate music. Handley asked me to name those works I didn’t think were so strong and then he politely challenged my pronouncements and explained in detail why those works were important and meant so much to him. That kind of fervour is unique, I believe.

We know he’s a great interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák, Honegger, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, and many others, and we all regret that the recording labels have denied us the opportunity to hear his interpretations of the classics as they tend to be so fresh and vibrant.

Finally, I must say something about his sense of humour. When I listen to the tapes of our conversations, I’m struck by how incredibly funny he is and how much time we spend laughing together over the various stories he tells. Perhaps the highlight of the taped interviews is his impressions of the different men he has known over the years. To hear him imitate Boult, Robert Simpson, Malcolm Arnold, Herbert Howells and, most amazingly, Arthur Bliss — is to be dazzled by a different side of Handley’s talent. The man is a born comedian and that’s another reason musicians love working with him. Incidentally, his ability to mimic is evidently a genetic trait as I was told that his son does a mean imitation of my American accent. Mercifully, Kieran never shared that with me.

So it is with great pleasure that I salute Vernon Handley on his 75th Birthday. Look out for his Bax tone poems on Chandos in 2006 – for they may just be the finest recordings he’s given us yet.

Colin Anderson:

It was on 14 February 1994 that I first met Dr Vernon Handley – at Hyperion sessions for Robert Simpson’s Symphony No.5 with the Royal Philharmonic. It was my recording debut, so to speak, and both producer Andrew Keener and engineer Tony Faulkner could not have been friendlier or more welcoming. By the time the sessions eventually started – it was snowing and transport was disrupted – I had been able to introduce myself to Tod (as he immediately became on shaking hands) and I then enquired about the interview I was ostensibly there for (does anyone remember “Strictly Off the Record”?). “Let me get through this [the sessions] and whatever remains of my mind you can have”, was Tod’s response. I was at ease, and the sessions were terrific. About an hour in, Tod turned to me during a playback and asked: “Do you think the tempo is OK?” I was taken aback (and felt very responsible!). I offered a meek “it seems fine to me”. Which it did! Tod was concerned (his long baton pointing to the relevant page in the score) that he was under Simpson’s metronome mark. Such concern for the composer is typical. And I felt as if I belonged.

Actually the interview just mentioned didn’t take place, but we caught up later, and then again (a Bax article for “Fanfare”). And, indeed, it’s always a pleasure to talk with Tod or attend a rehearsal – whether it’s Elgar’s Second with the Guildford Philharmonic, the Eroica with the London Mozart Players or Bax’s Third with the students of the Royal College Music (“play what is written” was a regular cajole shouted across the music to the youngsters). Such impassioned appeals are ones of encouragement not of intimidation. And there’s usually a witty line somewhere in there, and a glancing, reassuring smile.

Tod and British music are synonymous of course. But he’s the first to tell you that he conducts the whole repertoire – and he’ll mention this quite forcibly, too! Even if he knows you know. His conducting of the ‘classics’ is always satisfying – performances in London of symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert linger long in the memory, not least a powerfully sculpted Beethoven 5.

Bax, of course, is someone very close to Tod’s heart; there was a wonderful concert performance of The Garden of the Fand with the RPO some years ago, and, more recently, two magical versions of Tintagel at “Gramophone” events; the first one, without rehearsal, was very special, and the applause of the LSO said it all. (Now, LSO, how about inviting Tod for some Barbican subscription concerts?) And Tod doesn’t shy away from ‘difficult’ repertoire – as a hair-raising performance of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time once demonstrated: “music of genius” he told me quite recently.

So, Happy Birthday Tod, and thanks for all the music (British or otherwise) – and for what is to come (recording sessions are in the diary and others are being mooted) – and, of course, for your friendship.

We know of the ‘Maestro Myth’; Tod would understand this from a different perspective. A friend of mine in the London Symphony Chorus related the following when Tod introduced himself to the singers at a first rehearsal (I guess for his Hyperion recording of Elgar’s a cappella Choral Songs): “Good morning. Please call me Tod. If you feel uncomfortable with that, call me Vernon, or even Mr Handley. BUT DON’T CALL ME MAESTRO!”

Michael Berkeley:

Tod is one of the great unsung heroes of 20th-century British Music who brings to his readings an intuitive understanding of the sensibility of the music and a quality of execution that is seldom, if ever, surpassed.

John Boyden:

I first heard of Vernon Handley’s name from my father, who played the trumpet in the London Philharmonic until the late 1950s before freelancing. I remember his telling me that he had just played for a young conductor who based his technique and approach to performance on Sir Adrian Boult’s, who was one of my father’s heroes.

At first, I fancy most players thought Tod was little but a carbon copy of the great man, with his yard-long baton and the assumption that orchestras would watch the point of the stick if asked to do so. His love of English music, both of the Germanic variety and the English ‘cow-pat’ school, also suggested that he was aping Sir Adrian. But he wasn’t. As he would tell you, he is a Celt, and no one could accuse his mentor of being that. So, Tod was an outsider, and still is.

I know that well-meaning people have run a campaign to have Tod installed (if that’s the right word) as a knight: they might just as well burn a bundle of batons and send them in a tin-pot to the Chief Wizard of Whitehall for all the difference a petition will make. Involving people in democracy for three weeks every four or five years does not give them the right to influence anything in between.

Tod, like so many others, was born into the wrong time. Had he been fifty years earlier, he would have formed his own orchestra, which he more-or-less did with the Guildford Philharmonic, and a very fine band a Tod Philharmonic would have been. But for such a chap as Tod to become part of the present ‘system’ of state-control is expecting too much of the non-musical people who organise, fund and control our orchestral diet. How can they tell who is any good and who isn’t? Oh, I know: they have a team of advisers! Culture by committee. But Tod is not a committee-man: he is a music-man.

So, although I only produced three or four discs with Tod, I wish him everything for a great birthday and lots more to come! Especially as the ‘system’ might be on the point of caving-in under pressure from the Chancellor’s ever-noisier demands for five or six years Class 1 NI payments guaranteed to bankrupt practically every orchestra we have (except of course those of the BBC, which will simply raise the licence fee). At that point, that new wonder, oxygen, may be free to enter the bloodstream of a once-independent and thriving art-form now dependent on the heart-lung machine of state-aid: even then it looks uncannily like Lenin’s corpse in the mausoleum of Marxist vanities.

Happy Birthday Tod!

Nick Breckenfield:

Vernon ‘Tod’ Handley has – in his work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Elgar), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Arnold), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (Vaughan Williams), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (Bax) and so many others – given audiences both live and on disc the finest interpretations of British music. His care and fidelity to score and composer, his fastidiousness in rehearsal to ensure the best from his musicians, and his breadth of musical interest, has lit-up the last half-century with a golden age of performances.

And while we will always think of him as champion of music from the British shores, he also brings all those musical qualities to performances of non-British composers: I particularly remember his Schubert and Beethoven in recent London Philharmonic Orchestra concerts and, although I would dearly love to hear him conduct various British pieces live, I also would like to hear him in wider repertoire, too.

So deserving of our recognition – a candidate, surely, for a knighthood (“a nod for Tod” as the saying goes) and the recently-instituted Queen’s Medal for Music – I wish him the happiest of birthdays, and many years of great music-making to come.

Andrew Burn:

Congratulations Tod on your 75th birthday and thank you for your dogged support of British music over your long and distinguished career. As for so many others, your recordings and performances opened the doors to so many British composers for me including Bliss, Bax and Finzi. Your cycle of the Bax symphonies is one of my treasured box sets and I have marvellous memories of working with you at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Thanks for the music, Tod.

Ralph Couzens:

I first worked with Tod back in the 1980s in Belfast when he was Principal Conductor of the Ulster Orchestra. Chandos had an exclusive recording contract with the orchestra and had just completed a series of recordings with the late Bryden (Jack) Thomson, works of Harty, Elgar and Bax.

When Tod arrived he wanted to continue the British theme and we undertook the complete cycle of Stanford symphonies coupled with the Irish Rhapsodies and Concertos. I learnt something new from Tod in those days, how to record an orchestra with the first and second violins split either side of the conductor. Tod insisted on recording everything that way and would not be persuaded otherwise. I also saw for the first time his choice of very long batons, which he controlled with amazing agility, one of his many expressions being, “Its all on the stick, just watch”, and when something went wrong he frequently blamed the baton and himself, never the orchestra, and said he would have to do some more practice!

Whenever I see Tod he always without exception mentions one particular recording he made for Chandos, in London with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and of course it was Bax, his all-time favourite composer. It was a disc featuring Spring Fire, and I’m convinced that if he ever went on “Desert Island Discs” this would be his number one choice.

I worked with him only a few weeks ago on a wonderful Bantock project and can fondly say that nothing has changed; in fact he is even more enthusiastic and hungry to conduct British repertoire at the grand age of 75 than ever before. The love of British music will never tire from Tod and we are all the more grateful for it.

Happy Birthday Tod and I look forward to our next instalment of Bantock and, who knows, more Bax!

Michael Elliott:

Writing as the Chief Executive of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, there’s always a special welcome in Liverpool for Tod Handley. He is the Liverpool Phil’s Conductor Emeritus, a title recognising the special relationship he has built with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra over the years, not only in his performances at Philharmonic Hall but also through the many excellent recordings he has made with the Phil, many of them award winners. He continues to make great music with the ability to extract some brilliant performances. We all continue to enjoy and learn from his enduring energy, wit and wisdom and we salute his many achievements in music.

The musicians, choristers, staff and board of the Liverpool Phil raise a glass to you Tod and wish you a very happy birthday 75th birthday. We look forward to welcoming you back to Liverpool.

John Lill:

I first worked with Tod Handley back in 1966, playing Prokofiev’s Third Concerto with his Guildford Philharmonic – a marvellous group of players who responded totally to Tod’s limitless enthusiasm and appetite for recreating music to the highest levels. He turned that entire environment into a passionately music-loving mass of admirers and devotees.

Apart from his musical mastery of very diverse repertoire, Tod’s magnetic personality and freedom from mannerism were infectious characteristics of a very rare combination of gifts. We have worked on numerous occasions from then until now and my opinions remain as they were about his qualities. He has evolved but never swayed from what he knows is right. He remains an example, so seldom seen nowadays, of an individual of great integrity and charisma.

His reserve, quiet mastery and superlative technique remind me so strongly of my experiences of working with Sir Adrian Boult. Tod and I have worked through such varied repertoire, including a concerto dedicated to me by Sir Malcolm Arnold. Tod seems equally at home in all styles and continues to impart a rare balance of informality yet architectural strength so vital to the recreation of great and vital music.

Sadly, now that there has recently been such a concerted effort to destroy music in this country by successive governments, local councils, educational bodies, and media – replacing it with even more ubiquitous pop – such admirable, almost magical achievements as Tod achieved in Guildford and elsewhere may never be allowed to see the light of day again. It is no loss for concert performers, as music is an international language and the world is a large place, but it is symptomatic of the spiritual and cultural decline of Britain.

I congratulate Vernon Handley most heartily – he has been a major source of inspiration to all who have had the good fortune to work with him and I wish him all possible success in the future!

John McCabe:

No conductor has done so much for British composers as Vernon Handley – his commitment to this music is justly famous, and his interpretative insights are second to none. He comes into the great line of succession started by Sir Henry Wood, adventurous, broad-minded, courageous, but above all profoundly involved with the music he serves. It is perhaps with composers such as Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Delius and Bax that he is most associated, but it is equally well-known that he performs more recent works with equal love and devotion, and his range of interests is extraordinarily wide (he is as deeply moved by Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time as he is by VW’s 6th Symphony, or by Elgar’s symphonies).

So much, then, for the received opinion, which so far as it goes is quite correct – if one needs to experience his artistry at full stretch one only needs to hear his recent recordings of the complete Bax symphonies or his famous Elgar and Vaughan Williams symphonies (to which one might add the stunning CD of VW’s Job). But what seems less appreciated is his skill in the repertoire of other countries, and of the classics. He once said, in a characteristically self-deprecating manner, that he had given the worst performance of a Mozart symphony ever heard – but for a start, I don’t believe it, and if it is even half true, then he developed a remarkable ability to conduct this composer. In particular, I have heard (and, gratefully, experienced a few times myself) Tod give outstanding performances of Mozart concertos, both for piano and for violin – I recall in particular a Mozart violin concerto in Melbourne in which the orchestral part was performed with quite remarkable insight, revealing it to be far more interesting and detailed than one usually hears, yet without detracting at all from the soloist’s pre-eminent role. He is, in short, an attentive and sympathetic accompanist, as well as a fine Mozartean.

What of other repertoire? One has heard outstanding Ravel and Russian music from him, but in my own memory two great classical symphonies stand out, Brahms’s 2nd, in a performance of warm lyricism and yet great strength of purpose, and Beethoven’s Eroica, an interpretation both straightforward (no messing about with tempo, just the occasional very subtle inflections) and profound, one of the most satisfying of this difficult work that I can recall.

With great gratitude, and appreciation of a range of achievement that is perhaps without parallel, I and many others salute Tod Handley on his 75th birthday – we have so much to thank you for, Tod!

Paul McKinley:

Like many people, I’m sure, I first got to know Tod’s name through the record catalogue, and my collection of his recordings has been ever-expanding. However, living in Belfast, I was also fortunate that Tod was a regular guest conductor of the Ulster Orchestra (before being appointed its Principal Conductor in the mid-1980s), so I was able to experience his music-making ‘live’. This was when his ‘greatness’ really struck home. Wonderful as his recordings were (and still are), his concerts were a revelation – here was music-making of the highest level. The first time I heard Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony being performed in concert was when Tod conducted it in the Ulster Hall with his, by then, Ulster Orchestra in 1987. I still recall the frisson of excitement that concert caused, and remember being totally dumbstruck by the power and authority with which he conducted the piece. I’ve since heard him conduct it in Belfast another couple of times – most recently in April past – and on each occasion I’ve been bowled over by the performances.

It was around the time of that Vaughan Williams concert that I became, first, Music Librarian for the BBC in Belfast, and then Librarian for the Ulster Orchestra. This gave me the opportunity to see and hear Tod at work – the real work of rehearsals – and to get to know him as a friend, and I consider myself honoured in that ongoing friendship. He still comes to work with the Ulster Orchestra – now as Conductor Laureate – and the thrill of hearing him in concert is still as great as that Vaughan Williams performance from years ago.

Those of us who know Tod as a friend are fortunate indeed, but that large body of music-lovers who only know him through his concerts and recordings are equally privileged in being able to experience his inspiration through music. Long may he continue!

Graham Parlett:

The name ‘Vernon Handley’ first came to my notice in 1964, when I was browsing in the old Gramophone Exchange in Wardour Street and unexpectedly came across a mono LP of Bax’s Fourth Symphony issued on the new Concert Artist label. Having at that time never heard any of Bax’s symphonies, apart from Barbirolli’s 78-set of No.3, I eagerly rushed home and put it on the turntable. Although I was at first a little disappointed with the work itself (it has since grown on me), Tod’s conducting and the playing of the Guildford Philharmonic were a delight and I listened to the disc countless times.

The next Concert Artist issue was The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew (still my favourite recording of the piece) coupled with Moeran’s Serenade, and then in 1970 I went down to Guildford to hear Tod conduct Bax’s Symphonic Variations with Joyce Hatto, which they subsequently recorded. (If my memory serves me correctly, the unusual and ambitious programme started with Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto and ended with Martinů’s “Epic of Gilgamesh”.) During the intervening decades, I bought most of Tod’s recordings and have seen him conduct on innumerable occasions. I have also had the privilege of attending recording sessions and witnessing at first hand his modesty, courtesy, friendliness and quiet humour.

Other writers have referred to Tod’s wide range of tastes apart from British music – I certainly recall a sparkling Mozart serenade in St John’s, Smith Square, and a superb performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. Many of his Vaughan Williams recordings are among my favourites, and if I could take only one of his CDs to the desert island I think I should choose Job, one of very few recordings by anybody that can literally bring a tear to my eye; ‘Elihu’s Dance of Youth and Beauty’ is especially affecting.

Tod’s music-making has meant a tremendous amount to me over the years, and I am delighted to be able to join in wishing him a Happy 75th Birthday and all the very best for the future.

Sandra Parr:

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra has enjoyed so many wonderful hours of music-making with Tod Handley – it is a delight to be able to send birthday greetings to him from everyone, musicians, choir and staff, at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. He is unique in so many ways – his British musical heritage, knowledge and love of his art to name a few. We look forward to many more years of working with such a warm-hearted musician.

Brian Pidgeon:

I first came across Tod back in the late 1960s in the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool, no less! He was conducting a children’s concert with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and I, still a University student, was playing percussion. Little was I to know then how often our paths would cross in the future.

When I was General Manager of the RLPO Tod recorded his wonderful complete cycle of Vaughan Williams’s Symphonies for EMI, amongst many memorable recordings, and he was also appointed the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor. It was only when I moved to the BBC Philharmonic that we were able to pull off his greatest ambition and record the Bax symphony cycle for Chandos – the rest is history.

Very Happy Birthday Tod, and many more of them – there’s still a lot of repertoire out there to record together!

David Wordsworth:

It was the great conductor George Szell who said that it was his speciality to specialise in nothing! I don’t know if Vernon Handley has ever wished that this applied to him. Very many people (not least the present writer) have reason to be more than grateful to Tod for his championing of British music, not just wonderful performances of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, but also his beloved Bax and so many others. Yet the question has to be asked: has this harmed his career? Most certainly in England, I suggest, in the only country in the world that makes such a spectacular success of running down its own composers.

I’ve heard Tod give insightful, imaginative performances of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Prokofiev, etc. – but nobody mentions that. Perhaps he should have changed his name to something that ends in ‘i’ or ‘v’, developed a fiery temper and exaggerated mannerisms – but then that wouldn’t be the Tod that we all know, admire and love. The most important thing for him is the music – whoever it is by. For that reason we should all raise out collective glasses in his honour. Happy Birthday, Tod!

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