The Smell Of The Orchestra, the Roar of the Crowd

Published on May 12th, 2012

The BBC Concert Orchestra rehearse, in this picture. It might have been for a Prom, a Friday Night Is Music Night concert or any one of a variety of fascinating performances. Here’s my account of recent fun I’ve had with them

Had a great night a few Fridays ago with the BBC Concert Orchestra – it was a celebration of the Ivor Novello Awards (Britain’s “Songwriting Oscars”) – which are awarded by the Academy Of Songwriters, Composers and Authors. Radio 2 had themed “Friday Night Is Music Night” as an “Ivor Novello” concert, using Ivor-winning tunes, all linked very professionally by the erudite Mr Paul Gambaccini. They got me to close the show (nobody can clear a room like I can) – with two pieces from the movie Caravans; “Caravan Theme” – which I conducted, and “Caravan Song” which I sang, followed by “Bright Eyes” from Watership Down. I was privileged to get the Ivor for “Best Film Theme or Song” two years running – with the latter two songs, back in 1978 and 1979 respectively.

I’ve conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra once before – when I was Musical Director of a whole “Friday Night” music show – and they were great then, too. They have to play everything from heavy classics to pop stuff, and I’ve often thought that they must inevitably sometimes play stuff that they really don’t fancy – as individuals. You can’t play such a variety of stuff, year in, year out, without that happening occasionally. It happens in all orchestras, Yet still, the first time I worked with them we went through a wide variety of stuff ranging from “Danse Macabre” to “The Closest Thing To Crazy” and there were smiling faces throughout. Actually, on that occasion there was a bit of a weird moment at the end when the horn section played “The Wombling Song” over the last chord of the famous “Friday Night” signature tune that I was conducting, just as a little musical joke. On that occasion, it was recorded a day or so before transmission, and – not recognising that they’d been pulling my leg (I thought they’d just played something not quite right – not recognising my own tune) – I requested that we re-record the last few bars for an edit. They must have thought I’d had a sense of humour bypass.

Anyway – that’s water under the bridge. I think it was about five years ago, maybe longer. In our recent concert I just had the three pieces to do. In a way, it’s harder, because you are singing stuff straight in without getting comfortable on stage. You have to walk on and go straight into the piece, – and there’s always that background worry about whether you’ll be in tune, whether you’ll forget the lyrics. The concert was brilliantly conducted by Richard Balcombe – (except my one “guest conducting” piece) – and it was a pleasure from start to finish. The show also featured singers Matt Rawle and Alison Jiear. There was a really great moment when, after an interesting interview with my mate, lyricist Gary Osborne, currently Chairman of the Ivor Novello Awards – Gambo presented him with his Ivor from years ago, that he should have got for the lyrics to “War Of The Worlds”, – and which had somehow been misplaced and discovered years later in a car boot sale. Funny. The Award had been for “Best Instrumental Work” – which was weird, because it’s full of Gary’s lyrics, as well as Jeff Wayne’s music!

There’s a kind of old-fashionedness to “Friday Night Is Music Night” that only the BBC could keep going. A commercial station would have closed it down years ago,- but the BBC has a remit to cover a wide variety of tastes, and of course there are some who snigger. But it does evoke a broad-minded, quaint, nostalgic atmosphere that is gone from most of our lives, and for me – as a musician and as a conductor – it is an anchor representing and depending upon great musicianship. You need to be a damned good trumpet player to be in the Concert Orchestra trumpet section, just as you do to be in the LSO. I work with orchestras all over the World; several times with the Stuttgart Philharmonic in recent years. They too, are a radio orchestra. They too, have a mass of different stuff thrown at them each week, to perform live on radio after sight-reading their way through a few rehearsals. Many years ago I was Musical Director of the Melbourne Summer Music Festival, and the orchestra was the State Orchestra Of Victoria. Another radio orchestra, also involved with the ballet and other Australian Broadcasting Commission work. These orchestras seem, to some – a waste of public money – something that might well be cut, to improve other public services. But it’s vital (as demonstrated above in only three examples) that live music gets to be heard – or recorded by great orchestras which exist as living, ever-changing, organisms. Maybe “organism” isn’t the right word, but it expresses what I mean. Sometimes when you are conducting, you can hear them breathing – you can smell a fart, you can hear a sniffle,- but don’t let me catch anyone reading a bloody newspaper during a take, as happened on a recent Katie Melua (freelance) orchestral session at Air Lyndhurst Studios!

What began as a blog about the recent”Friday Night” has developed into a rant/plea about the necessity of keeping State-sponsored orchestras alive. I would never have chosen to dedicate my life to music had it not been for the thrill I got from listening to Wagner, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Lennon/McCartney as enhanced by George Martin’s arrangements. Great arrangers like Gordon Jenkins, Peter Knight, Les Reed, Henry Mancini. Conducting an orchestral concert or recording session is like being host at a party. I’m not saying things never go wrong – and all sorts of things do. To me it’s the ultimate thrill to stay up all night writing a piece that has to be with your copyist by 7am so that the parts will be at the orchestra session you’ll be conducting at 10 am. I’ve spent my life doing that. God knows how much coffee and how many cigarettes (when I used to smoke) I consumed through those lonely but exciting nights. Even if I’ve been working on arrangements for two months, somehow the night before the session is still often an all-nighter. My wife says to me, “why do you leave everything until the last minute?” I say “Because it would be a total waste of the last minute if I didn’t”! The fact is, the fear of your deadline creates the adrenalin that improves your work. That’s my excuse anyway.


  1. Posted by Stintfang on May 13th, 2012, 07:47

    I enjoyed the show via iPlayer. The “old-fashioned” music was so great to hear. I love film scores and was delighted to hear “The Dambusters” as the opening number. I was glad that Matt Rawle didn`t faint after the final note of John Barry`s “Thunderball” and I really enjoyed the different version of “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” performed by Alison Jiear. I had great fun hearing the anecdote about the “lost award” and Gary`s acceptance speech. And it was great to hear the Mike Batt tunes performed by himself.
    I am glad that “Friday night…” wasn`t cancelled. Radio really needs a platform in which live symphonic music and filmscores can be played. And in case of Katie Melua I still have my recording of the show in which she was presented to a huge audience via radio in October 2003. With her new album she should appear on “Friday night…” to present not a “secret”, but a “public symphony” too.

  2. Posted by Frederick on May 17th, 2012, 02:51

    I knew you had won back to back Ivor Novello awards for Caravans and Watership Down – but did you win one for the Wombling Song or any other Wombles music? And have you won an award since?

  3. Posted by RoamingRay on May 18th, 2012, 10:59

    Excellent write up, Mr. B.

    “Bath Night” has been in the schedules for as long as I can remember and long may it, long should it continue.


Comment guidelines, edit this message in your Wordpress admin panel

You must be logged in to post a comment.