LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)

Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues
Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files

About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search

The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Whatever became of specialist conductors?

By Norman Lebrecht / September 17, 2008

He was always out there on his Tod. No musician ever called Vernon Handley by his Christian name, staid and slightly quaint. An Enfield boy born into poverty and self-raised by his bootstraps to a place at Oxford, he got called Tod as a kid for toddling about with his feet splayed to either side.

The nickname was apt, for he never overcame a certain ungainliness in the podium. What he did there, however, and better than anyone, was to perform the music of his country with an unerring instinct for its natural colours and a refusal to make it all sound the same. With his death last week, we lost not only the last specialist exponent of British music, but the last conductor who dared to stand out against the forces of globalisation and make his name as a maestro of niche.

This is not a nostalgic lament for a dedicated performer so much as a wake-up call to a musical profession that has given up its peculiar passions. Look around. Early music maestros like Hogwood and Norrington who, a decade ago, championed Couperin and Corelli are now pushing out Schumann and Stravinsky. Cutting-edge experimentalists who liked their music new and wet on the page are busy these days with Bach and Bruch. Tod Handley stood for the music he loved, and not much else.

A plain man of simple habits, he got mistaken for a record salesman when he turned up in 1985 to collect a Gramophone award for the Elgar concerto he had recorded with an unruly young soloist who rebelled against the Menuhin and Julliard schools.

That award launched Nigel Kennedy’s career and he never forgot it. He asked for Tod to conduct his return to the BBC Proms this summer, only for illness to prevent the reunion. It was at a Vaughan Williams Prom that Tod’s death was made public, a fitting tribute.

His robust and sternly unsentimental approach to Elgar was underpinned by a fraternal sense of struggle, just another a poor boy from the backwoods who came to speak for the nation. The Vaughan Williams symphonies that he recorded for EMI are rare in their rejection of picture-postcard pastoralism. For Tod, this was music of intellectual vigour and he gave it the full treatment, rough edges and all.

He loved any music that spoke his language and made any number of composers more interesting than we had imagined. Bax, Bantock, Bliss, Bush, Finzi, Holbrooke, Milner and Moeran found in Tod the one master who made a difference.

He gave more than 100 works their first recording and used to say that being known as a conductor of British music had damaged his career. But he would quickly add: ‘I do it because I believe a British conductor ought to,’ and that was that. As a disciple of Sir Adrian Boult, he listened first to the call to duty.

At Oxford he was meant to be reading philology but messed around too much with amateur orchestras and choral societies. He wrote to Boult asking for a pass to attend one of his rehearsals and the senior conductor, finding a kindred spirit, took him under wing and recommended him to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. He moved on to Belfast and Liverpool but his longest position was with the town orchestra in dormitory-belt Guildford, where the council gave him free rein to conduct whatever he liked, which was usually the full English, with brown sauce.

He could, needless to say, bash out the Beethovens and Debussys with the best of them, but Tod felt no need to compete with the best of them. And if he sometimes complained that he wasn’t posh enough for ‘international’ London orchestras, he was always happiest choosing his music without commercial pressures.

He had a 1980s fling with a Swedish orchestra and another with the orchestra of western Australia, but he didn’t travel well. He lived in a cottage in Gwent, photographed birds for a hobby and seldom turned down an invitation to a school prize day if it came with the chance to conduct a student orchestra.

Conductors are not famous for knowing their limitations, nor are they short on ambition. Tod belonged to a dying breed who rejected the American requirement that every maestro must be an all-rounder, performing Bach, Boulez and Beatles arrangements with equal serenity. He believed a conductor’s duty was to deliver the music he felt most strongly about. He was the last specialist British conductor.

There are one or two still around elsewhere – Michael Plasson with French music in Toulouse, Christian Thielemann with German romantics in Munich – but the bulldog breed of English-music pluggers has been tempted away to foreign parts. Andrew Davis and Richard Hickox, are conducting opera these days in Chicago and Sydney. Barry Wordsworth and Martin Brabbins are the next contenders but their eyes too are on other things. Brabbins’ fine Vaughan Williams Prom was paired dysfunctionally with the cement architecture of Xenakis.

It’s not hard to see why they get distracted. Every young conductor these days wants to do Mahler and Shostakovich because that’s what makes the loudest noise and pleases the orchestras who engage them. No conductor presently under 30 has anything worthwhile to say in Mahler and Shostakovich, least of all the brilliant Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel who is so compelling in Latin rhythms and so dull and derivative in chromatic angst.

Why has the music industry stopped interpreters from following their natural instincts and being true to themselves? We need to find another Tod. If we don’t, what we face is a future of all-purpose performers, good at most things and outstanding at none.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001-2006