The Luxury of Ignorance

In many ways, my arrival in the world of symphonic flute playing happened quite late on. 

Having very much been the loner throughout my school days (I thankfully discovered that I had an allergy to all forms of sport, so was never in consideration to be included in rugby, swimming or cricket teams), the idea of making music from within a large group of people, seemed equally at odds with my desires in general to maintain a respectable distance from others. 

In my naivety, all I wanted to do was to be with a flute. It wasn’t as though I had aspirations of becoming a soloist, but the seemingly diluted presence that the flute held for me when experienced from within the woodwind section of a symphony orchestra, in those early days, was in no way appealing. 

On top of this indifference, whilst I was at music college, the brother of my girlfriend at the time had been a double bass player in one of the major London orchestras. His stories of the perpetual internal wrangles and disputes, alongside flagrantly hostile disagreements between players or the members of the orchestra and management, gave me the distinct impression that this was not an area of the music business that would jell with me, or that I would feel comfortable being associated with. 

In my final year of study, many of my colleagues, both on the flute and other woodwind and brass instruments, were regularly engaged to work as ‘extra’ players for the London orchestras, with some even fortunate enough to secure permanent positions within these establishments. 

At this stage, such an existence or future held zero in the way of interest to me. I wanted to just get on and ‘do my own thing’, whilst at all costs, steering clear of large groups. 

Having left the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, I was more than happy making regular visits to the numerous music clubs throughout the UK, as either a flute and piano or flute and harp duo. Otherwise, I was frequently asked to play in small ensembles for chamber music concerts and then occasionally ventured outside London to play the flute in one-off freelance orchestral performances. Invariably these were with a local chorus, always with one tenor who considered himself to be superior, therefore louder than Pavarotti and directed by a close to atrocious conductor. The programme almost always featured Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ or Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ as the main attraction of the evening. The highlight of these days and by a long way, was the pint of beer with colleagues in the pub afterwards. 

I was thankfully at one with this life of uncertainty and the variety of work that came my way as a result. From a financial point of view, I was far from rich, but in terms of both general happiness and the regularity of being involved in a wide range of musical activities, I could not really have been any more content. 

I was living my own particular dream, but what I hadn’t factored into the equation was that if I was to enjoy a life that was comparable to those in more traditional lines of employment, at some stage I was probably going to need to conform in one way or another. You can’t purchase a house or put together a healthy pension fund with good intentions and air alone! 

As is so often the case in life, unexpected events occurred, that in turn ended up making key decisions for me. 

I have never actively applied for a position in an orchestra. In later years, I was fortunate enough to be approached by various institutions to be asked if I might be interested in being considered for the position of principal flute on offer. My answer has always been a resounding ‘yes’, as irrespective of my personal situation or beliefs, I have always maintained that one should never turn down a job that has yet to be offered. 

Aside from the irregularity of income, all was going pretty much as planned in those early days after college.  

Then one Sunday evening (I think I might have been ironing at the time), something happened that was to change the course of my life. 

The phone rang and it was the orchestral manager of the English Chamber Orchestra on the other end of the line.

Apart from its huge success and recognition in the 1960s and 70s, I knew much about this famous chamber orchestra, mostly because a friend of mine was the permanent second horn player in it. We had both arrived at the Guildhall School of Music in the same year. 

However, within a matter of weeks from arriving in London in September, he had been offered a four week tour overseas, playing in the horn section of the Manchester based Hallé Orchestra, a fully professional outfit. He would only be able to undertake such a period of work though, once permission was granted by the Principal of the Guildhall. 

At the meeting in the Principal’s office, he was informed that it would be inappropriate for him to take on work so early on in his time at the School and that it would be detrimental to his study programme. As such, the Principal was declining his request for absence. 

My friend thanked the Principal for his considerations and remarks, left the office and the building, never to return. 

His engagement with the Hallé Orchestra was a huge triumph and before the end of the year, word had travelled swiftly enough that he had been appointed to the second horn position in the English Chamber Orchestra, which at that moment was riding the crest of a wave. The next time I saw him, he was driving around in a new open top MG sports car and within a year, he had purchased a beautiful flat in the then upcoming area of Ladbroke Grove in London. He was earning incredibly good money as a musician. 

Several of my childhood ‘heroes’ were in the woodwind section of the ECO. William Bennett was the first flute, Neil Black, oboe and Martin Gatt, bassoon. Each of these I had encountered in my school days and sat comfortably at the top of my all-time favourite list of woodwind players.

It transpired that the reason the ECO were calling me on a Sunday evening was due to William Bennett being unwell. In two days’ time, on the following Tuesday, the orchestra had been booked to record music from the Baroque era, for a series of television programmes titled ‘The Orchestra’, created by the conductor Jane Glover. In this particular recording, apart from playing from within the orchestra, William Bennett had been engaged as the soloist to perform the Minuet and Badinerie from the Bach, Suite in B minor, for flute and strings. 

As William Bennett was unwell and therefore unavailable, they were looking for a replacement, both as the soloist and to play within the orchestra for the other repertoire. My name had very fortunately jumped out of the hat. 

Naturally enough, almost before the orchestral manager had managed to complete the sentence inviting me, I had already said yes. I was in a blissful chapter of my life, where with the sole mission of causing doubt, hesitation and misery, fear had yet to venture into my being. I would be playing the flute professionally and that was all that mattered. 

On the day, all went well, with my efforts at the Bach Suite taking place first of all. Everyone was warm and generous and I was content that all had gone according to plan. 

I then went to sit next to Neil Black. For me, this was a very close second to sitting next to a God! I worshipped this man’s oboe playing and in particular, his musicianship. 

Neil was a true gentleman. Having enjoyed a high end education, he was knowledgeable (rarely seen without the pink colour of The Financial Times tucked under his arm), thoughtful, considerate, but also with a sublimely mischievous streak to his sense of humour. Incredibly softly spoken, there was a beautiful musical lilt to his conversation. If bad news was imminently heading your way, you almost wouldn’t mind receiving it from such a refined, unflustered and elegant voice. 

On arriving at my chair, he was immediately engaging, thanking me most profusely for my willingness to join the orchestra for the occasion and at such short notice. 

I then enquired about the situation with William Bennett and his health. 

At this point, it would be worthwhile taking a look at where ‘Wibb’s’ career was at this time. 

He was one of the most in demand flute players on the planet! If he wasn’t playing with the ECO, he was teaching at the university in Freiburg, or performing the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto with Marisa Robles, or giving classes and recitals either in the USA or Japan. In other words, he was an incredibly busy man and by all accounts, permanently all over the globe. With barely a free day in sight, his diary was close to bursting at the seams. 

‘I gather that Wibb is unwell’, I commented to Neil. His face dropped instantly, giving me the immediate impression that something really quite devastating had taken place. 

‘Yes, he is extremely unwell’, Neil Black replied gravely. His tone of voice was deeply serious and not in the least bit a cause for optimism. 

So grim was his expression, that I was beginning to think that Wibb had more than likely been involved in a car accident and was even now lying in a coma in hospital, with life support tubes and machines plugged-in everywhere. As Neil and I conversed, quite possibly Wibb could have already been knocking on Death’s door. 

‘Goodness’, I said, ‘what on earth has happened to him?’ 

Neil looked up from above his reading glasses, with a face that was clearly ready to deliver a tale of woe. Something quite alarmingly unfortunate had taken place. 

‘Well, Wibb has put his back out very, very badly indeed’, came the reply. 

Relieved now that the news on Wibb’s well-being was nowhere as close to terminal as I was expecting it to be, I was still however eager to find out more. 

‘Good grief’, I went on, ‘how on earth did he do that?’ 

A lengthy sigh came out of Neil, followed by an equally long pause for thought, as he gathered himself to tell me what were doubtless going to be the horrendous details of a painful and possibly gory accident. And then, looking at me with a thoroughly deadpan expression, but also with just the hint of a glint in his eye… 

‘I believe that he was trying to turn a page in his diary at the time!’ he announced. 

Soon after my debut with the English Chamber Orchestra, I received a letter from the owner and Managing Director, offering me the position of Co-Principal flute. 

For someone with really very little experience in either the chamber or symphonic orchestral worlds, this could not have been a more perfect place for me to begin my apprenticeship. 

The orchestra was more than busy enough with a wide range of work and as indicated, due to being so much in demand as a soloist elsewhere, Wibb was rarely available to play in the orchestra. On the few occasions when he was in attendance, I sat in the second flute chair, listening to and working with a musician for whom I had the utmost respect. 

Looking back, I would most likely admit that my four to five years in the ECO were the most pleasurable of my career as an orchestral player. The variety of work was glorious, the conditions exceptional and everyone appeared to be on the same page in terms of their passion for music and desires for perfection. 

As is so often the case, one thing led to another and by 1984 the bright, almost dazzling lights of the London Symphony Orchestra had caught my attention and like a moth, I was hopelessly drawn in. All of a sudden, I found myself with two jobs!  

These I managed to juggle for nearly two years, but then such a complex situation became progressively more untenable. Whilst as a youngish man I thoroughly enjoyed flitting between the two establishments, it was becoming apparently clear that this was not how the orchestras were expecting me to behave. Of course they were correct. If I had a job in one, I really shouldn’t be going off to play in another. My somewhat arrogant youthfulness took a different take on this. As neither of them offered any form of security or pension, I could carry on as I jolly well wanted to do. 

I remember on one ECO tour to Italy, over a bowl of pasta and a bottle of Barolo (I have found on many occasions that a glass of wine can healthily contribute to debate), having a lengthy conversation about my increasingly irksome situation with Neil Black. 

If I was with the ECO, the LSO weren’t happy and likewise, if I was playing with the LSO, the ECO were disgruntled. As was always the case, Neil’s calm wisdom shone through. ‘Are you happy?’, he enquired. The very fact that I was having this conversation with Neil made me realise that I too was very unhappy with the situation. On hearing this, Neil’s solution was immediately transparent. ‘If the ECO and the LSO are both unhappy, that doesn’t matter, but if you also are fed up, then it is most definitely time to say goodbye to one of the orchestras’. 

As a flute player, although the repertoire available to me is vast, in the final analysis, very little of it is written by great composers. I happen to adore the Reinecke Concerto, but if I were to go to my local high street and ask strangers if they had heard of Reinecke, they would probably direct me to the nearest chemist, in the belief that I was looking for a prescription strength cream, to sooth, cure and eradicate a particularly unpleasant and persistent rash! 

There are obvious exceptions, but for better or worse and for a variety of different reasons, most well-known composers have written for the flute, not so much as a solo instrument, but more as one to be found within the woodwind section of a symphony orchestra. There is no concerto for flute by Brahms, but there are four glorious symphonies. 

In reality, I had no choice. Hungry for further musical experiences, if one orchestra had to go it would sadly need to be the ECO. 

In December 1984 though, I was still in possession of a position in both orchestras and courtesy of the ECO, on Boxing Day that year, I found myself flying to New York. Not only was the orchestra performing at a Gala concert on New Year’s Eve at Carnegie Hall, but then on 2nd January 1985, they would be flying to Fort Lauderdale to commence a twelve day music cruise around the Caribbean.

This was my first time in the USA and New York had for many years been at the top of my list of must see places to visit and experience. Unlike a holiday, not only would all of this cost me no money whatsoever, but to add icing on top of the cake, people were actually paying me to go there. I could not have been more excited.

Staying in the Parker Meridien hotel just south of Central Park in Manhattan and a stone’s throw from Carnegie Hall, we were ideally situated. New York very much has its own buzz and over the years, every time I have visited has been exceptional in one way or another. 

On this occasion, it was bitterly cold and snowing. Such are the aerodynamics surrounding the skyscrapers in New York, that when it is cold, intensely bitter draughts of freezing air become stronger on approaching the end or corner of a block, the wind using the famous grid system to play arctic hide and seek games on passing pedestrians. 

So cold was it that even the shortest of journeys was not viable without the necessity of hailing a taxi.  

Eating well on trips abroad has always been a priority and before departure, I had devoted my attentions to reading up on what was currently ‘hot’ on the food scene in New York. My endeavours had drawn me to a newly opened Italian restaurant, three blocks away from the hotel. However, with a biting windchill factor added into the already well-below freezing temperatures, it really was too cold to contemplate walking there, so a small group of us ventured into the street and hailed a yellow cab taxi. It was night time, really quite dark and bitterly cold.

The journey was over in next to no time and as my friends made their way kerbside and into the highly inviting warmth and comfort of the restaurant, I made arrangements to pay for the ride. Fumbling around in the confined space of the back seat and in the dark, I eventually managed to open my wallet. The brief ride had come to $2.50 and I could tell that the driver was a little miffed at not having picked up a bigger drive and its corresponding fee. However, it was very soon after Christmas, I was in a hurry but also under the circumstances feeling generously inclined. I handed over $4.00, cheerfully telling him to keep the change and at the same time, wishing him Seasons Greetings. He should at least be happy with a tip of $1.50, which was more than 50% of the total charge.

Well, I at least thought that I had handed over $4.00. It was only when I came to pay my share of the bill for the meal in the Italian restaurant that I realised I had in fact handed the taxi driver $103.00. One of those identically sized and coloured green notes was a $100.00 bill that in the dismal light and my desire to get out of the cold, I had mistaken for a $1 note! What I thought were four one dollar notes in my hands, were in fact three one dollar notes and a one hundred dollar note, where in the dim light, I had noticed the one, but not the two subsequent zeros.

Rest assured, this is not an error to be made twice, unless the word ‘Fool’ is clearly tattooed on your forehead. 

Matters were made worse, as the dollar at this time was incredibly strong against the pound. Passing the flagship store of Armani one day, a rather stunning evening dress was on display in the window. I was curious to find out more about this item, with half a thought of passing on details to a good female friend who adored such attire. On realising that for the price of the dress in question in New York, in London it was possible to purchase a new Porsche 924 sports car, I decided that it would probably be best to keep this information to myself. 

The event at Carnegie Hall was a treat. The main attraction was the violinist and conductor Isaac Stern and after the concert, all the orchestra were invited onstage for a champagne reception. Everything was carried out with panache and style, as you would expect at this time of year and in New York. 

With a free day on 1st January 1985, it was then a short flight the next day to Fort Lauderdale and then a transfer to the MS Mermoz cruise ship. This high end, classical music specific cruise that the ECO had been engaged to perform on, had been organised by the French travel company Paquet. We were merely the backing band!

Major stars of the classical music world were on board. In essence, this would be their winter holiday, with a modest amount of work, but a wonderful fee and some sunshine thrown in. 

The cruise Musical Director was Vladimir Ashkenazy, Isaac Stern, Salvatore Accardo and Anne-Sophie Mutter were the violinists. Kathleen Battle sang and Keith Jarrett performed a Mozart piano concerto. The American String Quartet were on board, Maurice André was the trumpet representative and James Galway the flutist, joined us for the second half of the trip. 

Every single day the musical appetisers for the cruise guests were an interview with one of the celebrities, then a lunch time recital and followed up later by a meatier main course Gala concert in the evening with the ECO accompanying them.  

In between all of this, passengers could engage in conversation with these stars, more often than not in their swimsuits and bathrobes on deck by the swimming pool. Where else on the planet can you enjoy cocktails standing next to an almost naked famous musician, and later on see them immaculately dressed up in white tuxedo, performing the Haydn Trumpet Concerto? 

As you might imagine, the cost for paying passengers was exorbitant. Apart from this rare opportunity of being able to rub shoulders with some of the elite of the classical music world, the high end drinks and food package that was included in the prices, with lobster, caviar and limitless champagne, would have racked up costs significantly.

I have no idea as to exactly what the starting price for a voyage such as this would have been, but even the most basic package, quite possibly sharing a cabin with another unknown passenger, would have been eye wateringly expensive.  

In terms of clientele, the De Beers diamond family had booked the Presidential Suite for the entire trip. Many of their friends had joined them for this musical party at sea, which was most definitely a winter playground for the extremely wealthy. 

From the early evening pre-dinner concert onwards, every night was a black tie event and it was fascinating to see what finery would be on display. Dresses were most definitely haute couture, predominantly one-offs and never, ever worn more than once! Of even greater dazzle were the eruptions of jewellery and in particular the assortment of exceedingly large diamonds that were relentlessly being shown off. In twelve days, I have never seen as many pairs of ears, so extensively adorned and dripping with Tiffany diamonds! Passengers were very much there wanting to be seen, whilst at the same time ensuring that the desired social status that comes with immense wealth was being duly noticed.

There was one occasion towards the end of this particular trip that perfectly summed up the reality of the situation. 

By day ten, with the extraordinary schedule of performances on offer, almost to the extent of gluttony, the audience had been subjected to a vast and varied feast of musical experiences. 

After the evening gala concert and prior to being seated for dinner, armed with a glass of champagne, I walked out onto the deck, in order to take in some sea fresh air. It was a truly sublime and gloriously balmy tropical evening. As though in a perfect painting, the moon and stars shone downwards, their reflections being mirrored exquisitely in the still and calm waters. With nothing in the way of wind or disturbance, it was the perfect moment to gather one’s thoughts and to embrace a cherished moment of solitude. 

From time to time in life, away from the daily turmoil and bustle of our regular existences, occasions of total tranquillity can occur, when in an unexpected moment, absolutely everything around us knits seamlessly together and has the capacity to take us to places within ourselves that are rarely accessible. 

With near perfection now present in the sky, the sea, the air, the warmth and the still, I could feel myself drifting into this precariously elusive and trance like state of well-being. 

Within less than a few minutes though, a close to sublime moment of serenity was disrupted, with the arrival just along the deck railings from me, of two extremely elderly, but equally elegant American women. 

I had noticed these two women before on the cruise. They were always seen together, so it seemed safe to assume that they were incredibly close to one another and more than likely long term friends. When I had been within earshot, I had noticed that they both possessed soft voices and that words were very slowly spoken, with more than a hint of a southern accent present. 

Immaculately dressed, they had similar complexions, most frequently associated with those who have enjoyed (or some might say endured) a lifetime of worshipping the sun. 

Even though they were elderly, they were still eager to show off their jewels, which were now brilliantly reflecting the deck lights and sparkling buoyantly in the early evening glow. Those diamonds draped and cascading from their necks and others adorning their ears, were by no means gaudy but combined, would have raised a final value easily higher than the total income I would be capable of achieving as a flute player over the next decade! 

For a while, like myself, they too stood there silently gazing in awe into the distance. Then, one soft and delicate voice asked a question: 

‘Ethel…How are you finding all this music on the cruise?’ 

Silence followed and the assumption could have been made that due to advanced years, the question had not been heard. But then, after what seemed to be half a minute or even more, the reply finally came: 

‘Oh, you know Agnes…it really doesn’t bother me.’