THE SECOND JOB I EVER HAD!
Valerie Pitts died on March 31st 2021, aged 83.
Whilst many people of a certain age in the United Kingdom will recall this name, most and in particular those, either young or from further afield, would have little inkling as to who Valerie Pitts was. However, if referred to by the name acquired through her second marriage, for those with even the remotest interest as to who is who in the world of classical music, a picture of a charming and elegant woman will spring to mind. She was Lady Valerie Solti, the wife of the conductor Sir Georg Solti.
Born in 1937, she was to become an easily recognisable and well-known face in the 1960s, as a presenter for numerous BBC television programmes. She met Sir Georg in 1964 and they were married in 1967.
She was a wonderfully ‘alive’ woman, forever keen to engage with others.
The reason why her passing away has registered with me, is because I encountered her on many occasions throughout my orchestral days and worked with her on my second engagement as a professional musician.
My first professional work, when I was just sixteen years old and still at school, was playing the flute for the Herne Bay Operatic Society’s production of South Pacific. In terms of earlier work experience, I had already reached the dizzy heights in two previous summer holidays of working as a changeover day baggage handler (they even gave me a trolley), at two Butlin’s Holiday Camps, but I can hardly consider this to have been work of a professional nature!
Kent, the County where I lived and where both my old schools and Herne Bay are located, was not exactly inundated with flute players at the time.
Having decided from an early age that I wanted to do nothing other than play the flute, I had practised devotedly, passed grade 8 at the age of 13 and a year later had secured a place in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. I think I was 11th flute at the time.
Word went out about there being an eager young flute player in the vicinity and Herne Bay Operatic Society decided to take a punt on me, booking my services for a two week run of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s tuneful show, South Pacific.
The fees were not particularly eye watering, but I was so utterly happy. I was doing what I always wanted to do and earning some money from the process on top.
All went well throughout the rehearsals and the first week of performances. Although considered to be more ‘enthusiasts’ than ‘professionals’, the HBOS were good, with many fine voices among them. Of note was the local woman who played the lead female role of Nellie Forbush. She was considered by many to be attractive and had a strong, but also beautiful voice that was perfect for the song, ‘I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair’.
Already wearing only a bikini, this song was sung from behind a bamboo shower screen, with just head and shoulders visible from above and a good length of leg showing from lower down.
Once behind the screen and prior to turning on the water, Nellie removed her bikini, draping the two pieces over the bamboo screen, the suggestion being that this rather flimsy wall of rickety old bamboo was the only object between her nudity and the audience.
Of course, to counteract any unfortunate accidents and guarantee no embarrassment, an identical bikini had been purchased, remaining out of sight and behind the screen for the entire production. At the moment that these articles of clothing were supposed to be taken off, Nellie simply picked up the ‘back up’ bikini and draped the two pieces over the screen.
Although in the audience’s imaginations it looked as though all that separated them from an entirely naked attractive young lady was a very flimsy bamboo screen, Nellie was still clothed as before.
On every Wednesday and Saturday of the two week run there were two shows, a matinee and an evening performance. Families were the target audience on Saturday afternoons. For the Wednesday matinee, most of the chairs in the town hall were removed, in order to provide greater wheelchair access. This was a much more senior crowd.
It was during the Wednesday matinee in the second week that it happened!
All was going well and the audience were loving it. Much of the dialogue though was as good as inaudible, due to the fact that many of those attending wore old fashioned hearing aids that weren’t regulated to react correctly to the somewhat excessive sounds of the large orchestra. As they pinged and buzzed, there was much irritated fiddling with ear pieces taking place.
Nellie strode onto the stage in anticipation of singing her famous song. The band started playing and she went through the familiar routine of ‘not’ taking off her bikini. We were about two minutes into the song, when the house lights were unexpectedly turned fully on. Two St. John’s Ambulance Brigade medics rushed towards a very elderly man in a wheelchair, who had slumped forward and was looking uncomfortably still.
It would appear that the sight and quite possibly thoughts of Nellie in a naked state and so close by, had aroused his interests. Unfortunately, his heart hadn’t been able to cope with the sudden rush of excitement and in a moment, he had passed out in his chair and died!
Once it was absolutely apparent that there was going to be no possibility of resuscitation, suitably covered up, the gentleman was stretchered out and after a short break, the show resumed. The production company, in fear of having to deal with a repeat performance by yet another senior member of the audience, wisely chose not to go back to the start of Nellie’s hit song and that tantalising and on this occasion fatal moment, of ‘fake’ nudity.
Several years later, towards the end of my time at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (I am still in possession of a rather fine red and gold hand painted wooden fire escape sign, removed from a wall in the old building on Villiers Street, just before the School closed and moved to its more recent premises at the Barbican Centre), a second, this time truly professional engagement, landed in my lap.
Whilst I had already been out and about performing as a flute and harp duo and as the flute player in that ubiquitous music college ensemble, the woodwind quintet, I had enjoyed zero in the way of more wide ranging musical experiences provided by larger ensembles and orchestras.
However, it would appear that my name was gradually getting around in a positive way, as during my last term at the Guildhall, I received a request through the outside engagements office to play in a professional group named The Academy of London.
The conductor and founder of this group was Richard Stamp. He had also been mentored by Sir Georg Solti.
My part in this concert, was as the flute and piccolo player in William Walton’s Façade. Scored for a small and unusual combination of instruments, the two narrators were Humphrey Burton and Valerie Pitts, or Lady Solti.
Naturally, I was thrilled to be asked to play for this professional ensemble and in many ways, although I had previously reached the dizzy heights of the Herne Bay Operatic Society, this was my first truly professional engagement and with a proper fee.
The concert was to take place at the rather beautiful and unusual church of St. Mary’s, Paddington Green, in London.
As a member of the orchestra for the production of South Pacific, I was required to wear black. For my flute and harp duo concerts, I wore a dinner jacket, but I had yet to venture into the more traditional attire of tail coat and as with so many first experiences in life, had no idea as to what to do next. I had no knowledge whatsoever as to how to procure such an item of attire. As a student, any available funds went towards instruments or music. Proper work clothing was the domain of grown-ups and that part of me was desperately wanting to remain juvenile!
At this embryonic stage of my career, I simply could not afford to purchase the correct clothing. After a few enquiries, I established that all I needed to do was to pay a visit to Lipman and Sons on the Charing Cross Road, the musician’s one stop shop for all articles of performance clothing. You could buy anything from bow ties through to patent leather shoes here. There was a second hand department as well, but with limited funds, most important for me at this stage was that they had a rental section.
As a newbie to this game, it all seemed so strange to me, to be journeying into the centre of London to get fitted for an outfit that I would then be returning the following day. However, until I had sufficient cash to be able to purchase all of my own work clothing, this was the way it needed to be.
Fortunately, I was already skilled in tying a bow tie, but had yet to experience the discomfort of playing the flute wearing a starched shirt and a white marcella waistcoat, whilst wrapped in a heavy woollen tail suit.
Despite the obvious similarities with looking like a huddle of penguins, with all the associated paraphernalia, men can look half decent and on occasions elegant wearing tails. However, until many years later I purchased a slightly larger, lightweight wool tail suit in New York (at not inconsiderable expense!), wearing this clothing for playing the flute was a decidedly uncomfortable experience for me.
Tail jackets can be highly restricting in terms of freedom of movement and in the heat of battle in a concert, you might just as well be wearing a radiator on full force. On stage in the surroundings of the concert hall, the uniform of tails can add a pleasant visual contribution to the occasion. In reality though, the audience is staring at a group of male musicians, all in thermally heated straightjackets. Such is the nature of the nervous activity taking place within a musician’s tailcoat, they are never retired, they just die on us!
The day of the concert at St. Mary’s Paddington Green arrived and from first thing in the morning, I was both extremely excited and decidedly apprehensive. In this particular ensemble, I was the youngest player by far and the only one yet to turn professional. I was still a student. The sprat would be playing with the sharks later on, so there was plenty to either lose or gain.
However, as has been my wont throughout my playing career, I have diligently worked on all the repertoire that has passed through my hands, in order to be as bullet proof as is reasonably possible in concerts and recording sessions. It is totally acceptable for tennis players and Formula 1 drivers to make mistakes, but not musicians! This has always struck me as somewhat peculiar. Sadly, such are the deeply running insecurities lurking within most classical musicians, there are greater chances of hearing gleeful stories of a colleague’s rare errors, rather than rapturous accounts of their mostly perfect and sublime day in, day out playing.
I had practised so utterly methodically, that I knew that I could not have realistically been better prepared for the occasion. As such, the performance gremlins had nothing of significance to plunge their razor sharp teeth into, so undisturbed, they remained at a suitably comfortable distance, happily slumbering away.
In the performance itself, on arriving at my chair, whilst making the customary adjustments of chair angle and music stand height, I had time to glance into the audience. Within 6 feet of me, in the front row, there was Sir Georg Solti. Eyes met and a friendly smile beamed in my direction.
At this moment in my life, in those early stages of enjoying the fact that I was a musician, I knew of Sir Georg Solti and that he was a highly regarded conductor, but I had no idea as to his incredible achievements. As such, he became just another face in the audience and I was not the least bit bothered by the fact that not only was he present but that he was also so nearby. After all, he wasn’t there to listen to me, he had come to hear his wife narrate Façade!
Both Valerie Solti and Humphrey Burton sparkled throughout. As far as I can recall, everything went according to plan, the audience loved it and after the concert I made my way back to my local pub to meet up with friends, to tell them what a marvellous evening it had been.
A week later I received a hand written note from the conductor Richard Stamp, thanking me for my efforts. I was so pleased, but within the letter, he wrote something else that has stuck with me ever since and has always brought a wry smile to my face.
After the concert, a VIP reception had been organised and naturally enough the ‘stars’ of the concert, along with Sir Georg Solti were present to enjoy conversation, champagne and smoked salmon.
In a discussion between the two conductors, I was mentioned and fortunately very favourably so. Sir Georg had enjoyed my contribution to the success of the concert, but he also had some advice for me that he wanted to make sure was passed on.
‘Please do tell that young man from me’ he said, ‘to never join a symphony orchestra. It will ruin him!’
Coming from a man who during his life conducted quite possibly thousands of concerts standing at the front of orchestras, this was quite a surprising comment to make.
Thankfully, he was wrong and of course, I subsequently met and worked with him on numerous occasions in my time at the London Symphony Orchestra.
However, without being aware at the time, those words did plant a seed in my mind that over the following decades was to steadily and inevitably grow. I realised that if I was to have any prospects of exploring other aspects of life as a musician, beyond the relative security of the orchestra, I would need to extricate myself from the symphonic world of the LSO before I reached the age of 50.
I leapt out of the frying pan just in time and am happy to divulge that it was one of the best decisions and moves that I have made in my professional life. So much so, that it hasn’t once occurred to me to look back. Numerous fascinating, exciting, weird and wonderful doors have opened as a result of becoming a totally free agent. Away from my orchestral pigeon hole, at least as far as work is concerned, I have now very happily become more of a moving target, thrilled to be anywhere and at anytime!
On the other side of this particular coin though, with the ceaseless pressure that comes with working the schedule in an orchestral principal chair, coupled with the constant machinations and unavoidable turmoil of backstage politics, if I had not left the LSO when I did, without doubt, those words of Sir Georg Solti would have been depressingly correct!
However, this tale does highlight how seemingly benign words, spoken out of earshot and in passing at a post-concert drinks reception, can cause seismic changes and introduce profound ramifications into the trajectory of another person’s life.