Monday, February 15, 2010


Last night, Barbara and I attended a concert by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra (BSO). This is not a full-time orchestra, but is made up of professional musicians - mostly teachers and freelance performers. The first part of the program consisted of two modern pieces, which I enjoyed more than I had expected. After the intermission, the orchestra played one of my favorite "old war-horses", the Eroica, Beethoven's Third Symphony. This brought back many memories.

The first time I heard a Beethoven symphony was in late 1952, in Geneva. I had obtained a leave of absence from a tolerant employer so that I could join my fiancée, who was in that city at the start of her career as an International Civil Servant. The orchestra was a local one, but internationally well-known from its many recordings: L' Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. I was deeply impressed by hearing a large orchestra play one of the composer's masterworks. This is a work I have often heard since, either live or from excellent modern recordings.

Neither of my parents had seemed particularly interested in music, of any kind. At my prep school, Port Regis, when I was about 12, Miss Heelas, the music mistress (teacher), offered "musical appreciation" to the older boys. We were privileged to sit in comfort in the headmaster's study for this, which mostly consisted of listening to 78 rpm records, of modest quality, in those days before anyone had ever heard of "Hi-Fi".

A few years later, I began to enjoy and collect recordings of Big Band music, especially Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. I enjoyed both Swing and Jazz, but I had little time for classical music.

There had been a boy at Port Regis, George Hurst, about a year older than I was. He was already an outstanding musician before his teens, and went on to a career in Canada and the UK, particularly as conductor of the BBC Northern Orchestra and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, which he founded. Soon after my return from Switzerland, I was promoted and appointed to an interesting job at the Home Office of the Royal / Globe Insurance Group in Liverpool. I rented a house on the Wirral Peninsula, across the Mersey from my job. One day, I learned that George Hurst was going to be conducting a concert given by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. He was happy to meet me and enjoy some hospitality while working in a strange city. He influenced me as I began to learn to enjoy classical music.

For some time, I was the youngest department head at the Home Office, but my younger friend David Kimber soon arrived, at the start of his actuarial career, which later took him and his family to Australia. David introduced me to the music of Gustav Mahler, and he owned some quite good recordings (for those times) of all the symphonies. We haven't been in touch for many years, but I think he'd be quite surprised to know that my favorite music now is played by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and that I even enjoy what would have seemed "boring" in my youth: chamber music (particularly Haydn) played by the New Esterhazy Quartet.

The BSO has a dynamic new conductor this season, Joana Carneiro - a fine successor to Kent Nagano, for many years a fixture with the orchestra. As the last notes of the coda to the 4th movement drew to a close, the Zellerbach Auditorium burst into rapturous applause. I am sure there were many young people in the audience hearing Eroica played live for the first time. As I joined in the well-deserved applause, I hoped that they would have as much enjoyment from the works of the Master as I have had.

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