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A quiet British maestro has died

The subtle, profoundly influential conductor George Hurst died on Saturday, aged 86.

Born in Edinburgh to Russian and Rumanian parents, Hurst was the formative head of orchestras at either end of England. For ten years from 1958 in Manchester, he turned the BBC Northern (now BBC Philharmonic) from an also-ran to a serious competitor to the Halle. He then went on to found and lead the Bournemouth Sinfonietta as a much-needed touring ensemble in the sorely neglected south-west. In 1990 he rebuilt Ireland’s RTE Symphony Orchestra.

(all photographs (c) Godfrey MacDominic/Lebrecht Music&Arts, rights protected)

Never one for fuss or fame, Hurst worked everyone’s socks off in rehearsal and gave his students a hard time. The results could be astonishing. A late recording of the first Elgar symphony (on Naxos) reveals an uncanny feel for organic tempi and an ability to find emotional dynamite in what others treat as a transitional passage. Hurst was a great conductor with no airs or graces, therefore greatly underrated.

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  1. I’m very sorry to hear of the death of George Hurst. I remember him from Canford Summer School in the late sixties where I attended an “Art of Song” course, while he was working with students on the conductors’ course. From what I heard as I passed his classroom, he was giving would-be conductors a hard time, but I’m sure they were grateful for the experience in the long run.

  2. Sad news but a good age. He introduced me to Shostakovich 10 for which I have been ever since grateful.

  3. George Kennaway says:

    I studied with him in the early 90s – I did the Canford course 3 times. He could be a very difficult person, but he was absolutely superb. Sometimes his conducting was more like conjuring. I recently had to conduct two works that I’d studied with him back then, and I realised that I didn’t need the score. Conducting Eroica a couple of days ago I was actually thinking ‘what would George do here?’

  4. RIP Maestro Hurst.
    Thank you for the music and your teachings in all the Canford Summer Conductor’s Courses.

  5. As sorry as I was to hear of his death, I was very happy to see you mention him at all. I have often thought of him as a example of a person who was a wonderful conductor (and an especially wonderful accompanist, as the Elgar clip above shows) but who was completely unknown, showing that the relationship between fame and quality is a tenuous one at best.

  6. Anne (Gee) Lukens says:

    Dearest George. You will be sorely missed by so many, but your legacy will be around for a long time to come. Be at peace.

  7. There was no-one like George. I attended Canford for two summers, and his influence was profound and long-reaching. Yes, he was tough – but he loved music and music-making so intensely that none of that hurt. In fact I he lit the touch-paper for a new seriousness and dedication in me and in many of my fellow-students. The list of those who studied with him would read like a roll-call of British and beyond. Let’s organise a fitting memorial to his memory, whether a charity or a Festschrift.

  8. I was lucky enough to work with George Hurst as a member of both the BBC Philharmonic in the late 80′s & for 8years with the wonderful Bournmouth Sinfonietta. Whilst in Bournmouth I also lead many of George’s masterclasses at Canford Summer School which were truly inspirational. Time & again he would pick up the baton to demonstrate a point being made to the students & amaze everyone presant at the sublime transformation he conjured. He could be brutal in his criticism & didn’t suffer fools gladly. George however had a great sense of humour too which I was luck enough to witness on many occasions. As he put it… he had nitroglycerin coursing through his veins… which made familiar works sparkle like never before!
    A true Meastro in a world full of imitations… he will be sadly missed by all those who saw the best of him!

  9. I studied at three times at Canford in the late nineties. George was an astonishing musician and a passionate person who could be incredibly kind in one moment and in the next, quite the opposite. But there was always a sincere reason why he was that way, and he was a great teacher who could get amazing things out of his students. I consider myself priviledged to have studied with him. I wish I had been able to go more often and learn more.

  10. I was saddened to hear of the passing of George Hurst. I was principal flute of the RTE National Symphony Orchestra when George was its inaugural Princi

    • Sorry. Comment was incomplete. During George’s short term as Principal Conductor he demonstrated a rare gift of real interpretation not seen often nowadays. I became very fond of George and even survived his sometimes tedious rehearsals to be rewarded with great performances. We will miss you George!

  11. Undoubtedly a great conductor. Still an enormous influence on me to this day, some 30 years after studying with him, as he must be to countless others. Sadly I only ever heard him at one concert, with the now defunct National Centre for Orchestral Studies Orchestra. The best Beethoven 7, the best Britten Violin Concerto (with Kovacic) I have ever heard.

    Though it surfaced rarely, he had a lovely sense of humour, though the phrase ‘tough love’ more often springs to mind.

    Although I believe he gave up his several packs a day smoking habit some years ago, his lessons in the 80′s at RAM had some of the atmosphere of ‘Mad Men’. Incredible to think that as late as the 80′s, no one blinked an eye (well, not until the atmosphere got too thick) at a professor serially indulging himself of the weed in class! Even more astonishing he survived to such a great age.

    Sorely missed, indeed.

  12. George Hurst was a force of nature and a true inspiration in his conducting course, which I attended three times and remember everything he ever taught us. A brilliant musician who did not have the recognition he deserved in later years.

  13. A profound influence on so many lives within the music world. When I was a teenager, nurturing ideals of becoming a conductor, I wrote to a particularly famous one, to ask for some advice. To my delight, he wrote back. The advice culminated in the following: “Go to George”, he wrote. “He is, quite simply, the best.” I did, and he was. Imagine a person with huge charisma… yet it was never about charisma. A person with insightful interpretations… but he always made you feel that whatever he did wasn’t an “interpretation” at all (he didn’t even like the word), but rather just a natural reading of a musical line. Imagine a person with occasional bad manners but whom everyone forgave because it was never personal, always in the service of music. No doubt he helped a great many professional musician find their feet or develop their technique and knowledge. But he was even more than a great teacher, even more than a great performer. He was just special: a person who ‘plugged you’ in to great music, by making you understand why it is so great. He had so many wonderful quotations – the one that comes to that right now is this: “If you learn something – really learn it – you are not the same person anymore”. Quite so, George. Thank you so much and rest in peace. x

  14. Mark Prescott says:

    I love your photos of him. I went to Canford a number of times in the 90s. He was absolutely terrifying but in the most compelling way. I can truly say that most of my musical ‘taste’ or appreciation comes those years. Every piece that I studied with him is seared into my memory. From Mozart 36 to Tippett Midsummer Marriage he had something to say. A great and a true musician.

  15. I did the Canford course 3 times in the 1990s and the experience was unforgettable; terrifying at times, yes, but unforgettable. It was the first time (as a late teenager) that I understood how a conductor could actually affect the very fabric of an orchestra’s sound (rather than just imposing interpretative ideas on them). When George conducted the ensemble, it was like a different group of players. Like George Kennaway above, I still ask myself now ‘how would George do this?’ I find myself unconsciously rubbing my thumb and first two fingers together in an attempt to produce that warm string sound (not that I can do it like him!), and all other kinds of mannerisms that we picked up!
    Above all, despite his reputation as a tyrant, I remember him as sweet old guy who ultimately wanted you to succeed if you worked hard. Still one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever had was when, after a day when I’d really done very badly and had finally, despondently given up trying to conduct right-handed(!), George took me to one side and called me ‘a lovely musician’ – I’ll never forget that as long as I live.

  16. He was a conductor of huge character,he reinforced good orchestral technique,listening, watching, balancing dynamics etc. The stories about him among orchestral players and conductors are legendary. Ask anyone in the BBCSSO

  17. Bobby Houlihan says:

    RIP George . We are forever your students. Thank you. My thoughts are with Denise and close family.
    How poignant that I am presently preparing Elgar 1.

  18. John Whitehead says:

    George Hurst was a wonderful man. While he worked students hard, he showed kindness and friendship. I watched an outdoor conducting session at Canford on a warm summer afternoon and have never forgotten his enthusiasm. I met him in the bar later and he chatted to me about his life and his boat. Yes, a nice man who will be missed. Oh, and thanks for the pint George : )

  19. Gerry Cornelius says:

    Thank you for posting this Norman – truly the end of an era for those of us who were lucky to meet this extraordinary musician.

  20. I wonder just how many hundreds of us there are, quietly grieving around the world today, who like me will honestly say, “actually I owe it all to George”.

  21. I had the privilege of attending George Hurst’s class at Canford a number of times in the 90s. Yes, he was a difficult person, but he managed to get the best out of all of us and left us with a deep appreciation of the music. Like many others, I learnt a lot of what conducting was about from George. His heritage is all around us in concert halls across the world. He will be sorely missed by all whose lives he touched.

  22. Mark Mortimer says:

    No doubt about George’s ability on the rostrum- a great talent and I personally witnessed this on several occasions- the ability to transform a rather moderate orchestra into something very special- a rare gift.

    But, for me, the tragedy of a brilliant brain in a twisted mind. I cannot agree with others that he was a good teacher of conducting- quite the opposite in fact. I had a very unpleasant time with him at his school for conductors at Canford in the late 90′s. He ran the course with his undoubted charisma, but with a zeal bordering on fanatacism, that his way of conducting and teaching this most elusive of performing arts, was the right one. Some, who went along with him, reaped great rewards and with it, George’s devotion and a helping hand in this most competitive and bizarre of professions, overloaded with talent . Others, who didn’t quite play the game, were treated with contempt by the maestro and banished to the wilderness. I would not be alone in my views here and must have the courage to speak for others on this tribute.

    If you compare his legacy on future generations of conductors- it would be false to claim that he really founded a successful school of modern British conductors when considering the evidence overall. Yes, he did provide
    a helping hand/guidance to several conductors of international repute when they were barely out of short trousers. But if you compare his legacy in inspiring young conductors in a teaching capacity, to say, Bernstein, Musin and currently Panula in Finland- it is very insignificant.

    I would not describe George as ‘a quiet maestro’. He was a very difficult man and not beloved by all. But he must be given credit for the wonderful performances and recordings he has left us and his unique presence in the last 50 years of British musical life.

    • Jeremy Filsell says:

      A very fair comment. He was irascible and difficult yet passionately devoted to the music in hand. However, that has never, in my mind, been an excuse for rudeness and contempt for others perhaps less able … I saw him reduce students to tears and on one occasion years ago when I filled in as pianist for a student conducting class, he treated me with utter disdain.

    • Martin West says:

      Having had lessons from Musin, Panula and George, there is no doubt in my mind who the greatest teacher of music was. George had insights that changed lives. I think it’s lack of awareness of who George influenced which allows Mark Mortimer to say what he does. George’s influence spread as wide as any of the above.

      Any teacher has to believe in what he is teaching and in the short time period of Canford there was no time to indulge in debate as to whether George’s way was right or wrong. He laid out what he had to offer and it was up to the student to accept it or not. What teacher would spend time with those who were unwilling to accept his teaching when there are so many who were? Ridiculous to claim he was not a good teacher because there were people who didn’t learn from him. Musin had plenty of students who learnt nothing from him too.

      And let’s not forget George’s enduring legacy of Colin Metters at the Royal Academy. Colin’s successes as a teacher are beginning to rival those of Musin and Panula and he would be the first to admit that George profoundly influence his own teaching philosophy.

      George was a great man and a great teacher and I feel sorry for those who missed out on being able to see those qualities in him.

      • Mark Mortimer says:

        Thankyou Martin. I’m not detracting from the man’s talents which were considerable. I’m glad that you greatly benefited from George’s teaching as so many others did, clearly expressed on this tribute. Personally, I did not respond to his methods which, in my humble opinion, were far too restrictive. As an interesting comparison, I was talking with a friend of mine, a leading conductor and teacher of conducting in this country, who studied with both George and Bernstein. Both had huge egos in his opinion, but he commented that Bernstein used his talents to encourage and inspire nervous young conductors, whilst George used his to intimidate them.

        The fact that George could be highly objectionable, sadly, had a very negative impact on his effectiveness as a pedagogue. Jeremy Fisell has commented that he was rude and even his staunchest admirers on this tribute admit that he was terrifying one moment and charming the next. Having observed him over a period of 2 weeks at Canford, I think there were the signs that he was suffering from some form of manic-depressive illness. Not his fault and many genius musicians like George have/had it.

        I was astonished by his musical abilities. His remarkable knowledge of the symphonic repertoire, photographic memory of the score (each and every note imprinted on his mind like his teacher Monteux) and his unique perception of sound and how to bring it out of an orchestra.

        George belonged to an era of martinets like Reiner, Szell and Toscanini. Maybe he couldn’t behave any differently as this was his own heritage/training. Fortunately, it has no place in modern musical training methods and this is where, regrettably, George was hopelessly out of touch.

  23. Brian Wright says:

    What a wonderful thread of tributes to a great and vastly influential musician! I first conducted for George at Canford 50 years ago on my 16th birthday and, as for so many, it was a life-changing experience. His baton technique was spellbinding – simple, clear and elegant – and having as “many variations as a string player’s bow stroke”. Of course, I was a sponge, but I soon realised I was also being brainwashed by a series of the most compelling musical principles. Only later did I understand their true significance in terms of performance history, of “the grand tradition”. Continuity of tradition is an underrated concept in musical performance nowadays. George’s influences, from Toscanini and his great teacher Pierre Monteux, led back through Hans Richter and Nikisch to Brahms, Berlioz and beyond.

  24. Richard Muti said in a recent interview with Norman, that you can’t teach conducting. I imagine he’s right.

  25. Daniel Meyer says:

    ….and George used to say “There is no such thing as teaching, only learning.”

    It took me a long while to understand this and I learned.

    As to George’s methods? I was the one who told him he was oppressive – but there is no such thing as teaching…..

    I will be forever indebted to him for opening my eyes to what conducting is really about, and inspiring me to learn.

    Many good times!

  26. Reading these fascinating tributes and occasional dissenting voices makes me wonder if there’s any film footage of Hurst’s conducting classes…he seems like the kind of person who’d have given that kind of attention a wide berth but hopefully i’m mistaken!

    • I doubt whether such footage is available. I was told once that George didn’t much like to be filmed.
      As for dissenting voices, I’m all for freedom of expression, and was myself the target of a tantrum or two, but to use words like “twisted” in relation to a musician who has just died, on a tribute page, is a long way from acting with “courage” in my book.

      • Brian Wright says:

        Thank you for this, David. I had the great joy of teaching with George at Canford for 5 years and, despite my annual spelling out of principles, we had occasional unhappiness from students who couldn’t understand his methods. Broadly George gave old-fashioned masterclasses, with whoever happened to be on the box being used as a vehicle to get his overall points across to the general class. No-one would question this approach in the case of, say, a master pianist – watch the wonderful footage available of Barenboim “teaching” Lang Lang. Yet there’s something about the ego needed to stand silently in front of others and seek to be “the master musician” – to quote Franz Liszt – which makes it difficult for some to submit to another’s train of thought. Incidentally, from the invention of the VCR virtually everything in class was videoed for the individual student to watch afterwards and often take away. Sometimes George would say “turn that damned thing off”, but there are thousands of hours out there somewhere.

        • Thanks Brian – my canford years must have predated your time teaching there! I agree entirely with your observation and the analogy. Part of the problem I think was students interpreting being given more ‘podium time’ as meaning that they were being recognised as a gifted musician whilst others were being consigned to the ‘wilderness’… But that kind of ranking / competitive thinking wasn’t George’s priority at all. He simply wanted a conduit for his musical ideas, and those ideas were always worth listening to. Of course those that chose – for whatever reason to resist and ‘do their own things’ (and respect to those who could / did) might then find it a bit uncomfortable but it is a very strong thing to suggest the concept is flawed for that reason. The point of the conducting class was manifestly not getting your own musical ideas publicly endorsed – nice as that it – it was to learn from someone with undeniable authority and knowledge.

  27. Difficult, irrascible, terrifying – yes George could be all of these things, but I loved him dearly. His sessions at Canford were always totally inspiring. He had this knack of tearing a strip off you if you did anything on the podium
    that he didn’t approve of ( I remember the flying scores from the back of the room ! ) but then almost immediately taking you to one side and making you feel as if you could conquer the world. A wonderful man. I will miss him very much.

  28. Jerry Lanning says:

    I last saw George in January when I visited him and Denise. He was having considerable health problems, but still interested and enthusiastic. I did a couple of Canford courses with him in the 70s, and the principles he established at that time have served me unfailingly ever since. He could be blunt and irascible, and it was difficult to persuade him that he was sometimes wrong (although he did mellow somewhat in later years)! But I remember him with great affection. My cousin was George’s third wife, so I saw quite a lot of him at one time. He was unfailingly kind in taking me to rehearsals and the occasional recording session, as well as sailing (one of his passions), and conversations we had during these times were often full of useful insights. I shall miss him.

  29. Reading all the comments above makes us remember just how unique George was, and how fortunate we are to have learnt from such a great musician. Every note he conducted, (and every word of praise or frustration), always came from an overwhelming and passionate belief in the music, and underlining his extraordinary musical intensity was always a sense of structure where every note felt like part of a single organic universe.

    Having played piano for him for many years as well as being his student, I can say that I’ve never wanted to play or conduct better than I did for George, or respected a musician or teacher more. His musical principals were held sacred, as was his integrity in serving the music. We are so lucky that he had an almost evangelical need to transmit the lessons he learnt from his own masters, without either compromise or limit, as well as his own musical genius. For myself, everything I most believe in I learnt from him, and my gratitude is beyond words.

  30. I came to know George through my colleague and friend Jerry Lanning when I was a Guildhall professor and met him first in 1970 on a visit we made to Dorset, then later at Canford. It was not easy to stimulate his interest in a new pieces, but he seemed to take very kindly to one of mine called Saracinesco, a musical response to one of the sea pictures by the Cornish artist Peter Lanyon, and he included it in his concert with the Bournemouth Symphony on 6th January 1971 at the Colston Hall. What an experience for a relatively young composer in the hands of an often fearfully dynamic maestro! I learnt a lot from those rehearsals, as any young composer would. Later, when working as the Chester orchestral librarian, I was to encounter his lively response to ‘promotion’, in which he was uninterested. He would make up his own mind – and often did quite forcibly. I would like to see a listing of the 20th century composers he performed, for he had interesting enthusiasms beyond the mere routine. He is a sad loss to our British musical landscape.

  31. I only went to Canford once, back in 1988, but I found it a rewarding and valuable experience. George gave me such insights into (amongst others) Brahms 4, Walton’s Viola Concerto & the Tippett Corelli Fantasia that will stay with me for the rest of my days. Every time I hear one of the pieces we ‘did’ at Canford, my mind goes back to the baton technique sessions on the lawn and the intense podium classes in the library. Now, just about every time I conduct, something prompts me to wonder what George would have said…

  32. I’m confident I wouldn’t be conducting today (running an adult learners’ orchestra where elementary players can take their first steps into that musical world) if it hadn’t been for George’s conducting courses at Canford, Summer School where he arrived in 1959 to conduct the symphony orchestra. The following year he started the conducting courses which are still running 52 years later, passing on the tradition he inherited from Pierre Monteux. As far as I know he was back at “Canford” in its new home at Sherborne School further into Dorset this summer, just a few weeks before his death.

    I was lucky enough to play the flute under his baton for the few years that he was in charge of the Canford symphony orchestra, my first experience of orchestral playing at that level, then over many subsequent years learnt about the art and craft of conducting as a member of the voluntary orchestras which were the ‘practice pads’ for his conducting students. I remember a run-through of the Valse from the Tchaikovsky Serenade for strings in a later year when I was listening to one of his classes. The voluntary orchestra will have been a mixture of music students and very good amateur players, perhaps including one or two professional players who were members of the conducting class. For once George took the baton himself. He gave a magical demonstration of how to make the music ebb and flow exactly as he wanted it to, really having fun, with the orchestra picking up every nuance. I doubt if the video camera was running, but if it was that would be a great one for the record.

  33. As one of the handful of Americans who had the privilege of studying with George Hurst at Canford (’89, ’90), I am sad to hear of his passing, but extremely grateful for all of the lasting lessons he taught me.

    Coincidentally, on September 15th, I had my first rehearsal of Brahms 1 with my New England Conservatory Youth Symphony. Following the final chorale statement of movement 4, my eyes fell on scribbled text I had written years ago into my score. In quotation marks is found, “With Joy,” the words George hollered out when he worked on this moment of the symphony with us back in 1989. I just had to share with my NEC students the significance (at least for me) of this inscription and speak of the person who inspired it – and me. Little did I realize the significance of that day.

    George once wrote to me, “Just follow your star with confidence and love.” And so I have. Thank you, George.

  34. David Hoult says:

    Like so many others above, I attended a few of George’s Canford classes in my younger days. They were simply inspirational. George took no prisoners, as others have reminded us, and woe betide any student who took to the rostrum without knowing the score inside out. As Toby Purser writes above, to George every note was special. And if anyone ever seriously believed that you can’t teach conducting, George was living proof that they were wrong. Sadly he is living proof no longer, but his legacy, in the person of those countless conductors who passed through his hands, lives on. RIP George.

  35. Graf Nugent says:

    What a fascinating thread, thanks to all! I knew nothing about George except his name, so this visit has been wonderfully instructive.

    It’s also been an opportunity to remind people that the notion of fame should not conflate to imply superior talent; I’d like to think my former piano teacher at the RNCM, David Lloyd, would have elicited similar testimonies upon his recent passing as did George Hurst.

    To close, it’s interesting that George Hurst apparently left no-one who had dealings with him indifferent. In our dumbed-down age of politically correct, antiseptic visibility that is of inestimable worth. I’m sorry I never met him.

  36. Stuart Green says:

    Never forgot a Shostakovich 11 he took over from Paavo Berglund with only half an hour rehearsal. He was sightreading the piece and didn’t put a foot or should I say.
    beat wrong,a quite astonishing achievement. I can’t think of anyone else who could have done this. RIP George

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