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How Georg Solti made a choirmaster out of me

The Crouch End Festival Chorus, founded by David Temple, has become known as one of the top UK amateur choirs, a fixture at the BBC Proms and in the London concert halls. On Tuesday October 23, they are giving a Barbican concert in memory of Sir Georg Solti, whose centenary falls on that day. They will perform Brahms’s German Requiem and Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, the latter slightly off the Solti beat.

In this essay for Slipped Disc, David Temple describes how Solti changed his life – as he did so many others.

(c) Lebrecht Music&Arts

Road to Damascus via Kings Cross

by David Temple

 

In October 1972, I arrived alone in London, via Kings Cross, with a suitcase and no hope or prospects for the future.   My musical life to this point was the pop/rock world of the 60’s which was starting to fade, the hymns from my father’s church and dubious chanting at football matches.  Four months later I was standing in the front row of the London Philharmonic Choir at the Royal Festival Hall singing Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust under the great conductor, Sir Georg Solti.  Basically someone heard me sing, assured me I was a tenor and advised that I should audition for the London Philharmonic Choir under John Alldis.  Despite the fact that my music reading was almost non-existent, he allowed me in (to this day, I do not include sight-reading as part of the audition for my choirs.).  I floundered for a while but soon worked out the basics of the dots and lines.  The concert with Solti on 27 February 1973 (I was 18) was the first time I ever heard a symphony orchestra.  It was a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment which has dictated the course of my life.

 Leading up to the concert, John Alldis had prepared the chorus impeccably as ever. This included many professional tenors and basses which made the male choruses sound truly breathtaking.  There was a hush as Solti entered the hall.  I really didn’t know what to expect.  Other singers had warned me that he ‘took no prisoners’.  It all seems obvious to me now but at the time I couldn’t understand why he didn’t conduct the music exactly the same way as John.  It was tricky to keep up.  He spoke very quietly but with great authority and when he wanted to demonstrate how he would like a musical phrase, he would step down to the piano and play for us.    The choir soon absorbed his interpretation and everyone started to relax into the rehearsal.  As his singing voice was not his strong point, as well as using the piano, he would render an articulated whistle which seemed to do the trick.  Although he was reasonably tall, he would often hunch almost crab-like with his arms shooting outwards in rhythmical flicks.  I found him utterly charming which belied his reputation, rather like a well-established teacher who conquered the school years before the present generation.

 The concert itself was, even to this day, the most thrilling experience of my life.  As I was concentrating so hard while singing, the bits I remember most were the orchestral section – the Hungarian March, Will o’ the Wisps – where I was mesmerised by the contrasts of power, precision and delicacy of the orchestra and how the players responded to the conductor’s gestures.  Today it is hard to imagine my unbelievably short journey from musical obscurity to performing on the international stage with a truly great artist. Incidentally, this was the time when I decided that my religious upbringing was not for me.  I had found my god – it was music.

(Solti by Norman Perryman (c) Lebrecht Music&Arts)

I sang many times with Solti over the next dozen or so years performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem, Verdi Requiem, Mozart Mass in C Minor, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast and Coronation Te Deum.  He was an amazingly dynamic conductor with a wonderful sense of architecture and impeccable control of the musical forces.  I got the feeling that he was slightly irritated with having to work with amateur singers, something which he would rarely do in Europe and the USA  He could not abide singers coming in to the rehearsal hall after the rehearsal had started.  When it worked well with amateurs he seemed happy but he appeared frustrated and feisty when it didn’t.  Some singers thought this was unreasonable but I was always totally in favour of his way of thinking. Because he was so dynamic, he sometimes got in the way of what he was trying to achieve, rather like a swimmer flapping underwater when in distress.  An example of this was when he wanted the almost silent pianissimo, and when he didn’t get it, he would become irate and his gestures would become larger rather than smaller.

 

After a few years I thought I would try my hand with conducting, very occasionally at first.  I think I conducted about 4 concerts in 6 years…. but in this time I watched Solti and the other conductors – Haitink, Boult, Barenboim, Stokowski, Richter, Rattle, Tennstedt, Giulini et al – and tried to pick up what it was that made them great conductors.  Strangely it was their achilles’ heel which fascinated me as much as their genius.  I watched how one conductor floundered at fig ?? in Beethoven whereas the next one sailed through this passage and then came a cropper at fig ???.  In other words, there is no such thing as the ‘perfect conductor’ therefore why not have another totally imperfect conductor i.e. me!

 

Sir Georg Solti would never know how important he was to me. I am pretty sure I spoke to him once or twice but perhaps I imagined this.  When I noticed that his centenary was approaching I wanted to recognise this by dedicating a Crouch End Festival Chorus concert, including a work I sang under his direction – Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem, to his life and work.  I was delighted when Lady Solti gave me her blessing.  Thank you Sir Georg – your music lives on.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Christopher Bell says:

    Very interesting to read this. I work a lot in Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Chorus talk in reverential tones about the Solti times. They especially remember coming to the London proms to sing Damnation of Faust. In my own time with Edinburgh Festival Chorus, I can recall the conductors who really had an effect.. whose musicianship and real understanding of how to work with a chorus/singers meant that my preparation was transformed before my eyes and ears. Inspirational to work with these people. No names, as of course don’t wish to offend/upset others….

  2. Nancy Wierdsma -Braithwaite says:

    >Lovely to read your comments David. I grew up in Chicago during the Solti era and attended many of his CSO concerts. Also my late husband Oane Wierdsma so enjoyed his collaboration with you and your fine choir in both London and Groningen.

    • David Temple says:

      Nancy – so lovely to hear from you and thank you for your kind comments. We were all so sad to hear about Oane. I do hope that life is going well for you.

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