Our conductor and artistic adviser Simon Wright shares his memories of Sir John Barbirolli
July 29th marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Sir John Barbirolli and, since so many facets of my music-making are informed by what I learnt from the great man, I thought I would share a few words about him.
I was privileged to begin working with J.B. when I was 14, sight-reading the Verdi Requiem at a Hallé Choir rehearsal in Zion Institute in Manchester. My organ teacher was the Hallé’s organist and accompanist to the Hallé Choir and I deputised for him. I had already played for about three rehearsals of different repertoire with the chorus master but arriving that night there was a buzz around the place. I picked up my copy from the librarian and asked why there was an air of excitement. ‘It’s J.B. tonight’ he said. Once I had picked myself up from the floor and decided to stay rather than doing a runner, I went to the piano and hurriedly tried various bits of the Verdi.
Before long J.B. arrived and introduced himself to me (HE introduced himself to ME!!!) and told me that we would start at the beginning. That was a relief, I foolishly (and mistakenly) thought he might spend a long time on the first movement and not get to the very black and dangerous looking Dies Irae. He had the most wonderfully expressive hands and as they came down I set off with the first note. I played it very quietly but he didn’t hear it. ‘Aren’t you going to play?’ he asked. We tried again and he asked ‘what’s the point in being here if you aren’t going to play?’ OK, I thought, this may be the last note I ever play for the Hallé and gave the next start ‘a bit of welly.’ He smiled at me and said ‘that’s right, nice and soft’ and gave me a wink. I think I had passed a test. At that rehearsal he called me ‘my dear boy’. As we worked more together that changed to Stephen and then eventually to Simon.
When I was still at school at Chetham’s I went to play for a rehearsal of Mahler 3 with the ladies of the Hallé Choir. To my astonishment we were joined by the trebles and altos from Chetham’s. I am not sure who was more surprised, the music master or me. He asked me what I was doing there and was astounded when I told him. I asked the librarian for a vocal score to play from and he told me that he didn’t have one. When J.B. arrived I asked him whether he had a vocal score I could use. He didn’t but he did have a spare full score and very kindly gave me that to play from. During the rehearsal he called out to me ‘a little more second piccolo’ and again I got a wink.
I left school at 16 (an aunt once said ‘school really wasn’t your line’) and I had to decide where to study. I chose to stay in Manchester because of my organ teacher and because of J.B. It was highly unlikely that I would ‘pick up’ anyone like him to work with in London and I treasured every occasion we worked together. I played for many visiting conductors with the Hallé Choir but it was J.B. who was very special.
I never witnessed him lose his temper, he achieved what he was after by encouragement, kindness, perseverance and wit. To the Hallé Choir rehearsing the Demons’ chorus in Gerontius ‘you are supposed to be demons sizzling in hell, you sound like bank clerks on a Sunday afternoon outing.’
On a few occasions I played the organ with the Hallé orchestra. On every occasion J.B. made a point of coming over, saying hello and asking if everything was all right.
In May 2011 Leeds Festival Chorus and York Guildhall Orchestra were joined by the Hallé Choir for Mahler 8 in York Minster. We had a rehearsal of the two choirs together in a school hall in Manchester, the Hallé on my left, LFC on my right. It was like the War of the Roses all over again - ‘we can sing that louder than them!’ Having not worked with the Hallé Choir for some time I thought I should explain my history with them and apologise for any permanent harm I may have done them as a teenager. A voice from the Hallé sopranos called out ‘I remember you.’ Indeed she did and, during the interval, she told me that before my first ever rehearsal with them they couldn’t understand what ‘this youth’ was doing standing next to the piano. There were also quite a few Hallé members who reminded me that I had accompanied them at their auditions.
When J.B. died I was on holiday with my family in Brampton, Cumbria. His death was announced on the radio news. I was utterly heartbroken, I had lost one of my best friends. I still miss him, think of him often and have just re-read Michael Kennedy’s touching biography which I can heartily recommend. Sir John was kind, generous and humorous and an absolutely brilliant musician, I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for all that I learnt from him.