As you will recall from my first blog post, the BBC – in the form of Roy Plomley and Ronald Cook – had written to the London conservatoires on my behalf, suggesting that they should hear me. It was now Easter time in 1970, and the first of those auditions was at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I arrived early in the morning and was presented with a three-hour written exam. Having neither foreseen nor prepared for a career in music, what did I know about musical theory?
I wrote my name at the top of the paper, signed it on the back page, and then just sat there for the next three hours. My practical audition was at 3pm, so, having already assumed that I had failed – which was, in a sense, a little premature but never the less disappointing – I went to the pub, had a couple of pints and a steak and kidney pie, and returned just before the allotted time. I was greeted with the words “Well, you didn’t do very well in your written exam, so let’s see how well you can sing.” I obliged, and they offered me a place for the following September, on the condition that I studied the rudiments of music and took another written exam in June.
Two weeks later it was the Royal Academy of Music. Again, I arrived early and sat in the ‘Green Room’ until called. It seemed that an age had passed until – finally – I was summoned to the first floor. On entering I was presented to the audition panel (five or six in total plus a pianist). They asked what I would like to sing, and – if you remember my ‘Where it all began’ post – you’ll know that I chose ‘Questa o quella’. That was followed by a Schubert song from Die schöne Müllerin and an unaccompanied Welsh song ‘A Deryn Pur’. This is a piece that I was taught, as a child, by my mother. Click here for a performance I gave with the Kingston Welsh Choir when I was ten years of age.
After I sang, I was asked to leave the room, and another eternity passed before I was summoned back.
‘What do you want to be, a tenor or baritone?’ they asked.
‘A tenor,’ I replied (of course).
‘Well, you are what you are!’
They asked me to sing ‘Questa o quella’ again. It seemed a bit harder the second time, and I didn’t find out for almost a year that the pianist had transposed it up couple of tones! They offered me a place and financial help, and said that I was certainly a tenor.
I was taken aback. “What about my written exam?”
“We’ll teach you everything you need to know,” they replied.
My first year was a little difficult, as the teacher I was placed with – Olive Groves – soon became ill, and her husband, the well known G&S bass George Baker, took over her lessons. I had to travel to their home in St. John’s Wood for lessons, not that there were many, but at least I was able to watch the cricket at Lords from the rooftop of their apartment block.
I was fortunate to have Frederick Jackson – the former Chorus Master of the London Philharmonic Choir – available to me for guidance. He taught piano and conducted the RAM choir for all the choral concerts. I was his first choice when it came to selecting soloists for the concerts, and he coached me (in the absence of lessons) in all the choral works at the RAM. In one session with him, after having no lessons for about six months, he suggested that I go to Sir Anthony Lewis, the Principal, and ask that I should be allowed to study with Alexander (Basil) Young. He was sure that the Principal would say no, because Mr. Young didn’t teach at the Academy, and advised that I should say that I would leave the RAM if I couldn’t get him as a teacher. He turned out to be right, so I took his advice and did just that.
The following morning, I received a phone call from the Principal’s secretary requesting another meeting. I attended at about 11am, and Sir Anthony said that it had all been arranged; Mr. Young was willing to take me. My lessons started shortly after, but I had to travel to Chobham in Surrey. Basil would collect me from Woking station, take me to his house, and my lesson would last all day. A couple of hours in the morning, lunch, and then a couple of hours in the afternoon….It was great. It lasted for just over a year until Basil was appointed head of the vocal department at the Royal Northern College of Music. He gave me so much in that time.
The last choral concert that Frederick Jackson conducted was the Verdi Requiem. During the final rehearsal, he told us the story of how a great friend of his died conducting the same piece, and said that, if he had to go, it would be the in same way.
During that evening’s performance, between the ‘Recordare’ duet and the tenor solo, ‘Ingemisco’, I saw him staggering and white knuckled on the podium. With the orchestra still playing and the soprano and mezzo still singing the end of the duet, I leaped from my chair, got him off the podium (to whispered cries of, “Leave him alone!”), and lay him on the floor. I took off my tails and put them under his head. I removed his false teeth, gave him mouth to mouth, and pounded his heart whilst shouting, ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’ Because of major power cuts in the city at that time, it took over forty-five minutes for an ambulance to arrive, but by then it was too late. ‘Freddie’ died that evening in my arms. I still have those tails; they don’t fit any more but I just can’t bring myself to get rid of them.
We performed the Requiem during a memorial service for him at the Musicians Church, St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate, in Holborn. The conductor wanted to change so much of what Freddie had taught us. I refused to do so, saying that we should perform it the way he wanted. Probably the first of my confrontations with conductors.