Peter Bassano - A Philosophical Statement on Music
My father was a tailor and my mother a local government officer. They had both come from poor working class families in which one parent had died young. They had struggled to succeed in a tough world where the Second World War was the backdrop to their early married life.
Music was an important part of everyday home life - my parents were both church goers, so were used to singing. Classical music on the radio (and later the gramophone) was a constant feature of father's workshop. My earliest musical memories are of my father (who was completely self taught and had no knowledge of the Bassano family's ancient musical history) conducting his male voice choir and playing the piano for family musical evenings. It is hardly surprising that music should have become my most absorbing passion. At the age of ten I had an overwhelming urge to play the trombone, an instrument associated with my Bassano forbears. The new sackbutts was the description of the six Bassano brothers in the 1540 Calendar of State Papers. In the five centuries since my family have been in England each generation has produced musicians (both amateur and professional) it could be argued that the Bassanos are the oldest surviving musical family in the world.
Peter Bassano with alto sackbut at the recording of Monteverdi Vespers at St Mark's, Venice
As my student and professional years progressed various landmarks and crucial influences affected my views on performance (Klemperer's Brahms, Muti's Verdi, Gardiner's Monteverdi, the four recordings - over fifteen years - of Tosca all with Domingo, Maazel's Mahler Cycle, McCreesh's Gabrieli, Salonen's Sibelius, Svetlanov's Shostakovitch, Harnoncourt's Beethoven for example). Joining the Philharmonia as a trombonist in a period when (unlike today) a symphony orchestra's repertoire included a great deal of classical and baroque music I found myself with time during rehearsals when the trombones weren't required, able to study the scores of the pieces that the orchestra were performing and to read an enormous number of books (at least 900). In this way, I had an opportunity to learn a vast number of scores aided by watching and listening to the interpretative views of a large number of famous conductors. These include Abbado, Ashkenazy, Barbirolli, Barenboim, Böhm, Davis, Davies, Gergiev, Giulini, Handley, Haitink, Levine, Masur, Norrington, Osawa, Previn, Pritchard, Rattle, Salonen, Sinopoli, Slatkin, Zinman and many others - conducting lessons by osmosis if you like, but it has given me information and performing insight into an enormous amount of music. It has been my great priviledge to work with a number of composers too: Boulez, Britten, Copland, Gregson, Henze, Knussen, Lloyd, Lutosławski, MacMillan, Maxwell Davies, Stockhausen, Tippett, Wilby etc. I went on to have one-to-one specialist and enlightening conducting lessons with Gardiner (Berlioz), Harnoncourt (Monteverdi and Mozart), Howarth (Maxwell Davies), Mackerras (Beethoven) and Tovey (Prokofiev and Brahms) and a ten day conducting course with Jorma Panula on Beethoven, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Wagner in Finland. Talking to Harnoncourt about Monteverdi and Mozart was like talking to someone who had known them as friends. As a player I have played in over 3000 concerts and taken part in more than 400 recordings including two Beethoven (Gardiner, Sanderling) cycles, and a Mahler (Sinopoli) and Sibelius (Ashkenazy) cycle. Hey Jude with the Beatles, seven recordings with Equale Brass (including a best seller with Peter Skellern) and six CDs with His Majesties Sagbutts and Cornetts, including Venice Preserved which I directed.
Recording session - the London Trombone Sound. Left to right: Eric Crees, Colin Sheen, Peter Bassano, Ian Bousfield
Although I love all forms of serious (and some popular) music from Binchois and Machault up to the present day I have always been totally convinced that living composers (just like their predecessors) need to be encouraged to write and then given performance opportunities. I have done more than my fair share of commissioning - twenty seven works for Equale Brass alone from composers as diverse as Ellis, Goodwin, Gregson, Jones, Patterson, Roxburgh, Shipley, Skellern and Taverner. As a conductor I have given the premieres of works by Batchelor, Davies, Dobson, Einbond, Horovitz, Souster and Swallow and there are further commissions under consideration. A number of these works have had numerous performances.
I became interested in historic performance practice after working for a number of years in the 1970s with the inspiring David Munrow and his Early Music Consort (Chris Hogwood was his harpsichordist and Philip Pickett a crumhorn and recorder player). From the mid 1980s onwards I found myself becoming increasingly worried with performances of classical, baroque and romantic music by modern orchestras and was further concerned with the world-wide loss of national orchestral identities (the Vienna Philharmonic is one notable exception) in the performance of later composers. It seems to me that, unless otherwise discouraged orchestral players across the globe perform all styles and periods of music in a similar fashion. Today's orchestral players, although highly efficient and technically skilled, tend to have become very "literal" in the way they perform by comparison with their predecessors. A reluctance to do anything other than that which is printed on the part has led (in my view) to some inexpressive playing. Modern conservatoire training has much to do with causing this phenomenon; a strong emphasis on technique and technical studies, standardised instrumental syllabuses, similar examination and audition expectations might all be partly responsible. I have found that by explaining to both players and audience (I generally write my own programme notes and often talk directly to the audience) I am rewarded with active enthusiasm for what I am aiming to achieve.
Monteverdi's 'Other' Vespers with Joanne Lunn (soprano)
My concern over current conservatoire training is underlined by the obvious divide between performer/teacher and academic. I have developed the idea of the lecture/rehearse/record session whereby I rehearse a student orchestra in a short work (often an overture) and spend time, not only rehearsing to a high technical level but also discussing the historical performing background to the work, which we then record. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Wagner are all good subjects for this kind of educational innovation. Three of my projects were included in the portfolio of research papers successfully submitted to the Higher Education Funding Council by the Royal College of Music. I have published many articles and letters in the national press and specialist journals and given a number of lectures to learned societies on subjects as diverse as Veronese's Marriage at Cana, Shakespeare's Jewish Friends, Beethoven's Funeral and William Byrd's Songs of Sundrie Natures.
The Future of Performance/Communicating with a New Audience
In Western Europe, Canada and the USA, players in symphony orchestras are getting younger whilst, paradoxically their audiences are getting older. Concert halls are often difficult to reach by any form of transport and the surrounding areas can be unattractive. CD sales (including Rock and Pop) are plummeting. How are we to ensure that the life enriching treasury of music survives intact and available to audiences of the future? The concept of outreach has arrived at least a generation too late - it is the middle-aged and the younger parents who are now are as desperately in need of musically educating as their children and (in some cases) grandchildren. In an over visual age, record companies and some radio stations have tried to make music more readily accessible by marketing where visual appearance far outweighs musical ability. Moderately able performers are portrayed as fine "opera" singers or great instrumental "virtuosi", and short orchestral excerpts as the be all and end all of "Classical Music". I am convinced that this is a futile policy, doomed to fail everyone except the short performing lives of the mediocre - what an increasingly secular and dumbed down world needs, is things of the spirit, encapsulated in great music to be treated with the respect and integrity which it deserves.
Words come easy - reflating the declining fortunes of music is more difficult. Large modern concert halls are acoustically unkind to certain repertoire - baroque and classical, for instance often fare better in smaller performing spaces. Sacred music written for church performance invariably sounds better in church. Why not take music back to its source a bit more? Outreach is a good concept, but not just outreach to schools and colleges where orchestral players appear as soloist/ensemble/lecturers. Targeting parents in their various habitats too - libraries, tennis, golf, football, cricket, rugby and other social clubs, railway stations, bus stations - after service church concerts [view video], as well as concerts in local community centres and churches will help ordinary folk who have little experience of the potential spiritual uplift brought about by an inspired performance might, in the end learn to love music.
Peter Bassano FRCM HonRCM