Peter Back, BPO’s programme note writer and pre-concert interviewer

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The highly colourful and lavishly illustrated programme booklets that were introduced last season have, I hope, enhanced your Sunday afternoon concert experience. A young nephew of mine once cruelly remarked that programme notes are ‘the bits no one bothers to read’! Certainly we all go to concerts to hear the music, not to read about it. But surely all of us who enjoy listening to music are intrigued by the personalities of those who created it and the reasons why and how a particular piece came in to being. Of course no one can tell someone else how to listen to music, but even brief mention in the notes of a work’s interesting or unusual features can in some small way attune our ears to what lies ahead. Some of you have told me that you prefer to read the notes after the concert, at home. Whatever your approach, and however well you may know the music, my advice is to treat each performance as a voyage of discovery. The joy of live music is that for musicians and audiences alike every performance is unique, with the possibility of revealing fresh, new perspectives on what may be a much-loved favourite.

My own musical awakening as such came from singing in my local church choir in King’s Lynn. The town’s summer Festival of Music and the Arts enabled me to hear live music performed by great musicians for the first time. At the festival in July 1970, Sir John Barbirolli conducted the Hallé Orchestra in a revelatory performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 – it was to be the last work he conducted in public. He died a few days later. The previous evening he had conducted an all-Elgar programme, including the Symphony No.1, a performance that led to my life-long love of the composer’s music, and of English music in general. Barbirolli was also a fine interpreter of Vaughan Williams’ music, which often featured in festival programmes. Strange to think that just behind the glorious medieval chapel where the Hallé’s performances took place stands the pub where VW listened to, and transcribed, the sea songs of the local fisherman, which had such a profound influence on his musical language. I like to think that my home town has played a not insignificant part in the development of what is recognisably an English sound in music.

An inspirational music teacher of mine sparked an interest in early music, which was further encouraged when I had piano lessons with Christopher Hogwood, a noted harpsichord player and founder of the Academy of Ancient Music. At the University of East Anglia I played harpsichord in performances of early music while concentrating largely on music from the Baroque era. The University had a close association with the Aldeburgh Festival through Philip Ledger, later Director of Music at King’s College Cambridge, one of the most brilliant all-round musicians I have ever encountered. I assisted Imogen Holst, daughter of Gustav, at the Festival and experienced some wonderful first performances of music by Benjamin Britten, even getting to meet the great man himself.

Teaching training followed and then many years of enjoyable music-making with children and young people for whom I wrote quite a considerable amount of music. When I was asked to write programme notes for the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra’s concerts I readily agreed. Immersing myself in the scores and delving in to the background of each piece has increased my own enjoyment of the music enormously. I hope that some of this conveys itself to you through the notes.

Getting to meet and greet the guest soloists at the pre-concert interviews has been a most enjoyable part of what I do. Being able to ask questions that help reveal something of the person behind the instrument is a great privilege. And with the prospect of glorious music to follow, I can think of no better way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

In 1997 Peter began writing programme notes for the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra’s concerts. He combined this with a series of illustrated talks called Behind the Notes, firstly at the Connaught Education Centre, Hove and later at the Parish Room, All Saints Church, Hove. In 1999 Behind the Notes also became a series of shorter pre-concert talks, initially at the Brighton Unitarian Church in New Road, and, from 2003, at the Dome itself. From 2007 onwards Behind the Notes was replaced by the present thirty-minute Pre-Concert Interview­.

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