“After a busy spell of work, I sometimes feel inspired and energetic, filled with far reaching plans for the future with idealistic solutions for improving violin technique. But I am equally likely to find that the next day is something of a nonevent attending to all the little odds and ends that have accrued: letters, emails and paying the bills – interspersed with spells of falling asleep in the chair.
If my work in London allows for three or more free days, my wife Eira and I will drive from our flat in Gerrards Cross to our beautiful apartment in Great Malvern, Worcestershire. This is the largest of 44 apartments converted from an original 1840s water-cure establishment next to Priory Park and the Theatre. Until recently I had been volunteer Chairman of the Board of Directors for ten years which taught me a great deal about the tricky balance between management and residents. Now, at last, we have time to enjoy the peaceful surroundings and companionship of the other residents – interrupted only by the telephone when my diary service phones with more work in London.
We’re not very good at taking holidays abroad. It takes us a few days to recover from the journey, and then it’s time to come back! I think the best holiday we ever had was at the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne for a week. We did nothing but relax with a book in the comfy chairs, chat to the staff and enjoyed a delicious cream tea while listening to the splendid little Palm Court Orchestra that plays on Sunday afternoons. We were shown the suite of rooms overlooking the sea where Debussy composed La Mer. I’ll leave you to discover what he was doing in Eastbourne, and with whom, and what his wife did when he returned to Paris! But what a piece of music!
A bonus for me however was the snooker room in the hotel basement, which brings me to my favourite pastime:
I’m a member of the Chalfont St Giles Snooker Club (annual membership £46 plus 50p in the meter per 15 minutes’ table time). It’s in the Memorial Hall – just a plain room, properly lit, two lovely snooker tables, bring your own cue, and it’s organized by a formidable old-school personality called Cliff. I quote Cliff’s rules: “You come here to play snooker my boy. No women, kids, dogs, food or drink. This is for serious players only.” I had to audition by playing a frame of snooker with him. It made me so nervous I couldn’t pot a single ball, but I did know all the old quips (from the BBC Midland Light Orchestra days in my early 20s when we used to play snooker after work), phrases like “That one wiped its feet” or “Could have done with another coat of varnish” or “Needed another Weetabix” or my favourite “Nice shot, but what can you do underwater?” and this seemed to impress him greatly.
If I had the time, it would be possible to play snooker all day long against other members, but my preference is to go alone late at night, with no distractions, and just pootle around. I’d like to be a really good snooker player but, as with playing the violin, the more you know the more there is to know. Strangely, the psychology of potting a snooker ball or reaching for a high note on the fiddle is very similar. In both cases the mind has to be very focused and alert yet, at the same time, perfectly relaxed, and the body needs to be in good shape too. Even professional snooker players or violinists with perfect techniques will miss the pot or the note if they doubt themselves for one fleeting second.
At the age of 40 I turned freelance and thought, to be on the safe side, I had better acquire a secondary source of income. Black & white portrait photography had always fascinated me so I converted our coal cellar into a darkroom, invested in a secondhand Mamiya 645 camera with lenses, tripod, backdrop, dimmers and lights, and got cracking. My musical colleagues were my clients, and I was very happy with my budding sideline until the violin commitments increased to a point that prevented further expansion on the photographic front. I still enjoy photography but, since the advent of digital cameras, much of the magic seems to have gone out of it. (See below for a selection of John’s portrait photography)
While I was leading the BBC Concert Orchestra, I began to write string accompaniments to some of my favourite violin solos to enable me to play them with the orchestra (the originals being for violin with piano). This was a real labour of love, and used to take forever, especially as I wrote the scores and parts by hand, but the sense of achievement when listening to broadcasts of the final results was well worth the effort.
Later, as Director of Raymond Gubbay’s Strauss Gala Concerts, I was in the enviable position of having a small symphony orchestra at my disposal to accompany any violin solos related to Vienna. I began to add brass, woodwind, harp and percussion to my scores, which was an almighty challenge, but I found it one of the most rewarding aspects of my work. By that time I had mastered the art of digital composing and printing with computer software, so avoiding the risk of writer’s cramp!
I have performed many of these arrangements with the Brighton Philharmonic in the past – Fritz Kreisler’s jaunty Tambourin Chinois & his charming Schön Rosmarin, Gipsy music including Magyar Memories & Romany Romance, Ysaye’s Paganini Variations, Mostly Monti’s Czardas & Joseph Achron’s soul-searching Hebrew Melody – to name but a few, and who knows, perhaps one day I will be given the opportunity to play some more.”