The Royal Festival Hall – wrecked by boozing?

Philharmonia, Ashkenazy, Royal Festival Hall

Even though the Royal Festival Hall was only half full, it had been a magical evening with the Philharmonia and Ashkenazy giving of their absolute best in an all Sibelius programme. A special highlight was to hear that rarity, “Luonnotar,” with Helena Juntunen singing her heart out, and there were other delights too –  the seldom performed Pelléas et Mélisande suite, and a selection of poignant songs previously unknown to me. In part two, the great composer’s Symphony no 2 was given a performance of enormous vitality and sensitivity which breathed Finland’s woods and lakes from start to finish.

It was one of those concerts after which you hardly dared speak, and indeed there was a time when you could wander along the river by night, thinking quietly about the music you’d just heard. You see, the South Bank is where I grew up musically; it was here I heard Pierre Monteux conducting Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. One night I heard Klemperer conducting the Brahms Requiem, and the memory still lingers. Years later, there were ground-breaking performances of his own music by Boulez, and another occasion which sticks in the mind was Kurt Sanderling conducting Mahler’s Ninth one Sunday afternoon. After that I roamed by the Thames unable to hold back tears as I watched the dark waters racing by. The list of formative events could go on and on, and even include a few occasions when I was fortunate enough to occupy the RFH conductor’s dressing room myself.

To build London’s major concert hall by the river was a stroke of genius, and we should be grateful to the Labour politician Herbert Morrison for driving the project through. When it opened in 1951, it was among the most progressive concert halls anywhere in the world, and despite various acoustic issues, it is still widely loved with its wide open spaces and sweeping staircases, the whole exuding an atmosphere of restrained dignity. But what of the area in which it now sits? Since the redevelopment in 2005-7, there has been a proliferation of bars and restaurants – I counted more than twenty. Then there’s a collection of market stalls between the hall and road, serving chocolates, ice creams and street food. Walk a little further and there are pubs and umpteen more restaurants. “Good!” you might think, it’s nice to have somewhere to go before and after a concert. But wait – few of the customers are going to a concert, a film at the NFT or a play at the National Theatre. No, they’re here to eat and drink – and to drink a lot.

Back to my Sibelius concert, with that wonderful music playing to a half-filled hall. I came out, and wanted to saunter quietly along the Thames and Hungerford Bridge. From each eatery/drinkery loud music pumped out. Ten thousand people shouted to make themselves heard above the din. Empty beer bottles and dog-ends lined the rails overlooking the river. It was no better walking along towards Shakespeare’s Globe. where another few thousand congregated to shout at one another. What I’m saying is that a boozing culture has invaded London’s prime cultural hub and frankly it’s pretty much wrecked.

I once asked a waiter in one of the eateries how often he attended a concert. “They have concerts in there?” was the reply, such is the disconnect between the venue and its environs. I thought it was okay when you could get decent food in the hall itself, and the Skylon restaurant is still good, with its fabulous river views. I like Foyles too, although I wish there were more music books. The other places? They belong in the high streets, railway stations, and airports, but not here; this shouldn’t be yet another destination for hoorey henries and yobs intent on nothing more than a piss-up.

Christopher Gunning, June 2015

June 14, 2015 |

My EarlyYears

People sometimes ask me how I came to be involved in music.

As a boy, growing up in the years following World War II, life was tough. My mother and father had abandoned their professional musical careers and we were pretty broke. Father, desperately needing to earn some money, did all manner of odd  jobs; he was a night watchman for a tarmacadam company by night and a gardener and occasional piano teacher by day. At Christmas he would become Father Christmas in a nearby toy shop. He did anything to keep us supplied with food and clothes, while mother struggled to raise three children. 

It had not always been bad for them. My father had had an illustrious career as a musician, starting in South Africa, then Holland, then Australia, and finally this country. He had composed a great deal of music in a romantic style sometimes echoing Rachmaninov or Delius, and in Australia had accompanied some celebrities of the time, including Dame Marie Melba and Peter Dawson. The final achievement was to make it in Britain, and initially things went well. His music was performed by various orchestras here, including the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult. My mother, who was my father’s pupil, performed his piano concerti and other works with the BBC and the two of them toured the country giving concert parties. But a number of factors put a stop to all this. His musical style had become unfashionable, there were three children to support, and these were the war years. They must often have wondered why things had gone so awry. By the time I knew my father (he was already fifty when I was born) he was disenchanted and sick with untreated diabetes and then he suffered a series of dreadfully debilitating strokes. For the last five years of his life he was an invalid, and throughout these years my mother nursed him at home with undying devotion. 

A musical education for me was not high on the agenda, even though it must have been obvious from the beginning that music would provide my livelihood. I was no good at anything else! With no formal lessons at all, I picked up tunes and their accompaniments by ear, and it was not long before I was composing my own pieces. There were rather a lot of waltzes at first, but gradually things became more sophisticated. At Hendon County Grammar School, I learned to read music, and (if I say so myself) excelled at harmony and counterpoint. These were such exciting years, as I investigated classical music from dawn to dusk - or rather when I wasn’t out on my bike. I also started to learn about jazz - I’ll never forget hearing Miles Davis playing “Milestones”  and “Porgy and Bess” for the first time. And then came pop music in the guise of Burt Bacharach, and I realised that pop music, too, could be harmonically interesting. A major discovery happened when I borrowed an LP of Bartok’s 2nd Violin Concerto from the local record library. Actually it was the second time I’d borrowed it; the first time was when I was twelve and I thought it was rubbish. Then a friend suggested I give it another go, and since it was a friend whose musical taste I respected, I gave it another shot. Wonderful! A whole new area of music was opened, and I began to hear all sorts of elements I thought I could work with. Another composer whose work I began to adore (and still do to this day) was Maurice Ravel - I revelled in the orgasmic sounds of “Daphnis et Chloe” and was especially moved by the famous daybreak scene, loving the impersonation of natural sounds. It could be that this was the music which helped me veer towards composing for films. One cannot listen to Daphnis without having pictorial images, and yet of course the music always has a structure built of iron beneath the glowing surface. I have always consciously aimed at giving my film/TV music some sort of musical structure over and above the demands of the film sequence itself, believing that this way one might achieve the best marriage of visuals and sound. It’s a difficult proposition and I certainly haven’t always succeeded, but it still seems to me a laudable proposition. 

Schooldays over, I went on to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where I had already been a junior exhibitioner for two or three years. I didn’t work especially hard for the first two years - there were too many other distractions, notably girlfriends. But I knuckled down to it in the second two years, and after lessons with Edmund Rubbra, a highly distinguished composer, I needed to extend my compositional abilities somehow, so went to Richard Rodney Bennett. What a good choice this was! Richard taught me how to use serialism and various other contemporary techniques, and we also had marvellous discussions about film music composition and jazz. I was completely in awe of Richard’s abilities. Later on, Richard was to help me in a practical way by offering me work as an arranger on two of his films, and he recommended me for a documentary film which he didn’t want to do himself. The film was called “Runaway to Sea” and it showed life aboard the P & O ocean liner, Canberra. It was a nerve-racking experience to do the whole score myself, but the producer loved the music and that’s how my career as a film composer was born...
February 12, 2009 |

Getting Started

I often receive emails, letters and telephone calls from young musicians who fancy a career in the media. The question most frequently asked is "how do I get started?"

There is no such thing as a "standard" method, and every composer working in films or television has his or her own story to tell. But there are some prerequisites.

Most importantly, you have to have some material available for potential customers to hear. You should compile a CD or tape which demonstrates as wide a range of material as possible, and many short items will be best – always remember that those listening to your music will be busy people with little time or patience to wade through extended masterpieces.

In some respects things are easier for young musicians than they were ten or twenty years ago. The wide availablility of relatively inexpensive computers and music programmes means that demos of high quality can be assembled at home or in a college workshop. Professional guidance is also widely available at universities and music colleges - which was not the case when I was a student!

In other respects, things are more difficult. Getting yourself known in the television and film industries is certainly no easier than before, because there are a great many young composers trying to break in. There is simply not enough work to support the number of people who would like to be doing it, meaning that things are fiercely competitive. And we are living in difficult times with ever decreasing music budgets. I would always recommend that a budding media composer has a second string to his or her bow.

You should send your music to producers and directors, having established that they have a production lined up. Names and addresses can be found in tomes and periodicals such as "The Knowledge", "Screen International", and "Programme News". You will probably receive no response – but it is essential to remember that you only need a favourable response from one producer or director to get you started.

Good luck!
Christopher Gunning~
August 2008
August 12, 2008 |
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