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Alan Stringer Part 2

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 10, 2012 4:45 am    Post subject: Alan Stringer Part 2 Reply with quote

Alan Stringer, the legend, part II.

We finished last time with Alan settling down into (and learning) the profession at the Liverpool Phil circa 1953/4. Those first five years were obviously exploratory in terms of repertoire and being a principal trumpet. There was a fair bit of flux in the section into the 1960’s but the section soon became a long standing one. Eric Heap came in on 2nd, with Handle Hone retiring and the third seat being farmed out for a while as and when needed; this seat was often occupied by players like my first teacher Bill Flood, Roy Ramsbottom and Syd King to name a few. Later, after Eric Heap came Stuart Hastain on 2nd trumpet. Eric Jennings joined the section on 2nd (a shared job with Fred Cook until Fred retired). 1st trombone was Colin Busby, who had taken over from Fred Devlin, followed by Ray Brown in ’61. Steve Wortley took 2nd in ’63. And Eric Jennings went to principal trombone in 63/64. Bob Nicholas came in on co-principal trumpet in ’70, Graham Bolton took over from Steve Wortley for two years and Blythe Lindsay took over 2nd in ’78. Tom Wrigley was there right through until ’81 and John Langford took over in ’82. George Smith took over tuba from Cliff Bevan around the end of the sixties, with the late Des Worthington coming in on 2nd trumpet in 1983.

In the horn section, Ifor James was 1st pre 1961. Mike Ogonovsky was 1st from ’61-’65, then moved to 4th. Andy Woodburn became 1st in ’65. Peter Wilkinson took over on 3rd from ’69-’70. Jim Dowling joined on 3rd in ’70 and eventually moved to 1st with Andy Woodburn going down to 3rd. Ian Lowes was 2nd from ’69 and Dave Piggot took over 2nd in ’74. Dave went on to 3rd and Heather Clark came as 2nd in the late ’70s and became 1st when Jim retired.

It wasn’t long before Alan’s reputation grew and spread beyond the walls of the Liverpool Phil Hall. The phone began to ring from the Philharmonia, the RPO, the LPO and, of course, the LSO. Alan’s playing was the hottest in the UK by 1959/60. So, temptation was a lady worth courting and Alan’s wife Alice pined for London once more, so the deed was done and he joined the LSO November 1960. Why the LSO and not the others? In Alan’s words: “they were the best at the time” - with Barry Tuckwell on principal horn and Denis Wick on principal trombone, and Alan’s own idol from a lad, Willy Lang, on third, the section leadership was unrivalled.

The difference between the two bands (besides 223 miles) in terms of workload was just about to hit Alan very obviously between the eyes, but first, let us acknowledge what fruit was born from this short relationship, i.e. the first definitive recording of the Haydn trumpet concerto! This came about via Barry Tuckwell and the principal viola at the time, Neville Mariner, but the recording came five years after Alan left the LSO (I’ll be back on this).

Denis Wick has already written some time ago in The Brass Herald that when Alan came to the LSO he was Denis’s preferred principal of those surrounding years - a testament indeed. The schedule was more than twice that of the RLPO; tours, recordings and films alone accounted for 55% of the work, plus concerts and travel. This began to take its toll on Alan’s family life, his kids (and him) - holidays and spare time to do whatever were just not available. Alan had not quite completed two years with the LSO when he and Alice decided to go back to Liverpool to regain the space for family life as a unit! And as he left the LSO came the chasers from the RPO, LPO and Philharmonia, asking again if he would now consider joining them, needless to say.

Returning to Liverpool in late 1962, Alan was giving very regular solo spots. The pot-boilers came out sometimes every month with a Haydn/Hummel/Brandenburg 2, and as early as 1959 he’d played the Shostakovich piano trumpet and strings with Pritchard and John Ogden. Here’s a typical two months for Alan: 14/1/1964 - Haydn, Ray Leopard; 18/2/1964 - Brandenburg 2, Adrian Boult; 17/3/1964 – Haydn, George Hurst. Occasionally a Telemann or a Vivaldi double was thrown in. Bob Nicholas joined the section in 1963 from the BBC training orchestra and was to stay for a long time, as did Stuart Hastain, who also joined in 1963 and would stay for more than 20 years!

Principal viola of the LSO become conductor of St. Martin In The Fields orchestra (after Alan had left the LSO), a small group dedicated to classical baroque some ten years before original instruments amassed on the scene. Neville Mariner had got the green light from Argo to record Haydn’s most famous concertos. Barry was still with the LSO and because of the impression that Alan had made on both Neville and Barry, the soloist for the Haydn was obvious, plus Alan had been racking up Haydns with the RLPO weekly. The venue was The Queens Hall; the year 1967. Armed with his trusty Selmer Eb Alan took his place at the other end of The Queens Hall in a large leather armchair (this was to get the separation from soloist and chamber but keeping the ambience of the hall). Bridget Fry (Fritz Spiegl’s wife - Alan had previously worked with Fritz as conductor in 1954 when Alan had performed Purcell’s Trumpet Overture and the Leopold Mozart in the same show)) was asked by Alan to supply some simple, but oh-so-perfect variations in the slow movement, and for once, create a cadenza worthy of the period (if not worthy of Haydn himself) including that perfectly placed and played top C! Up until this period, no trumpet player had recorded this work with such style, straightforwardness, shattering ease and dazzling articulation which really did sound as if someone was playing it in an armchair & slippers! This was the way Alan played the trumpet 24/7. The recording ran through the trumpet world like a minuteman missile; Alan was No 1 trumpeter to all in the UK (and not that he wasn’t 14 years before that!). Now the RLPO brass section was well established under Alan’s leadership and influence; these were truly to be the golden years!

Now is the time to let some of his closest colleagues from the RLPO speak about Alan. David Piggot was in the horn section for nearly 30 years and I first met Dave in a Liverpool University production of The Pirates of Penzance when I was 15!

“I played in the RLPO with Alan from 1974 until he retired. His greatest gift was the ability always to play the music in the correct style - his chamber playing was subtle and always in proportion to the forces involved. His loud playing was just thrilling - especially in Tchaikovsky and Mahler. I particularly remember a superb post horn performance in Mahler 3 in York Minster one summer. He rarely split notes and was always a loyal support to his colleagues in the orchestra. There was never any rivalry with Alan - everyone realised he was simply the best. He also had a great sense of humour and there was always a lot of giggling in the brass section in those days.

Alan played the Haydn concerto many times, also the Hummel and of course Brandenburg 2. His record of the Haydn was the recommended version for over ten years and was played many times on Classic FM when the station first went on air.

I am very fortunate indeed to have known Alan and heard his playing at first hand for so many years. He was an inspiration not only to those of us who were in the orchestra with him, but also to countless other brass players. His hobbies are astronomy and walking, and over several summers he completed the Pennine Way and the South West Coastal Path with his friend Peter Wilkinson and a few other companions along the way. Strangely enough I never remember him talking about trumpets or mouthpieces very much at all - there was no need, his playing said it all.”

And next we have Stuart Hastain.

“I had the privilege of sitting next to Alan from 1963 until 1983, most of those years as his second trumpet. One of the amazing things about that time was the astonishingly high standard of his playing, concert after concert. He had a remarkable all round ability, a lovely sound, excellent intonation, strong rhythm, a fortissimo that could dominate an orchestra and a pianissimo that could hardly be heard. Added to all these attributes is the fact that he is such a likeable friendly and generous man. The orchestra covered a wide range of repertoire and there was much excitement when the RLPO plans to play all the Mahler symphonies were announced. Alan said that he would pop into the library to see if we needed the parts out. When I saw him later that day, he said (and I’ll never forget): “there doesn’t seem much in it”. It still makes me smile. Other memories include Alan, in rehearsal, playing the “D” trumpet part in Britten’s Four Sea Interludes on his Bb trumpet after four weeks holiday (he had forgotten to bring the D trumpet) and the extraordinary sound and excitement generated on that instrument when he played Bach’s B Minor Mass. In fact the D trumpet was Alan’s only concession to “slipping into something smaller” as he played all the repertoire on the Bb trumpet, as indeed did Maurice Murphy at that time at the BBC Northern and Alan Whitehead at the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. May I sum up by saying that those years sitting alongside such a talent were truly inspirational, not only to me, but many brass players, amateur and professional. One in a million, as they say.”

Back to me (Phil) for a moment. In our stay last March at Alan’s home in France, Alice related to me a most marvellous story that sums up Alan’s genius and his hapless carefree forgetfulness at the same time backed up by being Mr. Laid-back. Alice imparted: “In the 1970’s we decided we had all the family that we wanted and I’d mentioned to Alan about this new “snip” operation done in a trice called a vasectomy. ‘Really,’ replied Alan. ‘Yes dear,’ replied Alice. ‘Well if it’s as easy as that, I’ll have one then,’ said Alan - as if purchasing from a shelf at “Boots”. Of course in those days it was a hospital job and to be frank the modis operandi had only just broke news and left the experimental stage. Did this then challenge Alan’s reasoning? Erm, no! “Have a look at my schedule love,” he said, “and see if I can do a morning next week as we only have two evening shows, one’s in Bournemouth.” Alice consulted the local GP to the hospital and was assured that if he went in at 8am he’d be out by 1pm! The hospital came back with a singular date via the phone and Alice, not having Alan’s schedule to hand, said yes, using the reasoning that he would be in at 8am and out by 1pm thus giving time for a Phil show and even time to get to Bournemouth. Alan seldom checked his schedule for the following week until either Friday or Saturday of the previous week, thus giving him plenty of time to prepare if it were a shock horror gig Monday am (!). Alice gave him the good news that he was booked in on the Thursday as that’s all there was on offer; Alan then picked up his schedule to find he was in Bournemouth for a 7.30pm start, first on Brandenburg 2, followed by Britten’s Simple Symphony, followed by the Haydn Trumpet concerto. I’m sure the Brandenburg remained at the correct pitch (as in, didn’t get any higher) and the Haydn went without a second thought? Alan did say: “I’d not got the usual distractions of performing such a work.” To carry something like Brandenburg 2 off in that situation/condition, you really gotta have some balls!

And now a deposition from his long term co-principal, Bob Nicholas.

“Memories. At a Promenade Concert in the Albert Hall in London Alan and Stuart were convinced the starting time was 8.00pm! I was amazed to find all the players on stage ready to start - it was, as you’ve guessed, a 7.30pm start. The BBC and Sir Charles Groves were not impressed. I almost felt guilty about being the only trumpet player on stage as on this occasion I had friends coming to the concert and had gone out with them between rehearsal and concert. The following year the Promenaders, who never forget an incident such as this, shouted as we walked on: “Where are the Trumpets!”

I’ve known many an occasion when Alan has forgotten things - playing Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto with no black shoes and going on with just black socks, having to borrow a jacket that didn’t fit properly or, on one occasion, when he was playing the Brandenburg Concerto No.2, losing the music between 5.30pm and 7.30pm and not knowing where. Luckily I had a copy (taken from my then pupil Phil Lawrence on that day as he had a lesson with me and was going to the concert that night) as I was going to follow to circle any mistakes he might make! But then he read it from the miniature score down a fourth at sight on the picc Bb live! No mistakes! Not just a master of the trumpet, but also the master of laid-back!

I feel very privileged to have played next to Alan for thirteen years from 1970-1983. I learnt an awful lot from him, such as how to manage to play well after frequenting a Berni Inn and sampling their schooners of Gonzales Byass Sherry, which a few of us used to do when playing out of town in venues such as Bradford, Leeds, Preston and Huddersfield.

He is a rare breed of player in the way that he could leave his instrument for weeks - during the Summer holiday, for instance - and come back to play even more spectacularly than before, if that’s possible.

In conclusion, not only has Alan been one of the best players this country has ever known, he has been and will always be a very close and dear friend of mine along with his great wife Alice and his family.”

The section stayed pretty much the same from around the 1960’s to the late 1980’s, when Alan decided to take things easy (I suppose this meant doing a live broadcast of the Hummel while at the dentist!) and share the job with one Ian Balmain. Alan puts the longevity of the trumpet section (well, the brass section) down to compatibility in terms of personalities. They all got on, they all enjoyed a good social life outside of the orchestra together, shared cars and lifts, were like minded, which made a very strong bond and had a zeal for work and to be together through thick and thin - although talking to Alan there wasn’t much thin, mainly thick, when it came to the good times. Let’s ask John Langford to relate one of these good times to us!

“One story, which I know is one of Alan’s favorites was directly caused by me.
The Messiah reared its head and it was decided to do the version with trombones and all else (Prout/Harty). Alan had a word with me about getting off the platform early before the end of part one to avoid the extra half hour kip before the interval. He said he’d cleared it with the conductor and would give me the signal when to get off. At the end of that particular chorus, Alan gave me the “thumbs up” and up we stood. Instead of giving us time to get off the conductor immediately started the next aria, just as we’d all taken one step. I made a quick decision and decided it would look terrible to walk off during the aria and turned and told everyone to get back. Little did I know what a scene of carnage would ensue! As I turned with my trombone in front of me, a major rail crash instantly occurred! I turned right into the 2nd trombone’s trombone and the slides tangled; the first trombone walked into the back of the 2nd trombone as he was looking at the conductor who had just started the aria; as I pushed to sit down the first trombone sat quickly in the 2nd trombone chair, leaving the 2nd trombone standing for a couple of seconds as I too had sat down, so he decided to crouch and pretend he was on a chair and the tangled slides through push and pull bashed against the head of the 2nd trumpet sitting one tier down from us. By this time Alan had clocked what was going on and began to subdue a very loud titter, the second trumpet turned to see the 2nd trombone crouching with his backside practically in his face and he started, then we all did as the aria engaged with the soloist! We all eventually got back to our correct seats with clanking slides and titters. It was like being back at school - helpless giggling and snorting, biting tongues, head in laps hiding from audience and conductor, and just as I thought things were getting settling down, Alan who had turned bright red and was now crying, at that moment, during a very mournful contralto aria, Alan decided to get his handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe his tear stained face (and to hide) and proceeded to pull out about £5 worth of small change which crashed onto the deck like hitting the jackpot on a one-armed-bandit, with coins rolling down to the violas over several tears of staging and eventually rattling around the conductors podium like a long distance game of shove-ha’penny! This was the ultimate downfall of us all; by this time the alto soloist was addressing the main brunt of the aria in our direction with glares and nods as if she was trying to control a herd of naughty cats with facial contortions. Chaos!

The MBfE is a funny story. When Alan was (quite rightly) nominated for this award, and he found out on the day about his award, he announced to all “You never guess what they’ve awarded me…. they’ve given me the MB f****** E“! And from that day on he was known in Liverpool as, Alan Stringer MBFE!

My overriding memory of Alan is of working with a man who was a truly great player and yet was so unassuming…..a legend. Thanks John!”

Looking through past programmes to around 1979, Alan totted up 6 Brandenburg’s, 14 Haydn’s, 4 Shostakovich’s, 5 Hummel’s, 3 Vivaldi doubles, 2 Leopold Mozart’s, 2 Telemann’s and of course the commission, the Edmund Roxburgh Seven Tableaux for trumpet. In nearly all cases as a soloist he still joined the orchestra in the 2nd half and played principal! The Roxburgh was premiered on the 16th October 1979. Alan said he didn’t know what to expect as there wasn’t any collaboration between himself and Roxburgh; it seemed to be commissioned through the RLPO management. The piece was modern in style, but not ‘squeak’ Alan said, and rather than a soloist up front with the orchestra behind, there was more intimate collaboration between the trumpet part and orchestra, keeping the idea of the “Seven Tableaux”. “It was very technical in parts, but a long way from the over difficult on purpose and one of those works where you didn’t come away whistling the main theme all day, but I was very proud to perform this work as it’s the only premier I’ve performed,” recalled Alan.

As for my involvement with Alan as my teacher, this ceased when I went to the RNCM. However, as Alan taught at the RNCM we would catch up every week and then of course I was still proud to be chosen by him to dep. with the RLPO. When I first sat next to Alan (as what might be viewed as an equal), it was very difficult to change that role from student to fellow pro. This was another great feature of Alan’s personality - he treated you just so. One of the unknown, as in unsuspecting, naughties in the repertoire is the Rachmaninoff Paganini Variations for piano, and in just one variation there is a unison tune, loud, for both trumpets up to high B that moves along in triplets in jumping 4th’s/5th’s. It was a strange feeling to be sat on the stage just Alan and I (different from being 19th trumpet in Katchaturian 3). His breathing, approach, set up, sound, even the handling of the instrument, was a complete lesson itself. In the same concert, the overture/opener was the original version (as in orchestrated by) of Night On A Bare Mountain, Mussorgsky (I soon learned why most prefer the Rimsky arrangement). Two trumpets in D and two cornets in Bb. I was on second cornet which was at least over an octave below the 1st trom part. In the main theme I was punctuating the main rhythm by triple tonguing on low F#’s, much to the amusement of the rest of the section, and without blowing my own trumpet I think the amusement was generated by the fact I was actually doing it at FF, (well, I would say that wouldn’t I?). From then I did the usual gigs with the RLPO - Pines of Rome, Mahler 2/6/8, 1812, Verdi Requiem, Berlioz Overtures et al. Then for me it was time to leave the RNCM and head south to The Smoke.

Alan then took the position of Trumpet Emeritus with the band (which is a fancy title for “I’ll do whatever I like from now on chaps”) and Ian Balmain moved from 3rd/co-principal to principal sharing the chair with Alan, although Ian had the title of principal - after all, Alan had been there for 40 years (with a short break for the LSO)! Alan’s retirement party was more of a “This Is Your Life” held at the Philharmonic Hall, where many (including myself) gave homage to the great forgetful man who changed the face of UK orchestral trumpet playing for us all! There were monologues and sketches, including a dress rehearsal - and I mean a dress rehearsal - where one trumpet player dressed another for a gig: “Shoes? Tie? DJ/tails? Socks? Trousers? And last, but not least, you guessed it - Trumpet?” Yes, in all those years he’d at one time or another forgotten them all. He’s played a Messiah in track suit bottoms, a Brandenburg with black socks over brown shoes; he’d picked up a cricket bag up in his hall thinking it was his trumpet for a gig, forgot what hotel he was staying at in New York and phoned Alice in the UK to find out which. And once, during a long applause, he put his trumpet on his seat while soloists and conductor marched on and off, and then he sat on it - with the next piece being “Pictures”. Ian Balmain was bumper; the word ran through the band like wild fire and Alan started it with Ian’s trumpet. During the performance a trumpet was found and passed on stage (rumour was it was a Zenith). Alan took it and continued like he’s always done, not dropping a note anywhere!

My last little story involves me. When I was in the Merseyside Youth Orchestra we were to play Estancia by Alberto Ginestera (featured at the Proms last year by the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra). It was littered with high Eb’s and even had grace note jumps of an octave gliss from middle C to top C. Alan lent me a picc Bb (first time for me), but he left the A shank in, which left the piece in a very duff key. I asked for the Bb shank; he asked me to come round and get it! On arrival he was mooching here and there looking for it, and then exclaimed: “I saw the cat playing with it yesterday, I hope she hasn’t taken it outside” (in a 110% serious voice). I was silently gob-smacked. My mentor, the greatest player around, let’s his cat play with a picc Bb shank; this can’t be happening. But he insisted, and blamed it on the cat, and calmly announced that I’d have to get on with it in A! Yeah Alan, you might be able?

Alan stayed for some years as Emeritus, then retired to Cornwall, got fed up with the weather and moved some years ago to Nerac, not far from Toulouse/Bordeaux. This is a trumpet playing life that comes close to a fairy tale amongst trumpet players and - do you know what - his trumpet playing had the magic of a fairy tale too. In advance Alan, a very happy 80th birthday on 8th December from all close to you here in Blighty and from the millions who have heard you play and given musical pleasure to! Salute mon professeur!
Phil Lawrence
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