There is a line spoken by the late actor Lloyd Bridges in the 1980 Paramount Pictures film ‘Airplane’: “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking”.
So here we are, one year on since I had my last alcoholic drink. It was a bottle of Old Speckled Hen from the Morland Brewery.
Goodness me, what a year it’s been. People talk about taking one day at a time, and when things get rough this approach is a little like slipping into a low gear whilst cycling up an unpleasantly steep hill. You get your head down and you push the peddles, immersing yourself in a rhythm. The days become weeks, the weeks become months and the months become years. One push at a time. At the end of coronavirus, we will be at the top of a large hill, looking back at what we have endured, suffered and achieved. As a species, we are slowly and surely swimming beyond these turbulent currents. We must continue to persevere. It’s not as if we have a choice, is it? Change can be stressful, even when it’s good. Keep going everyone, you’re doing great.
As for drinking, I’m glad I gave it up for a year. My mind wonders whether this year would have been easier or more difficult with an extra prop in the form of drink. Perhaps it would have been both, at varying stages. I haven’t found it too difficult keeping dry in the last 12 months, any more so than when I’ve had patches of abstinence at other times – although there were times when I’d have dearly loved to let go and dive into the unique relaxation which drink can sometimes offer me. Like many people, I have an obsessive-compulsive streak, so for me, giving up totally for a long period has been worthwhile and easier than it would have been to just cut back on daily intake.
When I last had a drink we had one child fewer in our family. The new arrival, along with some musical project-planning, has assisted my focus during the current crisis. As I am relied upon ever more at home and at work, I’ve found over recent years that drink has become less important to me than it once was. So, as life’s cup has filled and overflowed with other responsibilities, I’ve simply found too much else going on for me to make time to have a glass or bottle.
Many people have been extremely supportive of my annus sobrius, and I am most grateful for this support. On several occasions – up to 10 – occasions since I stopped drinking, I have had vivid dreams in which I have had a drink. These dreams have all felt disappointing and it has been a huge relief for me to wake from them. Apparently, it’s quite common for people who stop something like drinking, smoking or chocolate to dream that they’ve caved into their cravings. In an awakened state, I have been to pubs and I have bought alcoholic drinks for other people, but I have managed to stay on soft drinks and decaffeinated tea. With my hand upon my heart, as night is not day, I can say I’ve gone a full year without alcohol, and I did this for myself and for my family. I did this because I wanted to be strong for my family, friends and colleagues. I believe, we all have something to offer, and I want to make my offering count.
Over the next three and a half months, I’ve decided to allow myself to have some beer at the end of each day if I want to. But I’m thinking of taking two years off alcohol, starting in January. There are some reasons for this; health is a big one, a greater ability to remain compos mentis is another. Life seems to have been quite interesting over the last few years. I used to find it a buzz to lose some control over myself. I’d think: “Who knows what will happen if I lose control today or tonight by having a drink or two?” It is also possible to think: “If I remain sober, I will do exactly what I want to do, and what I want to do is rather exciting.”
Giving up alcohol certainly isn’t a silver bullet, and life has thrown all sorts of surprises in my direction from many angles. But I’ll repeat this – quitting for a year has been very good for my health.
I’m going to raise a glass on my birthday to friends who have suffered over the last year, and to dear friends who have left us.
I conducted this interview in January 2020, before the current crisis. I extend my deepest sympathy to those who are sick, bereaved, unemployed or negatively affected in anyway by the current crisis.
Fergus Sheil is originally from Clontarf in the north of Dublin. He is the Artistic Director of Irish National Opera, a company which he founded in 2017. I’ve known Fergus for a good few years now. We’ve performed plenty of concerts and operas together where I’ve been playing the trumpet and he has been conducting.
Whilst working with Fergus on one of his productions a few months back, I asked him if he might be interested in featuring in one of my blogs and I was delighted when he accepted.
He agreed to meet me at the Irish National Opera offices on 16 January 2020, and after a nice cup of tea we got chatting:
How old were you when you took up music, Fergus?
I don’t really remember starting, but I had lessons with my dad at first. He was a piano player. I’m from a big family – there were seven of us and we all played instruments. Everyone played piano at the beginning. I went to the College of Music on Chatham Row, which is now known as the TU Dublin Conservatoire. I studied piano there first, then violin, before switching to viola. I kept the piano and viola going through most of my teens and my 20s. I was in the National Youth Orchestra and played a lot in string quartets. I think I was 17 when I went to Trinity College in Dublin, where I sang in choirs as well as playing. It was the first time, I’d never sung in choirs before. I think it’s funny that I work in an opera company now but I never really had an opera background, although I did take singing lessons when I was in college, just to try and understand it a bit more.
Was your father the main figure in your musical youth?
In a sense, although it was my mother who brought us to most of the lessons and orchestra practices so she made it all happen. But my father was and still is very devoted to the piano and is at his happiest when he is playing. If I think about the house at home when we were all children, the memories all have Beethoven piano sonatas going on in the background.
What made you want to take up your chosen instruments?
I think the piano was something that just happened. It was my mum who thought we should all play an orchestral instrument. I can’t remember how it was decided that I would play the violin, but I just enrolled for lessons in the College of Music. Pretty soon after I started, I joined the Dublin Youth Orchestra. It was the early 1980s. I was there at the first rehearsal of the orchestra, and I now conduct it, which is nice! That’s nearly 40 years ago, I suppose. As soon as I started playing in orchestras, I really loved it. I found it much more exciting than playing the piano. Just that idea of playing with so many people.
Did your musical ability come to you naturally or did you have to work hard at it?
I was never a prodigy. I was never going to be an amazing instrumentalist, although I did work hard at it. I think early on, when I was about 15 or 16, I got this idea that I wanted to conduct, so that was really my focus. I got an opportunity to do a bit of a rehearsal with the Dublin Youth Orchestra once, I remember we were doing Wanger’s ‘Die Meistersinger’ Overture. It was probably an easy arrangement of it but it just sounded amazing. That sense of standing in front of a big group of people, from then, that’s what occupied me. I worked at that as my primary goal afterwards.
Who were your teachers?
On the viola, I studied with Seamus O’Grady, who at the time was the principal viola in the National Symphony Orchestra (now the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland). He was great, he was really technical and analytical and I learned so much from him about music.
I studied conducting later, after I’d finished college in my early 20s, with a teacher called Léon Barzin, who lived in Paris. He was Belgian by birth and grew up mostly in America, where he was a really major conducting teacher for most of his life, and then he retired to Paris. I went over to him in Paris three or four times a year for three or four days at a time. He was about 92 or 93 when I started with him and I went to him for four years, so he was very old in all that period. He was a friend of Arturo Toscanini and he’d worked with Furtwängler.
Barzin was incredibly analytical about technique in terms of equating the physical gesture to the music effects that you want to achieve. He focused on the way you stand while you conduct, whether you stand forward or backward, and all the differences in posture, and linking things together, so if you want to demonstrate staccato this is what you need to do, or if there’s legato, or if there’s a slur. He was so analytical.
Did the two of you have a specific repertoire?
I didn’t do any opera with him, it was all symphonic. I’d bring a huge bundle of scores with me, a big case full, and the next time I saw him I’d bring more.
I remember spending about two hours working on eight bars of Mendelssohn’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ overture, and he wasn’t happy with how I was doing it. He kept driving me and driving me and driving me. You know, it was really tough. He was never abusive, but he was very demanding, very tough, very old school, there wasn’t very much patting you on the back telling you ‘You are doing great job’. He would never say ‘Well done’ or ‘That was good’, nothing like that ever, but I realised after a while, the fact that he was spending this much time and effort with me was his way of saying ‘I think you are doing okay,’ because he didn’t have to do it, he was doing it more as a hobby at this stage. He was a very inspiring person.
We’d have a very demanding two or three hour lesson and then we’d sit down for lunch. He was married to a very wealthy woman who was part of a big American family. They lived in this beautiful house in the centre of Paris, with its own garden with butlers and servants. Lunch would be served up in a very formal setting in the dining room with the table set. I’d have lunch with him and he’d talk about Bartok or Stravinsky or Picasso or other people he knew. He’d played chamber music with Einstein. It was like a history book.
He was born in 1900 and he lived to be 98. I would probably have seen him last when he was 97. I remember I was doing my first concert with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, it was a lunchtime concert in 1999. I invited him and he said he would come. But then he died, sadly, before it. That would have been nice for him to come all the way.
Which of your concerts stands out as being particularly special?
The first concert I conducted in the National Concert Hall was when I was 21. It was an orchestra called Rükert Orchestra, which was an offshoot of the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland, and it was made up of a group of us who were in the National Youth Orchestra who got together. It was quite a good student orchestra, but self-governed, as it were. We did Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. It was pretty electric, and it got a great review. There was a sense of buzz, and it was a kind of breakthrough moment.
When I was at Trinity, I started the orchestra there. That was where I got my first good conducting experience. I did that for two years, conducting a lot of concerts. That orchestra is still going now, which is really exciting. It has always been conducted by students, so it’s a great place for young conductors to cut their teeth and learn a little bit of the trade.
What does your average day look like?
There’s no such thing as an average day! A lot of my time now is spent organising and producing operas. As artistic director I’m planning, casting, budgeting. I spend a lot of time going to hear selecting operas, booking venues. I’m working on programming for 2021, 2022 and 2023 at the moment.
In the second half of this year I’m doing a lot more conducting. I’m conducting two different productions for the company, one small scale touring production and one large scale, in the Gaiety theatre in Dublin. A lot of my time then will be in the rehearsal room, so I have to make sure I use the first half of the year to get all the organisation done, so I can have a bit of head space in the second half of the year to do the conducting.
Do you find that your conducting performances tend to be on one side of the year?
Not by design, but yes, it often happens that way. I like the fact that we use a number of conductors so there’s always guest conductors coming in. I’ll be one of the conductors, so there’ll be particular periods when I’m really busy. They tend to be really intense. If we do a show like Rossini’s ‘La Cenerentola’, which you were in, that’ll take six weeks of all day every day in a rehearsal room. That’s six weeks where it’s very hard to keep on top of emails and all of the admin stuff that needs to happen. I get home and have something to eat, then I find at 8 o’clock in the evening I’m opening the computer trying to catch up. That becomes very intense if it’s that way every day for six weeks. But that’s just the way it has to be! So if the performances are in the other half of the year then it’s a little bit easier to manage.
What other ensembles or orchestras have you conducted?
I’ve worked with all the Irish orchestras: both RTÉ orchestras (Concert and Symphony), the Ulster Orchestra, the Irish Chamber Orchestra, and all the opera companies – Irish National Opera, Northern Ireland Opera (which used to be the OTC, the Opera Theatre Company) and Opera Ireland. I’ve also conducted the Scottish Opera, Welsh National Opera and a few of the UK orchestras. I’ve done gigs with Northern Sinfonia, and a lot of freelance orchestras.
I love working with different orchestras. When you conduct established groups like the RTÉ orchestras, you get a terrific level of expertise and ensemble skill that has been developed over years and years. Freelance orchestras on the other hand can also achieve terrific results. I find here that players are happy to take musical risks and rise immediately to any challenges. It can be unpredictable and invigorating! In the freelance world, a lot of the people who have played in those orchestras are people with whom I have collaborated with for years. You build relationships, even if the orchestra isn’t exactly the same from one project to the next, so I really enjoy that.
So when was the idea to first start Irish National Opera first conceived?
I guess it was an idea that was at the back of my mind for a long time. I spent four years working with Scottish Opera when I lived in Glasgow, that was from 1998–2002. I moved back to Ireland in 2002, which coincided with the birth of my first daughter, because we wanted to base ourselves back here. Having had the experience of working with a full time, all-year round, very professional opera company in the UK, I guess I could see that there was a huge amount of potential here in Ireland that I didn’t think was being fulfilled at the time.
There were opera companies at the time working here, but I felt that the state government hadn’t invested enough in the opera sector. There was a huge amount of potential. I thought, if I had the opportunity to start afresh, as it were, with a clean slate for opera in Ireland, what would that look like? What would that feel like? For many years I’d had that thought, so when circumstances changed around me that gave me the opportunity to put it into practice.
Opera Ireland closed down in 2010, so there was a gap in the market. Nobody was providing full scale, fully produced opera. We started Wide Open Opera and I was one of the people who managed to get some grants from the Arts Council to put on some big projects.
We were putting on roughly one project a year with Wide Open Opera. That was great and it allowed me to dip my toe into the water. A few years later, I was appointed as artistic director of Opera Theatre Company, and always in my mind I had the idea that this was going to lead to something bigger for opera in Ireland. Years later, around 2017, the Arts Council of Ireland advertised for a new opera company. By that point, I’d ticked an awful lot of the boxes on the list. I’d done big scale opera, I’d done demanding repertoire like Tristan and Isolde, I’d done popular repertoire like The Barber of Seville, I’d done new opera, we’d brought new opera internationally to the Edinburgh Festival, to London, New York, I’d done touring operas with OTC, so I had a lot of the ducks in a row. We were able to put together a convincing proposition to the Arts Council. It was a long process that took years and years of work, and business plans. We had to tender for it and go through an international panel, and eventually we won the contract to put the company together in 2017, and began operations from 2018. The rest is history. It’s amazing to have an idea and then for it to come true.
Where would you like to go next?
We are doing about five or six productions a year, which is great, but that’s a tiny amount by comparison with other national opera companies. We’re big in Ireland but actually we are still quite small by international standards. And we tour right around the country, but there’s so many venues that we don’t tour to and they’re always asking us, ‘When are you coming?’ So I think there’s a huge amount more we can do to increase the international visibility of Ireland’s opera. It would be great if once a year we could have a significant Irish opera going somewhere internationally. Also, I think there’s a huge amount of people in Ireland who don’t go to opera, so we’ve a big ambition around education and outreach. We’re trying to convince people to give it a try by putting on programmes with broad appeal, such as Hansel and Gretel.
Have you ever produced an opera in any other unusual venues?
We did a really interesting project in the crypt in Christchurch Cathedral. It was a new opera, This Hostel Life by Evangelia Rigaki (music) and Melatu Uche Okorie (text). There were three or four different performances happening at the same time in different locations, and the audience could arrive and leave whenever they liked and wander around from place to place.
We’ve won an EU grant to develop virtual reality operas. They’ll be short operas, 10 minutes or so, and you’ll be able to watch on a headset. We’re going to tour a group of headsets around the country so people in any location can put it on and have a 10-minute experience of opera.
Are there any recordings or live performances of opera that have steered you artistically towards your current position?
I think live operas that I’ve been to inspire me more than recordings. Live performances stand out in my mind most. For example about a year ago I was in Paris and I got to see Meyerbeer’s opera Les Huguenots and it was just mind-blowingly brilliant! Now I want to do this opera but it’s totally impractical. It’s about five hours long and it needs an enormous cast and chorus and orchestra. I went to see Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal in Bayreuth in the opera house there, and that was pretty inspiring.
Which operatic moments do you like that feature brass?
The one that comes to mind is Parsifal by Wagner. It’s amazing brass-writing. The Ring Cycle as well, I would definitely love to do a Ring Cycle.
In Bayreuth, operas have long intervals where you can go for a meal, but they don’t have a bell to get you back after the interval. Instead they get the brass players to come out and play a fanfare from whatever opera you are watching from the balcony of the theatre. When I was there to see Parsifal, they played a big brass moment from that was a signal to the audience to go back to their seats. I’d love to try that.
Are there any challenges which you feel are unique to brass when it is used in an opera?
I was going to say, ‘Not falling asleep when they’re doing nothing for 35 minutes!’ But in all seriousness, in some operas where the brass has very little to do, you have to come in when you are completely cold or not warmed up after 35 or 40 minutes and you have to play perfectly without having blown a note in that time.
Another challenge I think is one of balance. You have to hear the singer, sometimes you can find that the brass players have to play so quietly that they lose their vitality. If you’ve got something that’s marked fortissimo, but the players have to play mezzo forte, the challenge is how to make it sound as exciting as the fortissimo would be but quieter? It’s having that excitement and drive but not drowning the singers. I think that’s the big challenge particularly for the brass.
What do you love doing in your spare time?
I enjoy playing the piano at home, and I still play the viola at home with my children. They play the violin and cello so there is a lot of string playing going on in the house.
I walk every day. I enjoy walking and listening to music or podcasts on my headphones, I really hate walking without my headphones. This morning my headphone battery ran out and I had to walk for half an hour with nothing.
I enjoy cooking, and I enjoy a little bit of gardening, I’ve a long term project of cutting up some trees that I have cut down, so if I’ve a spare day, I’ll go out with my chainsaw.
What would you like to do more of in the future?
It’s a funny thing that I’m now 49, but I think we’re at the starting line. I think there’s so much to do ahead. Since we started INO, I feel my career has really begun. I have so many different operas and projects in my head and different things I’d love to do. I will get a chance to do some of them, but will I get a chance to do all of them? I don’t know.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Fergus Sheil for agreeing to let me interview him.
It was the summer of 2012. The Irish economy, like many all over Europe, was not in great shape following the banking crisis of 2008. There wasn’t a great deal of trumpet work around and I was paying off the money I had invested in the album ‘Brass Warriors’, which I had recorded with the Dublin Brass Ensemble back in 2009.
It was time to think outside the box. I felt like taking a short career break from music.
After spending a few weeks with my parents in Devon, I managed to get some casual work in an engineering consultancy in Okehampton, near Dartmoor, called the ISC (Independent Services Company). My duties included document management, van driving, representing the company at trade fairs and air shows and helping out where needed. In addition to being an engineering drawing office, the company also specialises in what they called ‘monetising intellectual property’ – namely, finding people or organisations with ideas and helping them to turn them into something fruitful.
I joined the ISC at an interesting time. The company had just won a contract to oversee the installation of thousands of information screens in stations the length and breadth of England and Wales. The screens were to supply information about the forthcoming 2012 London Olympic Games to anyone who was using the rail network. When the Games finished, the screens would remain as part of the London 2012 Olympic Games legacy.
As December approached, the CEO of the company, Colin Coleman, tasked me with delivering Christmas hampers to some of the company’s friends and customers. This job felt a very long way from performing on the trumpet in large halls filled with people, but I really enjoyed it. On my last day of work in 2012, I wished Colin a happy Christmas and gave him a copy of the album ‘Brass Warriors’. The album had taken love, sweat and tears to produce and involved a group of Ireland’s finest brass musicians. I hoped that Colin might enjoy it.
Colin listened to the album in early January 2013 and absolutely loved it. Coincidentally, he and his colleagues at the ISC had wanted the company to have its own anthem for quite some time, which could be used for special occasions, presentations or promotions.
Colin asked me if I would consider doing an arrangement of ‘Telstar’, a piece written by Joe Meek and his pop group The Tornados back in 1962. He offered me a recording contract and a strategic plan to help promote me, my music and my musical colleagues. I thought about this for a few days and after a thorough conversation with my family, I accepted Colin’s invitation.
I worked in his office in Okehampton for a further two years before returning to my music career in 2015, but I kept thinking about Colin’s project and steadily drove it forward over the following years.
I love recording in Dublin and have a few Dublin-based projects in the pipeline. However, on this occasion, for logistical reasons I wanted to record ‘The Corporate Anthem of the ISC’ (Telstar) in London. The ISC is a UK-registered company and my brilliant producer Adam Goldsmith is based in Wellingborough, in Northamptonshire, not too far from London.
We put the track down on the 5th of January this year (2020) in The Warehouse Waterloo studios, along with three short pieces for brass by Dublin composer Stephen Rennicks, which I will talk about in a future blog. We recorded the anthem in one session lasting under three hours. There was no choir present, but at various stages in the session, in addition to playing, the instrumentalists sang and clapped their hands. The score is made up of symphonic brass instruments, a bass guitar, an electric guitar and a piano, along with some percussion including a drum kit.
I would like to give special thanks to my friend and colleague Gavin Murphy, who helped me to organise some of my ideas. Also, on the day of the session, I was delighted to be surrounded by a wonderful and talented mix of Birmingham, Liverpool, London, Dublin and Melbourne musicians. The line-up for the Corporate Anthem is as follows:
Conductor: Roy Theaker
Piccolo Trumpet: William Palmer
Trumpet 1: James Fountain
Trumpet 2: Rick Cowan
Trumpet 3: Stephen Murphy
Horn: Cormac Ó hAodáin
Trombone 1: Byron Fulcher
Trombone 2: Andy Wood
Bass Trombone: James Buckle
Tuba: Francis Magee
Electric Guitar: Ewan Cowley
Bass Guitar: Phil Donnelly
Percussion: Noel Eccles
Kit: Matt French
Piano: Vincent Lynch
Producer: Adam Goldsmith
Ensemble Manager: Siubhan Ni Ghriofa
My Arrangement of ‘Telstar’ is a taster of what to expect soon on my upcoming album of solo trumpet and brass music, which also features the fantastic RTE Concert Orchestra. With the help of the ISC, I will be releasing some more tracks soon. My arrangement is formally known as ‘The Corporate Anthem of the ISC’. This ensemble is called The Brass Warriors – 2nd Battalion – London.
On the crisp, clear morning of the 18th of November, I reversed my little black car and made a U turn. With my mind in a number of places, I’d taken an illogical route into Dublin and only now realised that I’d make better time with a navigational amendment. Before long, vehicle and I were back on track on the North Circular and I was entering the Phoenix Park near Dublin Zoo. Fortunately, the city’s arteries were quiet enough and I was still running to schedule.
Back in the summer, my friend Connor McKeon had called to ask if I minded him forwarding my number to someone at Áras an Uachtaráin, official residence and principal workplace of the President of Ireland. The Áras staff were organising a garden party for President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina, and had approached Connor for recommendations for musicians. Connor and I used to work together quite often, and I played in his backing band when he sang at weddings, concerts and corporate events. It was fun accompanying him singing such a broad range of hits from The Killers to Paolo Nutini and Louis Prima!
As the summer came to a close, I had assumed that the staff at Áras an Uachtaráin had decided to book another group, so I was pleasantly surprised when my phone rang in mid-November. At the end of the line was the mannered, well-spoken voice of one of the Assistants to the President of the Republic of Ireland. He explained that Mr and Mrs Higgins were hosting a Christmas party at their official residence on Saturday 7 December to celebrate the switching on of their Christmas lights. Peter (not his real name) asked me if the Dublin Brass Ensemble might be able to attend and play some cheerful Christmas hymns and carols for Mr and Mrs Higgins and their guests.
I immediately knew that I was not personally available on this date and I was a little disappointed at this. It’s not every day you get the opportunity to play for a head of state, especially someone like as Michael D. Higgins, who is such a strong champion of arts and culture. However, I knew I could put together a good team, so I happily accepted the invitation on behalf of Dublin Brass and started thinking about what type of ensemble and music I could organise for the party.
As I travelled through the Phoenix Park towards my destination, I tried to remember everything I needed for my 10:30am meeting with Peter. Before I knew it, I was at the front gate of Áras an Uachtaráin, and I couldn’t see anyone. It was pretty chilly, so there must be someone in the gatehouse? Stepping out onto the tarmac, I saw an intercom with a button, speaker and camera. I looked into the camera and pressed the button. A moment or two passed, and a friendly member of the Garda Síochána came out. I explained that I had a meeting with Peter, he started to say my name and I finished it for him. He smiled and opened the gate for me. ‘Do you know where you’re going?’
About a minute later, I was back in the driving seat and the totally empty visitor car park came into view. I left the car and walked briskly up towards the front of ‘the President’s home’. ‘Nice place’, I thought to myself. There was a tranquil stillness broken only by the tapping of my smartest shoes. In the distance, I could hear the faint roar of the city.
Then there was excited barking! For a split second I was suddenly, irrationally frightened. I then realised it was Sioda and Bród, the two dogs known as ‘the first dogs’ belonging to Mr and Mrs Higgins. Not only did they look very friendly, albeit massive, but they were also securely behind some large iron gates. ‘Such is my conditioning from a thousand action-thrillers,’ I thought wryly, my heartrate settling back down.
Peter was waiting for me at the front door of Áras with a broad smile and his polite accent, which was very easy on the ear. He showed me through the front door and explained that the Dublin Youth Choir would also be performing at the party. They were to be divided into two groups, one of which would be in the Entrance Hall. I considered myself very lucky to be walking around this building steeped in history, which I’d seen so many times before in photos and on television. I’ve also heard much about the place from my mother-in-law, Máirín, who used to work there under Éamon de Valera some years back.
Peter informed me that Mr and Mrs Higgins were currently out of the house, so for a short while we had the place to ourselves. For a moment, I imagined what it would feel like to be the President of Ireland. Then we were sorting things out again and I clicked back into being a trumpeter who organises recordings and events. Peter led me up the famous hallway, as this would be the route taken by the party guests. At the end of the hallway they would turn right into one of three large back rooms. In one of these rooms the other half of the choir would be singing. The brass wouldn’t be very far away in the third room so it was important t my group was not too loud or we would drown out the other music. With this in mind, Peter and I decided a brass trio would be most suitable for the occasion.
I made lots of notes so my team would know what to do on the night. It was unfortunate that I wasn’t available to play myself, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s to avoid pulling out of work to which you have committed if at all possible. This really does help a musician’s reputation in the long run.
After we’d discussed a few more details regarding logistics and music, I gave Peter two copies of the Dublin Brass Ensemble Album ‘Brass Warriors’. One was for Peter to keep and the other was for Mr and Mrs Higgins.
As we made our way back towards the front door, I commented on what an interesting job it must be working for President Higgins. The morning was still just getting going. I asked Peter if he had many more appointments that day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he did have a few things to get through.
I made my way back to my car, which was still peacefully resting on its own in the car park, and then I headed out of the Phoenix park and back to daily life. ‘What a splendid way to start a morning, I thought.
For the night of the Áras party I had put together a great trio made up of Paul Young (Trumpet), Dewi Jones (French Horn) and Francis Magee (Tuba). Dewi and Francis have kindly shared their accounts:
Comments from Dewi Jones (French Horn)
“Dublin Brass arrived at the Áras on a crisp December afternoon. The whole building was decorated for the festive season with Christmas trees, polar bears and presents on display.
When we arrived, we were greeted with a little refreshment which gave us the chance to get to meet the other performers for the day. After a set up and rehearsal of a few seasonal favourites it was time for the big arrival of Santa and his sleigh as well as President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina. We had a wonderful photo shoot with all the performers on the steps of the Áras as well as a beautiful impromptu performance of ‘O Come, all ye Faithful’.
It was then time for everyone to meet President Higgins and Sabina. We greeted them and thanked them for having us there that day. Then we proceeded with the performance, playing for families as they walked through the magically decorated Áras. It was wonderful to get to add a little Christmas spirit to the occasion and to join with the community on that special day to celebrate Christmas.
A few Christmas carols along we felt satisfied that a special atmosphere was being felt by all. After a few hours of this heart-warming experience (as well as lip-busting!), it was time to leave. It was a fantastic experience for us to perform at the Áras and to meet the community, it was also a privilege to meet Mr and Mrs Higgins. They were so welcoming and made everyone feel at home. We would like to thank them for having us, for giving us such fantastic memories and for putting us all in the festive spirit!”
Account of Francis Magee (Tuba)
“We were among a number of groups, there was a choir, jugglers, clowns and Santa himself! We were entertaining families invited to the Áras for the switching on of the Christmas lights. As we were setting up and having a short rehearsal, we attracted the attention of one of the President’s dogs who seemed to be used to having the run of the house. Prior to performing we were introduced to the President and his wife, had our photo taken and then joined the other groups outside for a larger photo call. We performed a selection of Christmas music for a about an hour while families toured the Áras before the ceremony.”#
On behalf of the Dublin Brass Ensemble (The Brass Warriors), I take this opportunity to thank Mr and Mrs Higgins for having us at their party, which by all accounts was a magnificent event.
Following four years of dedicated study, it was time for me to leave the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester in the summer of 2003. It had been four years of one-on-one lessons, masterclasses, music history, music theory, practical musicianship, gym workouts, ensemble experience, hikes in the Peak District, pubs, nightclubs, and let’s not forget those famous mouth-altering Manchester curries.
As for many students properly leaving education for the first time, this was an exciting time, albeit uncertain and daunting. I’d already done a fair bit of professional trumpet work while I was still a student, mostly with the Lowry Brass Quintet. The group had gained a PPRNCM (Chamber) qualification, passing with flying colours, and we had a healthy amount of bookings. However, as is the case with most newly qualified professional musicians, it was not enough to live on.
This was definitely a time to go home to my Mum and Dad’s house in Devon, have a few beers with some old school friends, take some long runs through the calming Ashclyst Forest, and allow a personal career strategy to evolve. My mates and I had a great summer enjoying all the things that people in their early 20s should enjoy. The summer of 2003 was particularly and consistently warm and sunny, so much of our time was spent enjoying the East Devon beaches. In addition to this fun, I was also practising for about five hours every day and thinking of routes to future prosperity.
As the summer turned to autumn, it was time to leave this relaxed lifestyle and travel. I briefly moved back to Manchester, but it was not long before I was approached by the Orquestra do Algarve, a chamber orchestra based in Faro in the south of Portugal. It has since been replaced by Orquestra Classica do Sul. The Orquestra booked me to play first trumpet for a couple of weeks. It was during this fortnight that I first met my friend Roy Theaker.
There were two concertmasters of the Orquestra at this time and Roy was one of them. In our first rehearsal together, we played Ludwig van Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave) Overture by Felix Mendelssohn. The group was mostly made up of young professionals from all over Europe, North America, South America and South Africa. College was great fun, but it was liberating to be making music with these energetic people in a different part of Europe. On the way back from a very tasty coffee break down the road from our rehearsal venue, Roy struck up a conversation with me about the orchestra and his earlier professional life. I’d managed to bring some rain with me from Manchester, which was unusual for Faro in late September. I remember listening to Roy as we walked and he told me about playing with pop groups such as Destiny’s Child, Nitin Sawhney, Radiohead and Groove Armada whilst the flimsy trainers I was wearing became increasingly saturated.
Roy had moved out to Faro about a year before me when the Orquestra do Algarve was formed, with his wife Kalina (the very gifted principal cellist) and their young daughter Clio. He’d had an interesting journey from his early musical education in the UK, where he was a chorister in Chichester Cathedral Choir.
Like quite a few accomplished violinists, he also played the viola, and attended the Yehudi Menuhin School, studying with Wen Zhou Li and Maurizio Fuchs. He then attended the Royal Academy of Music, London, studying violin with Erich Gruenberg and Howard Davis. He’d studied conducting with Colin Metters and Denise Ham at the RAM, and later moved to the Vienna Conservatoire to continue violin with Boris Kuschnir. After his studies he toured extensively as a violinist with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and the London Chamber Orchestra, freelanced with the Philharmonia and London Sinfonietta, and was a conductor for Disney’s West End Musical “The Lion King”, a role he has since returned to in Melbourne for a 2015 production.
Roy is an extremely diverse and versatile musician. He was then and still is as comfortable conducting symphonic, operatic and commercial music as he is a violin soloist, chamber musician or concertmaster. While he was in Portugal, Roy featured in CD recordings, as a soloist with the Orquestra do Algarve and the Bulgarian National Radio Orchestra, and as a chamber musician with the Brodsky Quartet, alongside a wealth of studio sessions for commercial artists, TV and movie soundtracks.
It was a week or two after arriving in Faro, that I met an Irish violinist who was also booked to work on a short-term basis with the orchestra. She was beautiful, had Rivendell qualities and was great craic. The principal trumpet seat was not permanently filled at this time. There had recently been some auditions to fill it but a decision to appoint someone had not yet been taken.
So, along with some other candidates, I did a screened audition and I was offered the principal trumpet job full-time. These first two weeks in Portugal were unique and life-changing. I met my future wife and managed to get a start in the music industry. Most weeks, the orchestra would travel, normally to picturesque towns over the length and breadth of Portugal, but sometimes further afield.
Roy made an early impression on many of us because of his qualities as a leader in general as well as his orchestral leadership. He was often a mediator between the management and the musicians, and showed lots of initiative regarding artistic ideas, including some very tasteful arrangements. An enjoyable memory that has stayed with me is some arrangements of ballet music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky that Roy put together. We accompanied a local ballet company who put on a beautiful show.
When I think of the time with my Faro friends, I think of growth, ambition, fun and hope. I remember stumbling around the Portuguese language, playing exquisite classical music, eating piri piri chicken and drinking chilled vinho verde. I remember orchestral soccer games, squash tournaments and games of pool. There were a number of good restaurants and bars in Faro. One of our favourite haunts was Taco D’Ouro on Av. 5 de Outubro, where they sold very reasonably priced coffees, pastries and toasties. It used to be possible to buy a “caneca” full of cool lager for €1.50c (a caneca is a glass with a handle that holds more than a pint). There were also some nice bars nearer to the marina. One was known to the orchestra as ‘Shack Bar’, which stayed open late. There used to be street sellers with glow sticks and other things such as hand puppets.
A number of the orchestral members from this time have stayed in touch and this has certainly been the case with me and Roy. I’ve since invited him over to work in Ireland on a number of occasions. He can’t be heard, but is conducting the Dublin Brass Ensemble on our inaugural album ‘Brass Warriors’, which was recorded back in 2009. He also came over to Dublin in June this year to conduct two trumpet works written for me and the RTE Concert Orchestra. One is ‘Postcards from Home’ by Peadar Townsend, a marathon trumpet piece that explores musical postcards being sent between Peadar in England and me in Ireland in a crossover musical style between orchestral and Irish traditional. The idea of a musical postcard came from Peadar asking about childhood memories of my home. For each musical postcard, Peadar takes one of his or my memories and uses them to shape his composition. The second is Ar Sceal (Our Story) by my wife Siubhan Ni Ghriofa, which explores a story of a family in both certain and uncertain circumstances. Roy will be returning to us again in 2020 to conducted some more recording sessions for my upcoming album, which will feature tracks for solo trumpet with orchestra and tracks for symphonic brass ensemble.
In 2008, Roy moved to Australia to take up a contract as one of the Concertmasters with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He’d stayed on in Faro after I left in 2005. He was the concert master of the Orquestra do Algarve for six years in total, during which time he also regularly conducted or directed concerts alongside fully staged theatre, ballet and opera productions. I’m really grateful for having the opportunity to meet, work with and become friends with Roy.
I could easily fill this blog with his very impressive biography. In short, he’s worked with some of the best in the business all over the world and if you’d like to know more about what he has done and is up to, I strongly recommend that you visit his website: https://www.roytheaker.com/
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Roy for allowing me to write about him.
It is difficult for me to accurately document when Peadar Townsend and I first came to know one another. In the same way that Ireland’s personality is far greater than its size, so is the case with many Irish personalities. Although from time to time we encounter characters who are big big.
Many established performers have spoken of what it feels like to be in the early stages of their performing careers. In life, many people find that emotions can feel much different when you are younger – perhaps more intense than those we feel in later life? For me, this was certainly the case regarding my early professional performances. Looking back, I think this could be because I was moving from being a student in training modules to a being in a position where the quality of my performance had a more direct consequence for the prospect of future employment.
There was always tension before performances, especially big ones – tension that needed to be contained and managed in order for things to run smoothly. The greater the tension, the greater the reward at the end of a successful completion. I recall being 25 years old, and feeling total elation after many concerts, high as a kite for all the right reasons, a happiness that could not be bought with all the money in the world. With close friends and colleagues, I would often head off to a pub after a concert, such as Houricans, which has now closed, but was formerly on Lower Leeson Street in Dublin, just off Saint Stephen’s Green.
Many musicians would meet at Houricans after concerts and the mood was generally buoyant. In 2005, Ireland was still in the midst of an incredible economic boom (The Celtic Tiger) and there really was a sense that the good times would go on forever.
It was in pubs after concerts that the name and face of Peadar Townsend became familiar to me. He is a popular individual who is full of warmth and fun.
Peadar is from Cork. Like many Cork people, he is quite proud of this fact. Considered by many of its citizens to be ‘The Real Capital’, Cork has a vibrant cultural scene which has produced some brilliant artists, writers, thespians, TV presenters, musicians and more.
Back in the 00s we would often perform together, mostly in one of the two wonderful RTE (Raidió Teilifís Éireann) orchestras. When I met him, Peadar was a member of the Army Band in Dublin where his role as a percussionist took him the length and breadth of Ireland. He had been a student at the Royal Northern College (RNCM) of music back in 1993 until 1997. I was also a student at this wonderful conservatoire, and when I was there, I’d often find myself spending time with a number of lovely Irish contemporaries. I was happy to find myself working alongside a brilliant Irish musician who was also an RNCM alumnus.
Peadar has tons of experience working with world class musicians and orchestras. In one of our first conversations, I remember him telling me a little about his professional playing experience and also his desire to fulfil his compositional ambitions. He was passionate about creating new music and he had a strong interest in the film industry. I often thought of this conversation in subsequent years. As time passed, I kept track of his achievements and was happy for him and for various, mostly work related reasons we met up regularly over the years.
Back in 1997, I heard a BBC interview with the late Philip Jones about his famous symphonic brass ensemble. Ever since then, I’d wanted to set up my own brass group. It was with this ambition in mind, that I’d moved to Ireland back in the summer of 2005.
When I came to produce the first Dublin Brass Ensemble album ‘Brass Warriors’ in 2009, that conversation with Peadar from a few years earlier returned to my thoughts. I contacted him and asked if he could write a piece lasting 10 minutes or so for about 10 brass musicians with percussion.
He wrote ‘Conversations’ for us: a very enjoyable work that explores different moods and which contains some interesting rhythmic and harmonic patterns. I was really pleased with it, particularly the many interesting compositional ideas it demonstrates. When we premiered his work in Saint Mary’s Pro Cathedral back in October 2009, it was very well received.
About two years ago, I was thrilled when Peadar agreed to write another new piece, a trumpet concerto for me to record with the RTE Concert Orchestra which we recorded back in June this year. The concerto will be released on my debut solo album in 2020. From a brass-playing perspective, it is a right smash in the face, which is fun for some of us brass players who thrive on both a physical and artistic challenge. As well as areas of the work which require physical endurance, there are also sections which delicately explore a more sensitive side to the trumpet. The orchestration is top-notch and makes excellent use of the wonderful orchestra. Peadar has put his very big heart and soul into his trumpet concerto which gives emotional insight into the many shades of his personality.
As I’m currently off the sauce this year, Peadar and I will not be meeting in a pub for a while, however, he visits Dublin quite often and I’m very much looking forward to our next meeting.
If you want to read Peadar’s biography, I advise you to visit his website:
Like many people, I don’t remember the exact age I was when I first tried an alcoholic beverage. There is a memory of asking a parent if I could try their cider or lager. This memory involves lots of pestering, resulting in eventual success. A tentative sniff and taste were swiftly followed by disgust, face-pulling and vocal demands as to why anyone would voluntarily put such an experience onto their poor unsuspecting palate.
As taste buds matured, born was a desire to sample less-sweet liquids and something more grown-up. There was the obligatory 14-year-old Christmas punch experience – an operation of stealth, avoiding thwarters who were spoiling my attempts to get rip-roaringly trolleyed. Then came a few 15-year-old parties, where white cider eventually resulted in excruciating hangovers on following mornings.
My first relaxed and sensible drink was at the age of 16, where one of my friends’ heroic parents openly gave us an opportunity to eat some pizza and sink a few slow ones whilst watching a ruddy good action movie. This was followed by our 16s and 17s, desperately willing ourselves to look older in order to participate in the festival of adulthood.
Before we knew it, we were 18 and wondering what all the fuss was about. A well-earned drink or two was a welcome reward after a hard day of instrument practice and academic study.
I recently visited medicaldaily.com, on which there was an interesting article about seven possible benefits to having a small amount of drink each day. Believe it or not, it apparently can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, lengthen your life, improve your libido, help prevent against the common cold, decrease one’s chances of developing dementia, reduce the risk of gallstones and lower your chance of diabetes!
There are, of course, many well documented downsides associated with drinking alcohol, in particular, heavy drinking. Here is a list of 10 listed on medicalnewstoday.com: liver disease, pancreatitis, cancer, ulcers and gastrointestinal problems, immune system dysfunction, brain damage, malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies, osteoporosis, heart disease and poor cardiovascular health, and accidents and injuries.
Like most adults in western Europe, I like to drink one or two beers most nights and have enjoyed doing so for most of my adult life. It’s part of my routine of relaxation, a sign to myself that it’s time to stop work for the day. But in recent years, I’ve been approached by a curious thought. What would it be like to stop drinking alcohol altogether? What would it be like to stop drinking for a whole year? I wonder if the goals I’m pursuing with the moderate assistance of alcohol would become more tangible, or would they drift further from my grasp, or would they become altogether irrelevant in an existence free from booze?
There’s a way to find out.
On my 39th birthday I will drink some beer. The day after I shall abstain from drinking alcohol until my 40th birthday. As a 40-year-old, in celebration of achieving one year’s abstinence, I will make a public donation to Amnesty International and will invite others to celebrate my sobriety by donating to this wonderful organisation. I will write a blog and share some of what I’ve found out.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my liver for 39 years of elite performance, thank you my friend, enjoy your well earned break.
It can be jolly hard work being a brass musician. To produce a good sound, you need to be generally relaxed, with the exception of your mind, which needs to concentrate on where to put your notes both vertically (pitch) and horizontally (time). There are also parts of your body that at times require great strength, which is normally built up over years by practising numerous exercises. Learning to be very calm yet focused is a destination that can be approached from a variety of paths. Some musicians practise yoga or T’ai chi ch’üan, take a bicycle ride or go for a swim. Others may drink alcohol, go skipping, take prescription medication or indeed, find homeopathic solutions such as peppermint tea or bananas.Whatever your preference, once a state of mind and body that is supportive of artistic excellence is achieved, it needs to be nurtured. Of course, surroundings in which to practise can make a difference to artistic output. We had a music room at most of my schools and in some cases, we were lucky enough to have official practice rooms. Finding a place to practise a brass instrument can be challenging. It can cause problems at home when other people are trying to rest or focus on work and it can get the goat of stage hands at 8:00 am when they are preparing a concert hall or studio for a day of symphonic rehearsal. Finding somewhere to have a blow while on tour is a complaint I’ve heard from many of my brass-playing colleagues. Hotels, reasonably enough, are often shared with air crews and other professionals who really need to sleep.
If you are one of those lucky people who don’t seem to need much practice, perhaps none of this concerns you overly. However, I’m not one of these privileged souls so I practise religiously. As soon as I decided I wanted to make my living playing the trumpet, I dived into study books such as Jean-Baptiste Arban’s ‘Cornet Method’, John Ridgeon’s ‘How Brass Players Do It’, Herbert Clarke’s ‘Technical Studies for the Cornet’ and made friends with orchestral excerpts using books such as the Probespiel.
When I’d get home from school, I’d get a couple of hours done before anything else. Almost every single day from my teens until well into my 20s, this was something I just had to do, and I’d get seriously upset if my routine was disrupted. I know loads of musicians who’d relate to this obsession.
What do I need to do to at least stay as good as I was yesterday? There are mutes specially made for practising on brass instruments, which are great. I’ve found that 10 minutes heavy blowing a day on a practice mute can really help to fill out my tone, but just like a Royal Marine doing circuit training, exercise needs to be balanced. Personally, if I do any more than 10 minutes a day on a practice mute, it’s not long before my tone deteriorates.
So, where am I going to practise today? At the moment, on Friday the 23rd of August 2019, the answer is ‘The Shed’.
This Shed/Garage is believed to date back to the late 1970’s and benefits from sitting in a pleasant, level concrete garden with two well proportioned breeze block walls to the left and right of its front. Overall the property does require some modernisation to bring it up to a modern-day standard, this may expose further hidden features and will certainly enhance the property. The cottage and outside space appeals to those seeking a practice space in a quiet/noisy town location, with great potential to create a lovely spare room. The shed has been a friend of mine since around February 2015 when I was evicted from my previous practice space. It belongs to my delightful mother-in-law who charitably lets me settle there from time free of charge. I am on occasions, granted permission to enter the house near to the shed but, it is rare to do so whilst holding a trumpet.
Shed has, on occasions, witnessed excruciating artistic frustration over the last half decade which commonly manifests itself in utterances of expletives. To those who overhear such foul rantings I apologise unreservedly. However, the shed understands completely. It is a host to substantial effort and is sympathetic to those who try.
The Shed isn’t lonely. Over the years there have been plenty of spiders, flies, wasps, rodents and stays drifting through its openings. Every week, people enter to find tools, frozen food, oversized toys and furniture. Somehow, no sooner have articles been removed from The Shed in a well-meaning clear out than they are quickly replaced with other redundant possessions.
Soon, The Shed will undergo cosmetic surgery. Gone will be the noise of long-haul flight, roaring cars on the road outside, bellowing birds and chattering lawn mowers. Damp-induced chest infections and weather-inhibited dexterity will become challenges of the past. The Shed will soon come of age and emerge into its new incarnation as an all-mod-cons practice space/office.
May I please thank my lovely wife for encouraging this change and converting her mum’s garage into a delightful room x.
Whilst sitting in the Green Room of the Wexford Opera House on 18 November 2018, I received a phone call from my first trumpet teacher, Phil Makin. Phil gave me my first trumpet lesson when I was ten years old, in my parents’ kitchen. I remember the excitement I felt standing next to a high-quality player for the first time. The sound he made was rich, centred and satisfying with excellent intonation. Phil continued to teach me until I left home aged 19, but I’ve stayed in touch with him ever since.
Phil told me that his middle daughter Katie, also a trumpeter, was getting married to her partner Harry the following June in Cornwall. The ceremony would be held on the edge of a cliff in a beautiful spot near Gwithian Beach, overlooking a lighthouse and across the bay from St Ives, which is famous for inspiring generations of artists. I was deeply honoured to be asked.
In the past, I’ve attended and played at a variety of weddings, but I’ve never been asked to play in such a dramatic setting. On the day, I arrived very early. I’ve heard many musicians say that the most stressful part of playing at a function, recording or concert is the process of getting there, especially for those of us who sometimes work in congested cities. For this wedding, the weather looked like it might go a number of ways. Phil had explained the day before that if it rained the service might be held at the beautiful farm complex which was to host the reception, but as the day unfolded it looked as if we were all on for a clifftop union.
One by one, the guests arrived. I had a lovely chat with one of the photographers, Isobel Neale, who was working with her husband Jonathan. Phil had taught her son the tuba when he was younger, so we shared stories and explored the merits of music education. We both agreed that learning an instrument and playing in an ensemble can really help with personal as well as musical development. Isobel took some photos of my A/B flat Yamaha Piccolo trumpet.
It is often the case at weddings that musicians, be they in a string quartet, seated at an organ or standing with a wind instrument waiting to play, find themselves looking into the distance as the guests settle down and we all await the arrival of the bridal party. On this occasion, the distance into which I was gazing was particularly stunning. We could see the arriving vehicles from around half a mile away. In one direction was the very dapper-looking groom Harry and the guests, and in the other was the striking Cornish coast stretched out for miles in front of us.
Waiting to perform affects different people in different ways. To be honest, I felt more nervous than usual in the knowledge that I was to sound the entry of my former teacher and members of his family. I always endeavour to do a good job, especially at weddings, but because of the personal connection, I was particularly keen to play my best.
Although I was set up to play in the best possible position, I was playing straight into a very strong wind! Even with the assistance of about seven clothes pegs and my heavy bag containing my spare mouthpieces, my sheet music was only just about staying on its stand. The wind and waves were smashing against the rocks and the clouds were reshaping continually.
Before we knew it, Katie, Phil and the rest of the bridal party were on the cliff path a couple of hundred yards away, all looking like a million pounds sterling. I took a deep breath and smashed out ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ by Jeremiah Clarke. Katie had arrived and the wedding ceremony was underway.
It was a touching ceremony, bringing together two lovely people with the strong support of their families and friends. As the wedding continued, the sun beaconed in and out of the grey, casting numerous shades and colours.
To end the proceedings on the cliff edge, Phil and I played a duet, ‘All You Need is Love’ by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, it was really great playing next to Phil again. We then all went down to a more sheltered area nearer to the beach where we were served with delicious pasties and bubbly before heading off to the reception.
May I take this moment to thank Katie, Harry and their family for allowing me to share my experience of their wedding. It was one of the highlights of my summer.
The first time I saw trumpeter Crispian Steel-Perkins perform live was in early 1996 in St Margaret’s Church in Topsham in Devon (UK) when I was a member of Exeter Youth Brass. Crispian was performing with groups from the East Devon Music Centre and played an arrangement of Haydn’s trumpet concerto on his E flat trumpet with us.
Before the performance, he had demonstrated parts of the concerto on the keyed trumpet, making an impressively well-tuned sound. A keyed trumpet is a trumpet with keys on it, similar to those found on woodwind instruments. The concerto was originally written in 1796 for the Austrian trumpeter Anton Weidinger, who premiered it on the 1st of January 1800.
Crispian has become well known for these sorts of lecture recitals. As a trumpet player, I find it is always interesting to put music into historical context like this. I’ve been a fan of his ever since that concert, so of course I was thrilled when Crispian agreed to meet me for an interview.
After a long journey from Dublin, my family and I arrived at Crispian’s cottage in Bexhill, near Hastings. Crispian spends some of his time there with his second wife Jane, who is a nurse. He also shares this cottage with two lovely classic motorbikes, which he is under strict instructions to keep in his garage and not in the house!
Above: Crispian on one of his motorcycles.
Crispian welcomed us in his usual energetic, charismatic style with a big smile and cheerful manner. We had approached Bexhill from the west, so we had travelled through Normans Bay which, Crispian informed me, was where William the Conqueror landed when he invaded England in 1066. As you travel along the beach you drive over a marsh that used to be in the sea. William the Ist chose the bay because it was shallow, which made it easy for his army to disembark. It is also near to Pevensey Castle, a Saxon Shore fort with complete Roman walls. A fort has stood on the site since the Iron Age.
History is one of Crispian’s many interests, which is perhaps not surprising since he has plenty of history in his family. Like me, Crispian is from Exeter in south-west England. His dad, Guy, was a fifth-generation doctor in Exeter and his mother was Sylvia de Courcy who danced at the Savoy Theatre, Strand, London under the direction of Madame Casavana. Amongst Guy’s patients were the Aclands, who used to own Killerton estate – a beautiful house and gardens in east Devon now owned by the National Trust. Crispian is related to Admiral Beatty, famous for his role in the Battle of Jutland in 1916. He also has Irish connections. Some of his ancestors were from Kinsale in County Cork and his maternal grandmother, Victoria Parker, was one of the first group of women to graduate from Dublin’s Trinity College.
We went inside and into his kitchen where we got straight down to the important business of tea and cake. He carved out two enormous slices of coffee and walnut cake. Then, after checking my preferred prescription, he poured two equally gargantuan mugs of tea.
Above: Crispian with a very large slice of coffee cake!
We moved through to his dining room, where he had laid out some of his instruments for me to examine. Crispian enjoys collecting antique instruments. He is one of just a handful of people on this planet who can play some of these instruments and he is a world authority on the history of the trumpet. “My collection used to have 155 instruments,” he told me. “It has recently been radically reduced to about 40 – I sold another three this week. They’re all in playing condition, though!”
As we pored over the instruments together, Crispian told me some of his professional history. He was a founder member of the Devon Youth Orchestra. He joined the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain as a 16-year-old in 1960 and was a member for two years. He’d attended Marlborough College before studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He has held several positions with prestigious orchestras: Sadlers Wells Opera (2nd trumpet); 1st trumpet with the London Gabrielle Brass; English Chamber Orchestra (moved from 2nd to 1st trumpet). He was joint principal trumpet of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with Jim Watson until about 1980. Since then, he has been a freelancer.
Crispian explained that in the 1980s orchestral jobs were not regular, meaning that it was not usual for musicians to have longer-term contracts – most groups were freelance. This seems to have suited Crispian, who is a bit of a free spirit and enjoys having multiple employers. He has “fingers in lots of pies” and said he’s found that “a moving target is harder to hit”. If anything were to not work out with one employer, he has plenty of other things going on. Music, he explained, is a “fickle business”. This doesn’t seem to bother Crispian, who thrives on the uncertainty and seems to enjoy the adventure.
Crispian taught himself the trumpet for the first three years after using one belonging to his brother Barry. His parents bought him his own in 1955 when he was 10 – a B&H Regent. Crispian’s musical ability seems to have come to him over the years from various influences. His father was “totally unmusical” but his mother studied the piano at Brussels Conservatory for a brief period. None of Crispian’s three children have followed in his musical footsteps, though oddly in the last few years he has learned of a recent ancestor who was a professional trumpeter. None of his immediate family knew about this until recently.
Crispian can’t play the piano himself, but he is a very capable arranger of music. He published his arrangements for a few years but stopped when he got fed up with the publishing industry. If you want to hear some of Crispian’s great arrangements, many are featured on his albums.
Crispian told me about some of the trumpeters who have inspired him. The first was the popular English trumpeter Eddie Calvert who after appearing with the Stanley Black Orchestra around the middle of the last century became known as ‘the man with the golden trumpet’. “Derek Watkins was a great player,” Crispian told me. “He really played from the heart.” Crispian feels that this is very rare these days.
Bobby Pratt and his sidekick Bert Ezard from the Ted Heath Orchestra were “big heroes” of Crispian’s. Another was the French trumpeter Maurice Andre. I share his admiration for Andre – my first teacher introduced me to his recordings when I was quite young, and I love his clear and creamy sound. Crispian told me that when Andre recorded, he endeavoured to put his tracks down in one take. Many of Crispian’s recordings likewise have been made in as few takes as possible, as he believes this is a more musical way of doing things.
He detests buyouts – when a musician is offered an upfront fee in return to waiving their rights to any subsequent royalties made by a recording or concerts. And although he holds the view that the best recordings are done in one take, are not heavily edited and are to all intents and purposes rough and ready, he is not a fan of recordings of live concerts. He believes there is a fine art to making a recording which cannot be replicated in a live recorded performance. I see his point of view: if one’s energies are directed towards a live audience, this will produce a different musical output than that from a focused recording session.
I asked Crispian: Do any moments in your career stand out as particularly satisfying?”
“Well, you remember the f-ups!” he laughed. He performed two B Minor Masses in Bayreuth in Germany that were “brilliant!” He has enjoyed working with John Elliot Gardener, and also an especially memorable performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and the Ring with Reginald Goodall in 1969/70. He is particularly proud of a recording of the album ‘Six trumpet concertos’, which is currently available on the ‘Musical Concepts’ label. “The album was made using very few takes, so it’s fresh and has lots of energy,” he said.
Crispian has fond memories of playing the Haydn Concerto with a severe hangover in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh to 133,000 people. Some years back he also enjoyed playing in the castle moat of the Tower of London, where, he said, “everyone was stoned out of their heads. I was playing lead trumpet for ‘Barclay James Harvest’. Rick Wakeman was right in front of me! At this time in my career I also played lead trumpet for Curved Air and Led Zeppelin.”
Then I asked if there were any years that stand out as being a bit more challenging? “It’s hard to say,” he said, after a pause. He explained that when things go quiet, it can be hard. “Any time without concerts is challenging because no amount of practice can keep you match-fit.” This is known all too well by many brass musicians – including me.
Crispian’s music has taken him all around the world. He is a huge fan of archaeology so was very happy to visit Iraq and Syria some years ago – also Uruguay. He has played to numerous VIPs, including a particularly memorable performance for the late Queen Mother in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, and another for the former First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, in her private residence.
I asked how many recording sessions Crispian had played. His answer was: “Haven’t a clue – 80 films, maybe? I took it all for granted.” He is proud of his first recording of Handel’s Eternal Source of Light Divine by Handel with the King’s Consort, and a recording of Handel’s Messiah with the conductor Andrew Parrot for EMI. For this, Crispian used a trumpet originating from the 1720s that’s known to have belonged to the leading 19th-century British trumpeter Thomas Harper.
Given his success over the course of such a long career, it surprises me to hear that Crispian was never particularly ambitious. He became a soloist gradually in order to survive in the cut-throat world of professional trumpeting. When he started out, he was one of a handful of players with his specific skill-set, though as time went on more trumpeters came onto the UK scene. He has always done his lecture recitals, which call on his specialist knowledge of older lip-vibrated instruments. Also, over the years, he found himself working more with the concert promoter Raymond Gubbay, which further established his soloist status.
In Crispian’s dining room, time was marching on. To conclude our interview, I asked: “What future projects are you looking forward to?” He answered: “Queen’s College Oxford own a solid silver trumpet from 1660. I will be performing a concert on this trumpet on the 6th of November,2019 as a lunchtime concert with the celebrated
Australian Organist Anne Page [with whom I perform quite regularly]. I would like to make a recording, so people can hear the sound of it.”.
Above: Crispian playing one of his natural trumpets.
It happened to be St George’s Day on the day I met Crispian, so before I left he took one of his natural trumpets – with no finger holes or valves – and played ‘Saint George’ by Henry Purcell for me, beautifully.
I would like to thank Crispian for so freely giving me his time, for the giant slices of coffee cake and mugs of tea – and for meeting me again the following day at a garage in Brighton to return my wallet which, in my excitement, I’d left on one of his chairs!
Thanks a million, Crispian, and we hope to see you in Ireland soon.
Wedding music (audio sample 3)Dublin Brass
Wedding music (audio sample 2)Dublin Brass
The Earl of Oxford March (audio sample)Dublin Brass
The Earl of Oxford March (audio sample2)Dublin Brass