David Tall : Life

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When I moved to Warwick in September 1969, I contacted the Musical Director at the University and was put in contact with a chamber choir who had been singing together without a director. This grew into what we called the Choro dei Cantori which I conducted for two years, including a concert at the York Arts Festival where we sang the Palestrina Stabat Mater for two four-part choirs. A strange thing happened here. This was the second time I had conducted this work (the first being with the A Cappella Singers in Sussex). As I conducted it, the intensity of the performance suddenly made me gasp for breath and I had to lie down for a couple of minutes. The same thing had happened in Sussex. There was no lasting damage, but it showed how deeply I concentrated in my musical performances. I never conducted the Stabat Mater again.

In the Autumn of 1971, the Blue Triangle Operatic Society invited me to act as Musical Director for the performance of Mame at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. This was a great challenge for, as a classical musician, I would be working with a pit orchestra with dance-band musicians, doubling on a range of woodwind instruments, such as saxophone-flute-oboe, or saxophone-clarinet, and so on. I was to have a band-fixer, called Don Robb, who provided me with the musicians.However, despite being booked for a band call, half the players, including all the brass took another paid engagement, meaning that I had to conduct the first night without a proper rehearsal. It was a chapter of accidents. First, the lights on the stands went off just as we were about to play the overture, and, although I managed to correct the fault, I received a severe electric shock and was out cold for a few seconds. The overture went well. I had rewritten it slightly to separate out the opening brass phrases into separate sections with silences in between. This meant that the audience chatting loudly in the first phrase suddenly found themselves shouting over silence. They shut up. Then as the music sounded again, they carried on and again were caught out by a second silence. They listened to the rest of the overture quietly. Indeed, after the opening flourish with its two silences, there was a third silence and our double-bass player Pete Chadwick was able to calmly pull round a ukelele slung over his shoulder and strum a few chords to link to the next part of the overture.

The opening was great. But then the problems started. As I conducted a piece that had two longish beats in a bar, I saw that the flautist, who was due to come in after eight bars was counting at half speed. Fortunately, I had prepared the piano score I used for conducting by colouring all the instruments in different ways, so I could see what was going wrong. I tried to bring him in at the right time, but he had his head down counting relentlessly. Then after another eight bars, still with eyes glued to the music, he lifted his flute to start playing. I was close enough to snatch his flute out of his mouth to stop a disaster, much to his amazement. In all, the first night was very dicey. I decided to ask a classical clarinet player, Larry, to play as an additional player, crossed out all the exposed leads that the other players could no manage and gave Larry the lion’s share of the difficult stuff. The second night worked better, although I was still writing his part out between items as the night went on. The third night was great. Larry was enjoying himself. He had a bottle of beer but no bottle opener, so he smashed the neck of the bottle off against the wall and started to drink it. The sharp glass cut his mouth to shreds and blood was bubbling into his clarinet for some time after that.

With no string instruments in the band, I felt that real emotion was missing from the band parts, so I took my violin and played a soupy obligato accompaniment to the song ‘My best boy!’. It was a stunning moment with a beautiful performance by the singer. As the week went on, the lighting gang started to spotlight me in the pit at the solo. I really enjoyed that!

It was this performance, pulling round a poor band and making it play really well, that caused Pete Chadwick, as orchestral fixer for the Beauchamp Sinfonietta a few months later. Taking on this new appointment meant that I could not cope with an opera group, an operatic society, and an orchestra. So this was my only production with the Blue Triangle.

At this time, I had already started to do even more than this, for in parallel with Spa Opera and the Blue Triangle, I had already begun working in the local theatre.

The story continues here ...

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