Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Long Serving Orchestral 

Woodwind Principals in the UK

by Ian Denley
(Experienced teacher, performer & examiner)

I wonder how many will remember that the team of woodwind principals in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of the 1950s was known as the ‘Royal Family’, their length of service conferring on the orchestra a unique identity in the quality of their sound and phrasing.

Woodwind players have, arguably, always been the emotional centre of an orchestra’s heart, claiming, as they do, the most prominent solo work.  Brass players do have their solos, of course, but physical and instrumental restrictions have tended to limit their display, and solos from the other departments of an orchestra are few and far between.

I have been musing on the tendency, certainly in the UK, for some woodwind principals to cruise regularly between orchestras and I wonder if this has had a deleterious effect on that sense of unity which inevitably comes about from playing together over a long period. I was fortunate in my training to have two of the best principal flutes ever as teachers: David Butt, who was a member of the BBC Symphony Orchestra for thirty-eight years from 1960 (occupying a principal flute rôle from 1962), and Andreas Blau, principal of the Berlin Philharmonic for forty-six years, having been appointed at the age of twenty in 1969, and staying on for an extra year past retirement to accommodate the delayed arrival of his successor, Mathieu Dufour, previously principal flute of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  I believe it to be no accident that latterly, the longest serving UK principals have proved to be a particular source of great inspiration. As an example, I mention Rosemary (Rosie) Eliot, who recently retired from the BBC Scottish Symphony as the long-standing principal flute - an outstanding figurehead, whose beautiful tone and phrasing were second to none, and like some of the names below, with no desire to become a super-star of the flute, just getting on with the orchestral job and doing it superbly.

Many past principals, for example, Gareth Morris, Ken Smith, Colin Chambers, Roger Rostron, David Haslam, Douglas Townsend, Robert Dawes and Susan Milan, to name but a few, helped to give their respective orchestras a following, which does not appear to be the trend nowadays.  Hopefully, the splendid Gareth Davies at the London Symphony orchestra and Sam Coles at the Philharmonia will be there for a long time. 

It would be interesting to hear the views on this from players of other wind instruments. Names such as Terence MacDonough, Jack Brymer, Reginald Kell, Gwydion Brooke, John McCaw and Archie Camden are bound to crop up!

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