High Wycombe’s name is not synonymous with a great musical tradition. Legend has it that the Rolling Stones (or was it The Who?) once played at one of its pubs, and eighties synth-legend Howard Jones hailed from these parts, but other than a desultory stream of tribute bands and superannuated rockers who should know better, the world of live popular music tends to pass it by.
It is better served by classical music, though, with numerous local festivals and a residency by the City of London Sinfonia at the Wycombe Swan which is now in its tenth year. The relationship with the CLS no doubt sprang at least in part from the fact that the CLS’ founder, the late Richard Hickox, was born and educated nearby. Hickox was one of the classical world’s great organisers, and tonight’s tribute concert was produced in conjunction with the Wooburn festival, which he also founded, and featured the London Symphony Chorus which he led from 1976-1991.
The concerts are always preceded by a pre-concert talk, which tonight featured guest conductor Andrew Litton. A New Yorker, Litton talked eloquently and engagingly on the pieces to be presented, Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Britten, Symphony No 5 “Reformation” by Mendelssohn and The Music-Makers by Elgar, and on how British music is appreciated abroad. For one whose knowledge of classical music is entirely superficial, these talks provide an intriguing insight into this arcane world – for example, the Music Makers, chosen as one of Richard Hickox’ favourite pieces, requires three trombones and a contra-bassoon, as does Mendelssohn’s 5th, hence them being programmed together in these straightened times.
One of the pleasures of having attended these concerts for ten years now is that one gets to recognise the characters within the orchestra. It has always been apparent that the main source of fun has emanated from the violas, whose lead Stephen Tees would glance mischievously towards the cellos whenever some faux pas noticeable only to the players was committed. This was his last concert for the orchestra at High Wycombe, and he will be missed.
For me, the concert is a tactile experience. I always sit in the front row – not the best place, I am informed, for an all-round sound, but where I can feel the vibrations of the double-bass, sense the wheezy suspiration of violin bows drawn slowly, hear the scuff of the conductor’s shoe (or, in the case of Andrew Litton, the thump as he landed following a mighty leap during the Mendelssohn).
The CLS as ever gave a rousing performance. I wasn’t familiar with either of the British pieces before listening to them prior to the concert. The Britten is saltily evocative, developing into a rousing crescendo as the storms envelop Peter Grimes. Both the Mendelssohn and the Elgar show that referentiality is not a purely post-modern phenomenon, as lines by Bach and Elgar’s Nimrod appear in quotations. The Reformation Symphony is, as always with Mendelssohn, chock-full of good tunes, whilst The Music-Makers, with its haunting choral backdrop, is certainly a piece I will look into further.
But one must worry for the future of classical music in Britain. The average age of the audience must have been well over 60, and the hall was probably only 75% full. This is not sustainable, but it’s difficult to see what can be done to reverse the trend. The CLS has already lost its Arts Council grant, and the number of concerts each year has reduced from four to three. Soon, such concerts will only be available in the big cities where they will be inaccessible to a large part of their remaining audience. And so, such music will become still more an elitist museum-piece. But where are the Mendelssohns of today who can write rousing classical music with accessible melodies?