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LA club experience inspired composer's disco-style piece

Magazine editor, reviewer and composer Robert Matthew-Walker talks about the premiere of his latest ‘modern’ piece of work

Robert Matthew-Walker with violinist Lisa Ueda

Mark Bebbington’s piano recital for Bromsgrove Concerts on February 3 brings an extraordinary musical personality into view.

Robert Matthew-Walker is the devoted editor of two prestigious music magazines (The Organ and Musical Opinion), he is a tireless reviewer both of concerts and CDs, he writes books (not only on classical subjects, but also biographies of Madonna and Simon and Garfunkel), and he composes incessantly.

Two of Bob’s pieces feature in this recital at Bromsgrove’s Artrix, the fantasy-sonata Hamlet, and the premiere of his specially-commissioned A Bad Night in Los Angeles. The composer tells me about the new piece.

“Following his outstanding recording of my fantasy-sonata Hamlet, Mark Bebbington asked me for a short solo concert work lasting about five or six minutes. I wanted to write something completely different and decided on a piece in modern disco-style, taking the essence of present-day dance music and transferring it to the recital room.

“The title comes from a time, many years ago, when I was working in Los Angeles. One evening, I wandered into a nightclub to hear a new driving rock band, Azteca. I was astonished when they began their set with a modern-dance version of the opening sequence of the French composer Darius Milhaud’s Concerto for Percussion and Small Orchestra of 1930.

‘‘As I had studied in Paris with Milhaud, and knew the concerto well, I was taken aback. At first, it was a bad night for me in Los Angeles, but it turned out well in the end. I hope my piece does, too!”

Bob’s own history reveals him to be something of a chameleon-like polymath, as he tells me.

“I really got into music through singing. I was a Chapel Royal chorister at the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy in London, but I made the catastrophic error of continuing to sing whilst my voice was breaking, which effectively ruined my adult voice in terms of ‘classical’ repertoire.

“So I began to sing pop and jazz in clubs - but again I was keen to explore those singers who could do both: Sinatra, Vic Damone and Bobby Darin especially.

“My working-class parents gave me so much support in terms of buying me a decent piano and paying for lessons, and just let me find my own way. I was writing music from about 13, for the chapel choir, and was encouraged by Dr Henry Bromley-Derry, who was principal at the London College of Music as well as master of the music at the Savoy Chapel.

“National Service did cause a hiatus in my musical life, but I think it is vital that anyone who attempts any form of what is termed ‘artistic’ endeavour should have a break, and come face to face with real life in another field.

‘‘As it happens, I was able to do a bit of music in the Army – not in a military band, as others did, but in being able to tune in to Radio Hilversum and hear amazing concerts under Hans Rosbaud, for example, or, being on guard and walking around deserted barracks and in the countryside, I was able to compose in my own mind, and go through Walton and Beethoven scores in my head – whilst ensuring my 7.62mm SLR was fully loaded!”

Bob then tells me about his working day, and though I certainly agree with his strictures about listening to music I am left daunted and gobsmacked.

“There’s always something I have to do, and I learned a very great deal from the example of the critic Hans Keller, whom I knew well. Hans was able to accomplish much; he said if you get tired of doing one thing, start doing something completely different. He also said it is perfectly possible to get two days’ work out of one – you must not drink alcohol at lunchtime; go to bed at 10.30pm and get up at 1.30am – after three hours’ sleep. Then work from 1.30am to 4.30am – you find the mind is crystal clear, very sharp, and without any interruptions of any kind, you can get six hours work accomplished in three hours. Then go back to bed at 4.30am, get up at 7.30am after another three hours’ sleep and get ready to do a day’s work.

“That sort of regime is perfectly possible (I’ve done it myself, and wrote my book on Simon and Garfunkel in a week that way) but you can’t keep it up; after about 7-10 days, the body rebels, and you must obey your body – though ultimately you’re in charge of it, and what goes into it.

“It’s a good idea to keep a notebook by your bed; just as I’m ready to ‘drop off’ I’ll be thinking about something I have to write (not music) and if the right phrase comes to mind at that moment you have to write it down – otherwise, it’s gone. And then you go straight off to sleep, I find.

“I get up when I wake up – usually after about 4-6 hours sleep, and then work for about two hours, writing, listening to music or composing. This might be between 5am - 6am or later, and after two hours (in which I always aim to have accomplished something – a review, hearing a CD or viewing a video, or writing a minimum of 20 bars of music.

“Then I go back to bed, in a ‘mission accomplished’ frame of mind. I get up about 8-9am, make a pot of tea, take a cup to my wife, have breakfast (usually ‑porridge) and go through emails for about an hour whilst watching Sky News. I don’t listen either to Radio 3 or Classic FM unless there are very good reasons to do so, but will work for about another two hours on whatever is necessary until about noon.

“Then I ask my wife what shopping we might need and I drive to the supermarkets to get the food for dinner that evening. I never have the car radio on or any kind of music I am not required to listen to.

“So I’ll do Lidl or Sainsbury’s or Marks & Spencer or the Co-Op and come home by about 2pm; have a very light lunch, and it’s back to work – writing, never composing in the afternoon (other than scribbling down any bits and pieces that have come to me whilst waiting at the check-out), until about five or six; then get ready to go to a concert or prepare for dinner. Have dinner with my wife, watch a bit of telly, and then work again until about 10pm.

“Then if there’s a good late-night film on (a rare occurrence these days) I might watch it. At midnight I find a second wind – that’s the time for composing or for serious writing, until about 1am, sometimes later (but no later than 2.30am) then bed.

“There are a couple of works finished in my head which I should love to get down on paper, but unless someone asks me, they’ll stay there for the time being.”

* Mark Bebbington plays at Bromsgrove’s Artrix on February 3 (8pm). Details on 01527 577330.

Upcoming Classical Concerts

* Tomorrow: Birmingham Conservatoire presents an absolutely fascinating combination of Schoenberg (don’t let the name frighten you, he is such a compelling composer) and jazz at the Crescent Theatre in Sheepcote Street (7.30pm).

* January 21: Birmingham University’s Guild Theatre Group turns the Barber Institute into a barber’s and pie-shop with a concert performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (7.30pm).

* January 22: Also at Birmingham University, the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra plays Music from the Silver Screen (including the rarely-heard Korngold Cello Concerto, Richard Jenkinson the soloist) in the Elgar Concert Hall in the Bramall Music Building (3pm).

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