The English String Orchestra is relaunching itself with one of the most respected interpreters of English music at its helm. Christopher Morley went to meet him.
After a sad period marooned in the doldrums and at risk of sinking without trace, the English Symphony Orchestra is undergoing a rebirth with the appointment of the much-respected Vernon Handley as its new principal conductor.
Handley has for decades been renowned as a persuasive advocate of British music, both well-known (Elgar) and neglected (former master of the Queen's Musick, Sir Arnold Bax, for one), and his LP recordings dating from the 1960s have done much to contribute to the general resurgence of interest in British composers.
An horrific accident in Germany robbed him of easy mobility, and led to other health problems, but his spirit remains feisty and optimistic, and conversation with him is peppered with both laughs and profound insights.
Everyone knows him as "Tod". Why?
"When I was a child I was pigeon-toed, so my father nicknamed me 'Tod'. My brother Graham, now a commentator on 19th-century novelists such as George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell, was also pigeon-toed, and he was called 'Toddles'. We're both Dr Handley, and our first wives were both called Barbara."
I put it to the septuagenarian Tod Handley that conductors don't seem to retire.
"I shan't retire – but I've known a number who should!
"I have a feeling – that may be the conceit of a conductor – that I'm rather coming into my best, now. Things were rather awkward, but now they're getting easier, rather nicely."
Handley rescued last year's ESO Elgar Festival in Malvern when things looked at their lowest, the orchestra having lost its previous conductor and with funds drying up. And as a result he was offered this position as its new principal conductor. What prompted him to accept it?
"Very simple answer, so we can get on to other things. The orchestra! Marvellous orchestra!
"The atmosphere at the rehearsals and the concerts in very difficult situations was so marvellous that when it was offered me I couldn't refuse.
"It is a tremendous atmosphere with wonderful players, and I'm a conductor, perhaps a rare one, in a number of things: one, I employ a 'technique'; two, I believe that the most profound work can be done against a background of hilarity. This orchestra accepted the fact that I was larking about as not detrimental to serious work.
"I feel that orchestras work in such hard conditions, hard from the point of view of time as a rule, that if you keep them working all the time, or lecture them about what they're doing wrong, you cause a tightness in the diaphragm which doesn't do any good to anybody.
"If every 20 minutes you relax that diaphragm with some hilarity, it doesn't really matter whether it's hilarity which pokes fun at yourself as a conductor, because conductors have this problem of being always right."
There is a tendency to assume that when things go well it is to the conductor's credit, and if they go badly it's the players' fault. Handley is happy to acknowledge that it's often the other way round.
"Orchestras are doing their best the whole time to play well, and if something goes wrong, 99 per cent of the time it's the conductor's fault...
"So if anything at some time in rehearsal doesn't go too well, I say, 'Oh, I'm sorry, what an awful wrong beat, I'm sorry, I nearly dropped the stick. Now, that kind of thing for the 'maestro', he'd never say, that would be ridiculous, you'd negated your position straightaway.
"The position of a conductor is very much like that of a Hitler, if he's of that frame of mind. I feel we all came into the world the same way and go out the same way, and anything between is a bonus, so I always make fun of the conductor. Relaxation is the key word in rehearsals, even when you're working very fast, as we had to last year in Malvern.
"Just get on with it, just know it. And then, in the concert, surprise the magic in the piece."
That was the second time Handley used the word "magic" in our conversation. It was also a favourite word of Elgar, of whom the conductor is such a great interpreter.
He explains how it is also bound up with the study of humour, a subject of which Handley is a great student.
"You lead an audience one way, and they think they know what the joke's going to be, and then suddenly it goes the other way, and that's the joke!
"I think it was Hobbes, the great English philosopher, who said 'Laughter is sudden glory.' That's very beautiful, and it's the same with music.
"Listen to music, and according to the placing and development of a master composer, something catches you, and it's got you forever, that's the extraordinary thing, you never forget it."
There's no stopping Vernon Handley as he continues to underline the responsibilities and obligations of a conductor's position.
"A conductor can go on to a rostrum and do everything that distracts and harms an orchestra, and therefore denies the audience what it came for.
"My old teacher, Sir Adrian Boult, used to say, 'now remember, my boy, you're conducting for the blind man, who can only hear what you're doing' – Boult, who never moved his feet, during a rehearsal or a concert."