PROFILE

Landmark Collaborations

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A personal reminiscence of British conductor Lawrence Leonard, by KEITH BRAMICH

 

More than twenty years have passed since the death of British conductor Lawrence Leonard, a man who achieved some fairly amazing things during his lifetime. One of the most daring of these took place in Alberta, Canada in 1971, when British rock band Procol Harum shared a gig with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Leonard was the orchestra's Music Director from 1968 until 1973, and such combined ventures were rare in those days - in fact, this one was described as 'a landmark collaboration'. The resulting 1972 album, Procul Harum Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra went on to sell 'gold' and 'platinum'.

Born in 1923, Lawrence Leonard studied at London's Royal Academy of Music, at the École Normale de Musique de Paris and privately with Ansermet and Kleiber. From sixteen he worked as an orchestral cellist, but after World War II, in 1948, he co-founded, with Arnold Goldsbrough, the orchestra that would later, in 1960, become the English Chamber Orchestra.

Leonard was a close friend of Berlin-born cartoonist, raconteur and amateur tuba player Gerard Hoffnung, and collaborated, both as conductor and composer, in the humorous Hoffnung Music Festival concerts which began in the late 1950s. After Hoffnung's early death, Leonard toured Hoffnung performances with the cartoonist's wife, Annetta Hoffnung.

As a composer and arranger, Lawrence Leonard is probably best known for his unusual piano concerto arrangement of Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, but he also wrote a tone poem, Mezoon, for the Sultan of Oman's birthday, Group Questions for Orchestra (1973) for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Swoopy the Seal for narrator and orchestra, first performed in London. Also for Edmonton he arranged Guillaume de Machaut's Grande Messe de Notre Dame for choir and orchestra. For the Hoffnung Music Festivals he contributed the riotous Mobile for Seven Orchestras.

Lawrence Leonard was also a charismatic and knowledgeable teacher, conducting the Royal Academy of Music Chamber Orchestra and teaching conducting at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Also in London, he had a long-term association with Morley College, where, in the 1950s, he had the task of setting up the Morley Symphony Orchestra (which also moonlighted as the Hoffnung Symphony Orchestra). He returned to the Morley Symphony Orchestra in the 1980s, when he also ran the Morley Chamber Orchestra, the Wind Group and the college's conducting class.

Lawrence Leonard (1923-2001). Photo © 1998 Keith Bramich
Lawrence Leonard (1923-2001). Photo © 1998 Keith Bramich

I first came across Lawrence Leonard in the late 1980s, when I was a novice conducting student at Morley College, remaining in his class for several years. A whole series of talented students were attracted to this Friday evening class, including, during my time there, Ian Hellen, Christopher Johns, Hamish McKeich, Michael Nebe, Nicola Ng, Patrick Noronha, Stephen Pettitt, Shuntaro Sato, Daniel Schorno, John Shea, David Todhunter, Rachael Young and Byung-Yun Yu. Lawrence worked us hard, teaching at a high level and often getting us to conduct in silence, in front of the class. He would also regularly throw students out of his class at the end of term, telling us that our talents lay elsewhere. (This happened to me at least twice!)

Lawrence had set up an amateur orchestra for his students to rehearse on Saturday afternoons, nicknamed the Lambeth Walk All-Stars, and told us that if we could conduct this orchestra, we would be able to conduct any orchestra. Because of Laurence's stature, this orchestra attracted some rather well-connected people. The composer and violinist Remo Lauricella was one, and the clarinet section consisted of Mieshe (Mary) and Reg Pleeth - brother of cellist William Pleeth. Another colourful figure was George Balcombe, an architect who worked on Brasília and won a RIBA Silver Medal for his essay on the subject and who later arranged Carnival of the Animals for Lawrence's Wind Group at Morley.

Lawrence would usually sit at a table, writing notes on tiny pieces of paper for each student, sometimes even including a cartoon drawing, and would occasionally join the cello section, but he never conducted the Lambeth Walk All-Stars. On one memorable occasion, though, the Saturday afternoon session had ended early, and George Young, who played viola in the orchestra, asked Lawrence if he would conduct something, to 'show us how it was done'. The result was a lesson on the importance of the people in an orchestra: at each entry, Lawrence called out the name of the person who was about to start playing.

Lawrence had strong socialist ideals, which had caused him problems with various colleagues over the course of his career, and he insisted that the conducting students made afternoon tea for the orchestra, and that the players were allowed a few minutes at the end of sessions to criticise each conductor. One player, George Ward, usually found in the trumpet section or at the back of the violas, was often a bit too verbose with his comments, resulting in Lawrence regularly barking out the command 'Shut up George!', which, of course, then became this unfortunate guy's nickname. To my surprise, at my audition for the David Shields Conducting Masterclass, the first question posed by the panel was 'How many Georges are there now in the Saturday orchestra?'

The members of this volunteer orchestra all knew Lawrence Leonard as the man who had conducted the first London run of Bernstein's West Side Story in 1959. Lawrence told us students that he had simply received a phone call inviting him to take this job, and I've often wondered why Bernstein chose him. It could just be that Lawrence Leonard was a promising young conductor who at the time happened to be available. My fanciful theory, for which I have no evidence whatsoever, is based on Bernstein's place of birth - the city of Lawrence in Massachusetts. This means, in effect, that one can say that Leonard Bernstein was Leonard from Lawrence, or that he was a Lawrence Leonard!

I took some private conducting lessons from Lawrence at his home on the side of Box Hill in Surrey, and these metamorphosed into a friendship. I remember that Swiss composer Daniel Schorno, visiting the UK, was present on at least one of these visits. We ate together, walked on Box Hill and Lawrence talked about some of his achievements, including his children's novel The Horn of Mortal Danger, of which he was very proud. To my surprise, he didn't view his career as having been particularly successful. I think this was somehow connected to his socialism and falling out with the musical establishment.

By now Lawrence was seriously ill, but joked about the problems of wanting to leave his body to medical science, and that for this, he would have to die on a weekday. In December 2000, in the spirit of Mark Twain's 'The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated', rumours began circulating about Lawrence Leonard's demise. I spoke of my concern to British conductor George Vass, who knew Lawrence as Frankie from his Royal Academy of Music days and suggested that I simply phoned Lawrence's number ... maybe his wife would answer and could give me some news? I did just that, and a familiar (but weak) voice at the other end said 'Hello, old boy!'. This was the last time that Lawrence and I spoke, and he passed away just a few days later ... on a weekday.

My reason for writing about Lawrence Leonard now is that, just a few days ago, I discovered that his family had set up a website all about him, possibly very recently. This contains some rather interesting material, including recordings of some of his compositions and details of the books he wrote. You can also watch a half-hour video of Lawrence Leonard teaching conducting, filmed (by me, at his request) at Morley College. The website, well worth exploring, is at lawrenceleonard.co.uk

Copyright © 14 August 2021 Keith Bramich,
Edinburgh, UK

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A LAWRENCE LEONARD OBITUARY

FURTHER INTERVIEWS, PROFILES AND TRIBUTES

 

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