Recording with the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, by John Whitmore

I was a member of the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra in the late 1960s and 70s and was lucky enough to have taken part in two recording sessions for Argo in 1970. The sessions were produced by Fred Woods with Kevin Daly as the sound engineer. I remember both Fred and Kevin with great affection. We were only teenagers at the time but the Argo team treated us as they would any adult professional group.

The children’s television programme Sounds Exciting, broadcast in 1968, was a musical education series culminating in a final “whodunit” called Dead in Tune with Robin Ray’s original story set to music by Herbert Chappell and performed by a chamber group of players from the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra. Two years later Argo recorded the piece using an ensemble of forty-seven players drawn from the LSSO conducted by Herbert Chappell. This LP also included a new commission, George and the Dragonfly, with a script by John Kershaw, music by Herbert Chappell and narrated by Robin Ray, John Kershaw and Susan Stranks (Robin Ray’s wife and star of the TV programme Magpie).

First rehearsals for the Dead in Tune and George and the Dragonfly sessions took place over a two-day period on January 1st and 2nd 1970, at Longslade Grammar School in Birstall near Leicester. Herbert Chappell, Robin Ray, Susan Stranks and John Kershaw were all present at these rehearsals. Looking back at this project, it probably wasn’t a really a good idea to book 47 members of the LSSO into a London hotel for the weekend, allow them to team up with friends from the Royal Academy of Music and give them the freedom of the West End. We set off from Leicester immediately after the Friday rehearsal and booked into the Royal Hotel in Russell Square late on Friday night. That night was something of a party (some of the older players were all of 17 and 18 years of age) and the hotel bar was still being propped up at 2am by around 20 members of the band. The sessions took place on January 3rd and 4th at Decca Studio No.3 in West Hampstead.

Day one could have gone better, in all honesty. There were a few hangovers and the standard of playing was, quite frankly, quite poor. Kevin didn’t get a decent take all morning and lunch was taken early. The afternoon improved and most of Dead in Tune was completed, albeit somewhat behind schedule. On Saturday night we were all confined to barracks, but a few of us managed to escape by 9pm and we headed for a Beer Keller in Piccadilly. Several litres of Lowenbrau later, reality started to take a grip and we headed back to Russell Square before midnight.

Sunday commenced with George and the Dragonfly and the playing was much improved. Into the control room we went and the Dead in Tune take from Saturday was played back to us. Kevin Daly started the tape running and it sounded so poor that we were shamed into another complete performance. The majority of this take actually made it onto the final edit. Robin and Susan proved to be great fun and came to hear us play later on in the year at the Cheltenham Festival. Robin chain-smoked Dunhill International Cigarettes all through the two days but only smoked the first half an inch and then stubbed them out. At the time, this struck us all as being just a bit strange, I remember. The third narrator, John Kershaw, was rather quiet and very much the poet.

On April 28th the new record was premiered at a press luncheon in the Royal Lancaster Hotel, London. Half a dozen of us attended this event and the LP actually received some very positive reviews in the national music press.

Following the success of Dead in Tune, there were soon plans afoot to record the full orchestra – around 110 players – in a programme of purely orchestral music. Just to put this into context, the LSSO was second only to the National Youth Orchestra at the time and was widely acknowledged as being the best school orchestra in the country. Having worked with many illustrious conductors over the years the orchestra was privileged to have Sir Michael Tippett as its patron and regular guest conductor. One evening, during an interview on the Simon Dee show, the newly appointed principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, André Previn, threw into the conversation that he would like to work with the LSSO. André was a friend of Herbert Chappell and Bert had told André that he would be ideal for the LSSO. To hear this confirmed live on national TV was tremendous news. Our regular conductor, the great Eric Pinkett, contacted Previn the following morning and the outcome was that he agreed to take part in the new Argo recording, personally choosing three pieces to direct.

Previn and Tippett were signed up but that left another 20 minutes of an LP to fill. The repertoire in 1970 included Introduction and Allegro by Sir Arthur Bliss and this was a big favourite with the orchestra. When approached, Sir Arthur was very enthusiastic and he agreed to conduct this on the record. The contents of the new record were now finalised. Bliss arrived in the studio on the first day of the session (Saturday, August 29th), and his tempi were faster than Eric Pinkett’s. After this rather unsettling start, one complete take followed by some small repairs got the job done. Sir Arthur was very professional and easy to work with. By the end of day one Bryan Kelly’s Cuban Suite had also been recorded. Eric Pinkett conducted the work and the session was attended by the composer, who we had worked with on previous occasions. Day one was complete and we then had the task of tidying the studio for the London Philharmonic Orchestra who had a session on Sunday. We then headed back to the Royal Hotel in Russell Square and took the next day off.

Our second day in the studio was on Monday, August 31st and this was potentially a challenge. Bliss and Kelly were known quantities. Not so André Previn. We hadn’t even met him before but were scheduled to record three works in one day. It sounded like a difficult proposition but it didn’t turn out that way at all. He breezed into the back of the studio while we were playing Russlan and Ludmilla. Having just returned from honeymoon with his wife, Mia Farrow, he apologised for his unshaven appearance, sight-read Herbert Chappell’s Panache, sharpened up some of the rhythms and then set down a complete take. This overture was written for the LSSO and Herbert Chappell was in the control room listening to the performance. Previn’s Overture to a Comedy was nigh on impossible to play with its high level of virtuosity but the final result is really quite exciting. Previn’s third chosen work was Ireland’s Elegy for Strings. André Previn was at the height of his fame in the 1970s and he was a real pleasure to work with – dynamic but very demanding, especially of the string players.

Finally we came to Sir Michael and his Shires Suite, another work written for the orchestra and premiered at the 1970 Cheltenham Festival. Two movements were recorded: Interlude II and Epilogue. In the Interlude II he just couldn’t get the right percussion sound. Cellist Martin Walker accidentally hit one of the huge aluminium ash trays, which were scattered around the studio floor, with his bow. “That’s it!” shouted Michael and an ash tray was passed through the ranks to the percussion section.

The final LP was released in April 1971 and received excellent reviews in Gramophone, Records & Recording and HiFi news.

John Whitmore