Friday, 22 May 2009

Nigel Fortune and Vernon Handley

Bruce Phillips, our music editor-at-large, writes:

One funeral and a memorial concert on the same day on Friday, May 1st. In Birmingham the funeral of Nigel Fortune, who died on Good Friday at the age of 84. A large crowd of people turned out for the Humanist ceremony at West Bromwich Crematorium virtually filling the chapel. There were two addresses, the first by Clare Short, Fortune’s neighbour in Handsworth, Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham, Ladywood, and controversial erstwhile government minister for overseas development. Fortune, a lifelong Labour supporter, was as tireless in his political campaigning as he was in the development of high standards in musicological research, the editing of text and music, and the production of a generation of Birmingham music graduates. One of them, the composer John Casken, delivered a moving tribute to a figure who had obviously profoundly influenced his life and career, as he had that of so many others.

Thence to Worcester for a concert in the cathedral in memory of the great British conductor Vernon Handley, who died in September 2008 aged 77. Handley, universally known as Tod, was largely self-taught. Though he read English at Balliol he spent most of his time at Oxford conducting. He wrote out of the blue to Sir Adrian Boult and they met and became friends, Boult becoming mentor to Handley as he began to make his name as predominantly but not exclusively a conductor of British music. Tod inherited Boult’s preference (which Boult had inherited from Nikisch) for long conducting batons and for communicating his intentions through the end of the stick rather than through exaggerated bodily gestures. He was a tireless champion of British music, notably Bax, Elgar, Delius and Vaughan Williams but he also went out of his way to programme and record less well known composers such as Stanford, Bantock, Boughton,

Handley conducted most of the leading British orchestras in the course of his very full career, and in 2007 became associated with the English Symphony Orchestra. It was this orchestra, conducted by his pupil Laura Jellicoe, that filled that great cathedral with magnificent sound in one of Bliss’s fanfares, Elgar’s Overture Cockaigne, Finzi’s Shakespeare song cycle Let us garlands bring with baritone Michael George, and finally Vaughan Williams’ music inspired by Blake’s illustrations: Job—A Masque for Dancing, considered by Handley to have been his best recording. The saxophones depicting Job’s Comforters never sounded so oily, the Pavane of the Sons of the Morning never so stately and noble.

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