Wednesday 7 June 2017

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to an old conductor called Jeffrey Tate, whose life bore testimony to the power of the human spirit

That is no country for old men..
Caught in that sensual music all neglect 
Monuments of unageing intellect.    

Jeffrey, who has died at the age of seventy-four served his apprenticeship in the world of professional music in his late twenties in the 1970s as a 'repetiteur' at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, under the tutelage of Sir Georg Solti and he loved it. He defined his role as one of "bashing notes into players" and "the dogsbody of an opera house and great fun."

As his reputation as a coach grew in the 1970's, so too did the calibre of the artists with whom he worked : Kiri Te Kanawa, Jessye Norman and in 1976, Maria Callas, who was : "very suspicious of me at first as I was of her, but after the month was up, I think we'd become very, very close friends. Whether I could actually coach her is another matter." 

These were the years in which Jeffrey loathed opera and : "Used to go to Convent Garden and wonder why the singers were never with the beat always sang out of tune and why the productions looked so horrible and I would rather go to the Royal Shakespeare Company." He had not seriously considered conducting and thought that he would "rather be the best coach than one of many second rate conductors." 

He became a conductor "purely by accident. I was in Bayreuth assisting Pierre Boulez on 'The Ring' and he put me in charge of all the piano rehearsals and maybe that began to get me think that I could do that kind of thing. One thing led to another and I ended up conducting a series of 15 Carmens at the Gothenburg Opera and it sort of snowballed slightly from there with a reluctant Jeffrey sort of 'tagging on behind.' " 

After his conducting debut in 1978, in Sweden, he graduated to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City the following year and the stage was set for his international career.

Recognition in Britain came at the age of 42 in 1985, when he was appointed the First Principal Conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra and the 'Principal Conductor' of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden the following year, the first person in the House's 250 year history to hold the title.

From 1990, when he left the English Chamber Orchestra, he performed less and less in Britain and reflected that : "After I gave up the ECO, everything sort of dried up here. My mother's friends would ask her, 'Where is your son? Why doesn't he come to Britain any more?' They all thought I had gone into exile or something." He was Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra from 1991 to 1995 and in  2005, was appointed Music Director of the San Carlo Theatre of Naples and remained so for five years.

Jeffrey reappeared briefly in Britain in 2008, when he returned to Covent Garden to lead a production of Wagner's 'The Flying Dutchman' then formally took up a Hamburg Symphony post the following year. Fluent in German, he always felt that Germany was his spiritual home. "Whatever the politics seem to be there, culture is always very central. In Hamburg, there are three major orchestras, an opera house, and one of the great concert-hall acoustics in Europe at the Laeiszhalle, in a town a fifth the size of London. And that's not unusual. In Germany, there are dozens of towns with two or three orchestras. The connection with music goes very, very deep."

His accomplishments were recognised with a knighthood in the 2017 New Year Honours for 'Services to British Music Overseas.'

What you possibly didn't know about Jeffrey, that he :

* was born in Salisbury, Wiltshire half-way through the Second World War, in the spring of 1943, the son of Ellen, who had Welsh antecedents and Cyril, who worked in the Civil Service as a Sales Representative for the Post Office.

* had Ellen say of him : "When he was a baby I didn't notice that he was disabled. He was a sweet little boy. You couldn't image that anything was wrong with him. Only when he couldn't walk properly was he examined by a specialist."

* at the age of three, was examined for the benign condition of 'flat feet', but was found to suffer from, in addition to congenital spina bifida, the complication of kyphosis, a forward rounding of the back and breathing problems and compressed internal organs.

* recalled that : "I was odd from the word go. Slowly, as I grew up, my back began to stoop over and my left leg became shorter than the right one."

* in terms of music : "began playing the piano when I was about five and had lessons for about five years and then stopped because my parents wanted me to concentrate on more important things, so they thought and I just went on playing the piano. That was instinctive, I suppose, and I used to go to my local library and get out books of operas and I sang a lot and in a way, therefore, taught myself to perform."

* said that his Mother "played rather well" and played Mendelssohn when he was very small. In addition remembered that Grandfather Evans : "loved opera and there was masses of opera selections in his piano stool where I used to go sit when my father went to the football match with him and my Mother's cousin played the violin quiet well, so I'm not absolutely without predecessors." 

* found that, despite the fact that he had a younger sister and his parents encouraged him to be "a perfectly normal child" and insisted that he "do errands, clean my room, ride my bicycle into town to get groceries, things children generally do," he still had a lonely childhood.

* felt that he was "isolated from the other children. By their own reactions to me, I would retreat to a piano, often with a book. My great childhood thing was to take a book that I was reading put it on the piano and literally improvise as I was reading the book. It was a very curious state of affairs and I would do that for hours. My mother said I was perfectly happy then, just let my fingers stroll over the keys and would not miss anybody. I'm sure that music and the notes were my friends rather than the children." 

* had his first stay in the Rowley Bristow Orthopaedic Hospital in Surrey, previously known as the 'St Nicholas' Home for Crippled Children,' when he was eight and spent 6 months there after major surgery.

* recalled that he : "lay on my back for four months and had to relearn to walk. I suddenly realized that the world was a much nastier place than I ever imagined" and forty years later was able to reflect that : "an atmosphere of children on their own isn't a particularly happy one, I mean 'Lord of the Flies' is not an unreasonable book. In that sense children are very nasty to each other particularly in isolation, particularly under stress. and I learnt to lie and do all sorts of terrible things that I hadn't really done before." 

* passed the 11+ exam in 1953 and gained a place at the all boys, Farnham Grammar School, where, things took a turn for the better because, as he said, he was "lucky enough to go to a school which was immensely sympathetic in all respects."

* had "a great music master with lots of music and a very fine play reading society" and "found a lot of companionship in people of like intelligence." As to his disability, found that : "in the last resort, I stopped worrying about it" and at the age of 17, was chosen as Head Boy, which he later reflected was "a tremendous gesture on the part of the Headmaster" who was George Baxter.

* found that school life was still punctuated by "perpetual check ups and terrible visits to places which had to measure surgical shoes for me" which he "got fed up with it. It was just boring."

* on his two month stay in hospital in 1955, when he was 12, while in plaster, was wheeled into the hospital’s radio studio so that he could put his hands through the bars on his bed to play the piano and 'The Mountains of Mourne.' for other patients and thus made his first public performance.

was lucky to have Alan Fluck, who later founded 'Youth and Music, as his 'lively music master and took part in school productions as one of the 'pickled boys' in front of Benjamin Britten in his 'Saint Nicolas', and on the piano in front of Gian Carlo Menotti in his one act opera 'Amahl and the Night Visitors.'

* was photographed at school, in the centre, with a cake-cutting Benjamin Britten. As to his disability

* in 1961, the year he left school and with his life before him he : "Was told when I went for a life-insurance exam when I was 18, that I was not likely to live past 50, so I refused to pay the premium." 

* probably knew by this time that he would never achieve his full 6'6" height and would, instead, be confined to 5'10" but, at the same time : "had a great sense of debt to medicine. I realised I was an ambulant creature because of what science had done for me, so I got into Cambridge on a state scholarship to become a doctor."

* attending Christ's College at the University for his medicine degree in the early 1960s, also started to direct theatre productions.

* in the mid sixties, finished his medical training at St Thomas' Hospital, London, planning to specialise in ophthalmology, but where he felt increasingly ill at ease : "I would go on ward runs in black leather jackets and jeans and I knew more and more I couldn't fit into the doctor cast."

* initially, had another lonely time and : "spent an awful lot of time alone particularly in my twenties after I came down from Cambridge and came to London and got very much used to thinking and being by myself. I didn't like it particularly, but I got very used to making my own world up for myself." It was then he got "entangled in a rather wonderful opera workshop and spent much more time learning how to coach Rhine maidens than walking the wards. So I failed part of my finals and that was a great shock to me because I'd never failed an exam in my life." 

* reassessed his career. A friend put his finger on it when he said : "You're pining to be a musician." He applied a place at the prestigious London Opera Centre for Coaches based in the old Troxy Cinema in Stepney and recalled : "I remember finishing my ward rounds, getting a tube to Covent Garden, and playing to a formidable and terrifying panel of people. I thought I had played appallingly, and went and got very drunk at the Salisbury in St Martin's Lane."

* to his surprise was offered a place and kept it open while he completed his finals when he "decided I had to give it a whirl. I had to discover if this was the way of the world or not. I spoke to my consultant who was very good and said "yes if you do a year of opera, no one's going to say "no" if you come back to medicine." So I did that year on the assumption that if I hadn't found my feet at the end of that year then I'd go back to medicine having tried and then I couldn't say at 49 : " never did it." "

* in 1975, at the age of 32, finally liberated himself from the uncomfortable plastic brace he had worn "religiously" from the age of 12 which "started below my arms and went to my groin and one day in '75 in a very, very hot summer in France I decide no more. This is enough, even if I fall down and I took the damn thing off and didn't need it."

* found that, as time went on, developed strategies  to cope with his disabilities and, for example, always felt "a bit odd walking in front of all those people" and as a consequence tried to do it slowly. and learned this the hard way, when. : "Conducting I rushed on to the podium and slipped on the first step and fell into the arms of the viola player and, of course, it took me about half an hour to recover from that. I learnt a savage lesson for that : that despite being nervous and very self-conscious, walk very, very slowly."

* made a supreme physical effort during his performances and lathered up to such an extent that between opera acts he had to change right down to his shoes and socks but despite this, found that they had a therapeutic effect and found : "after a rehearsal of a performance that I have more breath, and can walk better and climb stairs better than I could before. It's as if I've expanded my lungs doing it. Basically speaking, conducting is quite a healthy profession." He professed : "If people had told me that I would have the stamina to conduct 'Ring Cycles,' I would have been amazed."

* was convinced that his disability had given him a sense of detachment, since he felt different physically to most people : "So I observe life a little bit, rather than participating in it. That's a good description of the conductor's role on the podium, too: conducting involves controlling and criticising the musical experience."

* in 1989, became and the President of UK Spina Bifida Charity 'SHINE'  (Spina Bifida, Hydrocephalus, Information, Networking, Equality)

* when he reflected on his disability, said : "Of course I'm bitter. I'd be stupid, not to be bitter. There are times when, of course, I'd love to be perfectly straight and perfectly normal. There are many occasions in my life in which it would have helped a great deal. Others in which it wouldn't. The bitterness is part of a great sort of panoply. It's a useful thing to know about bitterness. I don't think it's bad to know what bitterness means. I'm not basically bitter, but it does perhaps represent seven to five percent of my life. Why not ?"

* enjoyed the company of his partner of forty years, Klaus Kuhlemann, a German geomorphologist. who he had met while conducting at Cologne in 1977 and concluded that : "The gay world is immensely hung up with physical perfection for some curious reason. Therefore, being disabled in that world is harder."

** on BBC Radio's 'Desert Island Discs' in 1989, chose, as his last record, one which he put on when he was "feeling particularly sad and it makes me feel even sadder. In fact, it's also full of hope. It reminds me of America, which I love. It's Billie Holiday singing 'Ill be seeing you.'  

* chose Piero della Francesca's 'Nativity' from the 1490s as 'The picture he would take with him to his Desert Island,' because it was :

"full of people singing and wonderful."

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