It was recently announced that Sir Roger Norrington was to conduct the final concert of his career. Having played for him, worked with him, programmed with him whilst at the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, toured, discussed, argued and (usually) agreed with him for decades, I thought; definitely time to write a letter…
18 November 2021
What should we say? That a full 30 years ago we thought that you were about to die? That in the year when we marked the 200th anniversary of the passing of Mozart with a new completion of the Requiem by lovely Duncan Druce – hawking it all the way from the Proms to New York and beyond – that we wondered, would this be Roger’s last project? That standing in a lift in the old Empire Hotel across from Lincoln Center I tried to say goodbye to you, thanking you awkwardly between floors X and Y for what we had not only experienced and learnt, but also had actually had fun with?
Or should we talk about your landmark Beethoven Symphonies, which for those of us who had the luck and luxury of having played them with you in the 1980s, represented perhaps the greatest musical adventure of our lives. (Perhaps that was what I was trying to say in that lift in New York: that you had led us to a ‘new’ understanding of bar lines and phrases – cells rather than the usual melodies and chords – that was perhaps more old than new in its meaning, even though it felt more new than old in our experience of it).
Or that we were, perhaps more than anything else in those days, adventurers and explorers with Roger. Trying out new ideas about how something might sound without the characteristic English fear of failure. Risking it. Kent Opera Orchestra in the 80s in the Roger Norrington period, when it was probably the finest opera orchestra many of us will ever have known. Or the London Classical Players period, when you brought the ‘Experience’ Weekends to the Southbank Centre, which might mean a Beethoven 9 that changed our lives or simply uncle Roger sitting in an armchair talking to the audience about how understanding Brahms was simply a matter of reading Wordsworth and Coleridge and thus grasping the Romantic imagination.
Or should we turn instead to Haydn: to the witty, humorous Roger, the prankster clown who was never afraid – unlike many of his (yes) stuck up peers – of having a bit of fun? Of the time when recording a forte-piano concerto in Broadcasting House you put your loose change carefully into the end of the forte-piano so as not to let it jingle during a take, and seeing the horrified pianist’s visage, said quite simply but with exquisite timing, “I probably shouldn’t have done that should I”? Or Roger the conductor who often indulged in the habit mid-concert of turning to someone who seemed to be in about row 4 – perhaps it was Roger’s Bunbury – as if to say, ‘isn’t this phrase wonderful!?’
And of course, such an approach, as with so much of your work Roger, was infectious; like a friendly virus, you didn’t so much conduct us, you dared us. Perhaps that was why, in Ann Arbor during an encore of the Overture Il Signor Bruschino, when the second violins are meant to tap their music stands, I rather decided to tap towards you instead, and so doing in a fit of ‘Roger-esque’ enthusiasm, actually broke your baton with my bow (Guinness book of Records anyone?). Some conductors would have simply died in their egos at that point. Instead you turned to your fourth row Bunbury as if to say, with a relaxed shrug, ‘it happens…’.
Dear Roger, as with many people, I shall never forget my first meeting with you: having returned to the UK in early 1982 after three years in chaotic generous-spirited South America, and wondering how I had managed to leave those warm vibrant tropical spaces for a cold slightly bedraggled Britain that, as today, no longer seemed to know who she was, I turned up for my first rehearsal of Onegin. Sitting directly in front of you I was conducted – surely we all were – through the most glorious rampant lush Tchaikovsky one could imagine. The fact is that most great conductors are either great philosophers or great magicians, but it fell to you Dear Roger, to absolutely insist instead, to have and to be something of both. Of keeping us amazed, enthused, engaged, entertained; yet also informed, insightful and thoughtful, in equal and utterly dramatic measure.
Dear Roger, thank you for being the conductor at the centre of my – and many others – lives. And thank you for – in Nick Kenyon’s words – having ‘won’ the argument. And to the blessed audience that will be packed into The Sage Gateshead for your last concert for some no doubt quintessentially ‘Norringtonion’ Haydn: Lucky them! Don’t forget to enjoy it for the rest of us as well, for that is what I know that you, Roger, always seemed to want for your audiences, everywhere, and thus will also want – if only for this one last time – tonight.