A Life By Norman : “ It Plays Itself “
At the Royal Festival Hall Sir Malcolm Sargent is running the rehearsal. He’s as charming and handsome as ever with a red carnation prominent on the lapel of his grubby black pea jacket. Immediately to his left sit Hugh Maguire and Norman Nelson, concertmaster and assistant concert master of the London Symphony Orchestra. Norman’s shock of shiny black hair is as noticeable as the red carnation. This is the first rehearsal of the set and I’m playing Double Bass in the number eight spot, having been “called up” from the Royal College of Music to deputize. I’m keeping my eye on Principal Bass Stuart “thunder guts “ Knussen, not realizing that this is my initial acquaintance with Norman. Sir Malcolm is raising his arms, apparently handling things from the conductors rostrum, but the players understand the silent hierarchy that runs an orchestra. The concertmaster and assistant are top dogs….the conductor….? Well maybe number three in the hierarchy. In later years Norman, being so suited and accustomed to the first desk, easily relocated to the music director’s position, literally without missing a beat. As to the hierarchy, you couldn’t get much lower than double bass number eight!
Fast forward to 1997 in the tiny basement of the old St.Rose of Lima Catholic Church, across the road from EMCS High School on the Sooke Road. We were a motley collection: A flute, oboe, bassoon, four or five violins, a viola or two, two cellos and a Bass. And Norman with his shock of tousled grey hair. This was the inaugural rehearsal of the Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra, the opening of an astonishing and fulfilling journey. Norman led us, gently and firmly through his shared musicianship, to heights of performance never imagined possible. Even now he must be listening keenly as we perform, as proud of the players today as when we first stepped into this wonderful adventure.
Norman is a study in contrasting character traits. When rehearsing, he drives his players relentlessly. He demands but never demeans. He is kind, loyal, patient and disciplined. Always considerate, respectful and above all, encouraging . When a passage in rehearsal is played up to his high standards, time and again he says,” well that was very nice….but we must be careful to NOT peak too soon….! “ I speak in the present tense because this IS Norman, through the music he bequeathed. His most endearing qualities are his way with words, his quick wit and his remarkable memory.
Reliving an experience with Sir Thomas Beecham, for example. This is the story of two trumpets, one of which was late for rehearsal.
Sir Thomas [ not realizing the first trumpet was AWOL ] “ First trumpet, you’re too loud…!’’
Second Trumpet [ who was present, responding tentatively. ] “ First trumpet hasn’t arrived yet, Sir Thomas.”
Sir Thomas “ Well….when he gets here, tell him he’s too loud…!”
On another occasion Norman was remembering the formation of the Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields and the selection of Neville Mariner as music director .
Norman: “ We chose Neville because he had a wider range of contacts and knew more influential people than the rest of us “
Neville [reluctantly accepting.]” Well alright I accept.. but for heaven’s sake, don’t watch me…!”
Norman [Now recalling the scene ] : “ He was so right !”
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Sooke Philharmonic was the performance of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in June 2014. Norman conducted this complex work without a score. At the very first rehearsal, knowing the challenging task ahead, he said “ Good afternoon…it’s so nice to see so many suicidal souls…!”
In the second movement of the Bartok there’s a tricky passage for Oboe.
Oboe: “there’s no time to breathe! “
Norman: “ Well that’s fine…. breathing shouldn’t be allowed just there…” [and then mumbling ] “ There are some people in this life who shouldn’t breathe at all ! “
Rehearsing Khachaturian’s Spartacus Adagio, Norman commented to the keyboardist playing the Harp part : “ It’s a tiny bit too much…….not to harp on it of course..!” And later in the piece, to the strings : “ We really need a more seductive sound. I don’t care how you do it….turn the violin upside down, if that would help..! “
For Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Norman on the famous “Eeyore…” passage: “ It’s not donkeyish enough…!! ” And later to the strings for a passage depicting fairies : “ We need less elephants and more fairies..! “
Norman’s comment after a lack-luster rehearsal of Sibelius Symphony No.2, first movement. “ If you’re alive at the end of this movement…you haven’t enjoyed it..! “
For Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, second movement: ” Don’t do anything….stay out of the way…and for heaven’s sake don’t make an exciting sound..! ”
And back to the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, 4th Movement . All four trombones were joyfully showing off with an enormous flatulent descending glissando, reveling in what trombones do best. Norman stopped the orchestra and remarked, “ Well….THAT was a raspberry and a HALF..!!! ”
These comments are not just a memory but Norman’s vivid eloquence that we the players carry fondly with us today as well as throughout all these years. I see him at the back of the rehearsal hall…he has just come in to listen, to persist in his life’s work of musical immersion. He stands by my shoulder examining the music, respectfully offering a little hint here and there…..or……maybe a moment of insight or keen wit will be heard.
The above photos of Norman are from the 2015 chamber music workshop, courtesy Rick Robinson.