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Cheerio Charlie

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 11:25 UK Time, Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Photo of Charles Martin by Nikos Zarb

Charles Martin says farewell to the BBC SO - Photo © Nikos Zarb


I went on a busman's holiday last week - I actually bought a ticket and went to the Barbican to watch (ok, and listen to) the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Apart from feeling a bit strange not to be sitting on stage, one of the things that struck me looking at the band was the seniority of some of their players

When I joined the BBC Symphony Orchestra 20 years ago, the viola section was almost a sea of grey hair, now the average age is about 40. In those days the BBC retirement age was 60; it is now 65. In America, however, there is no retirement age in their orchestras. So as long as your playing is up to snuff you can stay in your chair, well into your dotage if you so choose. The legendary Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal trumpet Adolph 'Bud' Herseth retired at the extraordinary age of 80, while a timpanist at the Metropolitan Opera, Richard Horowitz, is still thumping away at 86. Somehow, I don't think I'll be playing Götterdämmerung at that age, but then, as I'm always quick to point out, the violas have the most pages in that opera!

After our recent performance of Mahler 6 with Jiri Belohlavek, we said farewell to a much-loved and long-serving member of the orchestra, cellist Charles Martin who retired after 34 years with the orchestra. It's always sad to say goodbye to people who have willingly given so much of themselves and cheerfully survived so many concerts, tours and general orchestral mishaps. Doing what we do inevitably brings us closer together than a lot of work colleagues - not only physically and musically, but friendship-wise too. Orchestras are often referred to as being like large families, with all the good (and not-so-good) aspects that go with that analogy. New appointments are made almost along the lines of a marriage with potential candidates sometimes being courted and 'invited in' to the orchestra, just as you might a possible future partner. Careful assessments are made not only of the person's musical attributes, but also of their personalities, so that they will 'fit in' to the 'family'.

So, at special occasions (births, deaths, retirements) there are secret collections, presents given and speeches made to and by the people concerned. In his leaving speech Charlie went out in style, rattling off a series of idiosyncratic impressions of conductors he'd worked with over the decades, from Boult to Belohlavek, which was brave, as the latter was standing right next to him at the time - see photo above! Colleagues paid tribute to Charlie's inexhaustible energy (running half marathons before rehearsals), his long commute from Ramsgate to Maida Vale (over 80 miles) and his impromptu encore with Nigel Kennedy on tour (yes, he also plays jazz cello). But, as always, there is much more to orchestral players than just their instruments, and Charlie did lots for his colleagues behind the scenes, organising cello section rotation, studio fire warden, writing arrangements for cello ensembles, inveterate cyclist, postcard collector, photographer, astronomer, chess-player - and teacher of Cribbage to all and sundry. He taught me it once on a long flight to Korea, only I consumed so much red wine during the game that I now can't remember the rules ... I'm sure we haven't seen the last of Charlie but we wish him well with all the irons he has in his fire; hopefully he might even find time to come back and teach me Cribbage again!

Phil Hall is sub-principal viola of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and a regular correspondent for this Blog


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