Still having a whale of a time 30 years on

On 24 January 1968, the London Sinfonietta burst fully formed from the belly of `The Whale', when a 24-year-old David Atherton conducted the world premiere of an anarchic new `cantata' - soon to be recorded by The Beatles' Apple label, complete with guest appearance by Ringo Starr (on loud-hailer) - by a 23-year-old John Tavener. Tonight, 30 years and 119 world premieres later, the Sinfonietta reprises that pioneering piece by a composer whose closing hymn for Princess Diana's funeral service has now made him a household name the world over. Here, Malcolm Hayes talks to Tavener and others who played a part in that historic first night in 1968.

NICHOLAS SNOWMAN

First general manager. Chief executive of the SBC since 1986

"The seeds of that first night were sown early, although none of us knew it at the time. I'd been at school with Tavener, and had met a lot of the players when we were students together at Cambridge. David Atherton was there too.

"Why did the idea take off as it did? It was all instinctive. Looking back, I think two things were crucial. First, there was a real need for a specialised 20th-century ensemble in London at that time. It's hard to remember today, when there are so many more of them, how much that gap needed filling. Also, it can't be over-emphasised how much David brought to the Sinfonietta. It was really his talent that made the difference."

DAVID ATHERTON

First artistic director/conductor

"For me, it goes back to when I was a little kid in Blackpool, and I used to listen to the Thursday-evening Invitation Concerts of 20th-century music on what was then the BBC Third Programme. I just knew that this was something I wanted to be part of.

"In those early days there wasn't much else of that kind going on. In our first concert, besides The Whale, we did Henze's cantata Apollo et Hyazinthus and Strauss's Second Sonatina for wind instruments. I've always been keen to do programmes like that, where new works can be heard in the context of more familiar ones. Later managements thought differently, and that was one reason why I moved on. But every orchestra goes through different phases in its life. That's fair enough, and I've always come back regularly to work with the Sinfonietta. It's like your own child; it's difficult seeing it growing away from you, but you know you have to let it."

JOHN CONSTABLE

Principal pianist since 1968

"The main thing I remember from the first performance of The Whale was holding the sustaining pedal down, while Raimund Herincx [baritone] shouted into the inside of the piano to get the echo effect. But where David was so clever was that he'd realised what a good piece The Whale really was. It was full of the sort of avant-garde devices which usually have people muttering about `silly modern music'. But the audience realised that, in this case, it worked."

SEBASTIAN BELL

Principal flautist since 1968

"They asked me to do The Whale, but I couldn't - I was on tour. I started with the second concert, when we did Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. Since then I must have played more Sinfonietta concerts than anyone else.

"I think there have been three quite clear phases in how we've evolved. First, it was a case of bringing full professionalism to bear on 20th- century music. David set the tone in the early days: he was ruthless if a player wasn't up to the level he demanded. Heads rolled like pineapples. Then Michael Vyner's time as general manager was when our commissioning policy came into its own. We toured as a chamber ensemble of 14 or 15 players, with single strings, and this format was a huge influence on the way composers wrote. Today, it's a time for retrenchment - in the best sense. There's much more cross-fertilisation than there used to be between different schools of composers.

"You can sum up what we're about in one word. Standards."

ANDREW ROSNER

First orchestral manager, now a partner in Allied Artists

"I remember the first night like it was yesterday. We'd been able to hire the players for not much money by promising to pay them on the same night. The string players weren't in Strauss's Wind Sonatina, so of course they were going home after The Whale. I'd been co-opted as one of the voices which shout through loud-hailers from different parts of the hall. I then had to get from a box right at the top of the QEH, back across a really quite dangerous part of the roof, and down to the backstage area to pay the players. I just made it in time.

"In those early days we used to run the Sinfonietta as a cottage industry from this little house in Temple Fortune - David Atherton, Nick Snowman, Tony Pay and myself. We just drew up plans for our second season, took them to the Arts Council, and said, `Look at what we're doing: how can you afford not to support us?'"

CLIVE GILLINSON

Cellist in first concert. Managing director of the LSO since 1984

"I was still a student at the Royal Academy at the time. I don't remember the performance of The Whale all that well, but I do remember the stir it caused. You can't over-emphasise how innovatory the Sinfonietta's agenda was at the time. What they were doing was new and utterly different and really challenging.

"I think what truly counted was that the Sinfonietta management team knew how to take that success forward. It's all about people. You can have any theory you like, but it comes down to the individuals involved. In some ways the circumstances of running an orchestra are different now compared to then. But those people would have made things happen in any time.

"In the LSO we've found that audiences are now much more willing to experience new works than they were. The Sinfonietta has been one of the key elements in that change of perception."

ANTHONY PAY

Principal clarinettist until 1984

"One of the things I had to do in The Whale was start up the pre-recorded tape that accompanied Alvar Lidell reading the entry on whales from the Collins Encyclopaedia. I pressed the switch, and out came this horrible buzzing noise. David looked as if he could murder someone. Fortunately I saw that a jackplug had been pulled out, probably by the flutes moving their chairs. I put it back in, and the noise stopped. Some of the reviewers thought that the buzzing noise was a surprisingly good effect."

JOHN TAVENER

Composer of `The Whale'. His new opera `The Toll Houses' will be premiered by the Royal Opera in October

"When I started out as a composer, I wasn't happy with the dominance of what I called `the European intellectual kitchen-house'. I'm not against serial music as such: Stravinsky's late works, for instance, have for me the most wonderful strength and purity. But in England at the time it was all terribly po-faced. The Whale was partly a reaction against this idolatry of modernism - the idea that, if you were a composer, you had to write that kind of music. I enjoyed sending all that up a bit.

"I remember being knocked back by the amount of publicity it had. I didn't like this much. For some time afterwards I knew what I'd done, but I wasn't sure where I was going. Today, I can relate more clearly to other works of mine from that period: Celtic Requiem, and my Chamber Concerto. But I feel that The Whale is still a valid statement. It isn't my favourite among my early pieces. But I see its point."

London Sinfonietta 30th Birthday Gala, including `The Whale', 7.45pm tonight, QEH, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)

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