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)

Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Receptionist / Office Administrator - Full or Part Time

    £14600 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established in 2003 the company...

    Recruitment Genius: Social Media & Content Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing, Google certi...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 business...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

    £18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has won the award ...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn