Harry Newstone

Conductor of subtlety and power whose recordings range from Haydn to Havergal Brian

Harry Newstone, conductor, musicologist and teacher: born Winnipeg, Manitoba 21 June 1921; married 1952 Renée Oliver (marriage dissolved), 1979 Peggy Jo Sahmaunt (one son, marriage dissolved); died Victoria, British Columbia 16 April 2006.

Harry Newstone was one of the unsung heroes of British music of the last half-century. He enjoyed the professional respect of some of the world's finest musicians. The cellist Pierre Fournier described him as "a great conductor, a great musician who will ever give inspiration to those who have the privilege of his presence"; another leading cellist, Janos Starker, wrote that "I consider him among the finest conductors of his generation". The pianist Lili Kraus found in him "that rare phenomenon of spirit, intellect and emotion functioning in full equilibrium throughout his performance; this is the outstanding criterion of the true artist".

And yet, though Newstone was active on both sides of the Atlantic, he was never accorded either the position or the public acclaim his musicianship deserved.

Harry Newstone was born in 1921 in Canada, the son of Russian immigrants who had taken Canadian citizenship; when Harry was three, his photographer father moved to London in search of the success that was eluding him in his adoptive land. Harry's musicality manifested itself at the age of 15, when he took up the harmonica and won a talent competition at the Troxy Cinema in east London. The cinema organist, Bobby Pagan, recognised an exceptional ability and offered to teach him the piano; he also persuaded Harry's parents to allow him to go on tour in a variety show - which later in life allowed him to boast that his first musical "job" had been to replace the harmonica-player Tommy Reilly.

Newstone soon teamed up with an older musician, the accordionist Alf Vorzanger, who taught him that instrument, too; they took their stage name - the St Louis Boys - from their signature tune, the "St Louis Blues". Before long, Newstone became a virtuoso on the harmonica, the ultimate seal of approval coming when Larry Adler, his idol, remarked that his talent was amazing.

Of course, a "real" job was required and, when Newstone proved a natural draughtsman, a career as an architect seemed the obvious choice. But the call of music proved stronger, and in 1942 - having toured with Ensa and been invalided out of the Army after two years - he began four years of study (harmony, counterpoint and composition) with the composer Herbert Howells, alongside another promising late starter, the symphonist-to-be Robert Simpson, who had rejected a future in medicine; their lifelong friendship was sealed with stints of duty as civil-defence volunteers in London under the Blitz.

A government award allowed Newstone to attend the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the City of London, taking the Associate exam of the Guildhall in conducting in 1949 and a Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music in 1950. In 1954 and 1956, supported by a scholarship from the Italian government, he went to the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome to sit at the feet of Fernando Previtali.

Instead of waiting, as Carl Nielsen put it, for fried pigeons to fly into his mouth, Newstone set about launching a career himself, founding the Haydn Orchestra in 1949 - the first concert took place in the Conway Hall on 19 May - and garnering instant acclaim, The Manchester Guardian comparing their playing with that of the Vienna Philharmonic under Bruno Walter. By 1951 Newstone and his musicians were respected enough an element of London's musical life to be asked to contribute a Haydn festival (based on the composer's visits to the capital) to the Festival of Britain.

Haydn, too, furnished their first recording, with two symphonies that were then rarities: No 49, nicknamed "La Passione", and No 73, "La Chasse". The next LP coupled Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, No 41, with his Serenata Notturna. The reviews were wildly enthusiastic. Malcolm Macdonald, writing in Gramophone in January 1953, described it as "a model in every respect of how to perform and record an 18th-century symphony". A BBC reviwer said of Newstone's account of the "Jupiter":

Harry Newstone had to compete with Bruno Walter in one of the world's major masterpieces, and he won hands down.

He continued to make recordings over the next decade or so: vocal works by Mozart and Haydn, Stravinsky and others. Denis Stevens pulled no punches in Gramophone when reviewing his recordings of the Bach "Brandenburg" Concertos with the Hamburg Chamber Orchestra:

These performances are far and away the most musical, the most expertly played, and the best recorded I have ever listened to.

Somehow, though, the big time continued to elude the softly spoken, mild-mannered Newstone. His début in the Royal Festival Hall - with the Philharmonia in January 1959 - drew more critical enthusiasm, the review in The Times being typical:

From first bar to last the performance was extraordinarily fresh, rhythmically alert, scrupulous in dynamics, considerate of crucial structural junctures, and sometimes, more important than all these things, positively inspired and inspiring.

An event which should have guaranteed his breakthrough occurred on 31 March 1960. In the Royal Festival Hall that evening Basil Cameron had conducted the first half of a concert with the London Symphony Orchestra - Beethoven's Egmont Overture and "Emperor" Piano Concerto with Wilhelm Backhaus - but was taken ill on the podium and by the interval was too ill to carry on. Summoned from his London flat, Newstone arrived in time to conduct the second half of the programme, Sibelius' Fourth Symphony, entirely unprepared, and with less than an hour's notice he delivered a performance that was praised for its subtlety and power.

Meanwhile he was also acquiring a reputation as a scholar, editing works by Bach and Haydn. The draughtsman's hand that had pointed to a career in architecture now came in useful again: Newstone's calligraphic script could produce a score that was ready for the printer as it stood.

His engagements in Britain and abroad multiplied. His first foreign appearance had been in Berlin in 1955, and Copenhagen called him in a year later. In 1959 he became the first Western conductor to work in Hungary since the Second World War, and in 1960 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation invited him to Vancouver to conduct a series of broadcasts and concerts in the festival there. He also appeared in Czechoslovakia, Israel, Mexico and Portugal.

An invitation from the Nashville Symphony Orchestra to guest-conduct in the 1962-63 season was crowned with the first honorary citizenship awarded by the newly designated Metropolitan Nashville "in recognition of his very substantial contribution to our standard of living". Then, in 1965, having served as a guest conductor for the Sacramento Symphony Orchestra in California, he was appointed its music director, presiding in 1965-66 over its first ever sell-out season. He presided there until 1978, presenting his Sacramento audiences with Bruckner, Mahler and Nielsen and other major composers unheard there, and in 1968 kept faith with his old friend Robert Simpson, a quarter-century after their Blitz experiences, with the US premiere of his Second Symphony.

Back home, he was busy broadcasting "original" readings of several Beethoven symphonies for BBC in the mid-1960s in the light of Robert Simpson's examination of the manuscript scores, courting controversy with decisions that are now commonplace, such as observing Beethoven's stated repeat of the Scherzo and Trio in the Fifth. He also took part in a project with BBC Wales to make a complete recording of the Haydn symphonies.

Another Simpson campaign in which Newstone was a willing participant was in the complete recording of the symphonies of the maverick composer Havergal Brian. Beginning in 1959 (when Brian was 73) with Symphonies Nos 11 and 12, Newstone was eventually to conduct the premieres of no fewer than five Brian works. Brian's extraordinary Indian summer (21 of his 32 symphonies were written after his 80th birthday) can in part be ascribed to Simpson's and Newstone's dedicated support.

In 1979, back in Britain after Sacramento, Newstone was named Director of Music at the University of Kent at Canterbury, organising concerts there, in the cathedral and elsewhere. On his retirement in 1986 he was made an Honorary Research Fellow.

Newstone's recorded legacy - from those early Haydn and Mozart symphonies via Busoni to his contemporaries Copland, Lutoslawski and Arnold - is intermittent but consistently impressive. It is only a partial reflection of his career - but then his career was only a partial reflection of his talent and ability.

Martin Anderson

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