Obituary: Leslie Head

Conductor and doyen of London's fringe music scene

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Leslie Head was the doyen of the London musical fringe in the 1960s and '70s. His career would be impossible to replicate today. His huge achievement in exploring then little-known repertoire was effectively targeted to the London 'fringe', yet was founded on ILEA evening classes. His interpretations, as surviving live recordings reveal, were often outstanding, and in his work with singers he gave opportunities to vocalists of the subsequent standing of Sir John Tomlinson, Pauline Tinsley, Della Jones, Elizabeth Connell and Sarah Walker.

The son of a Hove company secretary, he formed a school dance band while at Hove County School and served in the RAF as a radio operator during the war. He attended the Guildhall School of Music from 1947-51, incidentally playing in the acoustic tests at the newly-built Festival Hall. He started as an orchestral horn player, first with the CBSO before moving on to the Scottish National Orchestra. Co-founder of the Brighton Youth Orchestra (1947-50) and Morley College Symphony Orchestra (1955), he directed the Kensington Symphony Orchestra (KSO), established in 1956, for 30 years. Among his players were Alan Hacker, clarinet, and Harrison Birtwistle, bass clarinet. All had the intention of providing young players with concert experience when other opportunities did not exist. The concerts took place at London town halls, churches and school halls. Once St John's, Smith Square and the Queen Elizabeth Hall opened both were used.

The difference between the KSO and other rehearsal orchestras was the ambition of its programming and it secured Head national press coverage. Soon opera was added to his portfolio and his company Opera Viva ran from 1963, giving over 80 operatic revivals. Later there was a second company, Pro-Opera. On Head's 80th birthday John Tomlinson wrote from Bayreuth: “For a young singer there's that awkward bridge from college to professional solo work which is so difficult to cross... In my case, back in the '70s, I was lucky that you were there to break that circle. You gave me the chance to sing some wonderful parts from a wide range of rediscovered rarities. I am just one of the many indebted to you for the challenge you entrusted to us in our formative years as artists.” When Head learned that one of his singers, the soprano Pauline Tinsley, was about to make her debut at Santa Fe in Donizetti's Anna Bolena, he put on a performance for her to give her recent stage experience of her role.

From the earliest the KSO gave a variety of London/British premieres and revivals. Examples include: Bartok's Wooden Prince Suite, the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein's West Side Story, Glazounov's tone poem The Kremlin, Joachim's Hungarian Violin Concerto (Ernst Kovacic), Kajanus's Aino, Menotti's Piano Concerto (Malcolm Binns) and Violin Concerto (John Georgiadis), Frank Merrick's Second Piano Concerto (composer as soloist), Sibelius's short tone poem Tiera and the original version of En Saga. Head later came to have a special sympathy with revivals of British music of the early 20th century especially Elgar, Bax, Brian and Delius, giving many revivals.

There was choral music, too. In the early years massed choir performances of the Verdi Requiem or The Dream of Gerontius at the Albert Hall or Central Hall, Westminster financed the season. When soprano Rita Hunter sang in the Verdi Requiem, Head asked all to ensure she did not eat cream cakes as he felt they affected her voice. Interesting premieres included: Nielsen's cantata Sleep, Puccini's Messa di Gloria (after the BBC had rejected it), Mayr's Mass for the Coronation of Napoleon, Tchaikovsky's Ode to Joy and Villa Lobos's Choros No 10. His exploration of early Elgar, including The Black Knight and the Coronation Ode, was pioneering . The new was not overlooked, including the London premiere of Bliss's Coventry Festival commission The Beatitudes, and Britten's then unknown Ballad of Heroes.

Head's presentation of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder in 1961 at the St Pancras Festival, was the first performance of the full original version in the UK. The enterprise was viewed as madness by the powers-that-be, who refused funding. The soloists were the key to its success: Robert Thomas, Josephine Allen and Monica Sinclair. Later, composer Colin Matthews wrote: “If I were to point to any one event that pushed me in the direction of becoming a composer (an unlikely direction at the time), it would be your performance.”

Head persuaded Oda Slobodska out of retirement for Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death, and (as The Neighbour) Stravinsky's Mavra – the latter the work in which, as The Mother, she had premiered over 40 years before. Quite unlike a prima donna, with Head in an Edgware Road fish restaurant she enthused, “I luerve fish and chips”.

In the 1970s the short-lived BBC Radio London regularly broadcast London “fringe” performances and Head's orchestra featured so large that Tom Vernon, the music producer there, was intending to make it the station's official orchestra. Vernon was succeeded by Chris de Souza, but soon the station closed and there ceased to be an outlet for such interesting work. De Souza wrote to Head : “I was astonished at the range of your performances. You ... provided London with a facet of music-making which was one of the things which made it such a rich scene. The '70s were a golden decade ... impossible to think of local radio doing such a thing today.”

Leslie Head, conductor and educator: born Brighton 21 August 1922; died Brighton 7 September 2013.