Obituary: Leslie Head

Conductor and doyen of London's fringe music scene

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.

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
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.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker