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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Soft Developer (4.0, C#, Windows Services, Sockets, LINQ, WCF)

£65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer (4.0, C#, Windows ...

C# Developer -Winforms, VB6 - Trading Systems - Woking

£1 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading financial software house with its He...

C #Programmer (.Net 4.0/4.5/ C#) -Hertfordshire-Finance

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: C #Developer (.Net 4.0/4.5/ C#, A...

JQuery Developer JQuery, UI, Tomcat, Java - Woking

£1 per annum: Harrington Starr: JQuery Developer JQuery, UI, Tomcat, Java - Tr...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home