Sebastian Bell: Flautist with the London Sinfonietta


Giles Sebastian Bell, flautist: born Oxford 19 October 1941; Professor of Flute, Royal College of Music 1974-85; Professor of Flute, Royal Academy of Music 1985-2005, Head of Woodwind 1995-2005; married 1968 Elisabeth Harrison (two daughters); died Esher, Surrey 21 September 2007.

Of all segments of humanity, orchestral musicians are perhaps the hardest to impress: years of dealing with inflated egos on the podium generate a deep-seated cynicism. It speaks volumes for Sebastian Bell's mastery of the flute and for his integrity, both as man and musician, that he enjoyed the respect not only of his fellow performers but also of the legions of composers whose work often dauntingly difficult he performed as principal flute of the London Sinfonietta.

Bell known as "Bas" to everyone around him held that position for close on four decades, from the foundation of the Sinfonietta in 1968 until his death. The composer and conductor Oliver Knussen, another Sinfonietta regular, summed up the qualities which earned him such esteem:

Bas was the intelligent, committed musician personified. He played marvellously, of course, and as well as being a superb ensemble player had an authoritative and distinctive stage presence as a soloist. He tackled technical challenges thoroughly and with apparent relish. In rehearsal and performance he was amazingly alert, a joy for the conductor because you never had to get his attention. He was always there, always aware of what was going on and, most importantly in uncharted territory, aware of what could occur.

Born in Oxford to the surveyor Randall Bell and his artist wife Eileen (a keen amateur musician), and their only child, Bell moved to London with his parents and was enrolled at the King Alfred School in Golders Green. He began playing the flute at the age of nine and by 16 was good enough to win a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied with Gareth Morris, the principal flute of the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Bell's professional career took off before he could complete his studies: he was 18 when he joined the Sadler's Well Orchestra and only 21 when, just over two years later, he was appointed principal flute of the BBC Welsh Orchestra, as it was then known. Four years away from the Smoke were enough, and he returned to throw himself into the busy life of a London freelance musician. His diary soon filled up: he played in a number of orchestras and groups, in National Theatre plays at the Old Vic, in film and pop sessions anywhere he was needed. And the catholic choice of music he played with the Venturi Ensemble, a wind quintet he had founded with some of his Welsh colleagues, included premieres by such composers as Alan Rawsthorne and John McCabe.

His time with the London Sinfonietta began with an invitation from the conductor David Atherton who, with Nicholas Snowman, was founding a virtuoso ensemble whose players would have the techniques to tackle the uncompromising demands of the then unfamiliar music of the European and British avant-garde. Atherton later explained that the "fundamental right of a musical work to be heard in the conditions of which its composer might only have dreamed was the basis of the creed we absolutists took for granted".

The Sinfonietta was one of the first of the new-music ensembles that are now common and it set (and maintains) standards that are still among the highest in the business, not least because its musicians were chosen for the breadth of their skills. Paul Silverthorne, principal viola, recalls that Bell

played beautifully across the whole repertoire; in my early days with the Sinfonietta we often did tours of small Italian towns with programmes starting with a Mozart flute quartet (played with joyous energy by Bas) and ending with Schoenberg or Xennakis. He was an exemplary ensemble player, always giving his best and expecting and encouraging the same from his colleagues.

Ever the active participant, Bell not only played in the London Sinfonietta but was for many years involved in running the ensemble leading from the front, Silverthorne found:

He was uncompromising in everything, and therefore impatient with incompetence or excessive bureaucracy, but his steadfastness and intelligence made him a kind of moral compass for the rest of the group even if his views weren't always comfortable.

With the Sinfonietta Bell played in over 200 first performances, by composers as diverse as John Adams, George Benjamin, Luciano Berio, Harrison Bistwistle, Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, Hans Werner Henze, Gyrgy Ligeti, Olivier Messiaen, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Toru Takemitsu and Michael Tippett usually in direct consultation with the composer.

In spite of his devotion to the Sinfonietta, he continued to enjoy a wide range of music with other groups. He performed with the Steinitz Bach Players, also founded in 1968, with Peter Maxwell Davies' contemporary-music ensemble the Fires of London and, swapping his silver flute for a wooden instrument, held the principal's position in the New Queen's Hall Orchestra, established to recreate the performance style of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Sebastian Bell also enjoyed an important teaching career though he preferred to call it "guidance". He took up a professorship of flute at the Royal College of Music in 1974, succeeding Gareth Morris at the Royal Academy 11 years later where the department he established with William Bennett soon garnered an international reputation. He was awarded a personal chair shortly before his retirement in 2005.

Bell also gained a reputation as a restorer of old flutes, a skill prompted by his frustration at the waiting lists at flute ateliers: his hands-on reaction was to learn to do it himself, and in this capacity, too, he enjoyed a worldwide standing, with instruments sent for his attention from around the globe.

An enthusiast for boats, which he both designed and restored, he discovered that the fear he experienced in powerboat racing put his stage nerves into perspective and so developed those skills to such an extent that he won fourth place in the National Power Boat Championships in 1983. His family house on Eel Pie Island the island in the Thames at Twickenham famous in the 1960s for its pop concerts stood next to a slipway and residential dockyard which Bell owned and ran. Other passions included ceramics (he was knowledgeable on Delft and Middle Eastern pottery from the period 1300-1750), painting and architecture.

Martin Anderson

Bas Bell and I worked together for more than 25 years, and I have never come across a performer who was more dedicated to modern music, writes George Benjamin.

He maintained the highest standards throughout his career. I can still hear him, when tackling a new piece, incessantly repeating thorny virtuoso passages before, during and after rehearsals. If a particularly awkward succession of notes caught him out there would be a sudden, violent exclamation; then his efforts would continue until he cracked it definitively. For Bas it had to be right, always.

His playing had enormous range. Whether Carter or Takemitsu, Xenakis or Knussen, he projected every part he played with mastery and flair. He was devoted to Birtwistle's music, whose Secret Theatre he performed with tremendous panache and vehemence. But he could also summon sounds of great tenderness I recall a lyrical alto flute solo in Ligeti's Violin Concerto which was unforgettably poetic. He played the solo part for my own Antara despite it being littered with hundreds of taxing quarter-tones as if it was as easy as a C major scale.

He was profoundly attached to the London Sinfonietta, and cared hugely about his colleagues and the ensemble's mission and success. Throughout the process of preparing and performing concerts he was an unfailingly friendly and calm presence and inspired great respect for his professionalism and authority. Though always courteous, he abhorred inadequate instrumental writing or notation in a new score although beyond the odd steely look one could probably never guess his feelings.

Innumerable composers including myself owe Bas Bell a tremendous debt for his impassioned advocacy of today's music, and his unexpected loss will be felt deeply across the musical world.

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