Obituary: Norman Del Mar
Monday 07 February 1994
'THAT's the sort of thing.'
Countless British orchestral players will remember Norman Del Mar's much-imitated comment, habitually made at the end of the first run-through of an unfamiliar piece.
Then the hard work would begin - and nobody worked harder than Del Mar himself. His energy was prodigious, his knowledge of the score comprehensive and meticulous. The sheer number of works he had mastered was mind-boggling and his curiosity infinite: among the rarer names whose music he promoted can be found those of Blomdahl, Bacewicz, Havergal Brian, Don Banks, Dennis ApIvor, Lord Berners and Balfe, whose The Bohemian Girl he conducted for Beecham in 1951 - Festival of Britain year. He launched (and often relaunched) an amazing number of works by British composers. He loved extravagant projects - the Busoni Piano Concerto, Granville Bantock's Omar Khayyam, d'Indy's La Foret enchantee with the full complement of harps. Above all he loved Richard Strauss and his three-volume critical commentary on the composer's life and works is definitive.
As a horn-player (with Dennis Brain) in the Royal Philharmonic, Del Mar played some Strauss for Beecham and it was in 1947, when he was 28, that the latter arranged his professional debut. He conducted Macbeth and the Symphonic Fantasia from Die Frau ohne Schatten as part of a Strauss Festival presented by Beecham in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Strauss was present and during the rehearsal of the Fantasia (in Del Mar's own words) 'came up to the podium, glumly regarded the score for a few moments, muttered 'All my own fault', and went away'.
As Beecham's associate with the RPO Del Mar acquired both experience and repertoire, though it was as founder, in 1944, of the Chelsea Symphony Orchestra that he was best placed to explore some of the riskier parts of the repertoire - for example Hindemith, Poulenc, Stravinsky and Mahler's Second and Ninth Symphonies. In 1949 he was appointed Principal Conductor of the English Opera Group and made - not least because of his own histrionic gifts - a considerable personal success of Britten's Let's Make an Opera. The association continued for several years.
In the mid-1950s Del Mar began to work with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, mainly undertaking, it has to be said, the studio programmes which Sargent found too great an effort. However, this valuable apprenticeship led to his appointment as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Orchestra which, in five years, he put firmly on to the map as an ensemble of fine quality. Naturally, too, he explored new parts of the repertoire, especially the music of Scottish composers including Iain Hamilton and Thea Musgrave, whom he greatly admired and to whom he dedicated his encyclopaedic Anatomy of the Orchestra. From time to time he crossed the road in Glasgow to conduct the Scottish National Orchestra and I can clearly remember performances of Bloch's Schelomo with the very young Jacqueline du Pre: the energy given off jointly by soloist and conductor was formidable. His Scottish connections continued over many years and, as recently as 1985, he conducted Strauss's Capriccio for Scottish Opera.
During the 1960s and 1970s Del Mar was more and more busy and successful. He conducted all the major British orchestras and gave some memorable Elgar with the Philharmonia. (Boult greatly admired his Enigma Variations.) He travelled extensively, often for the British Council, and made many recordings, among them works by Gerhard, Rawsthorne, Lutyens and Maw with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. With the same orchestra he gave premieres of music by Rainier, Wood, Crosse, LeFanu, Bennett and Dalby among many others. His championship of British composers continued in the early 1980s with a series of four EMI records on which he conducted the Bournemouth Sinfonietta.
His connections with the BBC also continued. After the musicians' strike in 1980 (during which he joined the picket-line outside Broadcasting House) he took over the Academy of the BBC - previously its Training Orchestra - and was distressed (as I was) when it became clear that the orchestra was not fulfilling the purposes for which it had been established and was not always - by its very nature - of an acceptable broadcasting standard. Del Mar found himself torn between loyalty to a group of committed young players and an objective understanding of the BBC's requirements. It was a wretched dilemma and it brought out his most sensitive and human qualities.
A happier occasion was a Far Eastern tour by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1981 which he shared with Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, who was forbidden by the Soviet authorities to visit China. Del Mar had a huge success in Peking and Shanghai, conducting programmes which included music by Maw, Britten and Elgar. I shall long remember his quizzical delight when the encore provided by the Chinese turned out to have been written by two composers jointly, and his professional outrage when Rozhdestvensky, conducting Also sprach Zarathustra later in the tour, omitted the bells at a critical climax.
It sometimes seemed that fate was needlessly hard on Del Mar and it was characteristic that an expedition from Tokyo to Mount Fuji was an unmitigated disaster: low cloud and heavy rain obscured the mountain and there was a monstrous traffic jam on the return journey. He once refused to strike a match in the kitchen, explaining that he had only struck one match in his life and it had been 'a ghastly failure'. There was indeed a certain boyish clumsiness about him and it was odd, I always thought, that though he had watched Strauss at work and had observed his extraordinary economy of gesture, he seemed quite unable to emulate it. Like Strauss a very big man, his physical style was also very big, sometimes extravagant and not always helpful where tricky leads were concerned. One trembled when an emphatic down-beat gave him complete lift-off; not for nothing was he affectionately known as 'The Mass of Life'.
He was a man who inspired affection and loyalty (as well as exasperation). But those who knew Norman Del Mar best were aware, latterly, that despite his achievements and his popularity (he more than once conducted the Last Night of the Proms) he was in some sense a disappointed man. He had certainly hoped to inherit the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In 1985 he was appointed Principal Conductor, and later Conductor of Honour, of the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra in Denmark, where he did excellent work with a fine ensemble. But he would have loved a major British orchestra and, on grounds of musicianship, experience and enthusiasm, he no doubt deserved one.
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