Obituary: Joseph Vandernoot

Lewis Foreman
Monday 26 July 1999 23:02

JOSEPH VANDERNOOT was a pioneering opera conductor, and latterly the driving force behind summer opera at Holland Park open-air theatre in London.

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, I researched repertoire and performing materials for him when he successfully carried off a number of ground- breaking operatic revivals, several of which were broadcast on BBC Radio London. This was the high point of London's fringe opera companies, and two particular conductors, Vandernoot with Hammersmith Municipal Opera and the Fulham Municipal Orchestra, and Leslie Head with Opera Viva, were active concurrently for many years.

Joe Vandernoot's groups were what they said they were: his orchestra an evening class that met weekly, the opera a genuinely municipal opera, possibly the only one in the country, giving its performances in Fulham Town Hall.

In fact, Leslie Head had started opera at Fulham, and Vandernoot built on his success. Vandernoot was always open to suggestions for revivals, and his record of staged productions was an honourable one. I first met him when he gave the historic first British production of Delius's Fennimore & Gerda, in a double bill with Holst's Savitri, in 1968. In the same year followed Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers; later revivals included Lawrance Collingwood's opera Macbeth (1970), Vaughan Williams's The Poisoned Kiss (1972), Giordano's Siberia (1972), Wagner's Die Feen (1973) and, in 1975, Sir Granville Bantock's delightful chamber opera The Seal Woman, with folksongs from Marjory Kennedy-Fraser's Songs of the Hebrides.

Faced with Liza Lehmann's one-act morality-opera Everyman, which only survives in vocal score, he commissioned Arthur Campbell to re-orchestrate it for a production by the composer's grandson, Peter Lehmann Bedford, in a double-bill performance with Puccini's Suor Angelica, in 1982. Bedford - brother of the composer David Bedford and the conductor Steuart - and Vandernoot later developed their association, particularly at Holland Park.

Vandernoot was born in London in 1914. After attending Lord Wil-liams's Grammar School at Thame, as a boarder, he received his musical training at the Guildhall School of Music and spent two years (1938-40) at the Royal College of Music, where his principal study was piano.

A commission in the Royal Artillery in October 1942 led, within a year, to the temporary rank of Captain, though his war ended working for Ensa in the Far East. After the war, he built a freelance conducting career: opera, ballet and London shows, and he became Musical Director of Ballet Rambert (1952-53; 1954-57). He also conducted orchestras across Europe including the Orchestre National de Monte Carlo and toured Spain with the Valencia Provincial Orchestra.

Possibly his most ambitious undertaking was to revive Sullivan's grand opera Ivanhoe, with his second company, Beaufort Opera. Ivanhoe was seen on the cramped stage of Hurlingham School, in 1973, and later issued on LP. A brave try, but it needed a big stage, a big production and top voices to succeed.

One - in retrospect - amusing episode, was the near disaster before Vandernoot's first London production of Wagner's first opera, Die Feen. The performing materials proved to be the original manuscript copy scores and parts used by Hermann Levi for the first German production in 1888, the full score in three huge manuscript volumes. One evening, after a rehearsal, Vandernoot put the scores on the roof of his car then drove off, only remembering them on arriving home. Returning, he in vain searched the road and gutter outside the rehearsal hall.

Vandernoot telephoned me, distraught. "What shall I do?" he asked. I suggested offering a reward. Just when we had given up, he had a telephone call from the council refuse department. "I seen your ad in the paper - I've got some big books 'ere; Wag Ner or summit." Vandernoot almost went on his knees in relief. In the event Die Feen was a success.

Vandernoot's innovative operatic productions attracted national press coverage; his concerts with the Fulham Municipal Orchestra did not. So he expanded his repertoire and probably the first programme to reflect this was his Vaughan Williams Centenary Concert in 1972, when he included Havergal Brian's engaging overture A Tinker's Wedding and Bax's Three Wind Concertante.

In 1974 it was the Holst Centenary and Vandernoot wanted a revival no one else would have. He chose The Cloud Messenger, its first public performance since 1913, with Havergal Brian's In Memoriam making a striking and unusual concert. Sir Granville Bantock was another composer he championed, and during the later 1970s he came to know Raymond Bantock. After The Seal Woman, Raymond persuaded Vandernoot to revive the overture Macbeth and the Sapphic Poem, the latter with a young Alexander Baillie as cello soloist.

The London fringe opera scene suffered an almost terminal decline in the 1980s, particularly as a consequence of changes in the Inner London Education Authority in the face of government funding cuts. Developing new interests, Vandernoot founded the Kew Sinfonia and Opera Lirica, the latter, since the summer of 1987, appearing in popular repertoire at the Holland Park Theatre.

I was delighted to meet Joe Vandernoot again last year. He had hardly changed. Still the same slicked-back black hair, the slightly lugubrious manner; he did not look his years. His achievement was a considerable one, providing opportunities for many young singers and players, and adding significantly to the musical life of London.

Lewis Foreman

Joseph George Vandernoot, conductor and opera director: born London 18 October 1914; married 1961 Quintiliana Cupini; died London 7 June 1999.

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