Sir Alexander Gibson : OBITUARIES

Monday 16 January 1995 00:02 GMT

When, in 1959, Alexander Gibson gave up the Musical Directorship of the Sadler's Wells Opera (now ENO). to become Principal Conductor of the Scottish National Orchestra (now RSNO) he took a step which was to change the face of music in Scotland. H e was 32 and enjoying success and many of his metropolitan colleagues found his move to what they regarded as a provincial orchestra inexplicable. They reckoned without Gibson's long-term vision and without the sheer fertility of Scotland's musical soil.

There were, of course, big risks. The SNO's board were many of them conventional people disinclined to entrust their orchestra to a young native. On the face of it, expansion, enterprise and experiment were unlikely to be welcomed. But Gibson, who was a shrewd judge of character, and particularly of Scottish character, convinced himself that the risks were worth taking. It was the best thing he could have done.

Born in Motherwell, just south of Glasgow, in 1926, Gibson came of a family that was not particularly musical. "My father was a butcher," he once said to me. As a boy he was sent to Dalziel High School, where he appeared (at 14), as the Major-General in The Pirates of Penzance. It was soon obvious that he was quite exceptionally musical. With friends, he went to hear the Scottish Orchestra (as it then was) on Saturday nights in St Andrew's Hall, Glasgow. At 17 he became organist at a nearby Congregational church.

Military service intervened and Gibson eventually joined the Royal Signals Band as a solo pianist. Arrangements, for wind, were made of Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Grieg and Rachmaninov Concertos and it was one of these that the eminent accompanist IvorNewton heard coming from the seafront bandstand at Eastbourne one Sunday afternoon in the mid-1940s. The encounter which followed was the source of a long-standing friendship. Released from the forces in 1948, Gibson won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music and was told, initially, that he could not join the conducting class: his theoretical knowledge was inadequate. So he formed his own orchestra and in due course the authorities recognised his talent. He won the coveted Tagore Gold Medal and (along with Wolfgang Sawallisch) attended the conducting class of Igor Markevitch at the Salzburg Mozarteum in 1950. The following year he went straight from college to Sadler's Wells Opera as a repetiteur and in 1952 was appointed Assistant Conductor (under the formidable Ian Whyte) of the BBC Scottish Orchestra - a two-year contract of untold value where repertoire was concerned. Returning to Sadler's Wells as a staff conductor in 1954, he was appointed the company's musical director in 1957. He was 31.

Gibson threw himself into this challenging commitment with characteristic energy, conducting a high proportion of the repertoire, notably Puccini (Madama Butterfly and Gianni Schicci), Mozart , Eugene Onegin and The Bartered Bride. The Merry Widow was a special party piece, and he still found time for the occasional Falstaff, Flying Dutchman and Bluebeard's Castle. At Covent Garden his Tosca was highly praised, as was Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony with the RPO and his first major recording - Sibelius's Fifth, with the LSO. This was a pointer to the future, as was a Sadler's Wells Opera tour when, in Glasgow, he conducted Onegin and Gianni Schicci. These, and a guest appearance with SNO, were favourably noticed by a group of discriminating music-lovers who wrote to the Glasgow Herald proposing Gibson as Karl Rankl's successor. But the SNO board preferred Hans Swarowsky. Gibson had to wait. The wind changed in 1959 when he was invited to return to Scotland to succeed Swarowsky. That same year he married the dancer Veronica Waggett - "V" to her innumerable friends - who turned out to be the perfect wife. Their marriage was extraordinarily happy.

The years 1959-84 encompassed his finest achievements and I was lucky enough to share eight of them with him as the SNO's chief executive. When I moved to Glasgow in 1964, the orchestra had already grown in status and quality, and its programmes had beentransformed. The respect which Gibson commanded in the profession was such that guest artists of the utmost importance were willing to appear with the orchestra. In October 1967, Gibson led the orchestra on its first overseas tour, which opened - uniquely - with two concerts in the Musikverein, in Vienna. Its two soloists were Jacqueline du Pre and Janet Baker.

In 1962, Gibson had created and launched Scottish Opera, whose first 10 years were to develop, almost faultlessly, under the triumvirate guidance of Gibson himself, Robin Orr (as Chairman) and Peter Hemmings (as Chief Executive). By the end of 1971 the company had performed The Ring, The Trojans complete, Rosenkavalier (both the last with Janet Baker), Boris Godunov (with David Ward), Otello (with Charles Craig), Don Giovanni, Figaro, Cosi, The Magic Flute, Fidelio, Cenerentola, Butterfly, Faust and La Traviata; at the Edinburgh Festival it had played The Rake's Progress, Peter Grimes, Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers and new works by John Purser and Robin Orr; overseas it had offered Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw.

Gibson's own contribution to this astonishing record was not confined to conducting, though he took charge of a majority of performances and certainly the most successful of them. He had established himself as a cultural hero in Scotland - Gibson performances were events - so that he was in a position to enlist strong support from the bureaucracies (including particularly the Scottish Arts Council, which had been distinctly cool about the proposed creation of the Scottish Opera) and from the commercial sector, notably Scottish Television, which gave substantial sponsorship. Gibson also had the knack of gathering round himself, as friends, influential figures form sympathetically related fields - Glasgow University, the BBC and STV, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. At his home one would meet not only musicians, but also academics, broadcasters, theatre people, lawyers and painters. Glasgow's "cultural" community - small enough to be intimate, large enough not to be cliquey - was busy and effective. Gibson was the key to it.

His commitment to music in Scotland - and to Scottish composers like Iain Hamilton and Thea Musgrave - was admirable but it was also time-consuming and his agents began to complain that after Scottish Opera and the SNO (let alone Musica Nova which he established with Frederick Rimmer in 1971) had been satisfied, he had too little time to fit in the many attractive offers which regularly came his way. He was also handicapped by a beat which, more than adequately expressive when one was accustomed to it, tended to puzzle orchestral musicians who were not - so that guest appearances were sometimes too short for him to make himself understood. "I am not a band-master," he would say, a statement self-evidently true to anyone who listens to his powerfully idiomatic Sibelius, for services to whose music he was awarded the Finnish Government's Sibelius Medal in 1978.

But, even in Scotland, there were difficulties. The board of the SNO, and some of its members, began to feel that the orchestra was spending too much of its time in the pit. The reconciliation of Scottish Opera's orchestral needs and the SNO's public obligations was indeed increasingly problematic and Gibson's loyalties were increasingly in conflict. But, in 1975, Scottish Opera acquired - and restored - Glasgow's Theatre Royal, so that the opportunity arose to engage the recently established Scottish C hamber Orchestra which, in an augmented format, also appeared as the Scottish Philharmonia. Pressure upon the SNO - and upon Gibson - was temporarily relieved.

The Theatre Royal, beautifully restored, was an apparent triumph, for which Gibson and Peter Hemmings took proper credit, but Hemmings now left to take over Australian Opera in Sydney. A new administrative team appeared and, for reasons hard precisely toidentify - but certainly to do with expansion, with the overhead cost of the Theatre Royal, with multiple orchestral provision and (it has to be said) with personalities, things began to go wrong. Gibson himself had been at the head of Scottish Opera since its launch in 1962 and of the SNO since 1959. The SNO had certainly been transformed: in 1975 it toured North America, the first non-London orchestra to do so; it was beginning to record, with RCA and Classics for Pleasure; it was in demand. And Gibson himself - when he could be prised out of Scotland - was guesting internationally, his reputation overseas ensuring him important engagements (by no means ex officio) at the Edinburgh Festival.

In Glasgow, though, circumstances were turning against him. Scottish Opera - partly because of perverse repertoire decision and production - was running into severe financial difficulties. Gibson himself was, perhaps, beginning to be stale. There is not much doubt that the pressures under which he habitually worked were affecting his conducting. Perhaps aware of this, he told the SNO, in December 1981, that he would step down in 1984, his 25th season with them. In 1987 he gave up Scottish Opera after a memorable Madama Butterfly. He was a free-lance without administrative or bureaucratic responsibility. It was an ideal opportunity to slow down, to catch his breath, to look at his scores again. "It did me good," he said, "to have some respite from the week-to-week, month-to-month repertoire of a symphony orchestra and opera company. You find yourself conducting Beethoven's Seventh. For once, you have time to think about it, reflect on it; you have the time to take pleasure in it."

Gibson remained busy, not at first with the RSNO or Scottish Opera, but around the world. Between 1981 and 1983 he had been Principal Guest Conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, a post previously held by Barbirolli. He conducted opera abroad and toured and recorded with the RPO - who at the time of his death were planning a 70th birthday concert (to include some Berlioz) with him - and with the ECO. Latterly he was working in Glasgow again, with the RSNO, Scottish Opera and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. In November 1993 he conducted these three orchestras, plus the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, at a massive concert in aid of the Scottish Musicians' Benevolent Fund. The autumn of 1994 saw him with ENO which - as Sadler's Wells Opera - he hadleft in 1959, directing Tosca.

In December 1993 I had a long letter from Alex about the relationship of the Musicians' Benevolent Fund, with which I am concerned, and the Scottish Musicians' Benevolent Fund, of which he was the active President. A concluding paragraph read, "I've finished quite a tough schedule which started last August trying to fit in a new production of P. Grimes in Copenhagen with what was already scheduled - Tosca perfs for S. Opera etc just like old times!" This was characteristic. Never happier than when fully stretched, he was one of the most naturally gifted musicians I have ever listened to. The leader of one of his orchestras paid him, perhaps unwittingly, what much be the supreme compliment to a conductor when he said, " When he conducts opera, you haveto breathe with him. The most impressive thing is his control of the spacing of the music. Yet at the same time he allows you to express yourself musically the way you've always wanted to."

He had enormous musical energy, but he was always concerned with shape and phrasing, with the silences and with the fitting of detail into the overall pattern. He had a marvellous command of large structures. Above all he had an innate sense of the dramatic - and not merely in opera. His range was vast and though there were areas in which he clearly excelled I never heard him do anything unmusical even in antipathetic repertoire. He was an exceptional accompanist. And he had endless curiosity. Building programmes with him was a laborious but immensely satisfying business.

There were some - and they should have known better - who dismissed him as facile and, neither in London nor in the greatest of international centres, did he have th fashionable success to which his gifts undoubtedly entitled him. But this was no doubt partly due to his own innate modesty and partly to his devotion to Scotland. As a colleague and friend I can only endorse - with conviction and pleasure - the words (quoted in his biography, Alex) of a senior orchestral musician: "He is his own worst critic, which is what any great conductor ought to be, and I would call him great without any hesitation."

Robert Ponsonby Alexander Drummond Gibson, conductor: born 11 February 1926; CBE 1967; Kt 1977; FRSE 1978; married 1959 Veronica Waggett (three sons, one daughter); died London 14 January 1995.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in