By Richard Boothby
So it was Monteverdi’s Orfeo that started it. Or was it Cornyshe’s Fa la sol? It was Barcelona, certainly, and it was those three rather youthful-looking men wearing silly hats. It was May 25, 1985.
The Orfeo was the reason Bill Hunt, Richard Campbell & I were in Spain in the first place. One of the infernal choruses calls for three violas da gamba, and we were playing them for Andrew Parrott’s Taverner Players. It was a strange production in that it was not quite staged, nor was it a concert performance; some singers had it from memory, others hadn’t. The latter gestured—rather improbably—with scores in their hands. Shepherds wore green sashes over black trousers and white shirts and devils wore red. We played for about 3 minutes in all.
At the end of the tour, a grand concert was arranged in Barcelona, which was very long. We viols were given a 4 minute slot, and offered Cornyshe’s Fa la sol to play. We had plenty of time to rehearse the piece, and it seemed to go rather well. This led us to consider doing something more, but you need at least 4 and better 5 viols for this. It just so happened that Wendy Gillespie, one of the famous Les Filles de Ste Colombe, had recently come to live in a railway carriage in Selsey, near Chichester. Bill and Richard knew her; I did not. Yet I got the job of calling her and asking if she wanted to join. She said she didn’t do auditions. Around the same time, Julia Hodgson, who had worked with me at the Early Music Shop in Chiltern Street, London, expressed interest in doing more viol playing. And so we were five. Hooray!
The next thing was to start playing together, and to find concerts and work out what and how we were going to play. We also had to find a name. ‘The X consort of viols’ was rejected as a format, but everyone was asked to come up with a list of names and we would read them out and decide on the best. Richard came up with the most imaginative list, including ‘Gut Bucket’, which I’m still slightly sad we didn’t use. It was very nearly ‘The Spirit of Gambo’. Phew! At the end of his list was Fretwork, which he wasn’t so keen on, but which the rest of us pounced on immediately.
After what seemed like months—come to think of it, it was months—we held our first try-out concert in a little Octagon, by the river in Richmond near where Bill lived and where we rehearsed. There is, incredibly, a recording of this—we may even include a track here—and it’s not as bad as it felt. There were many viol players there, but especially there was Marco Pallis, whom I met for the only time: he died shortly afterwards. It feels now like a passing on of the baton.
Then began a format for rehearsals, where we would play until 5ish, then all sit round Bill’s Amstrad computer bashing out letters to promoters all over the country in search of work, which came, gradually. Consorts of viols had a pretty low reputation at the time—it can’t be denied—but our pitch was to suggest we were going to be different; we were going to emulate the string quartet and bring this marvelous body of English music to the attention of the concert-going public.
Richard C and I would fight over almost anything, and Bill would work hard to hold these rather diametrically opposed views together. Wendy & Julia would wait patiently until the argument had died down, and then quietly carry on. It must have been quite boring listening to the same positions being taken time and again, yet I think that we illuminated many questions that might not have been asked had we agreed on more. There was always a bit of tension between us, and he sat on one side of the group and I on the other. He was all intellect and reason, and I all feeling and intuition; I wanted fast, he slow and so on. It was never really resolved, but the tension was mostly creative and we all benefited from this variety of ideas and opinions. And because we were both Richards, we had to find another way to distinguish each other. So I became Max.
We were very fortunate then, in that the CD recording boom was just taking off. Quite soon we were asked to do a disc for Amon Ra, which we called In Nomine, and which consisted of mostly 16th century English consort music. It was recorded in the Friends Meeting House in Frenchay, near Bristol, a most unlikely venue, where the windows had to be boarded up to reduce the traffic noise. The acoustic was very dry, but warm and clear.
Emboldened by this, we made our own recording, with producer Nick Parker, at Boxgrove Priory. This was the first time we worked with the extraordinary keyboard player, Paul Nicholson (now the Rev. Nicholson), which was just fun and easy. He’s an accompanist with an instinctive sense of when anything is, or isn’t going to happen.
Serendipity played its part: this new recording, Heart’s Ease, we managed to sell to the new Virgin Classics label: it formed part of the first issue of that label. And so began a series of recordings that got a lot of attention because of Virgin. They were a very generous company; it’s hard now to imagine making records and getting both a fee and a royalty, and where all the costs would be paid by the company.
Then we made our Wigmore Hall debut. This was a big deal; we commissioned a poster by an artist called Pom Hoare, who was the son of my landlady at the time. He produced a wonderfully wacky thing, which I still have somewhere—I’ll see if I can find it and post it here. We were painfully shy about tuning on the Wigmore stage; we wanted it to be in tune very much, but we didn’t want people to get bored waiting for us to tune. So we had the strange idea that one of us would talk to the audience while the others tuned: disaster! The audience couldn’t hear what was being said because of the tuning, and the tuners couldn’t hear to tune because of the talking. Didn’t do that again…
Gradually, we got more concerts. The numbers are very revealing:
In 1987, we did the first concert with a young counter-tenor from the Monteverdi choir, Michael Chance, in Göttingen, thanks to John Eliot-Gardiner. It was to prove an enduring relationship. We also played the complete Purcell Fantazias & In Nomines for Harrison Birtwistle’s Meltdown Festival on the South Bank. We played for the first time in the beautiful Alsatian town of Ribeauvillé, and the next morning we were treated to a tasting of 23 wines made by M. Sipp (this is indeed his name) and driven at breakneck speed by him directly afterwards to Colmar, where we lunched at Le Fer Rouge, a Michelin-starred restaurant of eye-watering cost. We would return to Ribeauvillé several times, and each time the number of Michelin stars increased, until we topped it all with a visit to L’Auberge de l’Ile, three stars and gastronomic heaven.
In 1988, we welcomed Susanna Pell to the group: now we were six. Her first concert, in the Rubens House in Antwerp was notable for another reason, as well. This was first time that we managed to leave an instrument we needed behind! Fortunately, Piet Strykers was able to lend us one in time. Later, for a BBC broadcast-concert in the Cheltenham Festival that started at 11am, we only realised we had left behind both tenor viols when we tried to rehearse at 9am. There followed some tense, anxious phone calls to local viol players, and by 10am, we had replacement tenors. Lastly, for a performance of Upon Silence (which requires 3 bass viols) in Paris, we realised on the Eurostar we were one bass short. Again, local viol players helped us out.
In 1989, we visited the Soviet Union, just before the wall came down. And in 1991 we played in the United States for the first time, thanks to the Boston Early Music Festival. We went straight on to make our Japanese debut, with Catherine Bott.
This year also saw a call from George Benjamin, who had heard one of our discs and was interested in writing a piece for us. I went to his house and showed him the instrument and demonstrated what I thought the viol was about. The result was Upon Silence, an extraordinary work for 5 viols and mezzo-soprano, setting a poem by W.B.Yeats. But this plunged us into the deep end of contemporary music: the technical demands made on the group were like nothing we had experienced before, and the exactitude demanded by the composer was shocking – it took us most of a decade to really get to grips with this piece.
We visited Australia for the first time in 1992 (without me) and premiered our second piece of contemporary music in the Spitalfields Festival: Michael Nyman’s The Self-Laudatory Hymn of Inanna and her Omnipotence, written for James Bowman and Fretwork. The reviewer in the Times regretted the need for amplification in the Nyman, though there hadn’t been any! Nyman’s gutsy, aggressive piece brought forth volume on another level from that of the earlier music.
Later that year we taught for the first time on the Viola da Gamba Society of America’s Conclave, a meeting of most of the amateur viol players in the States. Afterward we toured the States for the first time, ending an exhausting tour in San Francisco, where I fell asleep during 2 bars rest in a Gibbons In Nomine. Luckily, I awoke just in time……