Esher Recorded Music Society Talk



More than a couple of years ago I received a phone call asking me to give a talk to the Esher Recorded Music Society. I was in two minds until it was suggested that I talk about my life as an orchestral leader – after all, who doesn’t like talking about themselves?! So with the help of my wife Toni who enjoys writing, we came up with the following talk using recordings to illustrate memorable events and concerts. It can’t have been too bad as the society asked me back to give another speech this year (this time on Jascha Heifetz).

‘The orchestral leader holds a unique position in the violinist’s world. He requires the qualities of musicianship, outstanding technique and the ability to sight read. He must be proficient in playing alone, for there are hair raising solo passages for the leader in many orchestral works. But also the leader must have the qualities of leadership and of submission to authority. On the one hand he is very much the leader, both of his section and of the orchestra. He is responsible for his section, and indeed the whole string section. He must suggest ideal phrasing, find the right bowings and fingerings, monitor the sections and see that they all play well and in tune. But he, by the same token is subservient to and must respect the conductor. A good leader will understand what the conductor wishes and what he is about. He will be able to communicate to the orchestra the impulse and the living flow of the conductor’s conception.’ So said Yehudi Menuhin!

Presenting a slightly different view, Dr William Spark writes in his well known book, ‘Musical Memories’ 1888 ‘ If it were not that the whole beauty of a performance is frequently marred by the intermittent playing of the leader, now executing a few bars pleasantly enough, then suddenly giving a rasp as musical as the sharpening of a saw, then revolving convulsively on his axis and waving his bow to beat time…Yes, there is no doubt that many performances are marred in consequence of the reluctance of the gentleman who is leader to take the time and general reading of a composition from the conductor.’

Born in Croydon at an early age, I began lessons on the piano when I was 5 and then the violin when I was 6. I wanted to play the cello but my parents, neither of whom are musical, chose the violin for me because my older sister was already learning the cello.

So, with reluctance, I started on a quarter size instrument and began by having group lessons at primary school in Croydon. I must have changed to individual lessons at some point and then when I was about 12 I went to learn with a very good teacher called Kenneth Piper who was a pupil of Albert Sammons. Every week I went to his house in Beckenham where before lessons began he introduced me to many great string players- playing me scratchy recordings of Fritz Kreisler, Pablo Casals and Jascha Heifetz on his rather basic gramophone. This fired my enthusiasm for the violin and indeed the memory of that sound remains with me still. In fact years later when compact discs first came on to the market I didn’t like the clarity of the sound initially – obviously still preferring the atmospheric sounds from my childhood lessons.

I progressed through the Associated Board Grade exams on both the piano and violin. My only memory of exams at this time was again connected to my preoccupation with producing a clear sound on the violin – in this instance refusing to do vibrato because I didn’t like the effect. Mr piper said that unless I started to use vibrato I wouldn’t be able to take grade 6 – so I began to use it! He was a really good teacher as I was stubborn – and he worked around this trait skilfully – dealing with me with great patience.

I remember him standing on my feet to stop me swaying around when I played – he reckoned that if the great players such as Heifetz and the pianist Horowitz didn’t sway then I shouldn’t either.

I was inspired by these musicians – especially Heifetz who very quickly became my idol – nothing much has changed! Mr Piper gave me two 78rpm records – (of which one was broken) of Heifetz playing Wieniawski’s 2nd violin concerto. The beautiful sound, the clarity of technique, the wonderful phrasing but above all, the intensity and commitment inspired me.

Strangely my tastes haven’t changed at all as I still listen to these same players – often when I am disillusioned with my own playing and need motivation.

I became involved in the Croydon Schools Music Centre and worked my way up through the various orchestras to lead their first symphony orchestra. The centre put on lots of concerts and both my sister and I were involved with the orchestras and also played together as a duo – she on piano and me on violin and sometimes me on piano and her on cello. I remember going on stage to play a solo and being rather shy at that time standing with my back to the audience – eventually a teacher jumped up and turned me round the right way!

At 13 I went to the junior department of the Royal College of Music in London travelling up to Kensington from Croydon every Saturday so I could continue studying with Mr Piper. This meant leaving the Croydon Schools Music Centre and receiving as a send off the comment from an irate member of staff that ‘I wouldn’t be good enough to lead an orchestra there’ – nevertheless I enjoyed my time at junior college and also led ensembles at Trinity School in Croydon where I had gone on a music scholarship.

At 18 I went to senior college on an open scholarship – my teacher was still Mr Piper. I led one of the college orchestras and the 20th century ensemble but at that stage I had no idea that my future lay in that direction. All my energies were geared towards a string quartet which I had formed in my second year. However, perhaps a germ of an idea had taken root as Rodney Friend who at that time was leader of the BBCSO and a professor at college was somebody I admired not only for his playing but also because he dressed immaculately and drove a brand new Mercedes which I saw every day in the car park.

Leaving College

When I left college I worked mainly with the English Chamber Orchestra and my string quartet. But soon I left the quartet finding it rather insular and also because I was being offered lots of work which I couldn’t take on. I wanted to do both but it was impossible. I started to do extra work with the LPO. Sitting at the back of the second violin section I was taken by the aura of power that the leader seemed to have and by the deference shown to him by the orchestra – I decided I’d like some of that!

I did an audition for extra work – and didn’t think it went particularly well – however David Nolan then the leader of the LPO phoned me to ask if I would be interested in a job in the first violins based on this audition. I thanked him but said no. He asked what sort of job I was looking for and I said, without thinking, ‘one like yours!’ It didn’t go down too well as he pointed out that position was already filled but he offered me a trial for subleader sitting no 3. I was offered the job – then the full reality hit. I found myself in a position where I was often leading when David Nolan or the No 2 were away but I had a virtually non-existent knowledge of symphony orchestra repertoire. This felt rather dodgy – all my experience was of chamber ensembles and chamber orchestras.

My first concert leading the LPO was memorable for a number of reasons. I’d never played Beethoven 5 before which horrified those around me – they were even more horrified when they found out I’d never even led a professional orchestra! Conducted by a well known, now deceased, English composer at Kenwood Bowl the programme consisted of about 10 pieces. He went off after each one getting progressively slower and slower – eventually as he walked back on for about the 7th time the seething timpanist hissed ‘for God’s sake get a move on’. The conductor climbed onto the rostrum, bowed to the audience turned to the percussion section and shouted ‘f… off’!

Another concert around this time was at the Royal Festival Hall and I was leading Strauss’s ‘Til Eulenspiegel’ which has a difficult violin solo. The night before the concert I cut my left index finger open on a tin of Heinz Sausages and Beans (delicious!) – I hurriedly visited Queen Mary’s in Roehampton and the next day put together with butterfly strips I went on. Of course I couldn’t play like that – and so after about 20 minutes off they came -truly a time when I sweated blood sweat and tears for my art!

Leading The Rite of Spring for a recording session under Sir Charles Mackerras colleagues were again horrified that I’d never played it before but by this time I had learnt my lesson and didn’t say anything until after the sessions! For that work I spent an entire weekend trying to play along with the CD and not getting very far.

Of course I was quite young still and audiences were extremely warm towards me. As I walked on at the RFH for one of my first concerts a lady shouted out very loudly ‘My God its just a boy’. Some conductors however such as Sir George Solti were obviously uncomfortable with my youth and relative inexperience.

Others were very encouraging and put me at my ease – Bernard Haitink, Bryden Thomson and Leonard Slatkin in particular were charming, patient and gave helpful advice. The LPOs main conductor at this time was a man called Klaus Tennstedt – he was brilliant but slightly terrifying as he could be unpredictable sometimes walking out of rehearsals if he didn’t feel right. Early on in my relationship with him he stopped the whole orchestra in the middle of a rehearsal and pointed a finger at me – in the silence that followed he asked me why I was doing the fingering that I had been doing for a particular passage – I made a couple of incoherent noises back and then he said ‘ We are not at the Academy now – I don’t want fancy fingerings – use open strings’.

Some concerts at this time were particularly inspirational such as Messiaen’s opera St Francis of Assissi which lasts about 4 hours! It was very exciting when we did it at the RFH but when we went to Paris to perform it the whole of the first violin section got lost for about 3 minutes which believe me is a very long time (and when you are supposed to be in charge feels even longer).

During this time I also led Bernard Haitink’s 60th birthday concert. This was a long and difficult programme. It started with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro with solo string quartet. Second in the programme was Strauss’s 4 Last Songs well known for its extensive violin solos, and finally Mahler’s 4th symphony for which the leader has two violins – one tuned a tone higher.

Performing this symphony years later as leader of the BBCSO under a conductor who will remain nameless, this modified violin proved extremely taxing. None of the strings like being tuned up but the E string has the most tension on it and really doesn’t like being tuned up higher. Rehearsing for a Prom concert the string snapped and we laughed heartily. The next rehearsal it broke again and we laughed rather less heartily. When it broke a further two times on the morning of the concert accusing looks were exchanged!

If a string breaks mid performance (which has happened to me a few times) I pass my violin to the No2 who gives me their violin – they take the No 4’s instrument and the number 4 who carries extra strings for every performance puts a new string on and then passes my violin back to me – if we all end up playing the right violins we consider it to have been a success.

The Role of Leader

When I first joined the BBCSO as leader someone obviously in the know told me it was a very demanding job. I replied ‘I don’t know about that, I reckon you just have to play your solos well and lead well’! I couldn’t have been more wrong and have come to realise that it involves a great deal of hard work, energy and diplomacy.

I think the best way of illustrating my job for you is to run through a concert I did at the beginning of April 2007 and the preparations I did for it.

The concert was Mahler’s 3rd symphony under our principal conductor Jiri Belaklavek at the Barbican and is a fairly typical example of my day to day work.

I get sent the music about 3 weeks before the concert. I have a look through the part and ideally listen to a recording of it – I have over 1500 CDs and I’m grateful that nowadays I can order them over the internet at short notice! In this case I’ve played the symphony a couple times before and remembered that it has a few really difficult 1st violin bits. So I asked the management to contact Jiri to request a sectional rehearsal to go over these tricky passages.

Because the music was unbowed I listened to the recording a few more times to get a really good idea of it, bowed it and sent it back to the BBC music library. We have three librarians who then transfer my bowings to the other 7 first violin parts by hand and send a copy to each of the other string principals. They then bow their music matching as closely as possible to my bowings.

My part was then returned to me about 2 weeks before the concert and I decided what fingering and bowing I’d use in my solos. Then the practice begins. I start to practice these solos extremely slowly and in great detail, and build up the speed gradually each day. I then finger the rest of the symphony and work on this faster and in less detail. When I’m preparing for a concert I will generally do a minimum of 4 to 5 hours practice each day and often considerably more. Hopefully I’m then reasonably well prepared for the 1st rehearsal!

So how do rehearsals progress through to the concert?

Well I go to the 1st rehearsal and begin by checking the layout of the orchestra which has been set up by the orchestra’s 2 stage managers. On this occasion, I decide that its not compact enough – if the orchestra is not sitting close enough together this can make it more difficult to play together and judge intonation – so I go and find the senior stage manager and ask him if he would mind redoing it. He leaves his breakfast with a sigh and puts it right.

I’ll warm up for about 30 minutes – in between trying to sort out any other problems that may arise. Then as the rehearsal progresses I turn around and point out if things aren’t as good as they should be. Sometimes I will bellow to the back of the section or I’ll ask the 2nd desk to pass the message back. Jiri’s not happy about a particular passage so I suggest a change of bowing – he says ’nothing to do with the bowing its just the sound’ so we work on that for a while.

The next couple of days are more of the same until the morning of the concert when we rehearse at the Barbican.

Concert Day

I have a fairly set routine for concert days. I have a different chair to other people – not because I like to be different but because they now have complicated fully adjustable chairs with bells and whistles and I prefer an old plain chair.

After the rehearsal I come home and always have a pasta dish at about 3pm – usually I’ll watch some television before I get washed and changed into my concert gear.

I get to the concert hall about an hour before it starts – check the stage again and have a banana, bar of chocolate and some tea. I’ll practise in my room for a bit then go and join the others to warm up so I can get into the atmosphere back stage. I wait in the wings with the conductor then walk on – hopefully to rapturous applause!

For this particular concert there was no interval and it was a tiring play. But it was a hugely energetic concert and met with much enthusiasm.

Sometimes after the concert I’ll go for a meal with the conductor and any soloists but if not I come home for tea toast and hopefully football on the television!

Touring and guest leading

Part of the life of an orchestral leader is touring and I’m also lucky enough to be invited all over the world to guest lead orchestras whose own leaders are unavailable or absent.

Touring may give the impression of being glamorous but it’s not! You see very little of the country that you are playing in – often just the airport, hotel and concert hall. The itineraries are very intense, 12 concerts in a 14 day tour is commonplace – often travelling on the same days. There can be problems sleeping, finding food and maintaining a decent performance standard – add to this that you are hundreds of miles away from home and it is not surprising that many orchestral players see touring as a trial not a pleasure. On a depressing note I know of a least 2 London orchestral players who have committed suicide on tour.

Maybe this is a good time to talk about the pressures of performance – there is an expectation from audiences, recording labels and even fellow musicians that one will produce the goods. The old maxim of ‘you’re only as good as your last concert ’ holds true as it’s not enough to be good every so often – instead you have to be consistently good. In addition most musicians have their own personal standards which are often unattainable – this makes for a volatile mixture of ego and insecurity, triumph and disappointment. In short all through your working life you’re trying to find ways of dealing with these pressures sometimes successfully – sometimes not.

On a lighter note guest leading can test my miming and limited language skills to the extreme – particularly on the occasions I have been invited to lead German orchestras. I went to Cologne recently to lead the Westdeutscher Rundfunk Koln Orchesta and spent 45 minutes trying to buy a train ticket and hoping that things would improve when I got to the orchestra. When I did get to the rehearsal I couldn’t understand a word and ended up urging all those around me to practise their English!

On the same occasion I arrived for the second day’s rehearsal and was shown to the leader’s room by a grim looking German with a heavy moustache. As we paused at the door he said in broken English ‘This is your room’ adding ‘there is a small snake in your room’. Puzzled, I asked him to repeat himself, so he said again ‘there is a small snake in your room’. I thanked him and stood with some trepidation with my hand on the door knob. Breathing deeply I opened the door a little and peered in – to see – a table set with sandwiches and fruit ……yes, a small snack!

Time differences can also cause problems of a more domestic nature – if I want to talk to my wife we have to organise exactly what time to call each other – but sometimes I forget! Calling her from Australia at what I thought was a good time – to ask the extremely important question – ‘can I put a Pyrex dish in the oven?’ I was greeted with ‘you can put it anywhere you like – its 4 in the morning!’

I’ve led orchestras in many countries including Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Holland, Canada and many more – including Wales!

The Japanese fans are very keen and I once had to cut off a piece of my hair to stop our tour bus from being mobbed. Of course I got ribbed about this incident for many years as a well meaning Radio 3 announcer told the story during a live broadcast from Japan!

Audiences differ throughout the world – some are more reserved than others. The Prom audiences are however my favourite – the Promenaders are very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. I recognise people as they come year after year and as an orchestra we have a very special relationship with them. The Proms attract the best conductors and soloists so musically it’s a very satisfying time.

Conductors and Soloists

There are many conductors and soloists that I have worked with that I admire and some I don’t but I won’t be naming them!

Our principal conductor Jiri Belohlavek is an extremely accomplished musician and a brilliant conductor. He can create or coax from the orchestra a wonderful string sound.

I enjoyed working with Tennstedt of course, although as I said earlier he could be terrifying. His Mahler concerts when I was at the LPO were legendary.

Another conductor I admire is Tadaaki Otaka who I have worked with a number of times – he is noted for his interpretations of Rachmaninov.


My taste in music is extremely varied but there are certain composers that I love to play and when their works are programmed I look forward to these concerts particularly.

The Czech composers Janacek and Martinu are exciting and different. Janacek broke away from what had gone before and effectively formed a new musical language – his music is concise, energetic and lyrical. Martinu was equally original – born in a belfry it is often suggested that the bells he must have heard in his youth can be heard in his music. I also like Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Dramatic and emotional, many of their orchestral works contain violin solos that show the instrument off beautifully.

There are of course some composers and works that don’t appeal quite so much. The BBCSO plays a lot of contemporary music – some of it is excellent such as works by the Japanese composer Takemitsu and the English composer Oliver Knussen. However, some of it is not so good particularly when it seems to have been written on an electronic keyboard. These compositions don’t often translate well to the orchestra but you have to somehow try to play it!


As an orchestral leader I try to keep physically fit as stamina is important and the job is as demanding physically as it is mentally. It is considered to be a stressful job and for this reason a lot of orchestras have 2 leaders to share the work load. Alongside my leading work I get to perform concertos with the BBCSO -I enjoy this because I can pretty much choose what I’m going to play and I know I’m going to get the support of a world class orchestra.

Away from music I have various interests that take up the rest of my time. I have three British Shorthair cats – Effie, Dolly and Malcolm who divide their time between eating, sleeping and tearing the upholstery. I enjoy swimming and running and am a real gardening enthusiast – I love anything exotic – cordylines, tree ferns, agaves and yuccas being my particular favourites. Recently I’ve taken up drawing and painting and harbour a megalomaniacal vision of having my own exhibition one day.


Marian Holmes says:

September 12th, 2011 at 10:13 pm

Hi Stephen, great article and site. Interesting to read about your history since Croydon Schools Music Centre! I was under your leadership at John Ruskin every Saturday. Look at you now! And I wonder who that irate tutor was who gave you such a send off?? Fond memories. What opportunities those Croydon years gave us, eh? All the best, Marian

Marian Holmes says:

September 7th, 2013 at 10:57 pm

Hi Stephen,
Great First and Last night – and all those in between. Loved your moment with Nigel Kennedy! And fabulous leadership with Marin – such a great conductor. Well done you and all your colleagues. Marian

Clemens says:

September 15th, 2014 at 9:28 am

Subj: Missed Appointment

Dear Mr. Bryant,

I think you do not know, but sadly you missed an appointment we had.
Being a viewer from germany I had to watch the live stream of The Last Night Of The Proms only to see Mrs. Chee occupying your chair. Nothing against Mrs. Chee…but I was hoping to see you.
I hope you are well and my secretely grieving ears will be lucky next year.
Sincerely yours,

Stephen Bryant says:

October 1st, 2014 at 10:37 am

Dear Clemens
I am sorry that I missed this appointment….! not the first time I have done it but it is usually at the doctors!
I am well but am in the process of trying to move house so regrettably had to miss LNOP.Keep watching and hope to see you next year! Best wishes

Marian Holmes says:

September 10th, 2016 at 7:59 pm

Hi Stephen, Gosh, the LNOP comes around so quickly these days. Can’t believe another season is over. But great to see you in action again.

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