8 May 2016

Interview - Peter Averi

From The Sunday Feature, 1:55 pm on 8 May 2016

Peter Averi interviewed by James Gardner 13 November 2014.
Edited and corrected by James Gardner and Peter Averi 6 May 2016.

Full transcript of an interview conducted for The Fall and Rise of Harpsichord 6.

James Gardner: What are your recollections of the Goff harpsichord arriving in 1956?

Peter Averi:  On the day that the harpsichord arrived, at what was then the Waring Taylor Street studios in Wellington, I just happened to be around as a Programme Officer. And I was invited to help unpack it and give it a try. So in actual fact I was the first person to play it in New Zealand. It was a most beautifully constructed instrument. Beautiful walnut case. Very impressive, and a great range of stops: 16’, 8’ and 4’; two manuals. On appearance, it should have been a wonderful asset. It was bought for the National Orchestra. James Robertson personally selected it in England. Unfortunately as time went on, it was proved that it was not a very powerful instrument for public use – it was a drawing room harpsichord, despite its large size.

Talk me through the unpacking of the instrument.

I have to say I do remember the very impressive case that it came in. Curtis and Co. were the official carrier for the National Orchestra, and they trundled this huge crate downstairs into the Waring Taylor Street studio. It had to be unpacked downstairs because the weight of it would have been impossible to lift upstairs. So they gradually unpeeled this shiny metallic material around it – it was in a tin-lined case. This was in the days before all the fancy polystyrene things they use for packing now. But it was in excellent condition. Of course the cradle was disassembled – they brought that bit out first, I think, and that was assembled into the legs and the framework to take the actual body of the harpsichord. And there was a gang of men there to help. I do remember one humorous incident – the carriers stood back to admire this beautiful instrument; we lifted the lid and one of the carriers said “Hey – they’ve got the keys round the wrong way!”, that the black should be white and the white should be black. [laughs]. He felt there’d been a dreadful mistake!  

Well anyway, I drew up a chair and of course the instrument was pretty badly out of tune, as one would expect, bouncing across the ocean. But nevertheless, I do remember it was a very sweet sound – we hadn’t heard anything quite like it. James Robertson then came bouncing down the stairs, in his usual enthusiastic way, and he was full of excitement and wanted to launch it publicly as soon as possible.

Can you tell me more about James Robertson himself, as a character, and how he came to source the harpsichord?

James was a man of great energy. Even on his first public concert in Wellington, he was so energetic in his conducting that his buttonhole flew out of his lapel and landed on one of the violinists [laughs]. He was a loveable man because he had a great enthusiasm for everything that he did, and he did a tremendous job to promote the orchestra in those early years, when there were still letters to the editor from “irate taxpayer” about the cost of the orchestra. James did a great deal to try and promote the orchestra in all sorts of ways – the Promenade Concerts, for example, started in his time. So I do remember him as a man of boundless enthusiasm.

Do you know how he got connected with Goff in the first place?

That I don’t know, I’m sorry to say, but James must have made contact in some way. Goff in the early part of those years was a noted harpsichord maker. I discovered that in actual fact he was called to the bar – that was his profession – but he was an amateur harpsichord builder, which eventually developed into quite a big business. He was a cabinet maker in a small way, but his main cabinet work was done by a man named Cobby who was a very skilled craftsman. He built the case that we’re talking about. How James came to actually select it, that I don’t remember. I don’t recall that he was actually over in England – he was certainly resident here. But anyway, we gave James Robertson the credit for selecting the instrument.

And after he came bounding down the stairs, what happened next?

Well, of course he wanted to get it into the orchestra straight away. The orchestra at that time was rehearsing in the Old St Paul’s schoolroom in Sydney Street – the building’s long since gone. And within a matter of days the harpsichord was taken around there. James had visions of using it orchestrally. There had been no harpsichord available to the orchestra as its own property, as it were. So he was very keen to promote the use of it – obviously in the Baroque repertoire.

It seems that in the early days, the NZBS guarded the use of the harpsichord quite jealously – there are a few exchanges in the files about not letting it out to various choral societies and so on, but that gradually relaxed, it seems.

Yes, it did. And I think it would be fair to say that the orchestra lost interest in it. That’s because it was really not suitable for its purpose. For a start it had a huge case. It was designed in the style of a Baroque instrument. Very long ­­– almost the length of a Steinway grand, if you can imagine that. And consequently, on an orchestral stage, it really was very limited in where it could be placed. So that was the first thing. More serious, however, was the lack of tonal strength, if I can put it that way. The harpsichord really was a salon model. It sounded well in a small room, and it had – as I mentioned before – a good range of stops, but on an orchestral platform, it really could hardly be heard. And so it was not long before it was realised that it really was not the sort of instrument that was going to be of long-term use to the National Orchestra.

Goff advocated amplifying his harpsichords as they had been for concerts in the UK from the early 1950s.

Yes, that’s true. A microphone was placed underneath it and artificially, therefore, its sound was magnified. That didn’t suit the purists, understandably, and there was always a risk that it could be out of balance with the rest of the orchestra. It was eventually loaned to various places, and I regret to say that the last time I saw it the case was in very bad condition. There were chips all round the walnut veneer and it had really been badly handled over time. It languished in what was then Broadcasting House for a number of years – I lost track of it then. But really it did not serve the purpose.

One person who’s associated with the harpsichord very early on is Norman Booth, who was entrusted to look after the instrument. Can you recall anything about him?

Yes, Norman was an oboe player, of course, but he took an interest in it and indeed he was the one who maintained it in the early days when it was with the orchestra. He tuned it and regulated it and replaced broken quills and so on. So it was well looked after. The big problem, once it left the orchestral studio, was: who was going to service it? Who was going to look after it? And piano tuners did, but really the harpsichord is a very specialised field, as you know, and I think it really did not get the maintenance that it probably merited.

Was that simply because there were no specialists around in Wellington at that time?

No, as far as I’m aware there was not. I remember that John Ashby – who was the resident Steinway tuner – struggled with it and that’s no disrespect to him: he was not trained in that field. But at least he did tune it.

Coming back to that first public performance of the harpsichord with Charles Thornton Lofthouse – by all accounts it was a disastrous performance...

Yes, it was a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, in the Wellington Town Hall. I was playing the organ, so I remember it very well. James Robertson, of course, was conducting. They had marvellous soloists: William Herbert had come out from England – he was the Evangelist; Dora Drake; Keith Falkner from England; Donald Munro. I mean, that line-up was good. The contralto soloist, however, was a lady called Muriel Gale. She had recently arrived in New Zealand from England and seemed to come with a very good reputation. Unfortunately on her first aria she lost her way, and she got progressively further and further behind the beat. The orchestra couldn’t help – they didn’t have her vocal line – but I did, up at the organ, and I tried to help her by playing her solo line rather loudly. But she didn’t hear it, or if she did, she couldn’t latch on, and consequently James Robertson had that embarrassing situation where he had no option but to stop the orchestra. And he sat her down.

Well of course later in the Passion, as you know, the aria ‘Have Mercy’ [Erbarme dich, mein Gott, um meiner Zähren Willen!] with that beautiful violin solo...he wouldn’t risk letting her stand up. So Vincent Aspey, who was all primed up to play it...he just had to say “move on”. So from that point of view, yes it was a disaster. But in other ways it was interesting because it was the first performance by the newly-formed Phoenix Choir, which had grown out of the old Schola Cantorum, which had gone into recess after its conductor, Stanley Oliver, died. They disbanded and then reformed as the Phoenix Choir conducted by Harry Brusey. So this was their debut performance. And in many ways that part of it was very successful.

Do you remember how the performance went down with the audience?

Oh, I think there was general dismay at what was going on up onstage when the contralto lost her way. It’s one of those embarrassing things where nobody knows whether to look at the ceiling or the floor. Some people wouldn’t have been aware of it and fortunately that happened early enough in the performance that it just kind of passed along. But I think there was genuine interest in this new choir. That’s the thing that I recall most – that here was a new choir in Wellington making its debut, and that received good reports.

Do you think there was an awareness that this was a new harpsichord?

I think there possibly was. I don’t recall it, but of course the presence of Dr Lofthouse, who must have been out here as an examiner for the Royal Schools...

That’s right.

I mean, he was a big name, and so the fact that he was coming to play it was quite a bonus.

There was actually a feature in The Listener at the time, so I don’t know whether that would have alerted the audience to it.

It might have done, and of course we hadn’t had a big harpsichord available in that way. There were harpsichords around the country in private homes and universities, but this was the first time that Broadcasting, and the orchestra, owned its own instrument. And of course, it was brand new, it shone, it was beautiful to look at, apart from anything else.

Do you remember having any interactions with Thornton Lofthouse himself?

Not a lot. I met him – he was a rather short, tubby little man [laughs], and he looked so relaxed at the harpsichord. He just stroked the keys, and made a marvellous sound. And of course it was a two-manual instrument, as I mentioned, with a good range of stops, and he used it well. I got to speak to him rather more at the performances of the Brandenburg Concertos, in which he really shone, because obviously there were more important roles for the harpsichord.

This was part of the same trip?

Yes. I can’t remember how long afterwards, but he would have been in the country examining, I suppose, for a period of some weeks. I don’t have the exact dates, but the performances must have all been on the same night, although playing all six in one night would have been quite a feat, wouldn’t it?

Did you get to talk to him a little bit during those performances?

Yes. I thought he was rather shy ­– my recollection is that he didn’t make a big noise about himself. I thought that he was rather retiring, in many ways. But he was certainly very friendly, and he got on well, of course, with James Robertson, They were obviously old friends.

Do you remember how Thornton Lofthouse coped with the performance falling apart?

Well of course I was some distance away, up at the organ, and I was not aware of the exchange between him and James Robertson. He was right in the thick of it, of course, down on the floor with the strings. I’m sure he would have felt embarrassed, and possibly a little annoyed. It shouldn’t have happened. The lady was a good singer, well trained and she had a very attractive vocal quality. But for some reason or other, that night she just got off the track and didn’t seem able to get herself back on again.

In the archive there’s a letter from Malcolm Rickard to a “Mr Schroeder” in April 1956 – before the harpsichord actually arrived, and he says “I think that if we can get the harpsichord which has been offered to us, it should be housed in the vocal studio, Waring Taylor Street. Unfortunately the acoustics in the main studio are bad.” Can you elucidate?

There were two studios at Waring Taylor Street, which was originally a gentleman’s club. And it was the first home of the National Orchestra – that was in the big studio. Acoustically, neither of them was very good, especially the small studio which was right on the corner of the building. So traffic noise was always a hazard. And acoustically it wasn’t anything like the quality of studios that we would expect today. But it’s quite true, the harpsichord was moved upstairs because I think maybe part of the orchestra still rehearsed there – I can’t remember exactly. But it stayed there for some time before it went round to the orchestral studio in Sydney Street. Malcolm Rickard, of course, was Controller of Programmes in those days. John Schroeder was the assistant Director-General, and Mr Rickard’s office was underneath that studio. So it’s quite clear that he would be very happy to have the harpsichord up in the studio above him.

And then there’s this move to Magnus Motors that’s mentioned, and I know some recording of the Goff was done there. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Yes, I remember that studio. Magnus Motors was a motor company along in Wakefield Street, and while Broadcasting House was being built they obviously needed more studios, because television had I think by then become involved with taking over the Waring Taylor Street studios. So broadcasting at that time was housed in something like a dozen or more buildings all over the city. Studios were at a premium, so Magnus Motors had this rather large open space that was temporarily converted into a studio. Obviously it was not entirely suitable, again because of traffic noise, but it sufficed for some months. I remember being a Programme Officer looking after broadcasts of artists from there.

Gillian Weir was scheduled to give a recital on the Goff and I do remember the day of the recital she said to me “I’m afraid I cannot play it”. For whatever reason, she felt that tonally it was weak, mechanically it was not up to scratch, and I can remember the frantic rush to try to find a replacement instrument. My memory’s a bit dim on it except that I seem to recall ringing David Farquhar at the University and I think he came to the rescue. Certainly not with their large harpsichord in the music room, but I think he found another instrument that Gillian felt comfortable playing. So by then you can see already the Goff was slipping into decline.

That’s right. Well, even as early as 1962 there’s a report that says “this instrument has for some time been in rather poor playing condition and it’s possible that another harpsichord is required that is more suitable for orchestral use”.

That’s absolutely right, and if I can move on a little bit in time, in 1974 – I’d just become Concert Manager for Broadcasting – the orchestra needed a harpsichord for a work that John Hopkins had proposed. Ashley Heenan was director of the Schola Musica, which was the training orchestra, and of course they specialised in Baroque music. He was very keen to have a harpsichord. So I remember consulting John Hopkins who by then was actually in Sydney, and he recommended that we get in touch with Wittmayer, a firm in Hamburg.  And that’s exactly what we did. We bought a two-manual travelling harpsichord. The Wittmayer was ideal for orchestra purposes because it was robust, being in a very plain unadorned case, and did not take up much space on stage. But best of all, it had a bright tone which projected well so it was ideal as a continuo instrument in an orchestral context. I don’t know if the NZSO still has it, but it was used extensively in the 70s and 80s, especially with the Schola Musica under Ashley Heenan.

Do you remember any notable figures who played on the Goff during its heyday?

I’m struggling to be very honest. I think Betty Stewart, who was an organist in Wellington – very fine player – I’m sure she did some recordings on it.

Yes there’s some recordings from Magnus Motors studios with her. Tell us a little more about her.

She was organist at, among other places, St James’ Anglican Church in Lower Hutt. A very fine exponent, especially of Bach, and she left Wellington many years ago but I understand she still plays the organ in the Auckland region somewhere. But she was a very well-qualified person to record on the harpsichord. I don’t recall Betty ever appearing as a solo pianist.

Do you remember Valda Aveling coming [in 1957]?

Oh yes, that’s right. I don’t recall meeting her personally but that’s another name.

And Eileen Joyce? [1958]

Well, I don’t remember her playing the harpsichord, but I do remember her visiting – as a matter of fact I played the piano to start her recital in Wellington. Now this sounds absurd, but in those days the National Anthem had to be played at the start of every concert. Eileen Joyce didn’t want to come on stage and make a surreptitious entry to do that ­– she was magnificently gowned – she wanted to make a grand entry, so I was engaged to walk on stage, play the National Anthem, and slink off. [laughs] My fear was that some clown in the audience would applaud. [laughs]. I’m glad to say nobody did. But Eileen Joyce did a New Zealand tour at least once, maybe more, but I don’t recall her ever playing the harpsichord here.

Do you think, with hindsight, that the Goff was a good choice, but not for the purpose that it was actually put to?

Yes, it was not adequate. But I don’t blame James Robertson for that because the name of Goff was quite respected and well-recognized in England, so one could have expected that he’d produce an instrument that was suitable. Where it came unstuck was that I think he had not been given the specification of what we really wanted – that was, a robust instrument with a big, gutsy tone that would carry through an orchestra. Instead he designed a magnificent piece of furniture.

And there’s a sense of it languishing, certainly from the early 60s on.

Yes it did. I must admit I didn’t have any personal involvement because my work as Concert Manager took me away from radio from 1974 onwards, but I do know that it languished in one of the studios at Broadcasting House. It wasn’t used. Programming, perhaps, had changed – there wasn’t a need for it, maybe. But it was certainly not in good condition and I do remember being asked to draw up a report, which may be on file somewhere and I think that would have been in the 1970s, perhaps, and I sadly had to report that it had deteriorated very badly.

There’s a report from Alec Loretto about it and he’s very scathing – he actually calls [its sound] “a dull whimpering”.

Yes. Yes, I remember Alec very well and of course he was very knowledgeable about not only the harpsichord but the period of music to which it really belonged. And so he was quite right – it whimpered. It didn’t have a sound that you would thrill to.

Do you think Loretto’s opinion of it was so poor partly because that kind of instrument had fallen out of favour by the 1970s?

Yes, it might have done, except that kit set harpsichords were all the rage, and people were buying them. I remember one or two players in the orchestra bought these kit sets and assembled them. There was a resurgence of interest, especially once it became fashionable to perform Baroque music in authentic style and with authentic instruments. So it was a pity. In actual fact if we had been able to look after it better, the Goff could have played a role, I think.

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