Online Journal

July's issue reviewed a highly recommended recording, The London Horn Sound, part of the London Sound Series. Editor John Woodford went along to meet with the man behind the project, Cala Records' Artistic Director, Geoffrey Simon.

I was intrigued by the address when I first contacted Cala Records to arrange an interview with their Artistic Director, Geoffrey Simon. Shakespeare Gardens reminds one of a leafy suburb rather than the European headquarters of a thriving international record company. And it was - a genial setting for one of the most informal, though pleasant, interviews I have done to date. Geoffrey Simon, appearing somewhat ruffled, explained that things had not quite gone according to plan that morning, but, after a quick cup of coffee and shave, he was ready to talk about both his recording company and his work as a conductor. First, he wanted me to know all about the corrective laser treatment he'd recently had done on his eyes. Born shortsighted, he had put himself through what most people would consider a gruesome ordeal… "so, they lift up your cornea and treat the eyeball with a laser." Too much for me, but this larger-than-life enthusiasm said much about the character I was to talk to. As the interview progressed, his zeal for everything became an overriding and endearing quality, one that has evidently stood him in good stead as a conductor.

Geoffrey Simon
Geoffrey Simon

Born in Australia and initially trained as a pianist, Geoffrey soon realised that his interest in the keyboard was somewhat lacking. At the age of twelve, his school gave him a cello to play for the orchestra, and this soon came to replace the piano, an instrument he claims only to have tolerated. Although he ultimately did a degree in piano performance at the University of Melbourne, and won competitions as a pianist, he found having to practise for six hours a day a laborious task, especially seeing that, in comparison, the cello required so little work. Perhaps you found the piano too solitary an occupation? "Certainly, I loved playing in orchestras because as well as the social aspect, I enjoyed taking part in making a huge musical sound. But as a pianist, I loved being the centre of the stage during a recital, which I did a lot. I loved the command of the audience, because they were paying me so much attention. So I looked at the conductor waving his arms around and thought, 'crumbs, he's getting the fun of being in a big ensemble with this marvellous noise, and here's me, a grunt in the cello section, being totally ignored by everybody!' So I decided that I was going to have a go at conducting."

He was sixteen and formed his first orchestra from friends, borrowed the school gymnasium and set about organising a concert. "From the moment I put the stick down, I thought 'this is home', because I just felt completely at one with the world. I didn't have any technique, I didn't understand anything, but I just knew that this was what I wanted to do.

...even then as a fledgling, music was more for me than just playing the notes...

"Later, I met Malcolm Sargent when he was doing a concert in Melbourne. I asked him how I could become a conductor and he said, 'just do it, take any opportunity, good players, bad players, just do it." He took his advice and formed orchestras, some which lasted, some of which were only for a single occasion. "I didn't wait to be asked, I just formed them." He always strove for something that was more than just the notes, and recalls that from the first day of the first rehearsal, he found himself "searching for evocative adjectives to help create the colour. So, even then as a fledgling, music was more for me than just playing the notes; it was getting a feeling, an atmosphere."

Later on, he was to find that he couldn't talk about the "sun shining radiantly over the beautiful lake" to professional musicians, "because they would look and say, do you want it louder or do you want it softer?" His next step was finding how to communicate, "you've got to know so well what you want that you radiate it."

He graduated from Melbourne in July 1968 and went on to study cello at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York. Why Juilliard? "I didn't know much about London. I had a girlfriend who was a clarinettist and she was going to study in New York, so I went as well. That was a rude shock. I thought I was a good cellist; when I went to America, I realised that I was out-of-tune, and that was when I had my first lessons in intonation and tone production. I was a cellist with no sound-we had raw talent in Australia but we didn't have many excellent teachers with whom we could work. Therefore, America was a big career-threatening shock. I was dealing with someone like Itzhak Perlman, who was a student at that time, and when you hear that level of accomplishment and compare it with your own mediocre effort, it cuts you to the core. You either stay with it and master it, or give up." He admits to having been "right at the bottom", but worked solidly. Losing most of his interest in the piano along the way, he studied only cello and conducting. "If you're in New York and you're going to have a neurosis, that's the place to have it-it was so intense, but at the same time, there were the most wonderful musical experiences happening." European orchestras were the most influential; although American ones were excellent, he found that they rarely went behind the notes. "For example, Kubelik came out with the Bavarian Symphony and performed Bruckner and Mahler, exemplifying everything I had been trying to do in music since I did that first rehearsal as a conductor."

After Juilliard, Geoffrey came to London as a freelance conductor and enjoyed considerable success. He came second to Simon Rattle in the John Player Conductors' Award in 1974, but eventually returned to the States to take a teaching position as an associate professor and conductor at Milwaukee. "The reason for that was because I knew that student orchestras would go around the block with regards to repertoire, which I could learn better than waiting for the gigs to come along or by working with amateurs. Amateurs are not always motivated to give an unusually high standard, but college students you can inspire, since many are going to be professionals. My previous experiences allowed me to give my students an orchestral culture, the need for professional expectations, expression and intonation."

Ultimately he made the break with teaching and within four weeks was approached to take over the Albany Symphony Orchestra in New York. Finally, he settled in London, having served what he calls a long apprenticeship.

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