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Vale Barry Tuckwell AC OBE FRCM FRSA

Friday, 24 January 2020 - 6:00am

Barry Tuckwell, one of the greatest Australian musicians of the 20th Century, died peacefully on the 16th of January 2020 from complications of heart disease.

The international significance of Tuckwell’s performance and recording legacy stands proudly alongside vocalists Dame Joan Sutherland and Dame Nellie Melba, representing the ne plus ultra of instrumental performance of his era.

Barry’s solo recording career began in earnest when, in 1959, as Principal Horn player with the London Symphony Orchestra, he was called upon by the legendary producer John Culshaw to record Mozart Horn Concerti 1 and 3, to complement the Mozart clarinet concerto with the LSO’s renowned Gervase de Peyer. This recording marked the beginning of an unprecedented solo career that spans what is widely regarded as the golden age of classical music recording, and, indeed of the classical music industry as a whole, through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

It’s a popular fantasy that what is needed to succeed in classical music at the highest level is talent, vast amounts of talent - and of course vast amounts of hard work. That’s true as far as it goes, but prodigious talent and hard work are only two of many elements that go towards building, developing and maintaining even a modest career.
As a child in a professional musical household - his father was the respected organist Charles Tuckwell, - Barry was fascinated by music and taught himself to read the arcane notation of music before he was even taught to read words, and could readily name pitches that his older sister Patricia played on the piano.

In later childhood Barry was frustrated by his piano and organ studies, his impeccable musical ear being so far ahead of what his fingers were able to replicate created an ongoing source of torment. At this time, he also studied violin and was a chorister at Sydney’s Saint Andrews Cathedral.

Barry happily told the story of his introduction to the horn: at age thirteen, sitting in a café with his sister Patricia, then a Sydney Symphony Orchestra violinist (later high-fashion model Bambi Shmith), SSO principal oboist Charles Mackerras (later Sir Charles) and SSO horn player Richard Merriwether (later a stalwart of British horn manufacturer Paxman), the question arose from Patricia: “what are we going to do about Barry?” Merriwether suggested: “Why not try the horn?” After a brief introduction by Merriwether, Barry duly studied with the doyen of Australian horn teachers, Alan Mann. Having played what is often regarded as the most treacherous and unforgiving of musical instruments for just 18 months, at the age of 15, Barry was awarded the position of third horn with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra by Joseph Post, and a year he later joined the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Eugene Goosens. Barry’s magnificent gift had found the perfect outlet.

After a little more than three years with the SSO, Barry made the exodus to London, winning in rapid succession a slew of appointments with famous regional orchestras: 1951 with the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli, 1953 Scottish National Orchestra under Karl Rankl, 1954 the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Charles Groves.

In 1955, at age 24, Barry was appointed principal horn of the London Symphony Orchestra. At this time the LSO had been moribund for some time and was eclipsed by the newer London orchestras.  But with the influx of a group of ambitious and talented young Turks, of which Barry was a key member, this once great orchestra became revitalized and in a relatively short time returned to its previous position of pre-eminence. The chief conductors during Barry’s time with the LSO were Josef Krips, Pierre Monteux, István Kertész and André Previn. But the Maestro about whom Barry spoke most reverentially was the guest conductor, Stokowski, a magician.

During his time with the LSO Barry made many solo recordings. Significant among them are the previously mentioned Mozart Concerti, a magnificent Britten Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and strings with Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, and a virile recording of the Strauss concerti with the Hungarian István Kertész.

During his thirteen-year engagement with the LSO Barry was first elected to the board rising to become Chair of this great self-governing orchestra. His roles as principal horn and occasional soloist were carried out concurrently with his task of helping steer the LSO into more secure financial waters and developing ever higher standards. His role as chair required refined musical and interpersonal judgment, negotiating skill, resolve, and steely toughness in dealing with the artistic and disciplinary decisions necessary in guiding the course for an institution of more than 100 strong-willed artistic individuals.

It is rare to have the often-contradictory qualities in one person which allows them to fly so close to the sun for an extended time. Skill, ambition, resilience, toughness even ruthlessness, compassion, grace, dignity, confidence, sensitivity, passion, enthusiasm, love of the musical art-form, vision and common sense are just some of the personal qualities that Barry maintained until his last breath.

A counterpoint to Barry’s work with the LSO was his work with a trio he formed with Brenton Langbein (violin) and Maureen Jones (piano), initially for a performance of the Horn Trio by Don Banks in 1962. The trio subsequently performed together for many years, touring in Europe, Asia, and Australia. Their work together remained close to Barry’s heart and came to an end with the death of violinist Brenton Langbein.

Barry left the London Symphony in 1968 taking the bold and, at the time many would have said, foolhardy leap to pursue a career as a horn soloist, a touring virtuoso, without the fallback of an orchestral or teaching position. Barry proudly said that in setting out on his solo career his first step was to appoint a publicist…at his own expense. This decision demonstrates a canny and pragmatic side of Barry’s nature, realizing that such an appointment was essential if he were to make a success of conjuring up a career as a touring virtuoso, a feat that not even the great Dennis Brain had attempted. Brain had always maintained at least one orchestral position as a backstop.
Barry also recognized that to make his career viable he had to perform and record as frequently as possible and related one occasion where he had to scramble from a solo performance in the United States to catch a trans-Atlantic Concord flight to make an important solo recording session the next morning in London.
Barry’s success in creating a stellar solo career and the easy access to the brilliance of his performance gave him pride of place in the pantheon of the greatest horn players of all time and the popularity of his recordings made him one of the most readily recognized classical instrumentalists. His solo career success blazed a trail for other wind soloists to follow.

Alongside his roster of solo appearances, Barry took immense pride in his work with the Barry Tuckwell Wind Quintet, formed when he left the LSO. The quintet was another example of the satisfaction Barry experienced working intensely with a small group of trusted colleagues. He recalled with joy the story of the quintet’s condensed preparation period and performances of the fiendishly difficult Schoenberg Woodwind Quintet, a piece selected as a keystone of the ensemble’s early festival appearances. The piece could very easily have gone devastatingly, and irretrievably awry; but as live recordings attest the performance was thrilling.

Barry expressed abiding admiration and respect for many of his colleagues, an enduring love of their camaraderie and musical virtue, whether it was the principal oboist of the LSO during his tenure there, a musician whom Barry described as the heart and soul of the orchestra, or his LSO second horn, whom Barry said possessed a prodigious ability to judge exactly and complement Barry’s phrasing, articulation, and performance, always making him sound better. Conversely, Barry was never one to hide his contempt of even the most pedigreed virtuosi if their musical commitment was judged as lacking. Even after fifty years, Barry remained incensed at a cavalier attempt at phrasing by one virtuoso during one of his recording sessions.

There is an old platitude used by some with ecumenical musical tastes; that there are two kinds of music, good music, and bad music. This adage could certainly be applied to Barry’s openness to and love of a wide range of music. It applied also to the huge amount of respect he held for dedicated musicians across a range of genres. Who could have imagined that the virtuoso who won and joyously wore the epithet “the God of Horn” loved Elvis Presley or that he respected the slickly kitsch extravaganzas of Andre Rieu. Or conversely, the contempt that he held for ill-conceived and ill-executed orchestral crossover performances which demonstrated in their arrogance or ignorance those musicians had little or no respect or understanding for the genre of music they were attempting. Barry’s regard for craft and respect for commitment and integrity trumped perceptions of musical or societal strata.

Barry gleefully referred to his property, just out of historic Kyneton, in Victoria, as his “country seat” and held great affection for the community there, as well as nearby Tarradale where he had previously lived. He spoke with admiration of the integrity of one local firm which, when asked to repair broken window blinds they had previously installed, refused payment taking it as a point of honour that it was their responsibility to support the product that they had made. And no visit to Kyneton was complete without a visit to the local artisan bakery where Barry delighted in the quality of the comestibles and took great joy in sharing his enthusiasm for the quality of their work, always coming away with extra supplies to share.

Barry took joy in the commitment to high-quality work across the board – and seemed to live by the dictum that something ill-executed should not just be mildly annoying it should cause actual pain.
Compared to the vast and varied solo repertoire of the violin and piano the horn has a relatively slim canon of solo pieces even though many of those are quite magnificent. To offer new horn music to his audiences and to challenge and add freshness to his performances Barry enthusiastically championed the many large-scale solo pieces written for him, including concerti by Oliver Knussen, Don Banks, Gunther Schuller, Robin Holloway, Thea Musgrave, Jean-Michel Damase and Richard Rodney Bennett. Barry was always excited to find well-crafted new music and maintained enormous respect for its champions and their ways of introducing the unfamiliar to sceptical audiences, notably Eugene Goosens from his early experiences in Sydney and Leopold Stokowski from his time in LSO. Barry took the lessons learned with these greats to his work with the Maryland Symphony Orchestra.

Barry was always infatuated with music and thrilled to discover a new piece and was always in search of a great performance and joyous at the opportunity to share a newfound treasure. His love of music seemed to be a well that was replenished many-fold the more he drew from it.

Barry was fiercely indignant on hearing performances devoid of the spiritual essence of the composer’s music or performer’s respect, where the great mystery of existence that flows beneath these masterpieces had been eschewed in favour of technical expediency, empty bluster or arrogant carelessness.

Barry often commented that in the last decades, the level of mediocrity had risen greatly –within this comment is the notion that technical standards may well be high but frequently accompanied by an underlying emptiness, leaving the performance meaningless, devoid of artistry or humanity. The performances of the 1960s and earlier which Barry held in esteem had those qualities of spirituality and musical profundity at their core, and the conductors whose music-making he loved were those who drew these qualities from their orchestras, whether they were appalling people or saints.

At age sixty-five in 1997 Barry retired from the concert platform as a soloist but since 1980 had been building a significant career as a conductor. For music lovers it had been a disappointment to have Barry step away from the concert platform as a soloist at the height of his powers. But he left a proud and enduring legacy of thousands of solo performances and over 50 recordings at the very highest level of instrumental performance.
Barry’s conducting positions include Chief Conductor of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra from 1980 until 1984, and founder and inaugural music director of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra in the United States, a position he held for sixteen years. Added to these full-time appointments were countless guest appearances and recordings around the world.

Throughout his career, Barry was highly sought after as a teacher, mentor, advisor, competition judge, director, patron and figurehead for many music festivals and events. Barry was generous in his praise and staunch in his support of musicians in whom he believed. Conversely, he was utterly scornful and dismissive of those whose playing did not uphold the revered standards which he held were his instrument’s and music’s due.

Barry curated and conducted the SACD recording Rhapsodie: Fantasie: Poéme on Melba Recordings. The flavour of the disc was predominantly French, highlighting several pieces by Jean Michel Damase; one, the Rhapsodie was commissioned for Tuckwell by another of the great Australian Barrys, Barry Humphries. The recording featured the brilliant young co-principal horn player of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Ben Jacks, as soloist. Although a “young gun” professional, Ben was thrilled to be involved so intimately in a project with one of his heroes - a figure held in such reverence in the world of French horn. Barry always supported Ben’s musical decisions never undermining, always encouraging bravery at the expense of safety and trusting his soloist.

An anecdote is offered as an indication of Barry’s cool head and skills of orchestral sleight-of-hand during these sessions: In the dying minutes of the only day’s recording session, in which the primary piece had been meticulously captured, but the remaining time barely allowed for playthrough and one recording take of the ‘b side’ piece. Undaunted, Barry conducted through the ‘b side’ piece once, with the red recording light on. To the despair and disbelief of all present, the piece sounded utterly ghastly; strings out of tune, not together and uneven. Such was the awfulness of the playing the musicians believed that attempting anything in the three or so minutes remaining would be futile, and as absolutely nothing could be done to salvage the piece the best option was to give up and go home. Barry was unperturbed and after some efficiently delivered ‘orchestra whispering’, for example, “violins just murmur and provide texture for such and such a passage – we don’t need to hear detail or even be aware of the notes here” etc. etc. With not quite enough time for one more playthrough the same musicians provided a most elegant and poised performance, a minor miracle. Ben Jacks ‘sang’ on solo horn with the greatest poise, Barry’s orchestral direction created a wave of orchestral sound for Ben to ride and performance went on to receive the most excellent reviews.

During Barry’s Melbourne sojourn several developing horn players benefitted enormously from his mentorship, advice and support. Chief among these was the Chinese/Australian virtuoso Lin Jiang, now solo horn with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. Barry never interfered with the direction of Lin’s development but offered supplementary advice and council, subtly nudging him towards deeper musical insight and technical development. Barry’s delight in talking of his admiration for Lin’s technical virtuosity and freedom exposed the joy of a man so young at heart.

Barry Tuckwell was a founding patron of the Melba Foundation, and we were honoured when he became our Chair. Barry’s love for and understanding of recording made him the ideal champion of an Australian Foundation and recording label created with the objective of representing Australian performers on recordings of the highest quality. He understood the need and was unswerving in his lobbying for government and philanthropic support.

He was a superb letter writer and wrote in a personal style he described as “Barry speak”, a distillation of his ideas into elegant pithy sentences with never a word out of place and never one word too many.

We benefitted constantly from his wisdom and guidance and were buoyed by his fearless demand for high standards and will be eternally grateful for the mentorship and the unstinting support that he offered. There is no way we can repay the debt of gratitude that we owe him professionally and personally. We are heartbroken by the loss of this truly amazing friend, fabulous character and legendary musician. Our thoughts go to his wife Jenny, his children David, Jane and Tom.