The familiar face of Frank Mathison no longer fills the LSO bass trombone chair. Peter Gane invited him to look back over a long career.
When the London Symphony Orchestra published its book in 1970 and cast around for a subject for the dust jacket, whose face was chosen to give the orchestra's image? - bass trombonist, Frank Mathison. Concert-goers worldwide, from as far back as the early 1960s, are missing a very distinguished presence in the brass section. Frank retired in 1993 after more than 30 years on the bass trombone chair, and the departure of his distinctive beard, twinkling eyes and good-humoured, throaty chuckle, spells the end of an era that partnered him with Denis Wick as principal for 20 years, and a sequence of second trombones that has included Paul Lawrence, Roger Groves, Simon Wills, Eric Crees and myself. Frank is the last to retire of the British bass trombonists who began their careers on the G trombone, and he has seen a great many changes in orchestral life and attitudes over his long career. I asked my former colleague what attracted him to the trombone in the first place and at what age.
"It started by accident. A friend and I used to play around the bandroom at Lindley, near Huddersfield, and an old fellow came out and said 'What are you doing here?' We were stuck for an answer so we said we'd come to join the band, which wasn't true at all. But it so happened that they were just forming the Lindley Boys Band. I was about 12, and got a cornet, and my friend got a trombone."
Frank tried the flugelhorn as he progressed a bit, but never seemed to get on with it, which probably wasn't his fault because later on someone found an india rubber shoved up the bell. The Eb bass didn't suit either, and the trombone didn't figure in his life until he joined the army for his National Service.
I joined the Duke of Wellington's Training Regiment, stationed at Brancepeth, County Durham, and took my trumpet with me. One day I heard the sound of a trumpet coming from the KOYLI's [King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry] barracks, so I went in and met the chap who was playing it. His name was Harry Cotton and we became good pals - still are to this day. In fact, I'm looking forward to meeting Harry again in July at the band reunion in Chester. But they don't take too kindly to two blokes playing trumpets in a barrack room, so we used to go into the woods and play duets. We both applied to join a band after out preliminary training."
They were posted to many army jobs around the country, but always together, and both eventually joined the South Staffordshire Regimental Band as cornettists. Frank found himself playing the same line as several others, and soon conceived an urge to do something more individual. The bandmaster suggested the bassoon, which didn't work, or the G trombone, which did.
Off he trudged with the old Hall Gisborne G and an Otto Langey tutor. He got on quite well on his own, with no lessons, and before the bandmaster heard him practising and said he was good enough to play bass trombone in the band.
I didn't really know the positions," Frank admitted, "so I tried chalk marks on the slide. But these wore off, so I marked them with a hacksaw. This worked quite well until the slide, kind of, fell to bits. I took it to the armourer's, and he soldered it up. But so much solder got inside the slide that it wouldn't work at all. The bandmaster took me to Yardley's shop in Birmingham, where I got another G, and I stayed in the band for the rest of my National Service."
Frank was friendly with the first trombone of the South Staffordshire Band, Corporal Wally Warbank, who used to go to Birmingham for lessons with Harold Greensmith, principal trombone of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra [CBSO]. Deciding to do the same, Frank even gave up smoking to pay for the lessons.
I was about 20 then, and Harold Greensmith seemed to think I was quite good. There was a good music scene at the Birmingham School of Music, with trombone quartets and ensembles to play in, whereas the London colleges weren't interested in trombones in those days. In any case, most orchestral brass players came from army bands, not from colleges. When I was demobbed, I applied for an army scholarship to the college, which was granted, and I enrolled on a two year course. This was much against my father's wishes, as it meant leaving a job that had been arranged for me as an apprentice electrician, so that I could 'get my lines', as they used to say."
He could have moved immediately in another direction when a vacancy occurred in the Black Dyke Mills Band. But having decided on a college education, he did the course and got his first job in a show at Wolverhampton Hippodrome. He had by now picked up some orchestral experience as an extra player, and depping for bass trombonist Jimmy Redfern, who Frank described as a 'strange old character who was apt to take quite a lot of time off'.
So by this stage, on the threshold of an orchestral career, were there any special influences that affected his style, or any players whose sound he wanted to emulate?
Not particularly." Frank went on to explain the absence in his young life of someone to model himself on: "Orchestras didn't tour so much then, so you didn't hear other trombone sections. The LSO went to the Three Choirs Festival, but those were the only concerts by a visiting orchestra. I was quite take with Bill Coleman at the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and I went for a lesson with him. He said, 'Look lad, I can't teach you anything. You play as well as I do.' So I had to find my own sound on the G, which fortunately everyone seemed to like.
We had visiting conductors, though: Van Beinum, Beecham, Monteux, and these made a big difference to the orchestra, which even so didn't give complete satisfaction. I once heard that the manager said to Pierre Monteux: 'I hope we'll see you again, Maestro,' and Monteux replied, 'Non, never!'"
Freelance work around Birmingham was unknown in those days. Frank occasionally worked with the BBC Midland Light orchestra, but as a rule extras were brought up from London as there was no pool of local players up to standard.
Once started in the profession, Frank's career took off with some speedy changes of direction. "After two weeks in Nudes Of All Nations, which seemed to please me at the time, I was offered a job at the Carl Rosa Opera Company. They didn't hold auditions. I simply wrote and told them what I had done - not a smart CV like you have these days - and they took me on."
He only stayed a few weeks because the CBSO job came up. The Carl Rosa was playing in Harrogate and wouldn't let him off for the audition, which was at 2.00 pm. Getting to Birmingham was alright, but there were no trains to get him back in time for the show. He approached a taxi firm, and: "The manager said he couldn't do the trip by taxi, but he had his own Alvis sports car and we could go in that for the price of the taxi fare, because he liked the idea of it. My wife, Kath, was with me, and pregnant with our daughter, Helen, and there were no motorways in those days, so the ride to Harrogate was pretty hairy. Anyway, I got the job and left the Carl Rosa at the end of a week in Norwich.
I suppose I should mention that when I auditioned for the CBSO, Denis Wick also auditioned for the job on a Bb/F. He was second at Bournemouth at the time. I got the job, not necessarily because I was better or anything, but because I played the G and I already had a foot in the door. Harold Greensmith retired soon after that anyway, and Denis came as first trombone. I know he liked the section we had in Birmingham, and we all liked Rudolf Schwartz, our chief conductor, who I think overall had a raw deal out of music in this country and his gifts were never fully recognised."
Next, Denis moved to the LSO, and Frank auditioned for Walter Legge's orchestra, the Philharmonia. Legge and his management were unhappy with the trombone section, and with some feeling Frank went on: "Of course, it's always the poor old bass trombone who gets the blame!" Several players were auditioned, but in the end they gave Ray Premru his job back.
His next career move would have been to the BBC Concert Orchestra. But this was frustrated by internal regulations governing job swaps between the BBC orchestras, and although it looked as if Frank was strong favourite at one stage, the CBSO offered to raise his salary by £2 a week to £22 if he would stop this flirtation and stay in the job.
But the arrival of Jascha Horenstein in 1962 to conduct a CBSO concert set the ball rolling again. When rehearsing the Unfinished Symphony, he was very effusive about Frank's playing, especially the little figure with the woodwind at the end of the second movement. "He said to the orchestra: 'This is the best sound I have heard. You have a great bass trombone in Birmingham. You should look after him'. Then he promptly went to the LSO and said: 'They've got a very good bass trombone in the CBSO. You should get him!' The LSO followed this up with Denis, and he was enthusiastic about me joining the orchestra. I remember him saying, years before in Birmingham, 'My ideal section would be myself, Paul Lawrence and you.'
As I have said, I had a sound in my head which I tried to create, and although I had to move on to a Bb/F instrument, I started with the G sound still there. I expect that's worn away over the years. I was just doing the job as far as I was concerned. But I did get a lot of praise and I was quite agile with the handle."
Nowadays it is hard to imagine the sound of a small bore section, playing the Boosey & Hawkes and Besson instruments, which were all that was available at the time. Is the LSO sound now significantly different, louder or grander than then?
No. In fact, I think we used to play much louder. The brass section in this orchestra now is always getting complaints from the management, who want us to make a less aggressive sound so that they hear more of the strings. That's all they're interested in. Conductors do ask for more, but the management constantly keeps us down. The sound of British sections obviously changed with the advent of American instruments, but I still think that the Boosey & Hawkes Artists Perfected was a lovely instrument, and a small bore section makes a wonderful sound. But woodwind, horns, strings - they all make more sound now."
Frank Mathison's early orchestral years represented the genuine article of professional G trombone playing, and with his retirement a particularly British link with the past is severed. Does he have any nostalgia for those days, or is he stirred by modern efforts to recreate Elgarian and Holstian sounds by the New Queens Hall Orchestra?
The G trombone has gone forever. This is just a fad. It's like those researchers who discover music that composers have thrown away because they thought it wasn't good enough, and they present 'original' versions. I can't understand why people want to play music that the composer discarded, and it's the same with recordings. You get a great sound from a CD; anyone who wants to listen to scratchy old 78s strikes me as cranky. And the same applies to instruments. After all the improvements that have come along, it would be a big step backwards to play the G again."
As well as his LSO job, Frank has for many years taught at schools for blind children and, most recently, in Wandsworth prison. "That is very hard work. I'm really drained after a day in prison!" he chuckled. "And now that they have this thing called 'Association' whereby the prisoners associate with one another in the evenings to play pool etc., I sometimes have a job to get all my band members together. If it was an alternative to being locked up in a cell, there'd be no problem. There is a nucleus of really keen ones, not necessarily very good, but enough to work with. We have given two pretty good band concerts, both boosted by colleagues from the LSO brass section, one at Christmas and the other, the day before my 65th birthday in April."
I asked Frank how he saw the profession in relation to young players trying to get going now, compared to his own orchestral beginnings. "It's harder for them. You need to be more than highly talented; as a brass player, you've got to be a good chum and get on with people. Had I had my time over again, I'd still have played trombone, but I would like to have played the piano really well too. My advice is: if you are playing the trombone as a youngster, take up the piano as well."
Frank's membership of the LSO officially ended in April 1993, but for old times' sake, he did the orchestra's long-standing fixture at Daytona, Florida, in July. His farewell party at the Barbican was one to remember, and the customary whip-round for a parting gift produced an impressive sum of money, which, with some generous help from Yamaha, enabled the orchestra to present him with - a piano.