Dateline June 2004
■ In March Robert Farnon advised us that he had just completed working on several new arrangements for strings, harp, piano and percussion. These have been conceived with harpist Suzy Willison in mind, and include several brand new compositions as well as a few old favourites: Alto Vista, Infatuation for Harp, Song of Scandia, Hopscotch, Novelette Sentimental, Moonset, Timeless Rose, Indecision, Piano Strings, Walkin’ Happy, Sacree et Profane (Debussy), Intermezzo for Harp, La Douzieme Jardin (The Twelfth Garden) and Beloved. These pieces are being held in readiness for a future recording project, which it is planned that John Wilson will eventually conduct. In the meantime John will keep these new works in his library, and possibly use one or two in his public concerts.
■ Symphony orchestras have to plan their concerts well in advance, so it is hardly surprising that the premiere performance of Bob’s Symphony No. 3 is still awaited. However the omens are good: Andre Previn has spoken to Bob about conducting it in Oslo, and Marc Fortier is trying to get it scheduled in Montreal. Several other orchestras have also expressed keen interest in this work, so it is only a matter of time before the paying public gets to hear it! Meanwhile the amateur musicians in the Guernsey Symphony Orchestra have been rehearsing it for the benefit of the composer, so that any ‘glitches’ can be removed from the manuscripts.
■ Robert Farnon has been commissioned to compose a major new work lasting around 15 minutes for an American Wind Band, based in New Jersey. It is likely that it will be premiered by the Roxbury High School Honors Wind Band conducted by Stanley Saunders in January 2006. The instrumentation comprises just about every possible instrument, except strings, and the large ensemble (nine clarinets and seven percussionists are just two examples!) will allow Bob’s creativity full rein. His initial thoughts are to give the work a Scottish theme, and no doubt we will have more to report later this year.
■ Although it is disappointing that the album Robert Farnon recorded with George Benson has never appeared, George does use some of Bob’s charts in his public performances. He recently said that "… the entire orchestra is lifted up with enthusiasm…" when they see the arrangements on their music stands. "The morale of the orchestra improves significantly!" [note: one track from the Benson/Farnon sessions did appear on CD in 1990 – "Portrait of Jennie" on Warner Bros 926295-2.] Two other legendary performers whose cherished ambitions were to record with Bob were J.J. Johnson and Eileen Farrell. J.J. was unhappy following the death of his wife, and the sessions with Bob came at just the right time to lift his spirits. He was very nervous during the recordings, possibly because Bob’s scores were stretching his artistic talents to the limit. But as we all know the result was the award of a Grammy! Similarly Eileen Farrell (who had also lost her husband) had told friends for years that she wanted to work with Bob before she died: in the event they did four CDs together.
■ The recordings featuring Kathryn Oldfield on the recent Robert Farnon CD "A Portrait of Farnon" reminded Derek Boulton that she was the only singer – male or female – who had ever achieved the distinction of having two radio series on both the BBC and Radio Luxembourg. At the time, the BBC normally ‘black-listed’ any of their performers who had dared to go to the commercial rival, but somehow Kathryn slipped through the net! For the BBC Kathryn sang with Bob and Laurie Johnson. Her Radio Luxembourg shows were sponsored by football and hair products.
■ John Parry tells us that he is very pleased that Robert Farnon’s album "Showcase for Soloists has finally made it on to CD. John produced it while he was in charge of the Recorded Music Department at Chappells, and he regards it as one of the best things he did for them. He was involved in everything, from the original concept right through to the final mix. The reason why the commercial release on Invicta was delayed was through technical mistakes – nothing to do with John. Invicta could have used the same plates that produced the Chappell LP, but they insisted on re-cutting it. Unfortunately the engineer failed to read the tape box label, and didn’t realise that the master was in Dolby. The tape was played in non-Dolby, with the resultant unsatisfactory results, so the LP master had to be made again. The new Vocalion CD also includes some tracks that John can remember recording in Europe, such as Power and Glory, Winter Jasmine etc.
■ Just recently Robert Farnon confided in us that next month (July) marks the 50th anniversary of the date when he and his wife Pat fell in love. Bob had just returned from the USA to work on the film "Lilacs In The Spring" which was being made by Herbert Wilcox. Patricia Smith was the casting director on the film, although she and Bob had first met back in the 1940s on films such as "Spring In Park Lane" and "Maytime In Mayfair". Pat was a good friend of the publicity manager at Herbert Wilcox Productions, Jackie Ward (her father was the leader of the orchestra on the ‘Titanic’). Bob chuckled as he remembered that Jackie told Pat that her romance with Bob would never last! When Bob arrived at the studios that July (back in 1954) to start working on "Lilacs In The Spring", Pat had arranged for a sign on his office door to read "Sir Shottis Bolt". He wishes he had kept it! Bob and Pat eventually got married in his home town of Toronto.
Robert Farnon is praised in Review of Harold Arlen Tribute Concert in New York
Harold Arlen was the only composer from the golden age of Broadway who was primarily concerned with celebrating the African-American experience. The son of a cantor from Buffalo, he first became famous by writing the scores for the all-Black Cotton Club revues of the early 1930s, then went on to craft hundreds of classic songs for Broadway and Hollywood.
From Lena Horne's "Stormy Weather" to Judy Garland's "Over the Rainbow," to Ray Charles's "Come Rain or Come Shine" and Frank Sinatra's "One for My Baby (and One for the Road)," he provided many of America's greatest singers with their signature material.
On Friday 5th March the composer was the subject of a salute from Skitch Henderson and the New York Pops Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. The concert said a little about Harold Arlen but an awful lot more about the Pops form, illuminating both its strengths and weaknesses. The genre - most closely associated with the late Arthur Fielder of the Boston Pops - is a hybrid of classical music, show tunes, and jazz.
Pops orchestras generally start with familiar standard songs and set them in lush, semi symphonic arrangements, then spice them up with occasional jazz solos. At its worst, this music is pale and bloodless, a species of Muzak that differs from the kind heard in elevators only in the way it's presented: people actually listen to this in concert. But at its best, it's a wonderful vehicle for the Great American Songbook.
Certain composers - especially George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, and Arlen himself - wrote with a classical sense of melody and form but also used harmonies and rhythms that never fail to inspire jazz musicians. Mr. Henderson, most famous from his celebrated stint on the original, New York-based edition of Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," has been conducting Pops-style music for more than 60 years. In his time, he has been affiliated with great singers from Cliff Edwards to Sinatra and Bing Crosby (who gave him his nickname).
But the first half of the Pops Arlen presentation featured a vocal quartet known as Monday Off, who sing in roughly the same contortionist mode as the Manhattan Transfer and the New York Voices. As such, the first portion of the evening suffered from a distinct lack of soul - an ingredient essential to a proper presentation of Arlen's rich, jazz-inflected melodies.
The second half was a distinct improvement, and the reason was the fine singer Lillias White whose artistry, like Arlen's, is equally rooted in Broadway and the Blues. The second half's sole instrumental was also a highlight: the relatively rare "What's Good About Goodbye" (written for the 1948 film "Casbah" where it was sung by Tony Martin, and recorded by Sarah Vaughan, Eydie Gorme, and not many others) in a sumptuous orchestration by Robert Farnon and featuring Dianne Loesser on oboe. The Canadian-born, Britain-based Mr. Farnon, who at 86 is a year older than Mr. Henderson, is unchallenged as the greatest orchestrator of what the English call "light music." He weaves a stunning tapestry of sound with sumptuously rich harmonic voicings and a palette of tonal colours as distinctly idiosyncratic, in its own way, as Ravel or Ellington. His orchestrations make the point - too often unheeded - that light music doesn't have to sound like watered down classical music or jazz. His writing represents everything that's good about the genre. Would that every arrangement that Mr. Henderson's New York Pops Orchestra played was his.
Robert Farnon arranged "What’s Good About Goodbye" for the BBC Radio Orchestra in 1986. To date it has not been recorded commercially. The above report is adapted from Will Friedwald’s review of the concert in the New York Sun, 9 March 2004, with due acknowledgements. Our thanks to Malcolm Frazer for sending this to Journal Into Melody.