The warmest day of the year to date greeted the Robert
Farnon Society members and friends who made a special trip
to Edinburgh to attend the premiere of Robert Farnons
Symphony No. 3 The Edinburgh on Saturday 14
May. Some had even flown up from the south of England especially
for this memorable occasion, and everyone agreed that it
was a magical experience.
The following reports (by three RFS members who attended
the premiere) give an idea of the flavour of
that very special event. First of all we hear from James
World Première of Robert Farnons
Symphony No 3 in F "Edinburgh"
National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland (Leader
Conductor: Iain Sutherland
Saturday 14th May 2005 in The Usher
An appreciation with some personal thoughts
Saturday 14th May 2005 was a special day for
my native city of Edinburgh for at the Usher Hall
that evening, the National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland
(Leader John Reid) under their Conductor, Iain Sutherland
would present the World Première of Robert Farnons
3rd Symphony his "Edinburgh"
For myself and fellow RFS member Brian Henderson, things
began happening the previous day, when we spent a most enjoyable
evening in the company of Philip Farlow and his wife, Edwina
(who had travelled earlier by train from London). A bright
and sunny Saturday dawned heralding what was to turn
out to be one of the warmest and sunniest days so far this
year! Edinburgh city centre was thronged with people, determined
to take advantage of the good weather; and as the day progressed,
it proved to be memorable on a number of counts. That afternoon,
I met David Ades for a chat over coffee before heading off
to the Usher Hall for the evening Concert.
Early doors brought a number of RFS members together
Robert and Patricia Walton, Malcolm and Iris Frazer, Philip
and Edwina Farlow and Brian Henderson. Also attending the
Concert were three RFS members from Fife - Terry Viner,
Stephen Gray and David Kinnison.
For those of us in the audience whose association with
Robert Farnon was more than a passing acquaintance with
his music, the evening was not without some feelings of
emotion, poignancy and personal reflection.
Initial efforts by Bob to get his Symphony performed in
Scotland, let alone Edinburgh were fraught with all sorts
of difficulties and problems; and at times the prospect
of a world première north of the border seemed hopeless.
Latterly, telephone calls between us were frequent in an
attempt to get his "Edinburgh" Symphony performed
in the Capital. As an amateur musician my contacts within
the professional sector are limited; and thus, no matter
how keen I was to "promote" and support Bobs
project, my "input" was therefore restricted.
However, thanks to Iain Sutherland and the National Symphony
Orchestra of Scotland, Bobs wish became a reality.
The Concert was presented in partnership with the Royal
Bank of Canada, Europe.
So to the Concert itself.
The programme began with Sir Malcolm Arnolds "Tam
OShanter" Overture Op 51. An Englishmans
idea of Scottish-ness? well, perhaps; but it was
a rousing and exciting start to the evening, with a spirited
performance from the NSOS.
In complete contrast, there followed a performance of Tchaikovskys
Violin Concerto in D Major Op 35 with soloist, Alexander
Sitkovetsky. At 22 years of age, this amazing young mans
talent is phenomenal. Having made his début as a
soloist at the tender age of 8, he has become one of the
most promising young musicians of the 21st century.
Sitkovetsky has performed throughout Europe and the UK;
and other engagements have taken him to the USA, Israel
and Hawaii, as well as his native city of Moscow.
The interval brought excited anticipation, as we eagerly
awaited the first performance of Robert Farnons Symphony
No 3 in F dedicated to André Previn, who once
referred to Farnon as, "the greatest string writer
in the world". And in this respect, the Symphony serves
as vindication of Previns statement not that
any proof is needed.
From the opening bars of the 1st Movement (Calmato
assai) with its expressively romantic theme, we knew
instinctively that we were about to experience something
very special. For in this 25 minute Symphony, Bob "encapsulated"
his life-story in music, so to speak. It would not be an
exaggeration to say that it is, in many ways, retrospective
and at the same time "biographical" in character
for here, Bob, in effect, is narrating his life-story.
Neatly dovetailed, is an amalgam of varying styles and moods,
which reflect his astounding musical career. And to really
appreciate the work, one has to know the man and his music
for here is his humour, his sensitivity, his humility
and above all his supreme musicianship. And as the music
unfolded, I found myself identifying with Bob and his music.
He had the great gift of being able to write in a number
of different styles; and we were reminded of these in this
There was the tonal richness of Bobs film music
complete with the big romantic themes; the sound of a concert
orchestra from the 30s or 40s; a hint of Frank Sinatra and
Tony Bennett; and rhapsodic passages reminding one of such
works as, "A la claire fontaine". Especially notable
was the NSOS brass section, comprising four trumpets, four
trombones with the addition of four horns, which provided
the "Big Band" element.
At one point, the orchestra launched into a rhythmic figure
in a style not unreminiscent of "Jumping Bean",
and which was quickly followed by a typically Farnonesque
treatment of the nursery rhyme, "Baa, Baa, Blacksheep".
And there were touches of comedy. By using a "slapstick"
at one point, was Bob I wonder, reminding us of the unscripted
comedy of his "Happy Gang" days?
Particularly poignant was the main theme from the 2nd
Movement written for the solo trumpet highlighting
Bobs love for the instrument and recalling his time
as lead trumpeter in Percy Faiths Canadian Broadcasting
Corporation Orchestra. Here also were some Gershwinesque
touches and a reminder of Bobs association with the
The 3rd movement included the Scottish references
heard initially by distant pipe-band drumming (I
now know why Bob asked me to send him a CD of authentic
pipe-drumming!) and developed by the introduction
of two folk tunes ("My love shes but a lassie,
yet" and "The Bluebells of Scotland"). First
heard separately, Bob quickly combines them in skilful counterpoint.
The Symphony ends with a direct quote from his arrangement
of Scottish airs the suite, "From The Highlands".
After all; as Bob once said, "If youre going
to borrow (music), borrow from the best!"
The final chord brought hesitant applause at first
not out of disrespect or an unappreciative regard for the
music; but due, I suspect, to a typically reticent Edinburgh
audience. This was something noted especially by the foreign
visitors, who are accustomed to showing their appreciation
in a somewhat more enthusiastic and passionate manner.
Following a short "tribute" to Robert Farnon
by Iain Sutherland, we were treated to two encores
"Westminster Waltz" and "Portrait of a Flirt".
Iain Sutherland has to be commended for his masterful interpretation
of Robert Farnons fine score and giving us the opportunity
to hear Bobs last major work. In addition, he must
be complimented on the excellent programme note for Robert
Farnons 3rd Symphony. In writing the analysis,
Mr Sutherland "guided" the reader-listener through
the opus, thus serving to enhance ones enjoyment and
appreciation of what hitherto was an unknown work. (The
text of Iain Sutherlands programme note is reproduced
Sadly, with Bobs recent death, it is the end of an
era; but let us reflect on the rich musical legacy he has
given us, which is something that we will continue to treasure
and enjoy for many years to come.
After the Concert, a fellow member of The Robert Farnon
Society remarked, "It has been a magical weekend".
It certainly was!
James Beyer (Conductor: The Edinburgh Light Orchestra)
The following Programme Note is reproduced by kind
permission of Iain Sutherland.
Symphony No. 3 in F Edinburgh
Robert Farnon CM
Dedicated to André Previn
i. Calmato assai ii. Larghetto iii. Allegro
Robert Farnons final opus is dedicated to the world-renowned
conductor and composer, André Previn, and was inspired
by a summer visit to Scotlands capital city. Like
so many Canadians, Farnon had a strong Scottish connection,
his Grandmother having been an émigré. Although
not a symphony in the strict classical sense of the form,
as indeed, neither were Tchaikovskys, nor Sibeliuss,
it is an extended work, in three movements, rather like
three loosely linked symphonic rhapsodies. It is scored
for a large orchestra with four Trumpets, and, unusually
for a symphony orchestra, four Trombones. The sonority of
eight brass, is, however, redolent of the Big Band
sound, and allied here to the usual four French Horns, gives
the work an immediately identifiable feel. The
composer does not shy away from the kind of writing and
orchestrating for which he was so justifiably world famous
in an effort to be more symphonic per se, and
many of his unique orchestration techniques echo throughout
The first movement, Calmato assai, opens with the
first of many romantic melodic themes, played by unison
violins; a short series of brass and timpani interjections
leads to a new theme played against a brass backdrop of
subtly changing chords, with a jazz-style walking
bass. These themes continue to be explored until a bright,
jig-like section bursts out, leading to a short, full brass
fragment of a warmly remembered nursery rhyme, eventually
leading to a new, more intense theme, introduced by the
strings, then the solo cor anglais and the solo cello. The
opening theme returns in the full orchestra, and a short
coda beginning with a chromatic, rising and intense figure
by the brass, subsiding into a calm and very soft ending,
with an ambivalent F major/ F minor descending figure on
The second movement, Larghetto, begins with a short
cadenza on the solo flute, recalling the jig-like central
section of the first movement. The solo violin and flute
then present a meditative, romantic theme; a secondary theme
from the strings soon becomes the accompaniment to the return
of the first melody on the oboe. A lush chorale by the full
brass section is followed by the main theme played by the
solo trumpet. The middle section of the movement is, to
me, a nostalgic reminder of Robert Farnons war years
as Conductor of the Canadian Band of the AEF, alongside
Glenn Miller with the American Band and George Melachrino,
the British. The secondary theme mentioned earlier is played
by the Trombone quartet over pizzicato rhythms from solo
bass and cellos. A new theme now emerges, and is presented
three times in contrasting orchestrations, the middle one
being of great intensity, and the third extended into ever
quieter, rising triplets until abating in a short vibraphone
solo, before the pizzicato bass whispers the final phrase.
The Finale, Allegro, opens with a series of irregular
rhythms played by the harp and strings col legno,
with the wooden back of the bow, and an accompaniment
of exotic percussion instruments including finger cymbals,
templeblocks, woodblocks and sandpaper blocks. A solo clarinet
sings out a blues tinged fragment, later taken up by the
trumpets after a jazz-style burst from the full orchestra.
As the irregular rhythms fade away, a roll on the timpani
and suspended cymbal opens up into a gloriously full-throated,
big, broad theme for the whole orchestra, reminiscent of
the great themes Robert Farnon provided for many a romantic
film score. The theme then quietens, with the brass choir
accompanied by triplet figures on the vibraphone, celeste
and harp, until Scottish pipe-band drums are heard pianissimo;
having visited most of the influences on his music on his
symphonic journey, he beholds Edinburgh. Two folk melodies,
My love shes but a lassie, yet and The
Bluebells of Scotland, are ingeniously combined in
a rising crescendo until the jig-style theme returns for
a short, joyous coda.
Robert Walton gives his impressions on this major
To hear any work for the first time, is a thrilling experience,
especially a world premiere, but when it's a symphony by
your favourite composer, that has to be special. Even though
you're familiar with the idiom, you never know quite what
to expect. Whether you're in a concert hall or at home,
it's no different. Your auditory senses are in a state of
high expectation and anticipation. You become a human sponge
ready to absorb a brand new creation. Such was the case
with Robert Farnon's last major work, his Third Symphony,
performed in the imposing Usher Hall in the historic capital
and cultural centre of Scotland. The thought that the composer
would never actually hear the symphony made it a very poignant
Dedicated to André Previn, the man who called Robert
Farnon "the greatest living writer for strings",
the symphony starts simply with unison violins playing a
gorgeous tune which only Farnon could have written. (Violins
playing the same note, especially in their lower register,
can often produce much more emotion than in harmony). That
comes later. But for now this melody is given the seal of
approval by the brass and timpani. I knew it wouldn't be
too long before Farnon introduced a jazz element to the
proceedings. And sure enough he incorporates the device
invented by Basie bassist Walter Page in the late 1920s,
a walking bass. And how effective it is, especially with
a new melody over beautiful chords. Then a jig (Scottish
of course!) suddenly emerges from the orchestra dancing
its way towards a familiar nursery rhyme played by the brass.
But the strings never far away, return with a more passionate
theme followed by the cor anglais and cello. If the nursery
rhyme was familiar, then the opening tune repeated by the
whole orchestra has already endeared itself to the listener.
Now it's the turn of the brass to get worked up but not
for long. They quickly calm down to the softest of endings,
while the harp keeps you guessing whether the movement is
going to finish in a major or minor key.
Symphonies are all about recycling and mood swings, so
it's not surprising that the second movement opens with
a reminder of the earlier jig featuring some solo flute
fireworks slowing right down to join a violin in a new tender
tune. Yet another string theme is skilfully transformed
into the accompaniment of the tender tune but this time
the oboe takes the solo. Now we're treated to a huge Ted
Heath like brass section of 8 players (4 trumpets and, unusual
for a symphony orchestra, 4 trombones) who produce the most
glorious sound. This is Farnon in full flight showing it's
not only strings he's master of. Then the trombones come
into their own with a reworking of the earlier theme which
doubled as an accompaniment, but this time the lower strings
in pizzicato mode provide the accompaniment. And as if all
that isn't enough, a completely new melody (Farnon's full
of them) is stated three times no less in different guises,
the second one erupting with immense force. The movement
ends peacefully with a vibraphone solo and a pizzicato bass.
Taking a leaf out of the finale of Berlioz's Symphonie
Fantastique, Farnon instructs the violins to tap the
strings with the sticks of their bows (col legno) instead
of using the hair. This unusual effect when mixed with the
harp and percussion creates an exciting exotic sound. The
clarinet plays a brief blues which is picked up later by
the trumpets, but not before the whole orchestra lets itself
go in an uninhibited jazzy outburst. But the orchestra has
one more important function to fulfil. To play one of those
thrilling climaxes Farnon is famous for, and it doesn't
disappoint. It's my favourite part of the symphony. In fact
I was so overwhelmed I hardly noticed the two Scottish tunes
at the end but did detect the orchestration was strangely
familiar. Clearly a little bit of recycling From the
Highlands! A major part of the success of the
work was due to the brilliant conducting of lain Sutherland
who with the National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland gave
such a polished performance it sounded like it had been
in the repertoire for years. If André Previn had
been present I'm sure his original assessment of Farnon
would have remained unchanged. Robert Walton
Phil Farlow completes our trio of reminiscences
On the weekend of Saturday the 14th May the sun
shone brightly and warmly on the City of Edinburgh for what
must have been one of the most memorable and poignant
events in the Robert Farnon calendar.
The main event for us was the National Symphony
Orchestra of Scotland conducted by Iain Sutherland with
the World Premiere Performance of Bobs Symphony
No. 3 in F, the Edinburgh which was to be performed
at the Usher Hall.
My wife Edwina and I had travelled up from London
by train on the Friday and that evening the weekend
started in great style when we met up for a very memorable
Italian meal with James Beyer and Brian Robinson who
later on also kindly hosted a mini tour of Edinburgh
During the Saturday we walked through the Gardens, up to
Edinburgh Castle and down the Royal Mile taking in quite
a few metres of tartan on the way, and also viewed the
apparently controversial architectural lines of the new
On the Saturday evening we arrived at Usher Hall in good
time to greet several Robert Farnon Society members including
Robert and Patricia Walton, Malcolm and Iris Frazer as well
as David Ades and his brother- and sister-in-laws Andrew
and Joan Stevenson. There was definitely that buzz in the
air that goes with events like this one, and as we all chatted
away the time soon drew near to take our seats.
The World Premiere of Bobs Edinburgh
Symphony was to be performed after the interval and
whatever had been chosen before, I dont think I was
the only person there to want to wind on in
my excitement to hear this new work.
Then the interval came another chat with our friends
and another look around to see who was there and
we were back in our seats for well the
great moment wed waited for.
Baited breath time as traditionally on came the orchestras
leader John Reid closely followed by conductor Iain Sutherland
and then that wonderful hush that occurs just
before the first notes are ushered.
There are three movements in the Edinburgh
Symphony, and as they slowly unwound to our ears for
the first time ever in public, the very strong first impression
that I got was that Bob has given us here glimpses of his
lifetimes music. Here encapsulated in this Symphony
are all the Farnon trademarks that we have all come to know
and love: the humour of Happy Gang, the
eight brass big band sound, all the beautiful tone
colours of the strings it was all there. And the
many and different ways Bob applies it for each requirement
as well the sounds of the AEF band, the Portrait
of a Flirt sound, the film sound, the jazz
style, the blues style, the romantic style, the way he scored
for singers and more. The Scottish connections
came as a delight with interpolations of jig rhythms, pipe
band drums and folk melodies and in the third movement Bob
brings us his own touch of exotica where added
to harp and strings are finger cymbals, templeblocks, woodblocks
and sandpaper blocks. Wow !!
I personally think that the Edinburgh
Symphony is a really joyous illustration and not least
celebration of Robert Farnons life in music,
and that it couldnt have been marked better
than in this Premiere performance by the National
Symphony Orchestra of Scotland conducted by Iain Sutherland.
In the light of Bobs recent passing, and to complete
the evenings entertainment, we had the further joy
of hearing the orchestra playing Westminster Waltz
and Portrait of a Flirt which certainly finished
icing the cake to perfection.
This article appeared in Journal Into Melody