Procol Harum

the Pale

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Nicholas Dodd

The Antonio Costa Barbé interview

Antonio Costa Barbé is a lawyer, musician and freelance journalist. On 7 August 1996 he telephoned Nicholas Dodd for a chat about conducting, his musical career, and Procol Harum. Recording difficulties meant that their conversation was never broadcast on Antonio's show Il Pezzo Mancante ('The Missing Piece') on Italy's Radio Azzurra Novara. 'Beyond the Pale' is pleased to present for the first time the parts of the interview that can be retrieved.

ACB: I am here with my questions ... a little interview ... and the pleasure of speak with you by telephone. Can I begin with the nicest question. Can you please speak freely about your youth, particularly about the passion for the music.

Dodd: Well as far as can remember I've always had a passion for music. I've always had melodies in my head and my first recollection as a child was when I was thumping the piano-keys much to my parents' annoyance, on and on and on, I was trying to make sounds, and they decided I would like piano-lessons as I was so drawn to this instrument.

So I started piano at the age of ten, which was quite late, and I soon thereafter started the oboe and I studied privately to begin with and I went to the Junior Royal College of Music which is in South Kensington near the Royal Albert Hall in London. And I spent about six or seven years there right up until I was about eighteen or nineteen, and all this time I'd been going to the City of London School which had been encouraging me musically, and I'd been playing the piano in concerts and playing the oboe in concerts and playing in orchestras, and doing all the normal things that a young lad would do who was very keen on music.

And I used to sing when I was a child of twelve in the Temple Church Choir which was then directed by Dr George Thalben Ball who was a wonderful musician and it's from him that I learned my sense of phrasing which I find absolutely invaluable in any piece of music, always a sense of phrasing. In the Procol Harum concert I conducted with Gary Brooker and his music or with Beethoven symphonies or any of the classics – Mahler three – phrasing is the key and I always attribute that to Dr George Thalben Ball who was our choirmaster when I was the Head Chorister there: his tutelage.

Yes. Please, let's speak about your first works and compositions, and first contacts with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Well my first compositions were composed at school, but they're really schoolboy notes, nothing of importance; but I suppose the first important one was at the Royal College of Music, not only because it was my first serious composition but because I conducted it and that was the first time I'd really conducted musicians of note. And from then on I realized that what I would like to do was composition and conducting.

Now this all led several years later – toward the end of my degree, and I was still conducting my own compositions and studying conducting and taking my normal degree which was in piano and oboe and history and what-have-you – and when I left the Royal College of Music I started my own symphony orchestra, called the Chelsea Symphony Orchestra. So basically I continued what I was doing in the Royal College of Music by asking musicians to come and play my compositions, and getting concerts together, and I continued that out into the classical world of concerts. Now this eventually led to the London Symphony about fifteen years later: there's quite a bridge I've spanned there.

Gary Brooker: my first actual introduction to the London Symphony Orchestra was with Gary Brooker about two years ago. And I met Gary because he wanted to be taught the finer points of orchestration, and somehow somebody recommended me to him – this must be about ten, eleven, or actually more, fifteen years ago, because I've known Gary a long time – and from then on I've orchestrated some of his works for German tours and what-have-you.

And then about two-and-a-half or three years ago Gary rang me up and said, 'Are you doing anything this month?' and I said, 'Yes ... but what do you have in mind?' And he said, 'Well, there's a record coming up and I need an orchestration and you're the first person that came to mind,' and I said, 'Yes I'd be delighted.' And so we sat down and I got all the pieces together, orchestrated them, and then my first meeting with the London Symphony was at Air Studios two-and-a-half years ago.

Yes. And so the contact with Gary Brooker was your first contact with the rock and pop music?

Yes, you could say that; although at College I had had a few forays into that field but really I'm classically trained. But yes, Gary Brooker was my first real contact with the rock world.

I understand. And can you give me your opinion about the contemporary music: who were in your opinion the greatest musicians of the past and of the present?

Well the greatest musician of the past? [...] My favourite composer, if you're asking me about my favourite composer, would be, if I had to go on a desert island, I would take Beethoven. I think he's wonderful: I love Beethoven and I love Mahler. Now the present-day composers: well, for that you have to go into the field that I work with, and that's film music: there's a lot of wonderful melodies [...] John Williams ... and these works are absolutely first-rate. Film music is the modern-day classical music, and these are the pieces which will still be remembered in a hundred and fifty years' time.

You have composed a score for a film, I know

Oh yes ... I wrote for Stargate: we've just come back from Los Angeles where I've composed a piece for Independence Day: you'll probably be having that in about five or six weeks' time; we had the Los Angeles premiere five weeks ago and the London premiere yesterday. It's going to be a huge film.

Thank you. Let's speak about your programmes from the future ...

At the moment I'm engaged on writing orchestrations ... strings, horns, trombones, winds etc ... for David McAlmont, who has an album coming out in I think about five months' time; and after that I have another small project to do, three or four songs for other artists, and then I'm working on finishing off an album of James Bond themes and we are rearranging those golden themes by John Barry and Monty Norman and suchlike, and giving them to new artists ... nothing's been altered too much but I think it's going to be a very interesting album ...

And please, may you say to me what is your grandest desire in this world of music?

My greatest wish is to conduct a major American orchestra, the Boston Pops or the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and play ... great composers of the film world and of the classical world, and going round the country performing them; and continuing to compose film.

Thank you, Maestro. Let's speak just a moment about the Barbican concert. How about the idea of this modern flashback in the past of Procol Harum? It was an idea of Gary Brooker?

Actually it was the idea of the London Symphony Orchestra. They wanted obviously ... having already recorded the whole album with the London Symphony Orchestra, it seemed most sensible, and the right thing to do, to perform it live. So really after the record was released, which was in fact only about a year or nine months before that date, February 8th, it seemed a natural flow to perform the concert. So again Gary approached me to conduct, as I had conducted all [sic] the songs on the album, and there we are ... we were ... it was an experience.

It was a very hard job, or a plain job?

Well I think, to answer your question: anything worthwhile always has its difficulties. But if you're thoroughly behind the project those difficulties are consumed by your enthusiasm.

Please just a curiosity. The song, the eternal song A Whiter Shade of Pale is an exact quotation from a Bach piece, or is just only a Bach-style song?

Well Gary Brooker says 'a Bach-style song'. The chordal sequence has been used by many composers of that era, And he's right, it's just that Gary likes Bach, is very influenced by him, always has been and always will be. So, no, it's not a representation of a Grosse Fugue or any of his other works, it's just a Bach figure.

Just the last question. Are you happy with your travelling life as a travelling musician, and are you interested to conduct an orchestra in Italy, maybe in Arena of Verona?

Oh undoubtedly, yes I would be very honoured and excited to have the opportunity to conduct an Italian orchestra.

And are you happy with your life?

Oh yes, very happy with my life. I travel a lot, and when I'm not travelling I'm writing music or taking a short break. I have a very full and varied life. I do like that, and I love recording in the recording studio, and I love conducting orchestras.

I understand all this what you say, because I am a little musician too in my soul.

Ah yes indeed, your tapes ...

It was a cover on an ancient old song of Procol Harum's, The Dead Man's Dream. I have played ... Maestro, thank you very much, we can stop for now. But , please ... did exist a recording of the Barbican concert?

Unfortunately yes; and the reason I say 'unfortunately' is that there is a recording, video and sound, but they won't let it out. It's for archive purposes, and not for release. [...]

Thank you very much: you are very, very kind and I was honoured to have this conversation with you. Bye-bye, and see you soon.

Thank you very much!

Read more Procol Harum interviews from Antonio at Radio Azzurra

More pages about the Barbican concert

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