EX CATHEDRA | Alan George - viola

From our ‘Monteverdi Vespers (1610)’ programme 2022

ALAN GEORGE comes from Cornwall and studied violin with Colin Sauer at Dartington Hall, viola with Herbert Downes in London, and chamber music with Sidney Griller at the Royal Academy of Music. In 1968 he won an open scholarship to King’s College Cambridge, where he became one of the founder members of the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, remaining as its only viola player for all 53 years of its existence (so far…..): indeed, he is now the longest serving quartet player in Britain! The FSQ were Quartet-in-Residence at the University of York from 1971 to 1986, after which Alan became a lecturer in music and director of the chamber orchestra there until 1988. For the past thirteen years he has also been conductor of the Academy of St. Olave’s Chamber Orchestra (in York).

Since 1976 he has been actively involved with the period instrument movement, including eleven years as principal viola with John Eliot Gardiner’s Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, and more recently with Jeffrey Skidmore’s Ex Cathedra. Alan has been tutor in viola at the Royal Northern College of Music, lecturer with Martin Randall Travel, and visiting lecturer/examiner at many colleges and universities both here and abroad.

In 1981 he was made an Honorary Doctor of Music at Bucknell University, USA, and similarly honoured by the University of York in 2006; he and his FSQ colleagues have just been appointed Fellow Commoners at Clare Hall, Cambridge. He is a trustee of the registered charity Jessie’s Fund – a memorial to his daughter Jessica, who died of a brain tumour in 1994 – which helps sick children through the therapeutic power of music, and which the Fitzwilliam regularly supports in its concerts.

1. How long have you been a member of Ex Cathedra and why did you join?

I keep records of every concert I’ve ever played in, both with the quartet and with other ensembles: usually concert programmes, schedules, orchestra lists, even reviews – all of which might be handy one day, should I ever get round to writing memoirs! The earliest Ex Cathedra date I can find is a St Matthew Passion on 29 March 2013. The connection would have been made via Lucy Russell – leader of the Fitzwilliam (and now of Ex Cathedra as well); Jeffrey’s son Andrew has also been a member of the quartet, and indeed our full team has occasionally played in the orchestra. For many years one of the quartet’s specialities has been Purcell: not only have we included viol fantazias and instrumental music from the various (semi-)operas in our concert programmes, but we especially enjoy accompanying singers in the symphony-anthems – still an unfulfilled ambition with the Ex Cathedra choir…..

2. What does a typical day look like for you?

Since I must acknowledge having reached what might be called semi-retirement, I realise that a daily routine has changed out of all recognition from when I first became a professional musician. On graduating from Cambridge in 1971 the quartet was immediately offered a Residency at the University of York, and we worked to a strict schedule every day (except concert days), starting with private practice until 11am, then rehearsal until 5pm, finally a couple of hours’ teaching. That remained roughly the same for the next 15 years, when our full-time post ended. Thereafter workdays were fixed according to needs – although nowadays the quartet adheres to a fairly regular time-slot (when active). For me, that means the periods in between are spent mainly at my desk – mostly on quartet admin: although we do share out some tasks, I suppose I’ve become the group’s de facto manager, after we decided not to use agents any more.

3. If you could choose to perform again any piece you have performed before with Ex Cathedra, what would it be, and & why?

Impossible to choose! Every single Ex Cathedra concert I’ve been involved in has contained something unforgettable. In the end, I suppose it narrows down to JS Bach, to whom Jeffrey unfailingly brings a deep love and passion via his scholarly insight and imagination – as well as his choice of the very best obbligato players: one of the joys of those moments is the opportunity to sit and listen to consummate artists at the top of their game, and to feel such pride in one’s colleagues. However, if forced to, I would have to single out a run of St Matthew performances in April 2019, starting in Bristol and ending in Birmingham with a mass coming-together of choirs, soloists, and players: the sound of the entire gathering of people in Symphony Hall, collectively raising voices and instruments in Nun danket alle Gott, was devastating in its intensity, something never to be forgotten.

4. What’s your musical “guilty secret”?

There are probably several! Not necessarily with any genuine sense of guilt, or in any order of priority: listening to music in the car at full volume (but only when alone, of course…..); love of Johann Strauss’s music – dating back to 1975 and frequent visits to special Viennese people; spending nearly all of my student grant on LPs; (informed) belief in Beethoven’s metronome marks; inwardly conceding that Bach might be the equal of the God Beethoven himself; living my life with a constant stream of recollections – whether people, places, events – enabled by Music’s sheer power of association: as conjured up in the mind by what we musicians are so fortunate to spend our lives doing.