Concertmaster turned conductor John Georgiadis opens his colourful memoirs with a white-knuckle late night drive to confront André Previn at his house.
The grandson of a furrier (and possible spy), whose father made a living buying rabbit skins from butchers and selling them to hat makers, Georgiadis was a precocious violinist who worked his way up through local competitions, youth orchestras and eventually the Royal Academy of Music, to enjoy several stints as concertmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra – working with the most famous conductors of his day – before pursuing a conducting career of his own.
In Bow to Baton, Georgiadis gives us vivid, often humorous, depictions of places and people, from small town England to Paris and London, though a slightly scattershot timeline that skips forwards and back – and swerves off into explanations of musical terms – gives the book an energy that is both disorienting and lively.
His experience as a young gigging musician in the 50s and 60s is coloured by pranks and anecdotes, but it’s his portraits of conductors he worked with that make for the most interesting reading. While US conductor Gerard Schwarz’s Behind the Baton was a study in diplomacy – inviting the reader to infer any critiques of colleagues rather than taking direct swings at them – Georgiadis isn’t afraid to dish the dirt on maestros from Eugene Ormandy to Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa. He puts the boot in to André Previn, particularly, and he made, by his own admission, enemies of many. Other conductors and guest artists, like Adrian Boult, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Daniel Barenboim, are remembered fondly.
The most interesting autobiographies are ones in which the writer reveals more than they intended, and it’s difficult to gauge if Georgiadis is unaware or proud of the undercurrent of passive aggression that comes across in his descriptions of dealings with Previn, whom he clearly despised. He is certainly upfront about how many conductors complained about him to LSO management.
Like LSO flautist Gareth Davies’ recent memoir, The Show Must Go On, Georgiadis gives an interesting and detailed account of life as an orchestral musician – but it’s all the more fun because he doesn’t hold back.