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Philip Gammon

Previous Principal Pianist, The Royal Ballet

interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 4 January 2012.

DAVID BAIN WELCOMED Philip who had last been our guest in July 2005 the week following his final rehearsal with the Royal Ballet. Philip began by wishing us Happy New Year and said it was wonderful to be back with us. This was his third visit to Ballet Association, the first having been in July 1980 at Swedenborg Hall. He said the last was very poignant but it was a wonderful send-off so soon after his retirement: it was unmatched even by the Royal Ballet and he was very grateful for all the lovely presents he’d been given. He recalled the date exactly as it was 6 July, the day before the terrible London bombings which had affected Bloomsbury where we met.

There followed a delightful programme of Philip playing music, interspersed with anecdotes, from some ballets of particular relevance to his career. He suggested he entertained us with what he had performed recently at the Sussex Opera and Ballet Association at the new Birley Centre in Eastbourne.

 Philip’s association with the work spanned 30 years and was central to his career with The Royal Ballet.

The first section was devoted to A Month in the Country. Philip’s association with the work spanned 30 years and was central to his career with The Royal Ballet. He then played the opening section, Chopin’s La ci darem variations on a theme from Mozart’s Don Giovanni written for piano and orchestra when Chopin was only 17 and still a student at Warsaw Conservatory. Philip said playing this was made doubly difficult as he played the solo piano part but also the orchestral interludes. He’d been privileged to play at all the rehearsals during Ashton’s creation of the work in 1976 and was then engaged as soloist and from its premiere until six years ago he had clocked up 253 performances of Month world wide plus a further three with Sylvie Guillem in Japan which weren’t part of the Royal Ballet performances.

Touring brought a few surprises along the way. In Beijing in 1983 he unexpectedly had to rehearse the orchestra as the music director’s chauffeur driven car had broken down en route – luckily Philip was already in place courtesy of a hired push bike! Philip said it wasn’t easy negotiating the route with three million other cyclists who made sudden stops or turns with no warning. For the performances the only piano available was a small upright and the auditorium was huge but Philip found humour in the name of the maker on the instrument which was Tsing Hei! Another memorable moment was playing in the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles when a black key suddenly snapped off, an event unheard of, during a live performance. To make matters worse it was the most important note for the ending of the ballet when the central D flat key was vital. Somehow he’d fumbled his way through trying to play a note which was no longer there. The management of the Shrine had told him beforehand that the piano would be the best Baldwin in town – in the States this is the next best thing to a Steinway. After the interval he was due to play the Ravel piano concerto for La Fin du jour so it was imperative to repair the broken key. Eventually the stage crew came armed with tube of Superglue which did the trick, at least until the end of the Ravel! Two highlights of performing Month were the celebration of the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday when he also played for the world premiere of Rhapsody, another Ashton ballet, and then a visit to St Petersburg where he played with the Kirov Orchestra at the Maryinsky. This was a wonderful experience and Philip said he can still recall the violinists playing so passionately.

In 1981 Month, Fin du jour and Rhapsody were all scheduled on a mixed bill at the Met in New York with Philip playing all three pieces. They gave five performances in three days which was a marathon and completely exhausting.

Philip was surprised and elated while in Greece in October last year to hear the entire ballet on the radio.

Philip had also recorded the music for Month with the Royal Opera House orchestra under John Lanchbery who had skilfully arranged the three works of Chopin into the one act ballet. John was in Australia during the making of the ballet and kept sending texts with little changes, adding bars here and there. The recording was made many years ago and issued as an LP and Philip was surprised and elated while in Greece in October last year to hear the entire ballet on the radio. It was an extraordinary coincidence which raised great emotions in him. He was unaware of it ever being played here but has since found that it’s been released by EMI Classics as a two CD set of Chopin ballets and only discovered this by chance on return from holiday when he saw it on the shelf in the ROH shop! On another occasion Brian Don suggested he watch the DVD playing in the shop and there was Philip on stage performing Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan – the TV recording had been put onto a DVD without him knowing.

Next Philip said he would play the Andante Spianato, the music for the main pas de deux and finale and he would mark the point when the fateful black key snapped in LA! David asked if, having played for so many performances, Philip had ever seen A Month in the Country. He replied that he’d watched one rehearsal when his colleague, Kate Shipway, took over as they were sharing some performances.

Normally Philip said he would take an interval at this point, but pressed on regardless with three pieces by Liszt whose bicentenary had been celebrated last year. Liszt had stayed at the Villa d’Este in Rome for a period of rest and relaxation and was particularly drawn to, and inspired by their spectacular fountains, sitting for hours watching the cascading water. Philip played this at his audition to join the Royal Ballet in 1964. (He quoted here a relevant passage from St John’s Gospel.) On a Royal Ballet tour in 1982 they went to Italy and Philip had the opportunity to visit the Villa d’Este and experience for himself the grandeur of the fountains. On their return he managed to persuade Derek Deane to make a work which became the Villa d’Este pas de deux performed in Manchester Palace Theatre and at Covent Garden originally by Merle Park and David Wall and later with Ravenna Tucker.

This piece was followed by the music to a favourite solo of Dame Beryl Grey called Reverie to Liszt's Consolation No.3 that was especially choreographed for her by Audrey de Vos, and a concert study called Un Sospiro (A Sigh).

After this wonderful treat Philip thanked us for being a wonderful audience. He spoke with pride about his presentation on 29 November 2011 of the Royal Ballet Gold Medal in the presence of some VIPs including Michael Berkeley, Lady Sarah Chatto and Lord (Tony) Hall. He’d kindly brought the medal with him so we were able to admire this very well-deserved tribute.

In thanking Philip for the great pleasure his presence had given everyone this evening, David said he was reminded of the last time he had had to do so little by way of interviewing and that was when Dame Beryl Grey was our guest and half way through he’d had to say we’re only in the 1940s!

Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Philip Gammon and David Bain. ©The Ballet Association 2012