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Vernon Handley (1930 - 2008):

Vernon Handley was Principal Conductor of the Ulster Orchestra from 1985-1989 in succession to Bryden Thomson, and brought to the orchestra his highly distinguished accomplishments, having already established an international career, working with many orchestras including the finest in the United Kingdom both as principal and guest conductor, his technical expertise, and his personal popularity and respect.

Not least, he brought his notably broad repertoire, especially of music from the British Isles, of which he was generally accepted to be the leading conductor then before the public. Although his speciality, as it was once put, was to specialise in everything, and he was insistent that he not only could, but would, conduct the whole repertoire, he nevertheless aimed in his concert appearances to include at least one British work. This might be by Elgar, the most prominent British composer in the standard orchestral repertoire, and Handley was widely regarded as the foremost interpreter and performer of that composer's music. Or it might be one of the more than 100 pieces which he premiered - including many on recording - throughout his career: just to give an indication of his breadth in this repertoire, he performed or recorded music by Arnold Bax, Ralph Vaughan Williams, the complete symphonies of Malcolm Arnold, (the Irish-born) Charles Stanford, Robert Simpson, the complete orchestral music of EJ Moeran, Granville Bantock, Gerald Finzi, Geoffrey Bush, Edmund Rubbra, David Morgan, the Ulster composer Hamilton Harty, Cyril Rootham, Josef Holbrooke, Arthur Bliss, Anthony Milner.

Handley came from Enfield, Middlesex, son of a Welsh father and Irish mother, both musical. From a very early age until the end of his life he was known, by preference, as "Tod", a nickname his father gave him because a peculiarity of his feet. Also from a very early age he was very interested in music, and as his family were not well-off, he was to a large extent self-taught, though he was able to attend rehearsals of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He graduated in English philology from Oxford University (Balliol College), though he already was conducting whenever and whomever he could, and attended the Guildhall School of Music, London. His first professional engagement was with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, secured for him by one of the leading English conductors of the time, Sir Adrian Boult, whose undemonstrative baton technique he preferred to more athletic versions, and to a large extent adopted for himself (though he also said he learned from bandleader Joe Loss). There was another secret to his baton technique: as several times it had been remarked that because of his cropped hair and stolid physique he resembled a boxer, he informed one green room guest after an Ulster Orchestra concert that he was indeed a keen weight-lifter - so that, he said, even at the end of a long, taxing evening's conducting he would still have the strength to hold the baton absolutely still for the "Nimrod" of Elgar's Enigma Variations, as indeed he just had.

His principal conductorships in the United Kingdom apart from Northern Ireland included the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra, 1962 to 1983; the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra where he was Guest Conductor from 1961 onwards; the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, where he was Guest Conductor 1961-94, then Associate Conductor; the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (where he was Principal Guest Conductor, 1989-95), then Conductor Emeritus; and Associate Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Internationally, he was Principal Conductor of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra 1986-1988, and Chief Conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in the 1990s. He guested and toured all over the world.

The Times wrote of Handley that "it was not until 1985, when he became principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra, that he achieved the first-rank appointment that his talents undoubtedly deserved." His recording work alone with them was prolific and - no surprise to either party or to the musical public - highly acclaimed. Though there was "central" or "standard" repertoire, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Grieg and Dvořák there was also all the orchestral music of EJ Moeran and Charles Villiers Stanford; also  Delius, Bridge and Bliss (whom Handley knew well). Their recording of Bliss's A Colour Symphony and Checkmate Suite was described as "compelling and completely satisfying...with his own orchestra Handley obtains a dramatic, exceedingly well-played account" - a typical plaudit. One notable first for the orchestra under Handley was to give a concert, which was very highly acclaimed, in what for many is the world's leading concert venue, the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna. Though he relinquished the post as Principal Conductor he continued to make welcome appearances with the orchestra after 1989.

Tod Handley was popular with his orchestras and his audiences, though he was no pushover. At a concert in 1989, when performing the United Kingdom première of "Festina lente" by Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer known for quiet, slow, contemplative music, a member of the audience began to applaud wildly during a pause which he took to be the end of the piece, clearly not having been watching the conductor attentively, or indeed at all. Handley silenced him with one imperious hand, finished the performance, turned, glared with his chin rather raised, apparently seethingly, at the audience (only one of whom had transgressed) and slowly, firmly and sarcastically laid his baton on the music stand before striding stone-jawedly from the hall.  

Nor was he a stranger to awards for his recording work. He was outright winner no fewer than three times between 1985 and 2004 of the Gramophone magazine Record of the Year, a leading award in the classical music world, and at the Gramophone Record of the Year Awards Ceremony of 2003 he was presented with a Special Award for services to British Music. He won the BPI Classical award twice and his recording of Walton's First Symphony was declared "Collectors Choice" in Classic CD magazine. From France came a Grand Prix du Disque for a recording of French repertoire.

He was appointed CBE for services to music in 2004. He was never awarded a knighthood, despite his achievements and despite wide acknowledgement that one was merited; one leading British classical music magazine even ran a campaign, rather like a petition, which called for "a nod for Tod". He was though awarded an honorary doctoral degree by the University of Surrey, and, though he appeared there several times, in 1985 he was given the notable distinction of being invited to conduct the "Last Night of the Proms", the annual high point of what is universally acknowledged as the world's greatest music festival.

Other notable distinctions included being Vice-President of the Delius Society and the Elgar Society; Fellow of Goldsmith's College; Fellow of the Royal College of Music; and Conductor Laureate of the Ulster Orchestra.

Outside of music, he enjoyed carpentry, and made furniture for his children; cultivating what he called "old-fashioned" roses; and (especially with camera) ornithology.

After years of being plagued with renal illness, he died in Gwent, Wales, where he had long lived.

Born: 11 November 1930
Died: 10 September 2008
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann


Obituaries: The Times; Telegraph; Guardian; Independent; Who’s Who 1991; personal knowledge; record industry websites