Monday night saw the crowning of this year's Annual Music Competition Gold Medal winner, as saxophonist Jonathan Radford worked away with the £15,000 first prize. But the task of choosing between the finalists is no easy decision. A adjudication panel of ten renowned figures from the industry, musicians, principals, and journalists among their ranks, were responsible for making the final call, all ably led by Principal of the Central School for Speech and Drama, Gavin Henderson CBE. Last year, Gavin sat down with Overseas to discuss his lifelong dedication to bringing together different aspects of the arts, the struggle for recognition – and the power of the idea.

Looking every bit the school master in flannel suit and trademark bow-tie, Gavin Henderson, Principal of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, may not cut the figure of a typical rebel. Yet that is how the man who was running the York Festival and Mystery Plays aged just 23, the Brighton Festival by his mid 30s and Trinity College of Music at one of the most challenging times in its 145- year history, has always seen himself.

Softly spoken and incisive, Gavin has consistently taken an innovative approach to the arts, campaigning tirelessly for greater support and recognition. A fine trumpeter and artist himself, who retired from playing after 50 years at a concert in St Bartholemew’s Church, Brighton in 2014, he has dedicated his life to supporting other musicians, artists and performers as the director of festivals, colleges, theatres and orchestras. As we talk over tea in the Brabourne Room, he suggests that the artist is, by definition, something of a rebel.

“The artist at his or her best is a totally uncompromising person. The dedication they represent – the passion that they’ve nurtured – is quite extraordinary.” Not only do they have to raise enormous sums to pay for their instruments before they even start out but they are unlikely to ever become high earners. “The artist – the true thinker – will stand out and do it for nothing. Don’t underestimate the power of the artist,” he warns with a smile.

From launching the community based Wilde Theatre as a young man to founding Youth Music, a charity for children from deprived backgrounds, Gavin has shown time and again just what the “true thinker” can achieve. A force for innovation, he continually returns to what he refers to as “the power of the idea”. “The strength of having some sense of an idea is what fascinates people. You have an idea, you share an idea and you don’t know how that’s going to go forward, and whether one’s techniques, one’s abilities, one’s organisational capacities can deliver,” he explains.

“When I was young, I thought everything that was a good idea was something that you just had to make happen. I think there’s an element of fear in everything but I suppose when you’re very young, you don’t question, you perhaps rush at things. There was a sort of crassness about it, an urgency and possibly a foolishness in some respects, but there was a freshness about it.”

Headstrong and passionate from an early age, this rebellious streak was evident at Brighton College, the private school he attended because his father taught there. “There wasn’t such a thing as a school orchestra; to be involved in the arts in any way you were a sort of sissy,” he says. “I fought very hard – it was very embarrassing for my father.”

His schooling may not have encouraged a passion for the arts but his “very open, liberal, very artistic” home town more than compensated. His morning paper round took him to the homes of Terence Rattigan, Lawrence Olivier, Max Miller and Flora Robson. Afternoons were spent at the Glyndebourne estate, slipping in and out of rehearsals, thanks to a school friend whose father was the General Director. At night, he would sit in the orchestra pit at the Brighton Hippodrome with his trumpet teacher, who played in the house band. “It was a wonderful induction to a life of professional musicians,” Gavin reminisces. “Somehow you grow up and you just think, ‘this is what life is like’ – I didn’t realise it was something quite exceptional.”

After school, Gavin was offered a place not only at the Royal College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music, but also at Brighton College of Art. Though he chose the visual arts – going on to study at Slade School of Fine Art – he carved a career as a professional baroque trumpeter at the same time, something he believes would be impossible today. “One can see, year on year, remarkable musicians emerging and they just get better and better; terrifyingly good.” Nowhere is this more evident than at the ROSL Annual Music Competition, whose adjudication panel he has chaired for ten years, and as we meet on the day of this year’s Over-Seas Award, he is clearly excited by the standard. “The musicians are looking in all sorts of directions; they’re not just tremoloed by virtuosity,” he enthuses.

A turning point

Studying at Kingston College of Art with David Nash, now one of Britain’s most renowned sculptors, and then at Slade, Gavin looked set to become a sculptor until he accepted a postgraduate travelling scholarship in America. “It was a great turning point. I thought I was going to travel across the States in a Greyhound bus but in fact I hit Manhattan and never really left,” he says. “I met all sorts of incredible artists – Andy Warhol and Virgil Thomson, lots of musicians.” He returned to the UK convinced that his life was going to revolve around bringing the various art forms together. “I’d maintained a life as a professional musician and I’d had an early life in the theatre. I felt that all these art forms ought to find a way of combining – and that’s really what I’ve been doing for the rest of my life.”

After a short stint at a community theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, he began working as “unofficial assistant” of the Brighton Festival and was soon appointed Director of the York Festival and Mystery Plays, going on to become Managing Director of the Philharmonia Orchestra and establishing the Wilde Theatre at South Hill Park Arts Centre, Bracknell, in 1979.

Drawn back to music after years working mainly in theatre, he became Director of the Dartington International Summer School in 1984, a role he performed for 26 years, and Artistic Director of the Brighton Festival at the same time. It was something he had always wanted to do. “It was a great moment,” he recalls. “The festival was a manifestation of where I grew up and my home and the seaside, the arts.” Founded by the “doyen of festival directors” Ian Hunter, it was facing financial difficulties and in desperate need of resuscitation, but while others might have been daunted by the magnitude of the task, Gavin leapt at the challenge.

The programme for 1990 was particularly ambitious, focusing on the cultures of the emerging Europe. “Absolutely the most vibrant thing that happened was the whole issue of the new economic Europe and I felt very energised by the fact there was a cultural Europe that was being ignored,” he explains. “I wanted to look at the artistic partnerships, which meant Eastern Europe. So I went round a lot of countries, and heard a lot of stories. By the time our festival programme was launched, the whole of Europe had changed, the walls had come down, the dissidents and poets we had been talking to were now leading their societies, and it was thrilling because we were in place.”

Politics and the arts collided, and Gavin was suddenly being invited to meetings at Downing Street. “We were a gateway to making friends with these people and that was wonderful; suddenly this arts programme demonstrated what all the partnerships could be, how this new Europe was going to be forged,” he says. “I feel disappointed that that extraordinarily exciting new Europe has, to all intents and purposes, collapsed.”

Gavin Henderson stage

The good fight

These were very different times, and the period was marked by unprecedented funding for the arts. Gavin was chair of the Music Panel of the Arts Council when it launched in 1994 and “there was just a river of money” for capital investment in the arts. By comparison, government support for the arts today is at a low. “It’s tough, certainly in recent years, the whole austerity package. Arts subjects within schools are being marginalised. We’re seeing an enormous division between the maintained sector and the private sector,” he laments.

“Attrition is what makes our creative society so vibrant. But expecting artists to starve in their garrets is invidious,” he continues. “In my career I’ve been through many periods of great troughs when there’s no money and yet it bounces back. It’s a rollercoaster. It’s worrying that we are still having to fight political antipathy but what is marvellous is that there are people who do go on fighting for the opportunities for people to do this against all odds.”

I wonder if his position at Central restricts him in this struggle? “No matter how far you think of yourself as being anti-establishment, the establishment creeps in around you, so you get to a point where your ideas are marshalled,” he admits. However, he takes heart from recent indications that the Government is beginning to acknowledge – “with some reluctance” – the economic impact of the arts, if not the benefits to people’s wellbeing and society more broadly.

The circle of life

Now aged 69, Gavin has found himself moving increasingly back to his roots. Since he retired from St Barts, he has been learning the natural trumpet – a gift from his wife, Mary Jane, on leaving Dartington – reluctant to give up playing altogether. “I’ll probably never play it publicly but there’s something physical about playing an instrument that if you stop, it’s like amputation. It’s like losing an arm or a leg, and I can’t surrender to that,” he says.

His upbringing in Brighton gave him a lifelong fascination with the British seaside and he has long been associated with saving the nation’s piers, currently as Honorary President of the National Piers Society. “Bucket and spade holidays are finished. The seaside holiday will be reborn but it will be very different,” he admits. “So along with caring about the seaside heritage, we have to reinvent the seaside. Artistic projects are part and parcel of that.” The Jerwood Gallery in Hastings and Turner Contemporary in Margate are notable examples. Gavin is also increasingly involved with the visual arts, with his current trusteeships including the Estorick collection, Hawkwood College, and a “secret garden” behind one of Brighton’s great regency houses, where his old college friend David Nash is creating an installation. “Life is like some tremendous arc,” he muses.

“I have started doing a lot of drawing and image making, and it’s all about St Barts – that extraordinary building. It’s entirely personal. But all through my life I’ve kept notebooks and sketchpads of ideas.

“It comes back to this thing of the idea. The idea is quite a dangerous phenomenon and you don’t necessarily want to release it into society until you know a bit more about it,” he concludes with a hint of anticipation, and I can’t help wondering what ideas he has in store for the world next.


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