|James 'Chas' Bromley|
The value of community, and the beauty of the symphony.*
*This post was written in the hours after I learnt of Chas's passing on 10 May 2013. By special request, I have added the full text of 'Chas Bromley: reflection in lieu of a eulogy' read at his service on 21 May 2013, for and of behalf of his family, Jenny, Lyndon, Emma, Hannah and their families. I thank everyone for the privilege.
“Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt”
One of my best mates died last night. Cancer. It has that habit of picking off the good ones too soon.
[By inexplicable coincidence, as I write, ABC Classic is playing Ron Hanmer's Pastorale (Blue Hills), recorded by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. My mate Chas played in the Orchestra, a flautist and piccolo player. Ron Hanmer was the man in charge of the St Lucia Orchestra, where I play now. Chas knew Ron, he played in the SLO while waiting for his gig at the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (which he got in 1985).]
Chas was one of those people whose appearance on your life's path can be most unexpected but one of the most transformative. Chas was a professional musician in symphony orchestras and an army musician before that. Unassuming, self-deprecating, fisherman, family man and passionate and patient advocate of the power of the community orchestra. In doing so, he broke down the stereotypes of the aloof classical musician and encouraged many of us to not be afraid to accept the challenge of the beauty of the symphony (just not 20th century music, thank you; about which I disagreed with him later...).
My first encounter with Chas goes back to 1997 when my community band (of adult starters mind you, 60 people who had only just started to play a year or so earlier) learnt that 'one of the players from the QSO was going to be our conductor'. The thought of us being conducted by such a professional led to much nervous anxiety...why would an orchestral musician want to spend his nights conducting a bunch of amateurs, not just that, but mostly beginners?
Therein though, lay Bromley's charm. On the first night, this unassuming bloke in jeans and thongs turned up, introduced himself and took us through the grade 2 level music we had just become comfortable playing. He was fast, he was exacting, he wanted the best from us, as much as we could give. He had a strong belief that 'amateur' players could play some of the great pieces of the repertoire.
Gradually, he introduced playable arrangements of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, military band arrangements of his favourite British music. He loved playing music from the movies. He opened up the possibilities for appreciating music of all types, all levels. He had that rare gift of being an educator without even trying, he taught us so much through conveying his love and passion for his craft. He didn't think there was anything we couldn't do.
Perhaps the Redlands Bands greatest moment under his baton was the year the whole group got together to perform a 'tattoo' style performance on the streets of Cleveland (Brisbane bayside, not the US). Yes, closing down streets, marching bands, performances from all bands in the group culminating in a combined band and orchestra performance of the 1812 Overture, with actual canons...And us, a community group. He believed we could do it...it happened entirely on the back of his belief in us to achieve it.
He encouraged us to come and listen to the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, which we did. Now, I had been attending many of the Ferry Road concerts, the 'meet the composer'-type concerts for some years. To me, going there was much less intimidating than going to a concert hall to hear a symphony...I just didn't think someone like me could do that. I didn't 'know' anything about 'serious' music.
But Chas broke down those barriers. A few free tickets initially drew me in. The subscriptions and involvement in the old Friends of the QSO group and so on followed naturally. It has been a marvellous informal education about the beauty of the symphonic repertoire, and even 20th century music.
He taught me how to 'listen' to an orchestra, how to discern just one instrument out of the whole for that fleeting moment and then hear it again as part of the whole. He taught us not to be afraid of blowing the wrong note. He introduced many of the players to us through having them play with us in our concerts. Gosh, the anxiety of having the QSO's principal bass clarinettist sit next you for a concert. But like Chas, so many of his colleagues were equally at ease with themselves and their willingness to play with us. The privilege of knowing them has made attending a concert as comfortable and natural as sitting down to read a book. I have learnt much about musicianship (and all the gossip) thanks to so many of you.
He said I should play in an orchestra...not likely I thought. Absolutely, he said. And that's how I ended up in the St Lucia Orchestra. His enthusiasm and encouragement led me to undertake a graduate certificate in Arts and Entertainment Management one year. He loved to spend my money on getting instruments and music. On one of our music-buying days, he said it was time I bought an A clarinet to pair with my Bb and bass clarinet...since I needed it to play some of the orchestral repertoire. I'd been caught out with him like this before and just managed to resist. So, in the shop, I was very specific. Alright, I said, if they have the Buffet E11 A clarinet to match my Bb, I will. Music shops can carry a whole range of clarinets...damn, this day, this shop had that specific one. I lost...but I think he knew the shop carried it by the way he chuckled as I parted with my money.
Chas 'retired' from the QSO just after the merger between the QSO and the Queensland Philharmonic happened. It was not pleasant. I just wish the bean counters who make these 'efficiency-driven' decisions could stop and reflect from time-to-time on the damage they cause as they ride their whirlwind of cuts and slashes. Their decisions involve people and their lives, their raison d'être. Chas never really wanted to say so, but I could tell the way he was discarded hurt enormously.
In my job as an academic and his as musician, we shared many things in common as far as working in traditional, structured institutions goes. Universities and orchestras are hierachically-driven organisations. They are also organisations full of creative, passionate people completely engaged in their crafts, be it a flute player or violist, a scientist dedicated to the fruit fly, a political scientist intrigued by the machinations of 1893 Queensland. Such people are drawn to these organisations as the complete antithesis of the corporation. There is not much flexibility in the corporatised orchestra or the university. Chas was a man who could have, should have been a principal player...but wasn't. Externally, we are too quick to judge the value of a player, a teacher, by their title, not their actions. The corporation likes titles.
Chas was a musician first and foremost, with all the drive, temperament and self-centredness that can come with that. We all forgave him a lot sometimes. But he also showed that the community also mattered and that making music together was one of life's important things...just because we could.
Much is made of professional sports stars when they get out into 'the community' to do their bit. Chas was a professional musician who didn't need to play out in the community, but he did and in doing so enriched the lives of many for whom 'classical' music was 'too hard'. He showed us how to love it. The community band always mattered.
I have missed his presence in the Orchestra for a while now, but others are there to listen to and enjoy...no really listen...that's what he taught me, do more than just listen. 'And listen to the dynamics' he would say, the 'soft' and 'loud' of music. I work very hard at that, for him and for the music.
I will miss his self-deprecation and our competitions to 'out-deprecate' each other given our respective occupations. I shall miss his encouragement to keep playing until you can't play anymore. He did that, his flute was never far away. And he played beautifully.
Chas was always the much anticipated cadenza in my otherwise ordinary life. He played like a principal, even if he wasn't one.
Thank you Chas Bromley. Your music and belief in the ordinary, common garden-variety community player will sustain us for a long time.
For his family and my friends, Jenny, Lyndon, Emma and Hannah and their families.
'Uncross your legs and play your F and C for me' Bromley, conductor, to a band member c.1999.
Chas was a stickler for etiquette. No-one was allowed to cross their legs during a performance, or a rehearsal. The 'F and C' were two notes that needed to be clearly articulated in a particular piece of music. He didn't realise his faux pas until we pointed it out to him...we never let him forget it.