Ken Burston was born at Malvern (Worcestershire) on 29th March 1911, and died at Solihull near Birmingham in September 1992 aged 81. He was Principal double bass of the CBSO for many years and previous owner of the Joseph Panormo Bass between 1930 and 1980.
I wish to thank Beresford King-Smith (BK-S) of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra archive department for all the help he has given me in researching this project.The picture shows Ken with the Bass in 1964, and thanks to John Tattersdill (current Principal) for another picture of Ken here.
BK-S: Where do we start?
"In Malvern, I was born there (1911) where my father was a church organist for nearly sixty years.
He was dead keen on music and I was brought up with music all round me."
BK-S: Did you start off on the double bass straight away?
"No, on the violin, which I started to learn whilst l was at school. I think I was the only musical pupil there - my violin lessons got me off quite a few other classes! I was keen to take up music professionally, so l applied to the Birmingham School of Music. Sir Granville Bantock took one look at me and said, 'You don't want to be a fiddle-player - fiddle-players are ten-a-penny !' Actually, he wanted a double bass student at the time, and as I was tall he decided I was the chap! l studied there with Arthur Cockerill, a fine player who held the position of principal bass in the City of Birmingham Orchestra."
In 1929 Ken landed a job in the Noel Coward show - "Bitter Sweet" which was due to open at the Ziegfeld Theatre on Broadway on November 5, 1929.
Unfortunately this coincided with the disastrous Wall Street crash, and the show closed after only 159 performances on March 22, 1930. This must have been a bitter blow to Ken who was back in England by July/August 1930 as he saw and subsequently bought the Joseph Panormo bass from Mr. Wilkes. Still aged only 20, Ken returned to a depressed USA doing various musicial and non-musical jobs (Ken used to tell a story of playing in a club frequented by Al Capone.)
He returned home to join the City of Birmingham Orchestra in 1935. "It was only part-time in those days, of course, and I was also playing for the BBC orchestra and in the Norris Stanley Quintet. And then the War came. The orchestras kept going somehow - it was part of the War Effort, really, to keep morale up. When the bombing got too hot in Broad Street, the BBC moved out to Pershore, but we would often travel long distances to give broadcast concerts. I remember once during an air-raid taking cover in a shelter near Filton aerodrome; nothing seemed to be happening, so l drove on. Minutes later the shelter was demolished by a direct hit!"
BK-S: And then the CBSO was put on a permanent basis...
"Yes, in 1944, whilst the War was still on. There were some real characters in the orchestra in those days, for instance Vaughan Allin (bassoon) - would smuggle in a double-barrelled shotgun when we were playing '1812' and would blast-off in the appropiate places!"
Ken took part in the Centenary Performance of "Elijah" in October 1946. Click here to see the Orchestra List.
Ken worked with a succession of conductors in those early CBSO years: George Weldon, Rudolf Schwarz, Andrzej Panufnik and Hugo Rignold. To mark the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962 the Orchestra gave the first ever performances of Britten’s War Requiem. In 1966 Rignold and the CBSO made the first long-playing disc (LP), for the Lyrita label: Bliss’s Music for Strings and Meditations on a Theme by John Blow. 1968 CBSO undertook their most ambitious tour to date: behind the Iron Curtain - East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Ken retired from the CBSO in the early seventies whilst Louis Frémaux (1969-78) was Principal conductor. Read more about Ken Burston here in Mike Lea’s Blog.