THE EARLY YEARS... A whimsical retrospective
Born in Harrow, north-west London in 1961, the bass Alastair Miles was educated locally before attending the now defunct St Marylebone Grammar School, a two hundred year old institution whose glittering alumni included Jerome K Jerome, the economist Professor Sir Eric Hobsbawm, broadcaster and jazz critic Benny Green (who famously said he hated every minute of his time there), troubled 80s pop star Adam Ant (whose real first name was Stuart) and in the year below him, Liverpool FC and England soccer legend John Bames.
His first musical experiences came courtesy of the local church choir which enjoyed a thriving musical tradition. Indeed, his first choirmaster went on to become organist at various cathedrals and Master of Music for the Queen at St. George's Chapel, Windsor, before another less attractive tradition caught up with him and he was arrested for serial pederasty and imprisoned for six years.
Early piano lessons failed to reveal any talent in that direction but at the age of 13 Alastair began flute and musicianship lessons with the Welsh/Rhodesian composer Albert Alan Owen who was to prove highly inspirational. A pupil of the legendary Nadia Boulanger, it was Owen who first put the idea of music as a career into Alastair's head, as well as introducing him to the rigours and mysteries of Species counterpoint, Hindemith's Elementary Training, Taoist philosophy and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Listen to the young Alastair playing the flute
Telemann - Trio in A Minor
Too much flute practice and hours going around in an I Ching-inspired existential and adolescent miasma didn't help Alastair achieve as much academically as he might otherwise have done. His less-than-amazing A Level results weren't all his own fault though: despite being the only A Level Music candidate at SMGS, his music master still felt it necessary to dictate a full two hours of notes to Alastair over the phone the night before the exam. He nevertheless received offers to read Music at both London and Durham Universities, although his subsequent crack at a place at Cambridge met with failure.
Alastair, however, was determined to become the next James Galway, minus the jittery eyes and Irishness of course but also, as it turned out, minus the phenomenal talent and success. He accepted a much sought-after place on the Performers' Course at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama to study with the eminent flute pedagogue Trevor Wye. The Max Miller cheeky-chappy of the flute world, Wye's reputation as a teacher of many of the best flautists in the UK today is indisputable. He didn't regard Alastair as one of them, however, and tried to steer him in the direction of a career as a flute repairer and maker instead. A couple of wrecked flutes and several near misses with a soldering iron and blow-torch disabused Alastair of the notion that he was ever going to be successful down that particular path.
It was roughly at this point that singing entered the picture. Purely on a whim, and on the helpful and no doubt altruistic suggestion of a lady in a church choir who happened to be sitting directly in front of him as he bawled his head off, Alastair began lessons with the veteran Bolton bass-baritone Richard Standen. Nothing much happened for a year or so until, at the suggestion of ENO baritone Geoffrey Chard, Alastair began studying with Bruce Boyce at the Royal Academy.
It was Boyce who introduced him to opera and from then on the possibility of a career as a singer became more and more apparent. Alastair discovered that the years spent honing a formidable flute technique, particularly in the areas of breath control, diaphragm support and sight-reading were equally applicable and appropriate to vocal technique. Moreover, as a flute player he wasn't fazed when presented with a page full of semiquavers, which gave him, as a bass, a rare ability to sing fast coloratura such as in the music of Handel and Rossini.
Alastair spent four years in all at the Guildhall, and after Trevor Wye resigned he studied happily with both Peter Lloyd and Edward Beckett. In 1983 he left and, in addition to teaching at Stowe School and Chethams in Manchester, he spent the next two years playing chamber music and freelancing with several orchestras, amongst whom were the London Bach Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Meanwhile his voice carried on developing and he gained valuable vocal experience as a session singer and as a member of the St Albans Cathedral Choir. Interest in him as a singer seemed to be outstripping interest in him as a flautist and when in 1985 he won the Decca Kathleen Ferrier Prize at London's Wigmore Hall, and was offered a contract with the touring company Opera 80, Alastair had effectively to choose once and for all between the flute and the voice. The rest, as the cliche, goes, is history...
Flute players have brains, of that there's no doubt
But alack and alay, for they soon blow them out!
(Ancient Greek proverb, courtesy T Wye)