Errol Russell in Memoriam

It is the end of an era as we farewell our own Errol Russell – gentleman, musician extraordinaire, father and grandfather: a modest, steadfast, no-fuss person who had a very cheeky sense of humour and who enjoyed a good red: a good-looking man who liked to dress well except when working in the yard or in his workshop where he made/restored beautiful furniture etc and repaired string instruments for students and teachers – often immediately if not sooner, in keeping with his obliging nature.

The Russell family arrived in Armidale in 1985 after four years in Port Macquarie and, prior to that, fourteen years in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  Our first impression of Errol was of a gentle but imposing person – imposing because we were all seated and squashed into a primary classroom at ACPS; he seemed “a long way up there”.  Thus began a wonderful thirty years of Errol’s commitment to the Armidale Symphony Orchestra, mostly as an extremely valued concertmaster but also as a quiet but efficient conductor and an outstanding solo violinist.  As a soloist he performed the violin concertos of Beethoven and Brahms and the Mendelssohn Scottish Fantasy; perhaps one of his greatest achievements in this area was composing and performing his own three-movement Viola Concerto.  It would be a wonderful tribute to see this performed again in Armidale by one of our excellent viola teachers or students.

In his role as concertmaster, Errol provided the solid rock on which the orchestra depended – the quiet, always reliable player whose musical knowledge and judgement often surpassed that of the conductor.  If there were any musical issues to resolve it simply took a steady “Errol Look” at the conductor, sometimes adding a soft “Er……….” then stop.  The conductor would notice, pause and wait for Errol’s suggestion which was then always gratefully and respectfully received and followed.

Occasionally the orchestra would have a less experienced conductor and there would be a slight adjustment in the players’ approach. There was such a time when playing with the Armidale Choral Society when their chosen conductor had to withdraw just before a concert and one of the choristers courageously stepped in.  There was some confusion as a result of the sudden and very different style of direction but the word quickly spread through the orchestra – “Just – watch – Errol”! and of course all was then fine.  Similarly, when soloists were playing concertos with the orchestra they were frequently overheard to say to Errol, “You have no idea how reassuring it is to have your rock-solid support RIGHT THERE behind me the whole time.  Thank you!”

Apart from the ever-present light-hearted battle, fuelled by Errol of course, between the violins (“the cellos are wallowing in the mud with that melody”) and cellos (suitably bristling, “the violins are pushing the tempo there”) rehearsals were calm and productive under Errol’s leadership and one never saw a glimmer of the musical frustration he must have felt at times.  We also couldn’t arrive at his standard of perfect attendance and punctuality.

In his role as secondary school music teacher, Errol experienced the usual roller-coaster ride of dedicated music elective students and the much larger junior classes.  His patience was further tried by his teaching colleague who would often go over time with a class while Errol and his class waited outside.  A subtle but joking rebuke was all I ever received but deserved a much firmer one.

Errol was always very generous with his very little spare time and energy when I had to take the band and orchestra to play elsewhere.  He would be there in his famous white “veggie van”, helping to load or unload instruments, stands, music crates, amplifiers, drum kit, etc. It was a sad day when the van was eventually sold and he had to be relieved of removalist duties (although he did continue this activity for some time using the school bus instead).  The school staff also found him a generous and likeable person but when it came to staff functions once they’d heard Errol play “The Canary”- that amazing violin showpiece with all its plucks, slides, whistles and other technically  difficult effects that had everyone gasping – he was never allowed to escape without playing it and they never tired of hearing it.

Errol’s easy-going teaching manner was very much favoured by his violin students.  His instructions and demonstrations were enough for them to absorb and of course want to imitate that beautiful sound.  If there was any student tension over a difficult shift, for example, he’d give them the courage – “Just GO for it!” – then, when that worked, “See, you can do it!”.  If mistakes were made Errol would often laugh it off with “What did you do that for”? or “What happened there?”  Lessons were usually punctuated with laughter.  I saw many students grow from awkwardness or ordinary playing to confidence in their ability to produce a beautiful tone, play in tune, master technical difficulties and be adventurous in trying many different styles of music.

As if teaching classroom music all day then violin students after school and on weekends weren’t enough there were those weekend trips to Port Macquarie with the New England Sinfonia, inherited from Andrew Lorenz who founded it around 1974.  Errol’s Port Macquarie connections had requested this string orchestra to accompany the Hastings Choral Society in an annual performance – often of Handel’s Messiah, Vivaldi’s Gloria, a Haydn Mass among others.  This provided a wonderful, sometimes once-in-a-lifetime experience for dozens of players and helped set many of them on the path to the life of a professional musician.

Errol also led the Armidale String Quartet for decades, playing at many different types of functions and often travelling long distances (eg for Paul Hogan’s wedding near Byron Bay).  Errol’s leadership raised the standard of all the other quartet players and he never showed frustration or exasperation when we were less than perfect.  Our quartet involved advanced student violinists on the 2nd violin part but more recently and for some years, we welcomed into our group Marion Barford, whom we tragically lost in January 2015.  Laurie Pulley, violist, was the main supplier of music and also our seeker of food at all functions which were more than an hour long.  He guaranteed we never starved.

There are many stories we could relate to attest to Errol’s many talents, professionalism and musicianship and there are many other examples of his generosity, achievements and contribution to music in the Armidale community.  However, although Errol has now gone, his memory and considerable influence will always continue.  As we said on his retirement from the ASO only a few years ago, “Errol’s memory and spirit will still be here and he’ll continue to lead from the back”.

Sue Metcalfe

April 2018