Beyond the Notes review



Stephannie Williams still remembers the day she organised a Viking funeral in Stratford-upon-Avon. It's not a typical part of the job description for the director of an arts festival – but anyone who attended the Stratford-upon-Avon Festival during her years at the helm knew to expect the unexpected. 1990's Festival had a Nordic theme, and as soon as Stephannie decided that it would end with a Viking ship going up in flames on the Avon – well, when Stephannie (known to friends as Steve) decides something's going to happen, it usually does.

The precise (and frequently hilarious) details – a saga of drunken boat-owners, precariously-timed pyrotechnics and the life-size rubber corpse of King Ragnor – are among the many colourful tales recounted in her new memoir, Beyond the Notes. Friends and colleagues had been urging her to write a book for years: but it was one of her oldest and most beloved clients, the writer and broadcaster Richard Baker, who finally persuaded her to tell all.

"Richard, who I represented for 30 years, kept saying to me, 'Steve, why don't you write a book?'", she remembers. "I said, 'Oh, I will, I will.' And then, a couple of months before he died, he rang me: 'Well, I think you'd better get on with it.' That's when I got started on it, and things came flooding back."

As an agent, Stephannie represented performers ranging from Arthur Lowe to the Choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor. As well as running the Stratford-upon-Avon Festival, she served for over a decade as director of the William Walton Trust, dealing daily with Walton's notoriously feisty (not to say eccentric) widow Susana. For 35 years Stephannie was the driving force behind P&O's Music Festivals at Sea. Meanwhile, her work promoting Scandinavian music resulted in her being awarded the Order of the Polar Star by the King of Sweden. It's safe to say that in a career like that, you pick up a few stories, and they're all in Beyond the Notes.

There's the time the great harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler refused to leave the stage. "He was great, a lovely man, but you just couldn't get him off the stage. Once he started to talk, he didn't want to stop, and the following act was getting really, really irritated .In the end their trumpeter just went on and said 'Off!'" Or there was the moment when the firebrand film-director Ken Russell – a guest speaker on one of Stephannie's Music Festivals at Sea – unleashed his volcanic temper on the ship's crew. She managed to calm him down, but the fun was only just starting:

"Richard Baker thought we should show some of Ken Russell's films. So we decided on…well, which is the one where Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestle in the nude? Women in Love. P&O decided we'd have to put it on after midnight, because it might be a bit too much for the old ladies. So midnight came and there was a great long queue outside the theatre to see the film. I was sitting behind two old ladies and when it came to that scene, one turned to the other and said, 'That's a lovely carpet, dear'".

But most of her tales are classic backstage yarns of temperamental artists, unexpected crises, and the ingenuity, tact and professionalism that meant that on Stephannie's watch, the show always went on. On one cruise, her artists were due to perform in the spectacular opera house in Manaus, deep in the Brazilian jungle. Adverse tides in the River Amazon nearly put paid to that.

"We should have arrived in the afternoon and set everything up. But we didn't arrive until 9.30pm that night. So it was panic stations: we had to be ready as soon as the ship docked, in our evening finery - the pianists and all my lovely singers had to be ready to dash to a waiting coach and be taken to the opera house as soon as the gangway went down. All these Brazilians were standing there to see this great ship coming in - and there we were, with jewels dripping from us in these long evening dresses. They couldn't believe their eyes. They thought we were mad. And when we got to the opera house, they hadn't tuned the piano, and the mosquitoes…there were so many that you could see them. You had to wear insect repellent to perform".

But by the time you get to this stage of the book, you'll already have guessed that the outcome was a triumph. Stephannie is one of those people with a knack for making good things happen. Technically retired, she's still helping young artists launch their careers. She writes movingly of her late husband, the CBSO viola player Gwyn Williams – in whose memory she's endowed a bursary for student viola players at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, to be supported by the proceeds of Beyond the Notes.

"Looking after one or two special artists is very rewarding, and when I can help young people with their careers, that's what I want to do". She's involved with the record label SOMM, too, as well as a growing list of literary projects. "I still keep going" she says, with typical understatement. Not the least remarkable thing about Stephannie Williams is that she makes it sound so easy – and that Beyond the Notes makes it all seem such terrific fun.

Richard Bratby

*Beyond the Notes (pub. Brewin Books, £11.95) is available from various outlets, including Waterstones and Amazon.

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