Page 1: Biography
Lindsay, Alex Sylvester
Violinist, conductor, orchestra leader
This biography, written by Adrienne Simpson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Alex Sylvester Lindsay was born in Invercargill, the third of four children of Sydney Alexander Lindsay, a merchant, and his wife, Ethel Frances Cavanagh. The date on his birth certificate, 28 May 1919, may be wrong, for he always celebrated his birthday on 28 April. He showed early musical talent, winning singing competitions as a boy soprano and making speedy progress when he began violin lessons, around the age of nine, with Southland’s leading teacher, W. J. Ferguson. His mother encouraged him by treating him to the cinema on Saturdays if he practised well. His father, a prominent local sportsman, taught him the importance of aiming for excellence. At Southland Boys’ High School he excelled at athletics, rugby and drama as well as music, but his career path was set when he won an Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music scholarship at the age of 17. He left New Zealand in 1937 to study at the Royal College of Music in London, where his violin teachers were W. H. Reed and Albert Sammons.
On the completion of his studies he spent six months leading the theatre orchestra at Stratford-upon-Avon, and he had a small role as a bandleader in a sentimental 1941 film called Danny Boy. That same year he joined Sir Thomas Beecham’s London Philharmonic Orchestra as a member of the second violin section. On 18 July 1942 at Little Malvern, Worcestershire, he married Kathleen Mary Wenlock Jones (always known as Wendy), a former fellow student at the Royal College. After nearly three years in the London Philharmonic he was drafted for war service in the Royal Navy. In October 1945 he transferred to the Royal New Zealand Navy, serving on the Philomel. Shortly before being discharged he auditioned in Wellington on 26 July 1946 to become a founder member of the new National Orchestra. He quickly rose to sub-leader.
After his London experiences, the low playing standards and the limitations of the orchestra’s conductor, Andersen Tyrer, horrified him. Disillusioned, he resigned after a year to devote himself to teaching and to conducting his own ensemble, which, inspired by the touring Boyd Neel Orchestra in 1947, he founded in 1948. By the early 1950s the Alex Lindsay String Orchestra had become New Zealand’s second professional orchestra. It played subscription series in Wellington, toured the country extensively and from 1954 was frequently heard on radio. It was also in demand to accompany choral, operatic and ballet performances. From the beginning Lindsay was keen to promote New Zealand compositions. His advocacy encouraged composers and led to several works being written for his ensemble. The orchestra’s recordings also did much to raise the profile of New Zealand music.
In addition to his teaching and conducting he was a popular tutor at summer schools and was heavily involved in chamber music, particularly as leader of the New Zealand String Quartet, which made several nationwide tours and introduced audiences to some notable contemporary works. The loss of his two brothers in a drowning accident on 14 June 1953 affected him profoundly. He also found the financial rewards of free-lancing inadequate to support a large family, which eventually numbered six children, and in 1956 he was persuaded to rejoin the National Orchestra as leader of the second violins. In addition he played several concertos with the orchestra and conducted it, mainly in studio concerts. His services to music were recognised with his appointment as an MBE in 1959.
By this time he was one of New Zealand’s best-known and busiest musicians, but his hectic schedule was becoming progressively more exhausting. In 1963, armed with an Arts Advisory Council grant, he took time out to return to Europe, where he studied conducting at the Salzburg Mozarteum and had violin classes with André Gertler and Max Rostal. Free-lancing with London orchestras gave him an opportunity to observe the musical scene and reassured him about his own abilities. He was soon in demand. He played with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, joined the London Symphony Orchestra for an international tour, and then became principal second violin in the London Philharmonic. The offer of the same position in the London Symphony Orchestra was too good to refuse. He remained there for three years, but was always keen to return home and in 1967 applied successfully to become leader of what was now the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra. Within two years, following the decision not to appoint a new resident conductor, his position was upgraded to that of concert master. This involved responsibility for setting the orchestra’s standards and for rehearsing it before the arrival of guest conductors.
His own orchestra, renamed the Lindsay String Orchestra of Wellington, had continued to flourish during his absence overseas. He conducted its 20th anniversary concert on 3 July 1968 but had lost interest in its activities and felt that being associated with a string ensemble hindered his recognition as a symphonic conductor. After a 25-year existence, the orchestra went into recess in 1973. Lindsay had been living apart from his wife and children for several years. Divorce proceedings were finalised on 12 November 1969, and on 19 December at Christchurch he married a former pupil, Angela Alison Connal.
Lindsay’s commitment to contemporary music led him to work alongside musicians half his age in chamber groups such as Music Players 70. As the NZBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert master he was notable for the help and advice he gave younger players and for the example he set with his own high professional standards. He also undertook a number of concerto engagements with the orchestra and conducted it in many studio and a few public concerts. In October 1974 he led the orchestra on a successful tour of Australia. Alex Lindsay died on 5 December 1974 at Okiwi Bay, Rai Valley, Marlborough. The immediate cause was a cerebral haemorrhage – the result of a brain tumour, which may have been present for some time – but some felt that the stress of his working schedule and the demands of the tour had played a part. He was survived by his former wife, Wendy, second wife, Angela, four daughters and two sons.
His funeral in Wellington was attended by many important figures from the musical world and a service of tribute was held in Invercargill, where he was buried. A memorial concert on 23 March 1975, donations from colleagues and the proceeds of a recording dedicated to his memory raised money to perpetuate his name through the Alex Lindsay Memorial Award, which assists young players wishing to become orchestral musicians. A music suite at Southland Boys’ High was named after him in 1997. His legacy can also be heard in the compositions written for the Alex Lindsay String Orchestra and on its recordings, some of which were reissued in 1998.
Colleagues and friends described Alex Lindsay as charismatic, charming, exuberant and sometimes – reflecting his occasional irresponsibility in non-musical matters – a likeable rogue. His violin playing was admired for its beauty of tone and rhythmic vitality. He had wide musical sympathies and could interpret baroque music or modern scores with equal flair, then let his hair down playing jazz into the early hours. He was almost the stereotypical Kiwi male in his enthusiasm for rugby and fondness for a few beers in congenial company, yet his performing skills were such that he could hold his own in the world’s finest orchestras. He chose to spend most of his career in New Zealand and his high standards and constant enthusiasm contributed significantly to the development of this country’s musical life.