Scotsman Obituaries: James Durrant, leading British viola player and teacher

James Durrant MBE, viola player and teacher. Born: 23 November 1929 in Bournemouth. Died: 21 May, 2021, aged 91

James Durrant guided generations of young violists into the upper ranks of the profession
James Durrant guided generations of young violists into the upper ranks of the profession

There are instrumental music teachers who seek only idolisation and flattery, and there are those whose generosity and skill are centred solely on inspiring the best from their young pupils. Countless leading Scots musicians who studied under the Glasgow-based violist James Durrant will recognise in him only the latter warm-hearted quality.

Durrant, affectionately known as “Jimmy", has died at the age of 91, leaving behind a formidable lifetime legacy as a teacher, performer and inspirational mentor. As an exceptional player, he commanded a broad and influential presence in Scotland’s orchestral and chamber music scene, encouraging new works from an emerging band of Scottish composers.

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As a teacher, his 30-year tenure at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), ultimately as head of orchestral studies and strings, saw him guide generations of young violists into the uppermost ranks of the profession.

Born in Bournemouth in 1929, he began his professional career as a member of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Early life had not been without challenge, as the journalist Tully Potter recounts in an excellent 2005 profile in The Strad magazine, Durrant’s father had died when his son was eight, leaving Durrant’s mother to work hard keeping the family afloat.

He had just begun violin lessons with Cecil White of the local Bournemouth Symphony, but was forced to leave school at 14 to find work. Nonetheless, his studies continued, White also sourcing him access to the orchestra pit in the town’s Pavilion Theatre, where he heard, among other great stars, the Glasgow-born international viola virtuoso William Primrose. It was a pivotal moment. Durrant was smitten with Primrose’s performance of a Handel Concerto and immediately swapped his violin for a viola.

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National Service intervened when, at 17, he was called up to the Royal Artillery Band. There was no place there for a violist, of course, so Durrant opted for bassoon. Woodwind was never his forte, as he picturesquely described to Potter, summing up his post-Artillery days with the Ford Motor Works Band as “chopping up metal all day and farting away on the bassoon in the evening”.

His return to Bournemouth, and the BSO was the springboard to being appointed principal viola with the then Scottish National Orchestra in 1957 and his move to Scotland. Prestigious offers from London subsequently came his way, but Durrant had already immersed himself in the wider Scottish music scene – notably with Leonard Friedmann’s Scottish Baroque Ensemble – and by 1964 he had made the decision to accept a teaching post at the RSAMD.

He often claimed the reason he was offered it was that the Academy-based Scottish Piano Quartet needed a viola player. That may be true to an extent, and he certainly became a fixture in that ensemble alongside violinist Louis Carus, cellist Joan Dickson and pianist Wight Henderson. But there was nothing half-hearted about his consuming commitment to a teaching career that touched on so many young musicians’ lives and verged on the legendary. Notable pupils included former SCO principal viola James Sleigh, Edinburgh-born professor of viola and chamber music at UCLA in California Paul Coletti, BBC SSO principal Scott Dickinson and LSO violist Gillianne Haddow.

I, with so many others, benefited from his gentle and humorous wisdom as a school-aged viola pupil each Saturday at the RSAMD Junior School, an initiative he had been instrumental in setting up, conducting its symphony and chamber orchestras up to his retirement. “Let’s take it from letter L, L-for-Leather”, was a typical Durrant-ism issued in his loveable, languid southern English cadence.

Alistair Beattie, a retired BBC SSO violist and one of Durrant’s earliest senior RSAMD pupils, witnessed the same warmth and dedication. “Jimmy knew personally the great Czech violist Vladislav Cerny, who was a great buddy and dedicatee of Hindemith. He introduced me to Cerny in Prague, which led to me continuing my own studies there,” Beattie recalls. “I also remember seeing him in his SNO days taking the solo viola role in Strauss’ Don Quixote alongside cellist Paul Tortelier, who insisted Jimmy join him front stage.”

Paradoxically, Durrant was never really a front-of-stage man, more a mover and shaker. He was a champion of Scottish composers, among them Thomas Wilson, John Maxwell Geddes and close family friend Edward McGuire, from whom he commissioned a viola concerto for the 1998 26th International Viola Congress in Glasgow. Durrant conducted its premiere with his own Glasgow Festival Strings and former student Gillianne Haddow as soloist.

On an album of mainly solo Scottish viola pieces for Alto Records, Durrant included McGuire’s Divertimento for 20 violas, typically performing all 20 parts himself, multi-tracked. His enthusiasm for new music also saw him regularly perform with the now-defunct New Music Group of Scotland.

In 1975, Durrant married his second wife Dawn, and before long their large Glasgow West End villa also became a bustling home to a succession of four children, Jonathan, Emily, Alice and Laura. Six grandchildren were to follow. It was while rushing to hospital on hearing the news of daughter Alice’s birth that Durrant inadvertently drove over his prized Morassi viola in the driveway, smashing it into tiny fragments.

Miraculously, he found a violin-maker – Graham Wright – who was willing to have a go at piecing the valuable instrument back together, and to his delight Durrant was able to continue playing it for many years.

Durrant remained active way beyond his retirement from the RSAMD in 1994, teaching and coaching at Douglas Academy’s specialist music unit in Milngavie, St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, and Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow. His easy-going demeanour and infectious enthusiasm never diminished, nor did his quiet insistence in drawing the very best from young musicians.

In 1989, recognising his services to music, Durrant was awarded an MBE.

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