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Howard began playing by ear at the age of 6, and the following year started regular piano lessons. He was given vocal training and on entering Brighton Grammar School took lead soprano roles in their annual operas: Rose Maybud in 'Ruddigore', Bessie Throckmorton in 'Merrie England', Josephine in 'HMS Pinafore'. At 12 he began organ lessons, soon playing services for the parish church. His talent as a pianist was recognised when at 16 he was taken on by a notable teacher, Maud Hornsby, who suggested he prepare for a scholarship. She introduced him to Christine Pembridge, who had just moved to Brighton as head of piano studies at Roedean school. She had studied with Margaret Long in Paris and Adelina de Lara in London, once a pupil of Clara Schumann. She had won top piano prize at the RAM but then had tragically sufferred hand injury which prevented her continuing with a concert career. She demanded that Howard put all the energy and time that he could possibly afford into serious work at the piano. Howard had had virtually no serious coaching up to this point and was therefore considerably behind other young players who had worked at it since a young age. However in Spring 1957 Christine entered Howard for the Hastings Competitive Festival which uniquely offerred an Academy scholarship every three years. It was the first such thing he had done. He entered the Bach class, the Beethoven, the Chopin and The John Lockey Memorial Scholarship and won all four and began studies at The Royal Academy with Harold Craxton for piano and Howard Ferguson for composition. In his second term Ferguson required him to write a set of variations on a theme of Bartok. He composed a complex piece of virtuosic piano writing and Craxton suggested to his pupil Thorunn Tryggvaason that she perform it in her final Academy recital programme. Shortly after this she went to study with Lev Oborin in Moscow where she was to meet and marry Vladimir Ashenazy.
In the following year Howard was invited to form a duo with the leader of the RAM orchestra, violinist Miles Baster. They explored much of the repertoire for that medium and learnt a number of the works by heart, the Cesar Franck being one of them. However Miles won a scholarship to the Juillard in New York and was away for a considerable time. Meanwhile Howard began to take an interest in film as an art form and the possibilities of combining music and image. When Miles returned they picked up the threads again undertaking a debut at The Reid Hall in The University of Edinburgh. This produced an offer to Miles to form The Edinburgh String Quartet and the duo came to an end. Howard's tenure at RAM expired and he found himself in a quandary, not wishing to teach and desperately wanting to experiment with film and composition. Fortuitously he was offerred a job at The National Film Theatre and while there was able to direct a film for which he also wrote the script and music. The film was shown and acquired by the British Film Institute and Howard was offerred a scholarship to study film direction. He decided against this however, having realised that his passion lay more in music than anything else. He had missed playing enormously and returned to it, but wanting to broaden his interests into all types of music. His ability to play the piano not only by ear, but also in almost any style, resulted in an offer to work as a recording pianist, initially at Abbey Road Studios, and then at film, television and recording studios. He found this experience intensely interesting, working with many distinguished musicians and learning from them.
EMI itself invited him to make two albums for the Studio 2 label on which he played all types of instrument (piano,organ, harpsichord etc) and experimented with multi-track techniques in the first studio to introduce them. In 1966 he began playing keyboards on the sound-tracks for the internationally- succesful series 'The Avengers', but a year later, at the suggestion of composer Bernard Herrmann, took over from Laurie Johnson on 14 episodes as both composer and conductor. In fact it was Bernard Herrmann (at one time director of the CBS Sympony Orchestra in the USA) who encouraged him to conduct and gave him coaching. Another mentor was Eric Leinsdorf who proferred the advice: 'Either you can conduct or you can't'. Howard was thrown in at the deep end shortly after this when the famed US music-producer Quincy Jones invited him to conduct an orchestra of 120 players in a soundtrack album recording of the 70mm film epic 'McKenna's Gold' produced by Carl Foreman. Howard had so far only conducted his own scores with at the most 25 players and recalls that giving the first downbeat for this huge ensemble felt like being struck by a 'tidal-wave' He was in such demand as composer and conductor that for a while his piano-playing somewhat lapsed, but when Quincy recorded his score for 'The Italian Job' he chose Howard to play keyboards.
In 1970 he sufferred a sort of collapse from overwork and after spending some time out down in Cornwall decided to retreat to the Sussex countryside and re-visit his whole view and practise of music, studying counterpoint, harmony and musical form in a rigorous daily timetable, a part of which was to re-work his piano-playing. One result of this was the creation of the Piano Quartet which he wrote for and recorded with violinist Jack Rothstein, violist Kenneth Essex and cellist Peter Willison, a recording finally released on Naxos in 2008. Encouraged by his friend Vladimir Ashkenazy he then composed 'Twelve piano pieces' giving the premiere himself on BBC radio. Recordings he made of this work were heard by choreographer Robert North at The London Contemporary Dance Theatre and were to form the score of a ballet 'Meeting and Parting' premiered in The Chatelet Theatre in Paris in 1975 with Howard as solo pianist.
In 1977 he was signed to create a score for Ridley Scott's debut masterpiece 'The Duellists', which gained the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Festival. This is one of Howard's favourite scores, and he composed, orchestrated, conducted and also played solo piano on it. A spate of further films followed and his concentration tended to be on composing/conducting his own scores, but quite frequently he was engaged by orchestra manager Sidney Sax solely as conductor for The National Philharmonic Orchestra on outside feature film projects: Sophia Loren (Roger Gimbel), Terror Train (Roger Spottiswoode), SOB (Blake Edwards), Every which way but loose (Clint Eastwood), Popeye (Robert Altmann), Robocop (Paul Verhoeven), Death Wish (Michael Winner) and others. The NPO in the seventies comprised the most sought-after orchestral personnel, players such as John Wilbraham, Alan Civil, Thea King, Janet Craxton, Emanuel Hurwitz and Richard Adeney and the orchestral experience that Howard gained from this was incalculable.
Returning to live in London in the early eighties, he was signed as a composer by Faber Music, a contemporary classical music publishing company noted particularly for publishing the later works of Benjamin Britten. This signing closely followed Howard's composition of 'The Snowman', which included a substantial solo piano part. However, since Howard was conducting, he handed over the playing to Leslie Pearson, pianist with The Philharmonia. This relationship continued into The Barbican concert hall in 1983 when Raymond Gubbay invited Howard to conduct the concert version of The Snowman with his own lyrics and narration. The orchestra used was The Sinfonia of London of which Howard was made musical director, and these concerts were so succesful that they continued on at The Barbican for 11 years. Howard was firmly established as a conductor, and when he completed his Clarinet Concerto for The English Chamber Orchestra in 1984 was invited to conduct both the South Bank premiere and the CD for Hyperion Records. The album of 'The Snowman' with Bernard Cribbins as narrator 'went platinum' and the unprecedented success of what was essentially a work for solo treble and chamber orchestra caused an extraordinary signing by CBS Masterworks in 1988 where Howard was given his own record label within CBS and a virtually free hand to record his own works. CBS hoped to match 'Snowman' with other projects. They released 'Granpa', a children's film opera with Peter Ustinov and Sarah Brightman which Howard wrote and conducted, and a recording of his large-scale oratorio 'Benedictus' with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which he produced.
In late 1989 The Philharmonia Orchestra commissioned Howard to compose a Piano Concerto to celebrate Diana, the Princess of Wales' 30th birthday. They hoped to engage Evgeny Kissin as soloist and Howard eagerly accepted the challenge. However as the concert date grew closer it became apparent that Kissin could not find sufficient time to study what was becoming a demanding virtuoso work. Manager David Whelton rang Howard one day and asked if he would consider playing it himself. He agreed to do it if CBS would let him record the work prior to the premiere and then undertook a gruelling regime of daily practise to get back into top form as a pianist. The sessions took place in December 1989 at Sony Studios in London and the concert in the following May when Howard was able to meet Princess Diana and present her with a CD of the work at a reception after the concert at The Royal Festival Hall. For Howard this occasion was a vindication of all his many years of work at the piano, a gift that for many of the reasons stated above had been in some ways underused. But what a glorious vindication!
The Sony release of the piano concerto drew attention to Howard's prowess as a pianist. At a reception in the Mozarteum in Salzburg his friend Ilona von Ronay requested he give an impromptu performance of the 12 Piano Pieces with which she was familiar. She and all her Salzburg friends lit candles and processed into the darkened hall as Howard began to play. The pieces gave rise to enthusiastic applause and he was asked if he would create a further 12 pieces and premiere the completed work the following year. The collection of 24 pieces in every key was named 'Lifecycle', since it contained pieces covering a period of nearly 40 years of Howard's life. He gave a performance in Schloss Rosenegg in the Summer of 1996 and another in December in Gothenburg Opera House. It had been his intention to record the pieces himself but in 2002 when approached by ABC in Australia he flew to oversee the recording made by Shanghai-based pianist William Chen in the Eugene Goossens Concert Hall Sydney, an excellent recording with which he was delighted.
Howard's big birthday in 2008 persuaded him to conduct his dramatic oratorio 'The Passion of Mary' at The Cadogan Hall. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra enthusiastically agreed to this and a London premiere took place on 28th October with The RPO, the choir of London Voices and soprano Patricia Rozario. In the programme too was a brilliant performance of the Piano Concerto by William Chen with Howard conducting. On the same day Sony Classics re-released their 1991 recording of the piano concerto and Naxos released their new record of the works for piano and strings, on both of which CDs Howard was the pianist.
‘Howard Blake has achieved fame as pianist, conductor and composer’ (Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians 2004)