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TRIBUTE TO LEO QUAYLE (article first published : 2005-06-9)

“The passing of Leo Quayle marks the end of an era,” says James Conrad, former head of the opera department of NAPAC (Natal Performing Arts Council now The Playhouse Company) in referring to the recent death of the well-known South African conductor.

Leo Quayle had two sons, Bruce Anthony who lives in Canada and Leo (hereafter Leo Jnr) who lives in Pietermaritzburg and is a member of The Maritzburg Singers. Leo Jnr reported that his father had a bad attack of pancreatitis in March this year and was seriously ill in ICU, his lungs and heart kept going by the hospital. He had a miraculous recovery and spent two months recuperating. Unfortunately, he picked up a virus in the ICU which his body’s immune system was unable to shake off and he eventually died of pneumonia at the age of 86.

Leo Quayle’s father was a professional musician and, at one time, conductor of the orchestra that provided background music for the silent movie screenings at the Grand Theatre in Pretoria. He would take his not-altogether-enthusiastic piano student son with him to recitals and concerts. It was only when Leo was given the position of conductor of the Pretoria Juvenile Orchestra in 1934 that he finally acknowledged his commitment to music.

Thus began a highly illustrious career which saw Leo Quayle studying at the Royal College of Music with which he was to have a long association. In 1961, in recognition of his contribution to British opera and South African music, he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Music, joining an elite group of 100 international recipients of the award. In his early years, he worked as assistant to Muir Mathieson at Denham Film Studios, before joining Sadlers Wells and, later, the Welsh National Opera Company and the Glyndebourne Opera Festival.

Leo Quayle had strong links with Durban. After working in South Africa and conducting the SABC orchestra, he enlisted in the Permanent Force Band when South Africa entered the war in 1940. He later returned to the United Kingdom but in 1949 Edward Dunn, the conductor of the then Durban Municipal Orchestra, prompted the Mayor of Durban to write to Leo to ask him to come and work as his assistant. However, by the time Leo had packed up his family and headed for Durban the post had already been filled. So back to the UK he went - but not before his son Bruce was born in the city!

In 1958, he returned to South Africa and took up a position as Senior Lecturer at Stellenbosch University. He then moved to the University of the Orange Free State as professor and Head of Department. “His involvement with the Durban Orchestra was quite substantial during his time at the UOFS when I can remember us spending many holidays from Bloemfontein in Durban at the "seaside" whilst he paid for the holiday by conducting symphony seasons!” recalls Leo Jnr.

After the four (now defunct) Performing Arts Councils in South Africa were created, he was appointed Director of Opera and Music for PACT (the former Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal) and was instrumental in creating the new PACT orchestra. A recipient of the Nederburg Opera Prize, he became Permanent Guest Conductor for PACT Ballet after he retired. The list of operas and ballets he has conducted is highly impressive and extensive.

Durban was the home town of Leo’s wife Joan who he met in the Entertainment Unit during the war. She sang under her stage name of Joan Ayling at, amongst other places, the old Cosmos night club before the war. Her mother ran the old Whye-Notte which was legendary for its cream scones. When Joan became ill, Leo spent more time in Durban where she eventually died in 1993. He was a regular figure on the Durban concert podium in productions either mounted by PACT or operas presented by NAPAC.

James Conrad recalls a “marvellous” production of The Merry Widow featuring the PACT orchestra which Leo conducted in Durban. “He was also a brilliant pianist and I remember him spending all his spare time playing on my grand piano,” says James. “He was a thoroughly nice guy and used to perform at old age homes a lot.”

Leo Quayle leaves an impressive legacy in terms of his contribution to the annals of South African classical music. “He arranged nearly 100 songs for the Maritzburg Singers to perform,” says Leo Jnr. ”We have used many of them in our repertoire, but still have about 15 that we have yet to learn and perform.”

My brother Bruce and I consider ourselves blessed that we were able to have quality time with him while he was recuperating over those two months and that, in the end, he went so peacefully and quickly,” Leo Jnr adds. “I was with him at the end and, six hours before he died he was talking on the phone to my kids who are living in London at present. It is the end of an era, but I guess we would all wish to have lived a life so full and rewarding as his!” – Caroline Smart




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