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For the love of music: the life of the BBC's John Amis

Amiscellany -- My Life and My Music, by John Amis. Boston: Faber & Faber. 280 pp. Illustrated. $24.95. Name a country in which more fine music is produced and consumed per capita than in Great Britain.

I don't believe one can. And it isn't confined just to London, which has long enjoyed seven top-rate orchestras and was, during the 1970s, the musical capital of the Western world. The United Kingdom, long referred to as a ``nation of shopkeepers'' and das Land ohne Musik, has produced, for an ``unmusical country,'' an imposing array of world-class figures. There are Beecham, Wood, Sargent, Boult, Barbirolli, Del Mar, Davis, on the podium; composers Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Delius, Walton, Britten, Rawsthorne, Tippett, Rubbra, Hoddinott -- just to scratch the surface. And John Amis seems to have known them all, at least in the years since World War II.

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Well known on BBC radio and television as one of the cleverest in the musical talk-show host genre, Amis was a founding panel member of the well-liked ``My Music.'' Smitten by classical music records as a boy in South London, he had an enormous number of amateur musical experiences during his secondary school and college years. During the war he went to work in a gramophone (record) shop, where his love for music -- and his contacts in it -- grew rapidly.

The music business has always had its unsung and semi-sung personalities, who do less than concertize and more than just listen: the organizers, the adjuncts, the administrators, commentators, liaisons, producers, ad infinitum, who ``make it all happen'' or at least make it happen much better than if they weren't around.

Such a one is John Amis, who, after leaving the gramophone shop, went on to assist as a right arm in the London Philharmonic's administration, the London Philharmonic Orchestra Arts Clubs, and later, during the war, in the National Gallery concert presentations. After the war, he went to work for the Royal Philharmonic. And on and on, from helping to manage the summer music school at Dartington, to broadcasting and interviewing, becoming one of those fortunate few who seem to have been everywhere, known everybody, and done a little bit of everything, all out of their intense love of the experience of music.

``Amiscellany'' is terrifically entertaining. It is rippingly funny in many places (such as when the author describes his Bertie Woosterish toe-dip into the Communist movement during the Depression and war years), and leaves me with great admiration for Amis as a raconteur. Like books by other ``accompanitive'' people -- such as accompanist Gerald Moore, for example -- it is mostly concerned with the luminaries who have graced the author's path. But the autobiographical material is not incidental; it is skillfully braided together with the name-dropping, so that the two, though they remain distinct throughout, emerge as satisfying complements.

Along the way we get some candid, often amusing, glimpses of Janet Baker, Norman Del Mar, William Glock, Thomas Beecham, Michael Tippett, Pierre Boulez, Bernard Herrmann, John Culshaw, Benjamin Britten, the Sitwells, Percy Grainger, Gerard Hoffnung, Dennis Brain, and a host of others.

But not a whit less interesting than any of them, one feels, is John Amis himself. Everything that has made him a ubiquitous Sancho Panza to British musical art is here in abundance: wit, charm, understatement, urbanity, and above all a big, bearish love of his vocation.

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