Vernon Handley studied philology at Oxford University before entering the Guildhall School of Music in London to study music. He made his conducting debut with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and shortly afterwards, in 1962, was appointed chief conductor of the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra. Initially this group was largely amateur in membership, but under Handley’s leadership, which lasted until 1983, it gradually became wholly professional and played an extraordinarily wide repertoire as well as making several première recordings of unfamiliar British works. The first of these was a pioneering account of Sir Arnold Bax’s Symphony No. 4, which appeared in 1965 on the Concert Artist label, and did much to establish the reputations of both conductor and orchestra. Between 1966 and 1972 Handley taught at the Royal College of Music as professor of conducting and orchestra, frequently working during this period as an assistant to Sir Adrian Boult, whose restrained conducting style he consciously adopted.
Following an appearance at short notice with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1970 Handley became more widely known, conducting concerts within the LSO’s annual programmes and commencing a regular association with the Classics for Pleasure record label, for which he recorded a substantial repertoire of British music, including the symphonies of Elgar. Handley served as the chief conductor of several major orchestras, notably the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, the Ulster Orchestra, and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra; the London Philharmonic Orchestra made him their associate conductor in 1983, recognising his long relationship with the orchestra, and later he also served as associate conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He was the chief guest conductor of a number of orchestras, including the BBC Scottish Symphony, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the Melbourne Symphony, and the BBC Concert Orchestras; and regularly conducted the National Youth Orchestra and the World Youth Orchestra, while continuing to teach conducting at the Royal College of Music. In recognition of his contribution to music in the south-east of England, the University of Surrey awarded him an honorary doctorate; the Royal Philharmonic Society made him an honorary Fellow in 1990; and he was elected an honorary Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford in 1999. In addition to his musical activities, Handley was a keen amateur ornithologist, devoting several weeks a year to studying and photographing birds in their natural habitats.
Throughout his career Handley held steadfastly to two principles: an undemonstrative technique and the performance of little-known music. In relation to his conducting style, he commented on how, when he watched Boult conduct for the first time, ‘It was like remembering how to do it rather than discovering, because everything he did, I could hear in the sound.’ In the same interview he remembered how Boult reminded him that he ‘…was playing to the blind man in the audience’ (interview with Andrew Achenbach, The Gramophone). In each of his concert programmes Handley sought to include a little-known work, firmly believing in the need to introduce unfamiliar music to audiences in order to create new cycles of knowledge; he conducted over one hundred first performances of works by Eric Coates, Frederick Delius, Gerald Finzi, Sir Eugene Goossens, Joseph Holbrooke, Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, John Joubert, Kenneth Leighton, Elizabeth Maconchy, John McCabe, Cyril Rootham, Sir William Walton and Grace Williams. His recorded output also includes more traditional repertoire by European composers such as Beethoven, Borodin, Bruch, Dvořák, Grieg, Mozart, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov and Sibelius. One of the most respected, if not fully recognised, conductors of his generation, Handley gave performances which were invariably notable for their clear sense of structure, sensitive instrumental playing, superbly balanced orchestral textures and eloquent phrasing, characteristics that are also invariably present in his recordings.
He died at age 77 in his home in Wales on September 10, 2008.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).