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Emotional return for conductor Clarence Adoo

It will be a very special occasion when Clarence Adoo conducts in Durham this weekend. David Whetstone explains why

Clarence Adoo, conducts the Salvation Army Summer School, at St. Hild and St. Bede College in Durham
Clarence Adoo, conducts the Salvation Army Summer School, at St. Hild and St. Bede College in Durham

Powerful memories have been stirred this week for Clarence Adoo, the musician who was paralysed in a road accident 18 years ago.

He has been conducting at a Salvation Army music summer school at St Hild and St Bede College, part of Durham University.

During a break, amid the empty seats and music stands, he recalls that the last time he attended the summer school he was playing the trumpet.

Clarence was a very fine trumpet player, having studied at the Royal College of Music and spent five years with Courtney Pine’s Jazz Warriors before moving north to join the Northern Sinfonia – now the Royal Northern Sinfonia – in 1992.

One of the pieces he remembers playing was written by a Salvation Army composer who later broke his back and was paralysed.

“It’s ironic, really,” he says. “I was explaining to the children about the piece and the composer and my accident happened a week later.”

 

It was a terrible accident. Clarence was driving down the A1 with Emma Forbes, of the orchestra’s press and marketing team, to attend his brother’s stag party.

Somewhere near Retford, on the afternoon of August 19, 1995, a tyre blew and the car left the road and somersaulted.

Both suffered spinal injuries, but while Emma made a full recovery Clarence was paralysed.

I interviewed him six months after the accident in the spinal injuries unit at Hexham General Hospital where I was struck by his cheerfulness and positive outlook.

“People saying I can’t do something is the biggest incentive I can have for doing it,” he told me with a smile.

Obviously he has never played the trumpet again – our loss as well as his – but here is Clarence, as good-humoured as ever, back in front of the latest intake of summer school youngsters.

About 65 of them have assembled, from the North East, around the country and even from Holland and Brazil.

Brass band music is one of the study subjects and that is why Clarence is here, sharing conducting duties with Dutch trumpeter Daniel Rosenquist.

There’s laughter when Daniel reveals: “Clarence was one of my heroes. I have a recording of a concert he was in at The Royal Albert Hall.”

Clarence remembers the occasion all too vividly. He tells us something went wrong with his trumpet about 30 seconds into the performance and he was faced with a dilemma – stop playing or soldier on.

In true Salvation Army fashion, he soldiered on. Evidently it didn’t sound too bad.

Clarence’s Christian faith remains important to him.

He says: “I was fostered with my brother and two sisters and the family who fostered us, in Shoeburyness, Essex, were Salvation Army. They took us to their church and at about the age of six I had a cornet put in my hands.

“I learnt to play with the Salvation Army and joined the young people’s band.

“I went on to become a deputy bandmaster and then a bandmaster. I enjoyed playing with the Salvation Army and my faith subsequently grew.

“When I had my accident it was what got me through. I’ve often spoken about hearing God say, after my accident, that he had a purpose for my life and that I didn’t need to worry about the future in any way.

“I had been having a great life playing in the Salvation Army and travelling the world to play in different ensembles and orchestras and West End shows.

“So I couldn’t believe, when I had my accident, how my life was going to be more fulfilled.”

Looking back over recent months, however, Clarence reckons it has started to make sense.

He was awarded an MBE for his services to music and last year played in an orchestra of disabled musicians during the Paralympic Games closing ceremony.

Maybe, he reasons, God had marked him out to inspire others.

“Not that I was a saint or had a brighter future than anybody else,” he adds hastily.

Clarence returned to performing with a computer instrument called Headspace, which responds to his breathing, and conducts using head movements.

If you have wondered what good any conductor does, Clarence can tell you.

“The conductor really does have an important role,” he says.

“In an orchestra, you can be 50 feet away from another player. You both have to know how loud or quiet to play, what the tempo is, so you need somebody in the middle to provide that interaction and maintain the balance.”

Clarence says one effect of his subtle style of conducting is that the young Salvation Army players will have to concentrate hard.

Clarence, who lives in Newcastle, remains on the staff of the Royal Northern Sinfonia as animateur, helping the orchestra to engage with the community.

Memories of his playing days will doubtless flood back when he conducts the Salvation Army players at Elvet Methodist Church in Durham on Saturday.

“It was about a week or 10 days prior to that summer school that I last played in the church with the Northern Sinfonia,” he says.

“That was the last time I played with an orchestra before my accident.”

Saturday’s concert starts at 6.30pm and tickets can be bought on the door.

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David Whetstone
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