Martin Binks MBE: A Titan of Yorkshire’s Music Scene

by Geoffrey Mogridge

LEEDS Symphony Orchestra, “the LSO”, had planned to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Martin Binks’ appointment as conductor and artistic director, and his 80th Birthday on Saturday 9th May.

It was sadly not to be. Following a short illness Martin died peacefully, surrounded by his family, in the early hours last Christmas Eve.

A fortnight later on a crisp January afternoon, the handsome Victorian gothic Church of St Chad’s, Headingley, was packed to overflowing for the funeral service meticulously planned by Martin himself.

The LSO has just released on YouTube a beautiful video of Elgar’s Nimrod. This has been recorded by members in isolation, as a tribute to their esteemed conductor.

Martin’s record breaking tenure as the longest serving conductor of any UK orchestra, with 350 concerts at the helm of the LSO, is a testament to his vision and tenacity. He steadily expanded the orchestra’s concerts beyond Leeds to embrace Knaresborough, Horsforth, Ilkley, and Wetherby Arts Festival. Collaborations with local choirs produced memorable performances of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Verdi’s Requiem - the latter performed at both St Chad’s and St Margaret’s, Ilkley. Extra players would occasionally be drafted in for epic orchestral works such as the glowing performance of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, and his favourite piece, the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique.

The LSO’s exploration of the highways and byways of French orchestral music earned international recognition. In 1993, Martin was honoured with France’s coveted Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Opera, especially French opera, was Martin’s other great passion. I was soon won over by his enthusiasm, during our first meeting at Leeds Civic Theatre, in 1985. Martin had been artistic director and conductor of West Riding Opera since 1969. An astonishing tally of 250 performances of forty operas included such rarities as Delibes’ Lakme, Lortzing’s The Poacher, Vaughan Williams’ Hugh the Drover, and Verdi’s The Sicilian Vespers.

His young sons, Richard and Christopher, were conscripted into the chorus for Berlioz’ Beatrice and Benedict in 1982. Heads were invariably turned when the conductor circulated front of house, every night before curtain up, immaculately dressed in opera cloak, black tie and tails.

A busy schedule fitted in appointments as a guest conductor of the Oslo Conservatoire Orchestra and president of Wharfedale Recorded Music. Martin’s latest venture had been the launch in 2018 of the Chamber Orchestra of Leeds.

His passing sadly marks the end of an era, not only for his close-knit family. But life goes on, the LSO goes on. Martin would have expected nothing less.