When the ghosts of music past are looking over your shoulder, the steely glare of silence falls upon the orchestra and the conductor makes a minute gesture for you alone begin the concert, this is the moment when the men are sorted from the boys. This time however, I am far from the centre of the stage playing alto flute, the person with this dubious honour is principal bassoon, Rachel Gough.
The piece is the Rite of Spring with that famous haunting opening which many considered unplayable a hundred years ago. I often hear repeated ad nauseum by various commentators that the Rite, once the pinnacle of orchestral brilliance, is now so commonplace that professional orchestras can play it in their sleep and indeed, youth orchestras play it as well. I’m not quite sure why they always say that but there you go. Certainly in the 21st century, the final section of the piece where the metre changes between 2/8, 4/16, 3/16, 3/8 bar by bar doesn’t provoke a look of horror amongst players as we are used to seeing that sort of thing in contemporary music. However, familiarity does not lead to contempt. Just because we know how it goes now doesn’t mean that you can relax for one second-if you lose your footing when the groove is going, it can be almost impossible to find it again and believe me, nobody wants to be the one person who fails to stop at the end of one of the rhythmic sections. If you’ve ever sung in a performance of the Messiah and almost sung one too many Hallelujahs, then you’ll know what I mean. Most of those people that write about how mainstream and easy the piece is have almost certainly not played it very much. Get complacent about the Rite at your peril – it can and will bite you when your guard is down.
Having played L’apres midi many times, I have an inkling into what Rachel must go through just before we start and I’m sure she would agree with me that it doesn’t get easier, in fact it’s the opposite. As you walk into the Konzerthaus in Vienna, a bronze plaque with the head of Mahler greets you and the past glories of this beautiful city are on every road sign, cake and chocolate box. Playing in Vienna is a big deal. As we we begin the rehearsal, there are a few people sat patiently in the stalls, waiting and watching. Valery looks up at Rachel and smiles and signals for her to start when she is ready. I look across and as the stage is curved round I can see the concentration in her face and also everyone around her. Even in rehearsal, this is a tense moment. The double basses eventually stop moving their stools and silence is all around, people in the orchestra hold their breath. She slowly breathes in and very quietly the opening note of that riotous piece flows out into the hall. Before she has been playing for a second the tension is broken by the sound of a mobile phone going off. The orchestra exhale and people smile. As the tension is broken. Valery instinctively checks his pockets for one of his gaggle of phones, but this time he isn’t the guilty party and he shrugs at Rachel. Very subtly, she looks down at her stand, blushes and picks up her phone and switches it off to huge laughter.
It’s nice to come to Vienna playing Stravinsky. It’s something that I think we do well with Valery and to be honest, it’s always going to be difficult arriving and playing Mahler which has such a long tradition. The stage in the Konzerthaus is much bigger that the Musikverein as well which makes it easier and less painful for us all to play. There are times across the road when it feels like when we are at our most full throated roar, the golden statues seem to cower on the walls. The Konzerthaus, although not huge, has very high ornate ceilings which can take the sheer amount of energy we can produce in this piece. Just. Playing the alto flute, not the loudest of instruments, is a bit of a challenge in this piece, it also makes me go dizzy at times, but I find that after a Wiener schnitzel and a (small) local beer, volume is no problem at all. Rachel, I think, left her phone backstage and floated out the opening uninterrupted into the Vienna night and the audience were left pinned to their seats by the force of Valery’s Rite.
As we all left the concert into the warm air, spring had finally arrived. It’s been fun playing this piece over the last couple of weeks, in Vienna, the Barbican, but most of all in Trafalgar Square. I don’t know if any of you were there but it was a chilly but dry evening with what must rate as the most dramatic setting. We were overwhelmed with the response to the concert and where so pleased to see the place packed out for hours as Londoners listened to an all-Stravinsky programme which many promoters would shy away from for fear of empty houses. They stood up too. We go to a lot of places around the world, but on that night as I looked out at the smiling audience and the sun set on the National Gallery, I was proud to play in the London Symphony Orchestra, in London. As I read Philip Hensher’s article in the Independent about the demise of classical music which asked if anyone would mourn it when it disappeared, I couldn’t help thinking of that night in Trafalgar Square last week. There were almost 10,000 people there that night who wouldn’t move until we left the platform and roared their approval. This was no Last Night of the Proms clone concert, no 1812 with cannons, no film music; this was Stravinsky laid bare. Take it or leave it. Would those 10,000 people mourn the death of classical music. Yes, I think they would.