The relentless schedule which we undertake in this orchestra is tough. It forces you into a way of life which simply sounds ridiculous when you try and explain it to anyone outside of the orchestral world. The hours are long, hard and antisocial, families often take second place as we travel around the world, the pay isn’t anything to write home about and as soon as your playing hits a bad patch or you are deemed to be past your sell by date, then there is a queue of young hotshots ready to take your place. The pressure of sitting in any chair in a top orchestra is huge and if you sit in one of the hotseats in the band … well, don’t underestimate the peculiar combination of skills needed for one of those chairs, there is no hiding place on the stage when it all goes wrong.
You often hear the repeated myth that everyone has a book inside them. Its probably the similar in music, playing a beautiful Daphnis and Chloe on the flute, or a stunning Heldenleben on the violin, or a fabulous Firebird on the horn once in a concert isn’t beyond most competent players. Once. But of course its not enough to just play the right notes in the right order, the audience want to feel something, they want to be moved, they want every concert they go to, to be an event, something they will talk about for years to come. Well you do, don’t you? If you go out to a concert on a cold wet November evening and it is all present and correct but falls a bit flat because it’s missing that elusive-something, then you tend to go home a little short changed and disappointed. If you read this blog regularly, you may have some insight into the nature of touring with the LSO, you’ll know that when you come to hear the performance that you have been looking forward to for weeks we will be giving our all to make it work and as I said, we all have one good performance in us. But then the next day when you have moved on, we are on a bus or a plane or a train or usually all of the above moving to another city, country or time zone where we will try to reproduce the same thing again and again and again, night after night and if you are really fortunate in this business, year after year. This is a relentless lifestyle. I tell you this not to gain some kind of sympathy, after all, its not rocket science. You can explain rocket science. Its just that every single member of the LSO on the stage every night is giving everything they have because it matters almost more than anything else.
So this week we were all looking forward to a bit of light relief in a concert in Cologne where we travelled for one day yesterday to play the music of John Williams, a composer who’s association with the orchestra goes back over 30 years. It had all your usual favourites, ET, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List and Star Wars to name a few. There was fancy lighting and even clips of some of the films. Classy stuff. Although this music is unbelievably difficult in every section, it still allows us to let our hair down and that’s before we reach the free beer which is always cold in hand and empty before I put my flute down. But life of course does have habit of intervening when you least expect it.
At the start of the rehearsal on Thursday morning, it was announced that Maurice Murphy, our legendary principal trumpet for thirty years, had passed away in the night. A group of people who come together daily to make one of the greatest noises on earth were stunned into silence for several minutes. The music stopped.
Although Maurice had retired for, I think the third time in 2007, it felt like he had never really left. The defining sound of the trumpet was as strong when he finally left, as his first day as principal in the LSO when he rang out the top B flat of the main title of Star Wars. I bet you are smiling thinking of it now! He was rightly famous for his stunning playing the world over, a name that commands respect from the public, but to us he was far more. Everyone has a favourite story, mine is a wonderful piece of advice which is totally unprintable here! I remember a recording session a few years ago, we played through a new piece for the first time and at the end there was a rousing trumpet finale in the style of John Williams. Maurice, Rod, Gerry and Nigel dispatched it out somewhere into the stratosphere as they do and because we heard that kind of thing all the time, we took it for granted that that is what trumpets sound like everywhere. They don’t. After the run through, the conductor/composer (who was American) punched the air and whooped leaving us looking a little bemused, especially as it was a Sunday morning. When he had regained his composure he looked across at the trumpets and paused staring in disbelief.
“OH…MY…GOD…Maurice Murphy? Maurice Murphy I don’t believe it! Maurice Murphy playing my piece.”
We were all laughing at this point, partly because he pronounced Maurice to rhyme with Police. It got worse when the said composer/conductor walked across the studio, got down on his knees and held Maurice’s hand looking like he was waiting to be anointed by the great man. We were laughing because, well, it was pretty funny, but to be honest, most of us felt a bit like that too. Most boys of my generation were obsessed with Star Wars when they were kids, and to find myself later on in my life sitting in the LSO at Abbey Road with John Williams recording the new films left me speechless. The fact that the same man was playing the same theme tune on the trumpet a few seats to my left is something that I will cherish until the day I die. He was a musician who did have one great performance in him, followed by another and another and another until you just took it for granted that it was going to sound amazing. He kept up the highest level of performance for over 30 years in the orchestra. To someone like me, that is awe inspiring knowing the punishing schedule we sometimes follow. In many ways it was only when he retired that it really dawned on us all how difficult it would be to replace him, and its not surprising that it has taken someone 50 years younger than him to take over! When the orchestra was travelling for two weeks and in bad need of rest and familiar surroundings it would be easy to go on and play on autopilot, but the second that man put the instrument to his lips be it Mahler, film music or a concerto, he could lift the orchestra single handed.
I and everyone in the LSO could tell you hundreds of little stories about his musicianship, about his humanity, the care he had for the people he worked with, but there simply isn’t room here on the touring blog.
The concert in Cologne that was originally going to be a nice relaxed, if tricky, concert suddenly became the most important show we had done for some time. It was almost as if it had been planned especially. I must admit that I turned to look at the trumpet section the other night more often than I normally do because we all knew that they above all others would find it a very hard night.
I won’t describe what we went through on stage in Cologne this week, because some things are private, but the sound of the LSO cut through the music more than usual that night. Raiders of the Lost Ark didn’t sound as triumphal as it normally does and Schindler’s List was almost too much to bear for many. But as the interview with John Williams was played on the big screen, and he described the sound of that trumpet, we turned and launched into Star Wars with an energy I have never experienced in my life.
Maurice was our rallying cry, our talisman and our friend. He may not be on stage with us any longer, but this week in the Philharmonie in Cologne I could hear him loud and clear.
In 2007, when Maurice retired from the LSO after 30 years as its Principal Trumpet, a podcast was made to celebrate his time in the Orchestra, and includes interviews with Maurice’s wife, family and colleagues, as well as the man himself. You can listen to the podcast at lso.co.uk/mauricemurphy. If you would like to add a tribute to those posted on this page, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.