Perdu…in translation.

The more astute amongst you will note that I have made scant comment in my periodical postcards of the other opera which is being performed here in Aix.

Mozart, I hear, was quite a clever chap. He knew how to write a half decent tune for a start, and there are a fair few of them in La Clemenza di Tito. He also knew that in music, less is, more often than not, so much more. So I can forgive Wolfgang Amadeus for not wanting to cloud his score with excessive amounts of percussion. He does of course make careful use of the timpani in underpinning the bass lines of the music with tonic and dominant, so Nigel Thomas is gainfully employed, each and every evening, along with the majority of the Orchestra playing in both the Verdi and the Mozart. Does this mean I am doing only half the work whilst I’m here?

Well no, actually.

And my association with La Clemenza di Tito is not entirely null and void either.

Running alongside the Orchestra’s main role at the Festival are a two extensive education projects. The Aix Youth Orchestra draws it’s membership from a wide area of Southern France and will, as of next week, begin preparing for concerts in Aix, Monaco and Marseille all under the direction of another Bon Ami of the LSO, François-Xavier Roth.

Nine members of the LSO, myself included, will be coaching the Youth Orchestra as they rehearse and they will be performing, amongst other things, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 “The Titan”, and The Twittering Machine by Charlie Piper. This latter piece was premièred by the LSO in 2008 and was commissioned following the composer’s participation in the Panufnik Young Composer Scheme. It is fitting then that the fruits of Charlie’s labours, under the auspices of one LSO education scheme, now form part of the basis for furthering the development of other young performers in a different LSO initiative.

Charlie’s piece features a substantial solo part for a percussionist. The young French student who will take the solo role will be coached by none other than Neil Percy, who gave the 1st performance back in 2008. Our student is in very safe hands there and I will report more on the progress of the Youth Orchestra in due course.

The other project is somewhat more unusual.

The Aix Community Opera is a creative collaboration bringing together LSO musicians with 80 local amateur performers from the diverse communities in Marseille and Aix-en-Provence to develop and perform their own opera.

The title of the piece is Con Fuoco (With Fire) and takes as it’s inspiration La Clemenza di Tito; more specifically, the great fire at The Capitol, set by a remorseful Sesto at the request of Vitellia.

Without going into too much detail, the story of C di T is your archetypal Opera yarn. Love, jealousy, plotting, revenge, compassion – all the right ingredients…not necessarily in the right order! Vitellia, daughter of the deposed emperor Vitellio, conspires to have Emperor Titus assassinated because he has passed her over as his wife. When the plot fails and the assassin, Sesto is charged, Titus does not waver from his principles, even when Vitellia, now his intended bride, confesses to the crime. Titus finds ultimate power not in revenge, but in mercy.

All age ranges are represented in the participants of the Community Opera, from young teenagers to more mature adults. Taking part are some singers (an Arabic choir, in fact), musicians, a song writer, poets, a graffiti artist or two, a film-maker and some dancers (including a “Break Dancer” whose moves, if I tried to replicate them, would definitely result in something of mine getting broken!) – a real melting pot of talented individuals, all of whom have something unique to say. They have come up with many different reflections and interpretations, in all these dramatic mediums, of the complex emotions generated in response to Mozart’s opera.

The duo tasked with bringing all these performers together are Mark Withers, a seasoned educator and Animatuer with whom I have worked many times before in various schools around the London area and Sybille Wilson, his French counterpart who is stage directing the whole project. Mark possesses a rare talent for motivating people and co-ordinating disparate elements into thoroughly convincing final pieces. He also has a keen sense of humour, an impressive command of the French language and plays a mean accompaniment to Gospel style singing when required…luckily, he is able to use ALL of these skills here!

With colleagues from the LSO, Paul Milner (Trombone), Joost Bosdijk (Bassoon) and Belinda “Bindi” McFarlane (Violin), and under the guidance of Mark and Sybille, our job is to underpin the work already done by the participants with incidental music. Sometimes this is used to create atmosphere and at other times to underscore a reading of poetry or a dance, to give drive and direction.

There is a beautiful pop ballad written by one young lady over which Bindi has been tasked with playing an obbligato on her violin. As the pair were almost literally making this up on the fly, one could sense a real air of creative wonderment in the group. Likewise the break dancer whose contortions whilst dancing could bring a tear to the eye for all the wrong reasons, did pretty much exactly that for all the right ones when he was asked to read alone a poem written specially for the project. It’s an old cliché, but anything spoken in French can sound so sophisticated and profound. However, the conviction and sincerity with which this young man read was startling. Even in the informal setting of a rehearsal, the group was plainly moved, not only by what they heard but also the manner of the delivery. The two animatuers have done an enormous amount of work in crafting a structure so that the finished piece hangs together in an artistically convincing way. At present it is a work in progress, but already the cumulative effect of the piece is quite powerful.

In these blogs, I have noticed there is often reference to cycling and bicycles, and occasionally to running. I think it’s fair to say that we are a reasonably active orchestra but aside from the odd triathlete amongst the ranks, I didn’t think I’d get the opportunity to write about the two disciplines in the same anecdote.

Until last evening.

The streets of the old part of Aix-en-Provence are narrow and labyrinthine. From where my apartment is, it is a good 15-20 minute walk up through these winding passageways to the Theatre de L’Archeveche. The streets, lined with boutique shops, cafes, bars and restaurants, are regularly busy during daylight hours but when the heat of the day dissipates in the glow of the early evening sun, the thoroughfares really come alive with activity. It was around this hour of the day, when I was strolling up to the Theatre with my girlfriend, we were passed by a young lady on her bicycle. Despite the fair upward gradient, she was weaving with haste around the tourists and locals, clearly with somewhere to be in a short amount of time.

As she took a sharp left around a corner, I noticed something fall from her pocket. She didn’t miss a cadence on her pedals and sped off up the cobbled street. No one else seemed have given any attention to the small plastic wallet left lying on the stones. However, when I bent down to investigate, it was clear that the young lady would miss it’s contents greatly – her French I.D card and several large Euro notes.

I’m a reasonably “in shape” chap at the moment, but breaking into a full-on sprint, uphill, in flip-flops and white linen trousers in 28 degrees of heat was not what I’d had in mind at this particular juncture. There was nothing else for it however, so off I went.

It’s a strange phenomenon that when your body goes into fight or flight mode, your brain starts playing odd tricks on you. In my mind, I was desperately trying to think what to shout in order to alert the poor girl on the bike of her loss, but clearly, my brain was already quizzing my body about the sudden strain it had been put under! The words just wouldn’t come. Even the simple ones.

‘Stop.’ Come on I know that one.

You’ve got to be kidding..I was ready for a glass of Rosé, not the hundred meters.

What about ‘bicycle’? I must remember that one from school days.

I can’t be bothered with French translation at the moment. Do you realise what your heart rate is right now? You told me you were fit. Liar!

I know! Attention! That one doesn’t even need translating!

Touché! Go with that, but please slow down – you are no longer 22 years old.

She, on the bike, was still a good sixty meters away but the words started to come.

“Atténtion! Atténtion! Mademoiselle!”

No response.

Save, that is, for the hundred or so mademoiselles sipping cocktails in the square I’d just run through. I’m used to drawing attention to myself crashing the cymbals together in the orchestra, but sprinting through the streets of old Roman towns in Provence, to the sound of FLAP FLIP FLOP FLIP from my footwear and shouting out at young ladies on bicycles is somewhat out of my usual modus operandi.

In my mind I had the thumping soundtrack of “The Bourne Ultimatum” accompanying my heroic chase through the streets.

In theirs, they were probably thinking more of Mr. Bean.

I was aware of some laughs and even the odd cheer as I got closer to my mark. Finally the key word popped into my subconscious,

“Atténtion! La mademoiselle sur LE VELO!”

Still twenty meters ahead, there was screech of brakes and the young lady stopped and turned round with a very worried look on her face.

I caught her up, gulping for air in the heat. French translation machine had now given up.

“You dropped this………Tu perdu this…….In…the rue.”

Rubbish! ‘Tu perdu this’?….bottom of the class, Jackson.

If what I’d said was lost in translation then the look of relief and subsequent gratitude on the face of the young lady was decidedly not.

I was brandishing the plastic wallet at mademoiselle now.

“Merci BEAUCOUP, merci monsieur!”

“No problem, Mademoiselle!”

Lost in translation?

No…

Found in the street.

About LSO

The London Symphony Orchestra is one of the world's top orchestras. Our home is at the Barbican Centre in the City of London where we play over 80 concerts every year, but we also spend quite a bit of time out on the road, touring all over the world. Recently we have toured to Germany, France, Russia, New York, Japan, Holland, Hungary, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and Lithuania; and coming up this year are China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong, Spain, Portugal, Florida, Romania and a return visit to New York, where we are resident at the Lincoln Center.
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