It’s quite usual for me to arrive in a city, leave the hotel, which is different to the one we stayed on previous trips, and not recognise anything at all. There are times when I begin to doubt myself and think that maybe I’m mixing places up. The one constant is the concert hall give or take the odd change in bigger towns, but normally as we approach the concert hall I am suddenly flooded with memories of previous visits, repertoire and restaurants. It is from this central reference point that my brain begins to map out old haunts and invites the discovery of new ones.
When we arrived in Bucharest yesterday, I remembered very clearly the hall. It is very big, brown inside and the side of the building is peppered with bullet holes from 1989. We were here a few years ago when we were conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Concerts with Colin are always an important event, but I remember walking along the back stage area and seeing the sign on his dressing room, beautifully presented with the Enescu logo and it said “Sir David Collins” on it. There must have been some confusion on that trip, as the next night in another city, he had been changed to “Sir Colin Dollins”. I suppose it makes a change to simply adding an E, or in my case leaving it out.
This time we have two different conductors, the first being Horia Andreescu who is a charming man from Romania who conducts us in Mahler’s mighty 6th symphony. The second is Nikolaj Znaider. Yes, that one. More on him later. Rather luxuriously, we arrived the day before the concert which gives us all a chance to go out into town. It is about five years since I was last here and so much has changed, I was beginning to think that maybe I had made a mistake and had actually come to Budapest instead. The area around our hotel has some distinctly upmarket shops which weren’t there before and a short walk takes us into the old town or Lipscani, which seems to be having every single pavement replaced with smart stone and cobbles. At the moment this makes it tricky to walk around, although easier than last time when Tom Norris disappeared into an unmarked cable trench which amused us no end. An area which was a no go area (it says in my guide book, I didn’t go last time obviously) is now absolutely crammed with bars and restaurants and as a bonus is pedestrianised. The buildings are the same but smartened up and it seems bizarre that I didn’t notice last time, its like walking past a beautiful old painting every day and then all of a sudden someone blows the dust off. The people are very friendly indeed and the lady serving us in the courtyard we find ourselves in says, “So you are not from Romania?”
“No,” says Malcolm in his Scottish accent, “We are from London. We are here working.”
She looks pleased and asks us what we are doing, “We are here with the London Symphony Orchestra…”
“Holy Moly that’s awesome!”
She is genuinely impressed and wishes us a nice stay and says she wants to visit London. Her English is embarrassingly good if a little influenced by those 1960’s Batman shows. We walk around for a while and conclude that although we have been here before, its like a different place. But not Budapest.
The concert hall is exactly as I remembered but much much hotter. Alan the stage manager tells us that the air system is on but its going to be hot. I take note of his careful avoidance of air conditioning, and I fear that the system he referred to is probably a fan at the back of the enormous hall. Any draft created will have given up long before it reaches the stage. By the end of the rehearsal, we all stand up and are in various states of stickiness. Unfortunately, because the concert is being televised, we are required to keep our jackets on.
7.30pm and Jemma claps her hands to get us on stage. In between me and my seat are lots of chairs, cameras and microphone stands, so I decide to to take an early lead at the front of the pack to avoid stepping on dresses and cables. As I appear at the side there is a small ripple of applause in the auditorium which is nice, and so ever anxious not appear sullen and uncommunicative I look at the audience and smile whilst walking across the stage. It is a lovely sight as they all appear to be waving at me. I am about to wave back thinking it is the polite thing to do when I realise that in fact virtually everyone in the audience is cooling themselves with a fan. Not waving. It looks like the audience is rippling like a river. I sit down, glad I didn’t wave live on TV. As I play a few notes and sit back in my plastic chair in my tails I look enviously around at the fans. The audience are used to coming here and have come prepared, so I start to wonder how much it would cost to pay someone to sit next to me and fan me all concert. Unfortunately there isn’t room or time and the maestro comes on stage following the soloist for the Glazunov violin concerto, Nicola Benedetti. It is an interesting piece which seems to take a bit of a tour around musical styles, finishing off with a romping finale with a scottish jig kind of feel. Go and have a listen.
By the end of the show, we are all dripping, although the accumulative effect of the fans seems to have kept the temperature bearable and I start to wonder if this was in fact the air system which Alan had mentioned earlier.
Tonight we are conducted by Znaider. He has exchanged his bow for a stick and moved to the dark side. If you are a fan of his violin playing, fear not, he is most certainly not giving up but is merely adding a string to his bow…or something. He is playing the Sibelius with us in October in NYC in fact. I’ll be honest with you, I have been a little nervous about his debut with us. The problem is that he is universally loved by the LSO, he is a brilliant violinist, a wonderfully aware and intelligent musician and a really nice guy. When he plays with us, he always turns slightly when you have a line with him and leans towards the firsts to encourage the sound. At the risk of sounding like a cliché, it is almost like he is playing chamber music with us. So when I say I was nervous, well, lots of people have an ambition of conducting, but not everyone, even great players, is good at it. I so wanted him to be good at it.
The good news is, he is good, very good in fact. He has been watching Sir Colin for quite a while now and he is one of the few soloists who always stays for the second half to watch us when he could go to the bar. He is the same Nikolaj that we know except this time he has a bigger instrument, and it is an instrument which wants to play well for him such is the level of respect. We have Brahms 4 tonight, a tricky piece which he has a clear idea of how he wants it to sound. In fact, I had better get changed and walk to the hall. I look forward to seeing how our new relationship flourishes, so do come and see if you get a chance. We return home tomorrow before going off to Bonn and Paris next week, but before that, the last concert in the Enescu Festival in Bucharest which turns out to be a lovely city.
Goodness know what they’ve written on Nikolaj’s dressing room door though.