Regular readers of the blog will not be surprised to know that I am writing this having just watched Wales destroy Namibia in the Rugby World Cup. My Welsh father and a childhood involving many trips to Cwmllynfell to see my granny, cast my musical soul in red many years ago. But as most of the mines fell silent by the 1960s, like many others of his generation, dad moved away to East Wales, or as you would probably know it, Guildford in Surrey. As far as rugby is concerned there is never any question about which team I support, even when England won the world cup I’m afraid I felt no tingle of excitement. Sorry. However I am very proud of coming from Guildford, especially as I still live there with my family, my kids go to the same schools my wife and I did and our parents are a few minutes away. Old fashioned some might say, but it keeps me happy especially as we travel so much. I have visited many fabulous places around the world, but my favourite view is coming round the corner of the A3 at night on the way home and seeing the cathedral in the distance, the golden angel lit up on the top. Home.
You can imagine my excitement when I heard that the LSO was going to be playing in the opening concert at Guildford’s brand new concert hall, G-Live. I have played in Davies Hall in San Francisco, but to play with my orchestra in my home town and then find out that Guildford Borough Council had decided to name it after me…well I was speechless.
The new shiny hall with its glass frontage and sleek modern lines has not been without controversy in the town. It was a replacement for the much loved old Civic Hall which gradually fell into disrepair, mainly because it was never repaired. Inevitably, it reached a tipping point and it was cheaper to knock it down and start again. Of course it wasn’t, and so started a very long round of furious letter writing and point scoring in the Surrey Advertiser. You know the kind of thing. Most of us just waited and watched the new hall rise up and ignored the rantings and crossed our fingers that it would sound good. I have fond memories of the old Civic. I used to go and sell programmes for the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra concerts on a Sunday afternoon in exchange for a free ticket. I remember meeting Todd Handley who was conducting and hearing the sound of an orchestra in the flesh for the first time and thinking that I would quite like to play in one myself. I hope that now the new hall is open the GPO can finally settle down into their new hall and inspire a new generation of kids.
So, Saturday arrived and I walked to work for the first time ever. As I made my way up the high street I had a smile on my face and was excited about going in the building for the first time when all of a sudden, my two worlds collided. Living out in Surrey, I don’t think I have ever bumped into anyone from the LSO. I go into London to work and see work people, I come home and see home people. I like it that way. On Saturday, one of the most surreal sights was when I was walking up the high street and out of the door of a photographic studio stepped Valery in a suit. In Guildford high street. I was so stunned I walked right passed him and didn’t say anything. As I got nearer the hall there were familiar LSO faces everywhere, every single one of them said the same thing, “Nice local date for you then, ha ha!”
I smiled for the first fifteen times but then developed a sage like nod whilst biting my lip in response.
“Where is the stage door Gareth?”
“I have no idea, I’ve never been here before.”
I met Marc Stevens, one of our managers, who is also from Guildford, and we walked into the hall. It was a lot bigger than I expected and looked pretty flash, but of course, if it doesn’t sound any good then it doesn’t matter. As we played the opening bars of Romeo and Juliet (Tchaikovsky), Valery looked around the hall at the sound and then jumped off the stage and wandered around before coming back to talk to the orchestra.
“I think the sound is very good. You know orchestra sounds massive here, we can really afford to make difference between p and pp. I think we can play well here.”
Phew what a relief. Valery liked my hall. We rehearsed quite a lot especially as we had played some of the programme the night before in the Barbican. Valery was sat in the stalls at the end and I went to talk to him. We talked about the hall and I told him it was my home town.
“Yes Kathryn told me! Why do you think I rehearsed so much, we have to play well for you! So thank you for inviting me to Guildford.”
“You’re welcome,” I replied, “It seems only fair as you asked us to come and open the new hall in St Petersburg that we asked you to open the new hall in Guildford.”
And with that I went off to prepare for my pre concert talk, still slightly freaked out by seeing Valery in my home town.
Apart from school Christmas plays, I don’t recall ever looking out into an audience and seeing so many friends and relatives. It was lovely. The hall was packed, still and silent. As Valery appeared, we stood and the clapping boomed around the hall as we all took our seats. The lights in the auditorium went down and the stage lights were turned up to gas mark 7. Romeo and Juliet‘s opening chorale in the back row of the woodwind sounded out into the blackness and gradually the music whipped into its famous melodies. Valery was right, in the new hall the orchestra sounded massive and we really were able to make the most of the dynamics. The audience looked slightly stunned at the end as Alan and Dan came on to move the piano into place.
Daniil Trifonov was the piano soloist, winner of the Tchaikovsky competition at only 20 years old. Some of you may have heard him in the Barbican last week, if you haven’t, look him up on Google, you won’t be wasting your time. We started the concerto and his playing was sensational. It was all going terribly well until about two thirds of the way through, when something rather unexpected happened. There was a pop somewhere over our heads and then the lights went out. All of the lights, stage, auditorium, foyer. 1086 people sitting in total darkness. Now occasionally things like this happen momentarily and then everything kicks into gear, the generator comes on, or the emergency lighting trips in. As this is normally what happens, after the gasp from the audience as their gala opening night started to go pear shaped, silence resumed as Daniil and the orchestra continued to play. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face let alone the music or indeed the keyboard. The lights didn’t come back on. We carried on. A few people grabbed mobile phones out of their pockets and shone the dim screens on music. My phone was in my bag backstage. Gradually my eyesight got a little used to the dark and with the emergency exit signs in the hall being the only source left, I tipped my stand to illuminate it a little. The lights were still off. Dave Pyatt shone his torch app over as much of the woodwind music as he could and momentarily I could see. Unfortunately the torch suddenly cut out as he received a text message asking him to call his diary service. Darkness once more. We were still playing, Daniil skipping around the keyboard like nothing had happened. One member of the audience tried to stop us by starting to clap, but gave up as people shushed him. As it was now obvious the lights weren’t going to suddenly come back, Alan and Dan our stage managers came running on with small stand lights which we always have with us for emergencies. The audience sat transfixed by what was unfolding. Valery stood and watched as well, we couldn’t see him, so he just stood smiling in the half light. Nothing was going to stop Daniil, it was absolutely extraordinary. We regained our composure and carried on until we reached the final chord of the first movement. We had played for almost 15 minutes in total darkness. As Valery leapt back into action and tore off the final chord, the entire audience leapt to their feet and roared as one. We sat on stage grinning at each other. Valery was laughing. Daniil just looked a bit annoyed. I turned to Sharon and Shiv. “Welcome to Guildford.”
Bad light did eventually stop play and we all left the stage into the darkness of backstage. Nobody seemed to have a clue what was going on and the audience started to drift. At least they started to, but were stopped in their tracks: Daniil had spoken to Valery and said how irritated he was. Valery tried to make him feel better, these things happen, don’t worry, some fatherly advice.
“No, its not that,” replied Daniil, “I played some wrong notes…”
Boy is he a perfectionist. So Valery suggested that he go back to the piano and play, and so followed something which I really hope somebody managed to get a picture of. Daniil Trifonov, 20 year old winner of the Tchaikovsky competition, sat down at the piano and played some solo Chopin whilst Valery Gergiev, the hardest working man in show-business, stood beside him holding a torch to illuminate the keyboard. I would say it brought the house down, but given the lighting situation it feels a little like tempting fate.
We wandered outside to see if it was a power cut to to the whole area or if they had simply forgotten to put money in the meter. The rest of Guildford was still illuminated and it appeared that it was simply the hall. After about 20 minutes the light came back on and we slowly returned to the stage. They couldn’t risk blowing a fuse again and so the house lights remained on and the high voltage stage lights stayed off. The audience came back in still discussing how on earth we managed to play in the dark. The leader of Guildford Borough Council came on to apologise. Then someone from the theatre group who run the hall for the council also apologised, the blame placed on the power supply to the hall. He then turned to the orchestra and thanked us and said, “I bet this kind of thing doesn’t happen in London!” Well, actually this kind of thing can happen anywhere, but usually it doesn’t.
Anyway, we are all British and everybody mucked in. With some sort of lighting restored we came back on stage. The theatre man announced that we were going to reprise the 2nd and 3rd movements of the concerto. We hadn’t actually played them, so a reprise was going to be tricky. Maybe he meant reprieve. In any case, we played the rest of the concerto whilst technicians tramped around like elephants on the overhead gantry, seemingly unaware that there was a concert going on. Oh well. As the lights metaphorically went up, another announcement was made that there was to be no more interval and we would carry straight on with the fourth symphony. It seemed a popular move. Nice as the shiny new foyers are, I think everyone had spent more than enough time in them. Everyone felt quite relaxed by now and consequently, Valery had a mischievous look in his eye. Although it was still a little dark, we all watched him like a hawk as he moulded and sculpted the music which gave the wonderful audience of Guildford a performance they deserved and had been so patient for. Having so many friends in the audience, I can tell you that they loved it.
I thanked Valery and pinched his flowers to give to my mum and made my way out to the foyer where I was greeted by a huge crowd of people. It was so lovely of so many people to have waited to see me. I made my way through the crowd to my wife, and my dad ask me if I wanted a drink. You know the answer. He said, “Well give me the flowers and go and get one, it’s drinks on the house because of all the trouble tonight.”
That explained the crowds then, and at least the man from the theatre got something right. It was just a shame that the LSO had left by the back entrance, as I know they would have enjoyed the hospitality. However you won’t be surprised to know that I took one for the team. Several times.
As I sank another pint and reflected on an evening which nobody in Guildford or the orchestra will forget in a hurry, my eye was drawn to the plasma screens and the adverts for future events. The Guildford Philharmonic play on November 18th doing a proms concert. I hope that the people of the town support their local band and give them as rousing a reception as they gave us. The thing that worried me though was that Peppa Pig has a residency over the October half term. Now if they haven’t sorted the lights by then…can you imagine, 500 under fives and their parents suddenly plunged into darkness, and lurking somewhere in the blackness – a giant, talking foam pig. They’ll be scarred for life.
People of Guildford, I salute you.
UPDATE. You can see just how little lighting was available (except for Valery’s torch which is in the middle) if you watch the video below. This was taken by my local newsagent on his mobile phone apparently according to the Surrey Ad. That’s illegal by the way. This is actual footage from the concert, but you’ll have to take my word for it as it was dark. Its some of the Chopin Daniil played whilst G Live scrambled round trying to find 50p coins for the meter