Fringe Benefits

The atmosphere created in a city by a festival is almost indescribable. If you were in London during the Olympics recently, you’ll know that it felt like a very different place indeed, Londoners were polite, cabbies let you pull out of junctions and everyone seemed to have a smile on their face. I don’t know what Edinburgh is like outside of the festival, but right now I’m sure it could lay claim to being the most exciting place on earth. The official programme of events is impressive enough in its own right, but combined with the fringe and free events it really is unbeatable and that’s not taking into account the year round qualities of the place.

The festival here is like a giant flea market for the mind and soul. I wandered around this afternoon after our morning rehearsal (an event in itself attended by friends of the LSO, the festival and the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. Yes, really.) taking in the scale of entertainment. I had no tickets for any particular event and thought I’d just see what took my fancy, I vaguely had an idea that I might see some comedy, or a play, or some music, but like the best flea markets, you end up coming home with something you hadn’t expected to find and almost certainly didn’t need, but had to have anyway. Of course they are sometimes full of a load of old junk and, I apologise if I offend, I really don’t need to see another mime artist who makes balloon swords for boys and balloon flowers for girls.

Walking down the Royal Mile after joining Lorenzo in his first haggis (he loved it) I was overwhelmed with the variety and quantity of diversions on offer. A group of silently anxious looking actors in 1940’s gear handing out leaflets to a dark thriller, a man with a black bag on his head, a chain and tiny leather shorts advertising 50 Shades – The Musical, a woman doing such a good Liza Minelli impression, I did a double take, and dark skinned hearthrob whose face was framed by long black locks playing Spanish guitar. He had gathered a large appreciative, mainly female audience who were ready to hang on his every word until he opened his mouth and told us he was John from Solihull. Nothing is quite as it seems.  I ended up watching a great band playing Scottish traditional music who were managing to get half the park up and dancing, a group of contortionists from Africa, one of whom doubled himself up, was picked up by his friends and placed on a tray which was then placed on someone elses head who walked around the square to great applause. It was impressive stuff. One lonely woman who looked a fragile 16 years old at best, stood shaking on the roadside, staring with eyes like plates at the expectant crowd as her backing track played out the introduction. I wanted to scoop her up and tell her to not look so scared, but then she opened her mouth and launched a voice which threatened the foundations of the castle. As I turned the corner, I found myself in a deserted residential road, a woman approached in a cloak, clutching leaflets and weeping – she stopped me in my tracks as momentarily, I wasn’t sure whether she was in trouble or not. I stood still and she grasped my hands and looked at me with a face full of tortured life and simply whispered, “Please come,” and then she continued her solitary torment down the road. I found a leaflet for a ghost play in my hands; her brief encounter left a shiver down my spine. I quickly found my way back to a crowded area before going to see an Australian comedian who sang songs with her banjo, who incidentally was called Steven. By lunchtime, just walking around became more confusing than the Olympic closing ceremony.

Playing Szymanowski four nights on the trot in an over-crowded marketplace is always going to be a risky strategy. I was reminded of this as I queued to get in to hear ‘Steven’, there was another double act about to start in the tent opposite and their queue consisted of one young lady. She looked very excited. There was some discussion going on between officials in purple t-shirts, knowing glances were exchanged and they eventually told the audience of one that the comedians themselves were going to come and have a chat with her. I could tell this wasn’t a good sign, but she was practically jumping up and down on the spot at the thought of a chat with her idols. It was like watching a live version of Flight of the Conchords unfold on the street. She stood hopping from foot to foot like a 6 year old who has taken a Haribo overdose, until the two comedians came out to speak to her, they had their names on their t-shirts, but to protect them from embarrassment, I have changed their names, so lets just say they were called John Eliot and Roger.

“Hi, I’m Roger!”
“And I’m John Eliot! Hi!”
“Hi! Oh my God I can’t believe its you!”
“Yep, well, it is! Both of us!”
“Listen, the thing is, well, it’s like this, you are the audience. Just you!”
“I know! It’s brilliant isn’t it?!”
“Well, yes…and no. The thing is…well, the show is an hour long and…well, I mean we can’t just really have a chat with you…”
“Yes you could, it would be awesome!”
“Well, what John Eliot is trying to say is that, well, not that it’s your fault, but as it’s just you, we’ve decided to cancel the show. Sorry.”
“But…but… I’ve been really looking forward to it.”


“I’d laugh a lot and really loudly, I have a really loud laugh, listen…”
“I’m sure your laugh is deafening, but it’s just that, well there is a lot of audience participation in the show and it’s an hour long.”
“I know, I’d volunteer, it’s fine, I’m not one of those people who sits at the back and doesn’t laugh.”
“Of course you’re not, it’s just that, well, if you are participating in the audience participation…which is great, thank you…how can I put this…there won’t be any audience and then….well….you see what I mean…”
“But, I’d laugh really loudly.”
“At yourself.”
“It’s not going to work sorry!”
“ Yeah, sorry. It’s cancelled, but you could come back tomorrow at the same time?”
“Maybe, bring a couple of mates just to be on the safe side…”

It was the funniest thing I saw all festival.

The Usher Hall looked pretty busy for all of the concerts, which is especially gratifying with so much on offer and the unfamiliarity of the music. In the final concert last night we had two soloists in the first half, and what soloists they were. In Szymanowski Symphony No 4, which isn’t really a symphony, but a sinfonia concertante for orchestra and piano, the soloist was Denis Matsuev. With any normal pianist, the piece would be a delicate web of entrances, the thick orchestration destined to drown out the soloist at every turn. However, Matsuev isn’t a normal pianist. He looks like David Pyatt’s wrestler brother and seems to be able to make the piano cut through anything we can throw at him, which is considerable. Rather than a straight forward concerto, the piano plays a significant role as accompanist as well as soloist, plus there are some fabulous solos from various players in the orchestra with some swoopy post romantic melodies to die for. It was a new piece to me and I’m surprised it hasn’t found a more regular position in concert halls; I’m sure after last night’s performance it will have some new fans in Scotland at least.

After the piano was moved to the back of the stage to cower, our regular partner, Kavakos came on to play the second of Szymanowski’s violin concertos. If you are familiar with the first concerto which Nicola played on the first night of our appearances here, then don’t expect more of the same. It is a very different piece with a clear development in style from his earlier work. As is customary, Kavakos despatched the tricky soloists part with cutthroat precision and yet again the first and second violin sections sat through the cadenza with open mouths. They may be hardened old pros playing concerts day in, day out, but they all recognise brilliance when they hear it; the applause at the end was loudest on stage. I wasn’t in Brahms 4, but the audience pouring out at the end all had smiles on their faces and so I assume that our four days in Edinburgh came to a satisfactory ending.

As we are now on a train back to London with a 5pm rehearsal this evening for the prom, we would have all gone straight to bed last night had it not been for the lovely reception organised for us by one of our most loyal and loved supporters. You can imagine our annoyance at being forced to stay up into the small hours whilst being generously fed and watered. I know she reads the blog, but when I mentioned that I might name her here, she looked panicked – so I shall keep my word, but you know who you are – thank you from all of us.

As we left the slight madness of the Edinburgh Festival for the more sober affair of the Proms, the train pulled into the station and I was pleased to see the reserved labels on the seats. It’s always dificult getting 90 people on the train quickly and almost without exception, there is always someone sat in your reserved seat who you have to politely ask to move. As we moved down the train, there was a woman with a black cloak sitting in our four seater section. My heart sank, as from a distance I thought she might be crying and a last ditch attempt at fringe benefits. Nevertheless, when we reached the seat, she looked up. In a final surrealist flourish from the fringe, she turned out to be a nun! A genuine nun. How can you ask a nun to move?

Altogether now….Always look on the bright si-i-de of life….

Lucerne and Salzburg later this week…

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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3 Responses to Fringe Benefits

  1. Elizabeth Owen says:

    Picture this – Saturday night a full number 10 bus outside the Usher Hall. A very old lady dodders on.
    Man at back
    calls out:- Would you like to sit down dear?
    Old lady:- No thank you I’ve been sitting down all evening, I need to stretch my legs.
    Man:- Oh where have you been?
    Old lady:- The Usher Hall.
    Man:- Was it good?
    Old lady:- The first half was beautiful, the second half was……………………..queer.
    Collapse of the rest of us who had also been at the concert. Everyone then began talking and the general consensus was that although we enjoyed it, it is not necessarily something we wish to hear again, ever. Sorry Valery!

    By the way, the Kamar Sutra Indian restaurant just up from the Usher had on its menu, haggis, tatties and neaps – curried! No we didn’t try them.

    Anyway thanks for four lovely concerts and we are now down in London for three proms culminating in Cinderella on Wednesday.

  2. LSO says:

    nowt so queer as Szymanowski. Glad you enjoyed it and hope Cinderella meets your expectations!

  3. Elizabeth Owen says:

    Cinderella was lovely. THANKYOU. Hope the powers that be will consider making a cd.

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