Some in tents music making

Do you remember those I-Spy books from the 1970s? Maybe they still make them, I’m not sure, but I had a small collection for the long car journeys to visit my gran in South Wales. For those of you who had a deprived childhood, they were pocket sized books based on a theme, cars, roadsigns, or agricultural machinery you are likely to encounter on the A303. If you spotted one of the things in the book, you could put a tick in the small box next to it until eventually, hopefully, you would have a complete book of stuff you had spotted. iPods and Game Boys were far in the future and my brother and I were happily engaged in this pointless spotting for years until we got Walkmans. It was always portrayed as  a wholesome hobby, but to be honest, it’s just like organised trainspotting, which is socially unacceptable in most civilised countries.

If there was an I-Spy book with orchestras as the theme, with separate pages for strings, woodwinds etc, then if you had this fictional tome in your hand and you happened to be at Heathrow Airport, Terminal 5 a few days ago, you would have had a bumper day. I knew something was up when I kept bumping into musicians I knew. Of course, this always happens unless you’ve gone to the wrong terminal. However, as I walked past yet another violinist, I had the sneaking suspicion that, although we do work together, he wasn’t in the LSO. When I started seeing other flute players it became clear that there was some kind of  orchestra flash mob thing going down – and I hadn’t been invited. To cut to the chase, whilst the boys from Berlin were arriving downstairs for their appearance in the Proms, we were waiting at the gate next to the LPO who were off to Vienna (we’ll be there later this week). Across the way, the Philharmonia were boarding a plane to the Edinburgh Festival (we were there last week) and the CBSO were trying to get to Germany whilst coping with a baggage handlers strike and a sick conductor. That is sick in the traditional sense. With orchestral players well known sheep like tendency to follow the musician in front (although this doesn’t always work in a concert), it was amazing that we all managed to get on the correct plane, especially as we are all a little tired from the onslaught of touring so early in the season.

Wiesbaden was our first port of call, a lovely spa town with a beautiful concert hall which only just manages to hold the LSO. We are travelling around what seems like the whole of Europe with the Peter Pan of conducting, Michael Tilson Thomas, who shall now be referred to for the duration as MTT. The first concert on a tour is always a bit of a blur as a lethal combination of tiredness and travel reaches its peak as the comforting warm embrace of the concert hall arrives. There was very little time to see much before we were up again at the crack of dawn to fly to Switzerland and then take the windy bus trip to Gstaad. When you finally reach the mountains it is a beautiful sight to behold and the air is clear and fresh which is just as well as I always feel sick from the bends in the road which always make me think we are going to reenact the end of the Italian Job – but without the gold. For what is an area flowing with money, for various reasons there is no hall in Gstaad, just a tent in which we play. Calling it a tent is probably conjuring images in your head which don’t do it justice, it’s not a normal tent, in fact, you could be forgiven for not realising that that is what it is. Until it rains. When it rains in the mountains, it really rains. There is one law in concert halls that applies to mobile phones and rain in tented halls. That law states that the mobile phone or rain shall not make its appearance until the very quietest moment of the piece. We were lucky enough to have both. In a performance of Mahler 1, the high A that starts the symphony was at times obliterated by the noise of water on the roof. There are moments in his symphonies that require off stage cowbells (we had those too, an occupational hazard in these parts), but here it sounded like Mahler had in fact been a Rolf Harris fan and employed him and his off stage wobble board soloist. I can’t help thinking that old Gustav would have enjoyed the effect and revised the score accordingly, for the rain I mean, not Rolf.

In the concerto the wonderful Emanuel Ax played piano. He is possibly the nicest soloist to work with, so humble, polite and musical. He should be required reading for soloists with diva like tendencies when they attend lectures at tantrum school. He warmed up on an electronic keyboard due to the lack of space and seemed to be enjoying himself immensely and once performing with the orchestra, he is so responsive that it becomes like chamber music.

does this thing have a rhumba button

He was so engrossed with the performance, he didn’t notice the mobile phone that went off, naturally in the quietest of moments. I could see the lady in question in the front row as she realised that it was her phone. She ripped open her bag which unfortunately had a velcro fastening and sounded like a pair of trousers splitting, there was one more louder ring before she managed to stop the noise and then drop the phone on the floor with a loud thump. Quite a performance, but our soloist didn’t flinch. He is a joy to play with and have travelling with us.

I am writing this from Geneva Airport on the way to Rimini where we continue this trip of 12 concerts in as many days. Players never miss an opportunity to sleep in a comfortable place with a schedule this tough and sometimes those cello boxes look so warm and inviting – now if someone could just shut the lid and wake me up when we get to Italy…

let sleeping cellist lie

Posted in European festivals September 2012, Gareth Davies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

The Sound of Magic

Cinderella finally danced with her Prince, he found her again, the glass slipper fitted and they all lived happily ever after, once they had completed Prokofiev’s numerous waltzes. As we all left the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday night, she in a vegetable-based carriage, me on the tube, I couldn’t help but think how much easier than mine her journey home would be, especially as the 7pm start had meant we were finished well before the midnight curfew. Phew. By the time she was drifting off to sleep, once she had removed the pea – or was that another princess? – I was in the early stages of packing panic, as after arriving home at 11.30pm I had a short space of time in which to pack a suitcase, repack my freshly worn tails and passport, before leaving the house at 6.15 am.

It would be an understatement to say that the LSO is a little weary; coming hard on the heels of the Edinburgh Festival, this schedule is tough for even the most hardened of professionals. When I bumped into a player from Vienna who had just been playing in the opera before our rehearsal tonight, he had a look of total shock on his face when I told him what we had been doing, how long we had been travelling for and what we were about to do. Walking into the hall in Salzburg, I saw a poster for the orchestra finale set of concerts that put it into perspective though; there were a handful of bands, but what a handful.

London Symphony Orchestra – Gergiev
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra – Rattle
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra – Jansons
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra –  Haitink
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra – Chailly

I guess that’s what the Olympics of the orchestral world would look like right now. What was interesting was the way this poster was worded. No soloists, no repertoire, just the orchestra and the conductor; this makes a refreshing change, it’s just us and the music and in our case in particular, playing Cinderella, no staging or dancers (unless you count Valery). If you like, I could now give you a long description of his interpretation using stock phrases like ‘the music courses through his veins’, ‘man of the theatre’ etc, but what makes this performance that little bit different is the ability of my colleagues to perform day in and day out on the platform. The last week or so since we have returned from our short holiday has been a non-stop round of punishing music making – great fun, but hard work, and I mean physically demanding hard work. Playing for 4 days of performances that took in 4 Brahms symphonies, 4 Szymanowski symphonies, 2 concerti and a set of variations combined with long hours travelling and the sheer intensity of Gergiev’s performances can take its toll physically and mentally and then after stepping off the Edinburgh to London train, we went straight to LSO St Luke’s for a rehearsal for the Prom… well, a lesser set of players wouldn’t be able to cope.

What always amazes me about my friends in the band though, is that no matter how tired they are, no matter how far they have travelled, no matter how many times they have played the programme, once that first quivering downbeat hits the floor, eyes narrow, aching shoulders are ignored and they play as if guided by some unseen, unstoppable force. If there is one audience member attending their first concert, the orchestra demands their return. As Gergiev walks onto the stage, we stand and then returning to our seats to begin, you can see the tension of moment, like sprinters hunched over their blocks, coiled, waiting to strike. There are moments when the speed at which we are asked to play is almost impossible and yet, the astonishing dexterity of the first violin section crackles and fizzes along at such a rate, their hands, arms and bows become a flashing blur of speed. The majestic brass section and their regal fanfares one minute and laser guided accuracy picking biting chords out of nowhere never loses energy. The woodwind chorales and sinuous solo passages fly effortlessly over the heads of the strings and the delicate sparkle of magical percussion is the icing on the cake. Even sitting within the ranks, hearing this stuff every day, they still take my breath away with their daring.

Having dragged myself out of bed at 5.45am, the end of the show at 11.30pm in Salzburg is a welcome finale. A few drinks and a post-mortem in the hotel bar are short and swift as we have to leave for Lucerne at 7am. Another five hour train journey, an hour’s bus trip, a rehearsal and Cinderella before leaving at 6.30am tomorrow morning. The image of my Viennese friend looking in disbelief at our schedule pops momentarily in my head – and I only got as far as Salzburg before he threw his hands up in horror. By the end of next week, we will be on tour again with MTT travelling around most of Europe.

So next time you see an orchestra on tour, spare a thought. Conductors and soloists get driven from venue to venue as it should be, but we’ll still be on the scheduled flights at the back of the plane with you, the same trains as you and lugging our cases to and from stations in darkness. But somewhere in between, when we momentarily alight on a stage, there will be magic.

Posted in Cinderella tour August 2012, Gareth Davies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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…

Posted in Edinburgh International Festival 2012, Gareth Davies | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

New wine in old bottles

“Good morning sir…oh, it’s you! I think I spoke to you yesterday didn’t I?”
So says the the thin young man with a wispy post pubescent attempt at a beard and a complicated haircut as he accosts me outside the Udderbelly tent as I make my way to rehearsal.

“Er, no I don’t think so.”

In fact, I know so, as I have never seen him before and as we only arrived yesterday and this is the first time I have walked through town and I would remember his haircut. It’s one of those ones that trendy hipsters have in Shoreditch, you know the ones where it looks like the hairdresser shaved the bottom bit and then ran away before attacking the floppy bit on the top – from the look of it I can only assume that he ran away when the real barber returned from lunch to find an imposter wielding his clippers.

He hands me a leaflet, puts one hand on his hip and narrows his eyes as he looks at me.

“Are you sure, only you look just like a guy I spoke to yesterday. Oh actually, you know what? I’m mixing you up with George Clooney, I had a long chat with him.”

“Yes.” I reply, “a lot of people make that mistake.”

They don’t.

“Well, why don’t you check out the show. Every day on the hour in the tent.”

I smile and walk off towards the hall, glancing at the leaflet he has thrust in my hand before depositing it with the other 500 I have been given along the Royal Mile. It won’t be a huge surprise to you to know that he was a stand up comedian.

George Clooney on a Harley

Gareth Davies on a Brompton

Joking aside, the famous Edinburgh festival is well known for its fringe events. The town is plastered with adverts for shows which cater to every taste and genre. Depending on where you are in the city, the shows vary from vaguely funny comedians (see above), to literary giants talking about their novels, to the Bottoms Up club where you can do pole dancing classes. And it’s not even May. I haven’t had chance yet to sample the events, but tomorrow after the morning rehearsal I shall wander round and see what takes my fancy.

Tonight is the second symphonies of Brahms and Szymanowski. In rehearsal today, Valery was quite vocal about the way we should approach the Brahms.

“I speak about structure.”

We put our instruments on our laps.

“You know Brahms is very structured…like bricks. You know when they built the Olympic stadium? At first…nothing.”

He waved his hands in a flat line.

“And then we get bricks, one on top of the other until we have finished stadium. This is Brahms symphony.”

Valery then sang some of the ‘bricks’ of the part of the first movement we were playing.

“I heard concert when I was student. Very good conductor, very good orchestra, but after concert I felt like something was missing. It was very good, very perfect, all bricks were there and in right place, but is that what we want? No. If you walk along, marching it is fine but it is not music. Now we have to play with musicality, we have to make music with these bricks or there is no point.”

Valery with some of the bricks he was talking about

I think that it explains itself and also quite a lot about Valery. He wasn’t asking us to simply play the notes, but to join them together, in fact, the opening phrasing of the first movement he asks exactly the opposite of another conductor I have played with and he doesn’t want it in the rehearsal just the concert. I know that when we go on stage for the second half, his eyes will be on everyone in the band moulding those bricks into music. The Syzmanowski may be the relatively unknown piece on the programme, but with an old warhorse like Brahms 2, the notes on the page are just the start. The music is somewhere in the gaps. At the Edinburgh International Festival, there are new comedians, writers and composers, but sometimes you can find something new in the most unexpected places.

Posted in Edinburgh International Festival 2012, Gareth Davies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Karol by Candlelight?

Unless you’ve been camping in the wilderness recently, you will have noticed that the LSO has been in the news. I’m sure by now most of you will have seen our contribution to the Olympic Games in London; what an exciting few weeks it has been! This is the tour blog and so much has already been written that I won’t repeat it, but being able to play with the young musicians we work with from East London as part of the On Track programme was something I will never forget. The look on their faces as they walked into the stadium was worth the weeks of work and the endless hanging around; truly a once in a lifetime experience.

It wasn’t all smiles however. Chariots of Fire was quite a popular segment of the show, but there were some people who weren’t happy of course and complained about it, you know the kind of thing, terribly tedious bores with a sense of humour bypass. We do listen however, and so unfortunately we had to sack the keyboard player, he was just too distracting…
The orchestra was on its summer break between ceremonies, but as the last of the fireworks exploded and the rest of the world tried to figure out what on earth an inflatable octopus had to do with anything, we returned to normality. Our big project this season is an exploration of the music of the Polish composer, Karol Szymanowski, unfamiliar music brought into focus alongside the well known music of Brahms. Rather conveniently, both composers wrote four symphonies and so the framework places the first of each their symphonies in one concert, followed by the second and so on, with some concerti to augment the concerts. After a few days of rehearsal in LSO St Luke’s, it became clear that this was going to be an interesting season as the music of Szymanowski suits Valery’s attention to detail, dense textures which he can pull apart with his fingers and soaring melodies with fascinating harmonic changes underneath. On paper, the Brahms is the stuff to get people into the hall, those who may be scared off by the unknown, but as is often the case with Gergiev, he has a habit of taking something well known and turning it inside out. In rehearsal his tempi fluctuated, sometimes slow and meandering as he mulled over ideas, lingering on chords usually passed over, sometimes pushing ahead much more than is traditional.

And there you have it. Tradition. We don’t have a great Brahms tradition in the LSO, and if I’m honest with you, I have never been totally convinced in performance by any single interpreter, Brahms seems rather elusive. I haven’t fully formed my opinion on Valery’s style yet, but the sections where the orchestra can go on autopilot, the standard accelerando, or the placing of certain chords not because Brahms asks for it but because it is traditional – well, one thing Gergiev does is blow those cobwebs away, if he feels the band slowing for no reason, he cracks the whip and then forces us to linger in places we had previously left without a second glance. But that is in rehearsal, what happens in concert is something else.

The day before we left Kings Cross station for Edinburgh, where we are performing four concerts in the International Festival, news reached us of a power failure at Usher Hall which meant the unfortunate members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra found themselves with a cancelled concert and an evening sampling the delights of this beautiful city. If you follow the blog, you’ll remember that fateful evening in my home town last year when the lights went off and we continued playing Tchaikowsky in total darkness for about 15 minutes.

The show must go on after all. However, I’m not sure that we would get very far in darkness playing Szymanowski! I can’t lie to you, there were some comedians on the train who fantasised about four evenings of darkness and the resulting four evenings of whisky tasting, but of course, after Guildford, we carry a large number of backup candles and torches for when disaster strikes. Rather than silence, it would have been more of a case of Karol by Candlelight.

The lights were blazing as was the sun when we arrived at the beautiful Usher Hall. The ample acoustic, only slightly tamed by an audience, made the orchestra sound very loud and Valery spent a good deal of the rehearsal telling us to play quieter to hear the details. Although it is a loud hall, it is very clear and precise. I sat out in the auditorium to listen to Nicola Benedetti rehearse the Szymanowski concerto, at times a delicate piece with jewel like writing for the orchestra. Although the full force of the LSO was unleashed from time to time, her sound sailed over the textures easily, except at the opening when I could hardly hear her at all. This was nothing to do with the orchestra but the 15 photographers taking shots of her. I’ve never seen anything like it! Nicola was making her festival debut and as well as being a great musician, also looks rather good in photographs. There was an unseemly scrum as all the snappers stood on the seats about 10 feet away from her and clicked away, completely drowning out the music. Even more extraordinary, although the interruption was deeply irritating, she just smiled and then became absorbed in the music. It was as if the cameramen weren’t there, which after five noisy minutes, they weren’t, as they were ushered out of Usher Hall.

At the end of a very long day, the orchestra, as always, summoned up the energy to give a great performance, which judging by the comments on twitter, everyone seemed to enjoy. The lights showed no sign of going off, maybe they knew there was no point with the LSO, and tonight, in a now rainy Edinburgh we move on to the second symphonies followed by the third and fourth, before coming back to London for the Proms on Wednesday. There are no Olympics for orchestras, but for effort alone in a multi-discipline event, the Royal Mail should start getting ready to paint the post boxes in Silk Street.

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Higgs, Boson and Walker Ltd


Where you’ve been reading the blog from since February!

Writing this last blog from the final tour before the summer holiday, it seems appropriate that rather than sitting in yet another hotel room writing to you, I am speeding on a train through the Surrey Hills. Despite the glorious weather and beautiful countryside of southern France, as the train slows through Shalford Junction I am almost home; and today is a special day, my daughter’s 8th birthday, a birthday that hasn’t been sacrificed for the schedule … and it’s not even raining.Image I’m sure I will be less misty eyed about it, however, when the ridiculously named ‘sleepover’ party is in full swing later on tonight.

Last night was the final concert in Aix en Provence and what a concert it was. Renée Fleming was singing, so no string malfunctions were on the horizon, and we were also playing Cinderella for the first time (you can hear the whole ballet at the Proms later this summer). After the rehearsal in the morning, I had a quick sandwich and then returned to the Academy which was taking place upstairs in the hall. The Discovery department doesn’t confine itself to London, but has spread its wings across the channel, and so this week as well as the concerts, rehearsals and pool lounging, a group of players has been coaching the youth orchestra which continues next week, as well as masterclasses and lessons. I was giving a young lady from Aix a lesson, and I must admit I was a little apprehensive as teaching is tricky, especially in French. As soon as I arrived though I realised all was well. The young lady was in fact a 20 year old flute student who is in her 2nd year in Basel – and spoke English more fluently than I. So we spent two hours in air conditioned comfort going through orchestral repertoire. Once she realised I wasn’t one of those terrifying tartar teachers, she relaxed and we both had quite a laugh. She wanted help playing L’apres midi as she couldn’t manage it in one breath, a common complaint. She played it to me and it was obvious why she couldn’t.

“Well you know what the problem is?”
“Yes I have small lungs!”
“Er…no. Do you have a metronome?”
“Good. You should probably use it.”

I clicked my fingers as she played and as soon as she reached the longer notes in bar three she virtually halved the tempo making the long phrase almost half as long again – hence the breath problem. She looked at me and smiled. Then she repeated it in the correct tempo and, voila, she could could play the whole phrase in one breath. She brought her flute down and looked at me

“Oh Mr Davies, thank you so much, it is amazing!”
“Yes it is amazing, you play what Debussy asks and it’s all good. I don’t think I can really take credit for that!”

But she seemed pleased that I had discovered the secret to the piece. Everyone was happy. It’s funny because my old teacher used to say that you can only teach up to a point and then you reach the stuff that some can do and some can’t. Call it musicality, call it intuition or call it magic if you must, but some people have got it and some haven’t and nobody can explain why, not even Mr Higgs or Mr Boson. The advantage we have in the music world is that that collider thing they are using to search for their God particle, well, they are looking for something that may explain a few things that they think is there. The musical magic is there for all to hear and yet we don’t know where to look for it, centuries ago it was in your liver, then your heart, or maybe it’s in your brain – I don’t know and I don’t care because this god particle is something that we all hear.Image

In the show last night, rather than stay in the green room for the pieces I wasn’t in, I stood in the wings. It’s not something I do very often, but I sat through the rehearsal in the stalls as Renée Fleming sang Ravel’s Shéhérazade and I knew that it would be something special in the final show. I stood in the darkness of the flats with my flute and picc (I was in the Stravinsky immediately afterwards) and watched her stand with Valery just before striding out onto the stage in her beautiful dress. At this point in the show she had already sung Dutilleux songs which are so evocative, and the Ravel is no different. It is so languorous it sounds like Ravel had been wandering around Aix and had a long sun-soaked lunch before returning to his house and penning this gem. As the oboe melody began I stood transfixed at the side as the voice wound its way around the French text. She really is a fabulous singer, but what pushes this performance to even greater heights is the corporate and individual brilliance of the orchestra. The hushed envelopment of the string section of the LSO is breathtaking, I have never experienced a sound like it in any other orchestra I have worked with; it is the ultimate in immense power with a delicate touch.

Then of course there are my colleagues in the woodwind section winding their sinuous melodies around the singer. But for me the most wonderful moment is the soft opening of enchanted flute movement. You would probably expect that because I am a flute player myself, but you’d be wrong, I’m not particularly drawn to the sound of the flute, I tend to avoid gatherings of more than a section’s worth – don’t misunderstand me, I love my instrument and its possibilities, it’s just that – how can I put this delicately – there are an awful lot of flute players around, but very few imaginative musicians. It goes back to my teacher – you can teach the mechanics, you can make suggestions about colour, timbre and phrasing. but ultimately it is down to the players imagination – the bits you can’t teach. When Adam Walker, my other half in the professional sense, unfurled his opening phrase in the song, I had to check that it hadn’t been re-orchestrated as the sound isn’t “default flute”, it is otherworldly and quite astonishing, great musicianship at its best and he’s still near the beginning of his career! What you will hear if you are at the Barbican this evening is the bits that you can’t teach, the undiscoverable, the Higgs Boson of the music business. I was reminded as Valery received huge applause, quite rightly after the performance in which he had moulded and shaped the orchestra to his every whim in Petrouska, that the reason he is able to do that is because of people like Adam, and the hushed brilliance of the strings and the control and nerve of the ensemble as a whole. Sitting down the line occasionally joining in with the stellar piccolo playing of Sharon is the time I notice just how good my colleagues are. All of them. I sat through the encore, which I’m not in, and just grinned. Sometimes, just sometimes, the sacrifice is worth it.

Although we aren’t touring until August, when I’ll be back, we haven’t finished – with a couple more concerts with Marsalis, Sawhney and Rattle, which does sound like a law firm, and also a secret project. You all probably know what it is, but if I told you now, I’d have to kill you. Looking at the stats for the blog today, that would just take too long, so I’ll remain tight lipped.

Enjoy the show tonight if you’re coming. Have a great summer and see you next season for another round of tour blog. For those readers who have followed the blog for a few years, today I’m celebrating my daughter’s birthday and also my three year all clear.



Posted in Aix-en-Provence Festival July 2012, Gareth Davies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Another Hot Night

If you’ve ever had the misfortune to spend prolonged periods of your life in the glittering half life of the back stage area of any concert hall around the world then you will be familiar with the scene I am about to describe. The Green Room, which isn’t, is meant to be the relaxation area for performers to lounge around in and relax. When you wear tails for a living, seeing a bunch of men in full evening dress lounging around on sofas – reading, chatting, but more usually these days staring at a smartphone – is normal, however to the layman it must look like a very strange scene indeed. Fortunately, most green rooms don’t have any comfortable chairs in and so we are usually either standing or perched on government issue plastic chairs. Backstage at Aix-en-Provence, I am happy to say, does however have sofas, and also the added bonus of a chocolate machine – the unofficial engine room behind many a great performance. The riders in the Tour de France may use performance enhancing drugs (allegedly), but to mount the peaks of a Valery show, I find nothing works better than lounging on a sofa in the green room with a strong coffee and a Twix. Or one of the other brands which are available.

The one feature that all green rooms have is a television and yesterday was no exception. Despite repeated requests at all venues, the TV usually has only one channel; it shows the stage from the back of the hall, and tonight it is showing LSOTV. It helps you relax as, although we’d rather be watching the football or something, you can’t hear the show from backstage and it is useful to see that the concert is going on and you haven’t missed anything. I should point out that I am not in the first half. I was downstairs getting changed in the bowels of the theatre to play Firebird in the second half, Nikolaj Znaider was playing the Tchaikovsky concerto and as I approached the green room I could hear applause. Not that I was late, but I was surprised that he had already finished and so as I walked into the green room I was greeted by Super Mario and Carina staring intently at the television set in the corner.

“Has he finished already?”
“No. Just the first movement.”

The first movement is quite long, and applause often follows it, which in turn is followed by hissing and shushing by people who love music more than you and want to show you by trying to make you feel like an idiot. Anyway, a few more people started looking at the monitor so I had a look. LSO – check. Valery – check. Znaider – oh. Mario assumed the tension of a sprinter.

“He’s just walked off stage.”

With that he flew out to find out what was going on and the whole green room was suddenly gripped by the monitor which showed the orchestra waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting.

Nikolaj rehearsing without Valery. He was listening in the stalls for balance!

You could by now hear the audience talking and a few latecomers appeared in the stalls feeling fortunate at their late entrance. But there was no soloist. It turns out that he had broken a string and despite being offered a spare by Lennie decided to go back to his dressing room and get one of his own special soloist strings. He was gone for about 10 minutes in the end. The orchestra sat stock still and the only thing I could see moving was Valery’s foot tapping rhythmically on the podium. Bearing in mind nothing was happening, we all were glued to the screen watching…well…nothing happening, all eyes on to the door at the side, willing it to open. We watched; nothing happened. Waiting for a Danish violinist to reappear on the TV, it was just like watching The Killing but without the jumpers. Strangely slow moving and compelling.

And then all of a sudden the door opened and he flew back on to huge applause and continued with the second movement. After that, the monitor lost its appeal and we resumed lounging around eating chocolate. Mario and Carina walked back in to their Blackberries looking completely unflustered.

“What happened?” I asked
“Broke a string.”

I guess his dressing room was even further away than mine was.

After the muted excitement of the performance, we returned to play the Firebird. Quite often Valery whirls onto the stage and in one movement bows, turns and gives the downbeat often leaving the first chord clouded in audience murmur. Tonight he came on, bowed and then turned and just stood. For ages. The silence which then enveloped the stage and hall was claustrophobic. Pins dropped, mice stopped stirring and finally the toothpick quivered gently and the basses started their opening figure. You know when Valery demands silence at the start that he means business and the orchestra subtly shifted its collective weight to the edges of its seats. What followed was a demonstration in control from the conductor and my extraordinary colleagues in the orchestra. Quiet chords were on the safe side of inaudible, pauses were stretched to impossible lengths and speeds at times left virtuosic musicians flying. Valery had that look in his eye, he seems to dare you to look at him and when you do a twitch of the eyebrow or flick of the finger coaxes a different turn of phrase to any previously considered. I fell into his gaze at the end of cadenza and he pushed me into a bigger crescendo than normal and then at a moment of slowing where he normally leaves me to make the decisions, he dictated each note, slowing to a halt and getting quieter until my last held note was barely audible. At this point he flashed a smile and didn’t move leaving me suspended somewhere in the top octave not daring to move, as to do so would see me fall off the ledge. Then just as the note was about to crack, relief as his downbeat brings the rest of the band in. The Firebird once again came alive on the stage without the need for dancer and yet again our conductor has found another way of telling the story. Critics will often complain that this piece is a series of exciting episodic scenes joined together with scene shifting music for want of a better definition. Not with Valery, long phrases of barely distinguishable pitches from the two contra bassoons sound dark and menacing before he stretches out the glissandi to form waves of sound, punctuated by tight muted brass chords at their close. There are times when the sounds produced don’t sound like an orchestra at all. I mean that it a good way.

The heat on stage at the end of Firebird is intense and as we all pour out into the late night warmth of Aix, my friends and I endeavour to put the flames out in a small, sultry courtyard bar until early into the morning. It’s too hot to sleep.

Posted in Aix-en-Provence Festival July 2012, Gareth Davies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment