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London Symphony Orchestra

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Seconds away

George Prêtre

George Prêtre

When a boxer enters the ring he enters with a certain confidence and is ready for combat.

Sparkle in his hooded eyes and sporting a pre-broken nose as badge of honour.

The ring in today's trot down the memory lane of my funniest moments in the LSO was not a boxing ring.  It was a Portugese bullfighting ring converted into a concert hall.

In the blue corner, the LSO.

In the red corner, Maestro George Prêtre.

 

Now the LSO needs no introduction, but I feel I must explain that in the 1980's the LSO was a slightly different animal to the one you see today.

In those days players sometimes actually spoke to each other during rehearsals just like regular humans.  And on occasions if a conductor spoke to them they might even talk back.

Prêtre with Callas

Prêtre with Callas

George Prêtre was a conductor famous for his collaborations with Maria Callas.  He also was an ex boxer.

A happy life on stage depends largely on a mutual respect between the maestro and the players. 

Rehearsals start with an expectant silence. You can always tell how much respect players have for conductors by how long it takes before they start talking among themselves.

Perhaps its just the need to get some bowings sorted. Or even something like "what time did you get home last night?"

As soon as the players smell that a conductor is saying something that he/she decided to say before hearing a note, then he/she is on a slippery slope.

There is a difference between a beat that is a command as opposed to a gesture which is an invitation to play.  Invitations engender respect where as commands tend to be only dutifully executed.  The difference in sound is enormous.  That could be the subject of an entire book!

On the afternoon in question the silence wasn't long-lived.  The level of respect mutually low.  Sparring began.  It soon got a bit out of hand.  Ducking and diving. Jab jab, upper cut. Dance dance dance.

 

At the break our chairman Anthony Camden called an emergency meeting of the orchestra.

"OK I understand that he's not being nice, but please, please, we must be professional about this.  We dont have to work with him again but please remain quiet."

Suitably reprimanded, tails between our legs, we returned to the stage and waited.

Eventually the maestro returned to the podium. He liked to wear a white towel bunched round his neck. He had a fresh one.

The silence was complete.

What happened next I'll never forget.

Have you ever heard the LSO suddenly explode in unreserved laughter?

Its amazing the effect that a lone triangle can have.

 

Ding ding ....

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Elgar country

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From the house where I was born you can look across the fields and in the distance see the Malvern Hills.  Elgar country.

On 10th January 1903 Edward Elgar took delivery of a new bicycle. This bicycle was fitted with the latest thing.  A freewheel.

If you lived in or around Malvern the ability to swoop down those hills without holding your feet in mid air must have been a dream.

For his first trip he decided to go to Gloucester to visit the cathedral.

He got as far as Newent and was caught in a downpour and aborted the trip, returning by train.

Can you imagine his excitement when he set out that day?  A day out on his new bike. Wooly tweed jacket, plus fours, saddle bag of sandwiches and his handlebar moustache waving in the wind, freewheeling for the first time!

The steam train that Edward travelled on has long since gone.  As a boy I sometimes went on it to Gloucester. I also watched the last train as it slowly left Newent for the last time, pulling up the track behind it. 

As Maurice Handford once said, with tears in his eyes, when we got to the last page of Elgar's Symphony No 1, "Not just the end of a symphony, more, the end of an era."

I have several colleagues who are also biking enthusiasts. Who also love the latest thing. 

From impossibly light frames with carbon fibre widgets to spray on leggings, air slicing wheels and day glow underpants.

There is a problem with such keenness.  It requires endless perusal of bike magazines, leaving little time for composition. 

 

Ps. If you find yourself in the Malvern Hills don't forget to look out for the road sign:  

BEWARE

FALLING

7THS

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Monday Brahms

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Theres nothing like starting a Monday morning with some Brahms.

Playing for ourselves, in an empty hall.  First time through. Fresh, clean, original Brahms. It's familiar ground. What a joy. Almost plays itself.

The next time you play it without interruption is probably at the concert in a couple of days time.

The ever illusive search for perfection begins.

Louder, softer.  Shorter, longer.  Darker, lighter. Directions for improvement ... fix, fix, fix.

Yet what happens to the music?

Have you ever read a book and someone starts talking to you? You have to re-orient yourself to take in what they are saying.  God forbid if you are immersed in your book or music.

Sure it can be done, but if you're concentrating on what you're doing and have to repeatedly flip between playing a beautifully crafted piece of music and someone's micro-management instructions then it can be more than a little wearing.

Happily, some conductors don't feel the need to talk.  They can convey their wishes through the baton.

Yes they do exist. 

Bernard Haitink recently stopped the orchestra to make a couple of changes. He then, with a glint in his eyes, apologised. "Sorry, I'm talking too much!"

 It was a great moment.  We all laughed with him.

 

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Colin Davis' usual approach was simple. Play it through twice. Most things sorted themselves. Then, and only then, resort to fixing. He honoured the musicianship of the players.

When something wasn't together he might say, "Lets try that again ... I'll try and do better."

On one occasion: "You know, nobody's right ... I'm not right ... You're not right. Lets try again".

A voice was heard from the back. Roger Groves, trombone. "He's right you know" 

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Lost in translation

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At the massage parlour in Beijing, I spent 15 minutes with my feet in a bowl of warm tea, before I realised there had been a misunderstanding.  No I wasn't there for a foot massage.  I was there for a whole body massage.  Difficult to explain with sign language.

This wasn't the first time on this tour that I'd had difficulty being understood.

In Seoul I decided I needed a hair cut.  When I joined the orchestra I had a head full of hair and wore it quite long. On more than one occasion, I was asked for my autograph, being mistaken for Claudio Abbado.

These days my head more or less resembles a boiled egg.

I still had some vestiges of hair trailing over my collar. In the hotel room, with all its mirrors, I caught a glimpse of it from behind and decided it looked rather silly.

OK, down to the barbers in the basement.  I dont speak Korean, and the lovely, immaculately groomed, hairdresser didn't speak any English, so on with the sign language.

I tried to show that I was happy with the sides, but I wanted the tail trimming off.

He smiled and nodded. Carefully he put in some clips, and started busily snipping with comb and scissors.  He paid a lot of attention to the sides. I was curious with his approach, and decided to wait and see what developed.

After 20 minutes he seemed satisfied with his work and removed the clips.  That's when I realised that I hadn't got my message across.   

OK, lets try the sign language again.  I took hold of the offending tail, and made scissor signs with the other hand.

This time he seemed to understand, and started again.

He trimmed the sides even closer to my head. He seemed to know what he was doing. He had a lovely snipping action and obviously enjoyed his art.

After another 10 minutes the tail was still intact.

Finally, in desperation, I wrestled the scissors off him and cut a chunk off myself.

The light then dawned.

He dutifully matched the length all over.

 

Colleagues have said how much younger I look. 

Had I done it myself?

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Serious relaxation

Peeking duck? 

Peeking duck? 

Yesterday, we woke to sunshine in Beijing. Even a blue sky.

It was a free morning, so time for some quality relaxation.  Some by the pool, some on the tennis court. For me a Chinese massage. (See next blog ... Lost in translation.)

Who was our Peeking duck? For the evening she transformed into a swan. And lots of flowers for the birthday girl!

Colin (Exocet) Renwick ... launching  

Colin (Exocet) Renwick ... launching  

Colin, originally from Perth, loves golf, swimming and any chance of having a game of tennis.

He's the only current player who joined before I did. Younger than me, he still has a couple of years to serve before he gets out.

 

The buses to the venue not due until 4 pm, so plenty of time for a decent lunch and also a siesta..

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Warm up ... warm down

When players go on stage, some of them have already been playing for a quite some time.  It's especially important for wind and brass players.

Every french horn player has their own bespoke warm up routine.  They can be as long as 30 minutes long. Over the years you get to recognise them.

80's LSO Horn section warming up on Daytona Beach

80's LSO Horn section warming up on Daytona Beach

It's a long and repetitive, tedious, but necessary process. Some do it hiding in corners, others while reading a paperback or Kindle. 

They have to know exactly how their face muscles are going to work. Every day is different. There's no room for error.  Split notes are a thing of the past.

As Maurice Handford, assistant to Barbirolli and trainer of hundreds of music students at the RAM, once said: "That style of playing went out when I stopped playing the horn".

The larger brass instruments need plenty of room and can often be heard in backstage corridors and stair-wells.

Trombonists are especially keen on warming up.  After they come onto stage they might have to sit for half an hour before playing a note.  You may spot them sometimes playing along with bits that composers didn't include them in, just to keep warm.

Denis Wick who has manufactured thousands of trombone mutes and mouthpieces, used to be our principal trombone. He once told me that he had a 30 minute routine.  He did it every day whether he was working or not, just to keep his chops in shape.

Maurice Murphu and Denis Wick

Maurice Murphu and Denis Wick

Maurice Murphy our Star Wars hero once remarked that he loved airport lounges.  Why's that Maurice?  "It's one of the few places you can't hear a trombone warming up!".

Did you ever notice Maurice at the end of a concert that had been a big blow.  He could be seen doing what looked like a horse impression.  Maurice wasn't a big one for warming up, but he did like a good warm down.

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Tired but happy

A tired but happy orchestra

A tired but happy orchestra

The bus is crowded.  Instruments on laps, bags everywhere. It's hot and steamy.  Everyone wants to be on the first bus back to the hotel.  The concert was over about 17 minutes ago.   When it comes to leaving a venue the LSO is slick.  Very slick.

Claire announces that she's READY.  Another 10 people cram on.

There are three buses to take us back to the hotel.  Everyone wants to be on the first bus. First to the bar.

The stage crew will have the lorry packed and off in no time.

Tomorrow another plane, another country, another town, another hotel, another venue,  another concert, another bus and another bar.

Right we're there.  Quick, off the bus. No, not the hotel bar. It's too expensive. There's that little place round the corner.

It's chilly in the night air and we dont waste any time.  In the deserted cafe we dump our bags in the corner.  The waitress tries to set some dining places, but we save her the trouble as we are only there for a beer.

That first Korean pilsner tastes very good.

Did you enjoy the concert? Yes, what about you? Yes it was alright. I had problems staying awake.  Yes me too. 

Any way, what's tomorrow? 

We're flying to China.

What's the program?

There's no concert.  It's a free evening.

Great.

Apparently, It's snowing in Beijing.

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Hindsight

Imperial Hotel, Soeul

Imperial Hotel, Soeul

We're pretty spoilt in the LSO. We travel all over the world and get to stay in 5 star hotels. Vienna, Paris, Sydney, Berlin, Tokyo ...

Here in Seoul, South Korea it's no exception. We're staying at the IMPERIAL PALACE HOTEL, Very smart.

The bedrooms are a delight and the bathrooms are to lust over. Bath-robes and fluffy towels galore. Creams and potions for all skin types. Lights and mirrors every where.

Yesterday's drama took place when I was catching up with the Archers. I like to keep in touch with civilisation when I'm on tour. I listen via the podcast on an iPad. You can even take it with you to the loo. Very handy.

Well there I was in deepest Borsetshire but was ready to leave the bathroom and get to back to my duvet cloud. But hang on a second. Where was the loo paper?

What do you do when you look for loo paper and can't see any? Perhaps it's behind you. Still not there. Search everywhere but no roll, dispenser, box of tissues or anything within reach or even sight.

Easy to see from close up. 

Easy to see from close up. 

And then I spotted it. A small white box. It was bolted to the wall right next to my right hip. It had a screen, some buttons, diagrams and picture style writing.

OK. So this was it.  A toilet paper replacement gadget.

But how are you supposed to read the instructions? They're tiny, not a word of English and positioned awkwardly. I don't have eyes in my hips.

I took another look around the bathroom for an alternative.  There were lots of towels.  But nothing else.  Ruth was having whine on the Archers and I was getting nowhere.

There was only one thing for it.  ... start pressing some buttons.

With trepidation I tried one.

There was some whirring and then a few seconds later, a warm airy sensation, rather pleasant I'm sure but not doing what I needed at that moment.

Eventually, after a few more trial and errors I hit lucky with a jet of water.  A rather strange sensation, but after some wriggling it felt as if it must be doing the job. 

How long do you jet for?

The Archers sig tune had finished and I hadn't even noticed tonight's cliff hanger.

Never mind I could always catch up later.

Drifting off to sleep back in my duvet cloud I couldn't help thinking about that warm air dryer.   Could James Dyson do better?  Perhaps not using something as strong as an Air-blade though if the crown jewels were to be preserved.

PS Tonight's concert was a great success and my friend Angela Barnes reassures me that there's loo paper in the drawer behind the little white panel. Obvious with hindsight.

Pps  i've only just noticed that I didn't have the comments switched on.  So please feel free to add  comments to any of the previous posts.  Thanks, Nigel

 

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LSO French Revolution

 

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées is a theatre at 15 avenue Montaigne in Paris.  It's where they threw rotten tomatoes at the first performance of the Rite Of Spring by Stravinsky.

My story is about a concert that happened shortly after I joined the orchestra in 1979. 

The first half of the concert had passed quietly enough.  But when we were leaving the stage for the interval someone called out "Mahler".  And then someone else, then another. By the time we had returned to the stage after the interval the Parisien audience had turned into a mob.  They were chanting like a football crowd.  Mahler! Mahler! Mahler!  There was no stopping them.

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Claudio Abbado came on stage and defiantly, we started to play. The mob still shouting. 

Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony has a fanfare opening. Our trumpets raised their bells and didn't hold back.  The mob still wanted Mahler! Mahler!.

For the first 20 bars or so, it was no competition.   Heckles raised, I've never heard our brass play louder. The audience didn't stand a chance. We drowned them out.

... but then there's a diminuendo ... and the mob took over.

Eventually Claudio Abbado gave up, put his baton down, left the stage and beckoned us follow.

The mob were in full flood now.  They had won ... Mahler! Mahler! Mahler! Mahler!

Years later I became friends with the composer Bechara El Khoury.  He was in the audience that night and continues the story from his seat in the stalls. Apparently the impresario came onto the empty stage to plead with the crowd.  Claudio also came on and sat with his legs dangling over the edge.

Six weeks prior to the concert the programme had been changed from the advertised Mahler 5 to Tchaikovsky 4.  He said he quite understood if people were upset.  He was prepared to give them a full refund but only if they left the auditorium. Six people left.

Eventually we all came back on stage.  There was a hush.  Yes we started at the beginning again.  (Sid Coulter, our first violin section comedian in residence, had asked if we would be continuing from Bar 26.)

It was an emotionally charged performance. Energies were high and we got through it without further interruption.

The audience went mad and were all on their feet for the applause.

As an impromptu encore we then and only then played some Mahler.  It was the Adagio from the fifth symphony

After the concert Claudio took the entire orchestra out to dinner.  Unfortunately I missed it as John Lawley and I took a sleeper down to the south west of France to call in on my wife's grandparents near Bordeaux.

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They get Le Canard enchainé a french satirical newspaper.  The review of the previous night's concert ... "Sometimes one goes to the theatre and hears music.  Last night I went to a concert and saw theatre!". It continued " ... they obviously knew they were going to play Mahler because the harp was already on stage."

Wrong. There's a harp in our other encore Stravinsky's Firebird too.


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Today's Flight to Korea

Today's Flight to Korea

Who's First?

There's a lot of flying involved with this job and over the years, in the background, a devious game is being played. It takes place in departure lounges all over the world. The players involved can be seen positioning themselves for any advantage they can get. Its like watching a chess game.

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The game: Who's first onto the plane.

The players: LSO Leader Carmine Lauri and LSO Fourth Horn Jonathan Lipton.

The Rules:  Anything goes. Limited only by ingenuity.

When did it begin? I wanted to interview them separately.

"Carmine, as a leader of the LSO, I notice that you're often last onto stage.  How does this feel being last given your passion to be first on to an aeroplane?"

Carmine. One move ahead today? 

Carmine. One move ahead today? 

Carmine.  "Strange, but at least on the platform I know that there's a seat reserved."

"How long has this been going on?"

"Maybe over 15 years."

It started with Warwick Hill and Mike Humphrey. They worked as a pair. Cunning.  One on each side of the shuttle bus so that one could be first up the steps onto the plane and save seats; usually by the emergency exit for the extra leg room.

The problem was with charter flights.  The free seating.  First come first served.

Jonathan. Today's winner?  

Jonathan. Today's winner?  

Our 10 hour flight today is from London Heathrow to Seoul in Korea. I'm talking with Carmine who sitting across the aisle in row 32. Nobody has seen Jonathan. Perhaps he's booked himself on another flight.

No he's been spotted up the front in seat 1D. Business class!

One nil to Jonathan?

Carmine "He's fritted away his airmiles!!"

Four more flights on this tour. Game on..  

 

 

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Going to the Dark Side

Daylight but murky grey, acrid air.  You can taste it.  

On the way to a rehearsal..

But no this isn't China yet. This is London.  We're getting ready for the tour. 

Masks are being handed out. One time we were in China they'd moved 6 power stations out of the centre of Beijing to improve the air quality for the Olympics. But still the sun never managed to cut through the grey-yellow pollution.  

This morning the live feed for Air Quality in Beijing is almost off the scale.  Beijing Real-time Air Quality Index (AQI). 302 Hazardous Updated on Wed. 21:00 Temp.: 1°C.  So definitely pack some thermal underwear! 

But looking on the brighter side., the masks are the Aura 9332+ which we have a special little thing on the front to stop your face from overheating.  

Also there may be some marvellous photo opportunities.  LSO players doing Darth Vader impersonations.

I miss blue sky.  I miss clean air.  I miss peace and quiet.

Provence is looking good.

The garden in Provence   

The garden in Provence

 

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Misty in Abbey Road

Saturday 11 February 2017

Snowing outside and thankfully its warm in Abbey Road Studio One.

It doesn't get much better than this.   Recording tracks with Ella Fitzgerald.   Orchestrated and conducted by Jorge Calandrelli. 

Old standards that were originally recorded with a jazz trio now given an orchestral make-over. Fabulous.  

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald

We have Ella in our cans ... Jorge's arrangement are a delight.  A classy combination.  It doesn't get much better than this

Four tracks in the afternoon: Bewitched, Misty, What Is There To Say and There's A Song In My Heart.

The evening session: I Get A Kick Out Of You, Let's Do It - Let's Fall In Love.

And then when I thought it couldn't get any better ... some duets with Louis Armstrong.

Let's Call The Whole Thing Off and They Can't Take That Away From Me.   

Tomorrow's session is going to be Somebody To Watch Over Me, These Foolish Things, Making Whoopee,  People Will Say We're In Love. ...

Can't wait. 

Malkie and Colin listening to playback.

Malkie and Colin listening to playback.

Produced by Juliette Pochin the CD is due out on the Verve label on April 8th to celebrate Ella's 100th birthday.  

Christmas sorted early this year!

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Why didn't you play?

Every one is obsessed with watching a maestro. At least all people in the audience. Observing the audience from the stage when the maestro enters  and takes a bow you can see that all eyes are absolutely glued on him/her.  

Georg Solti.  

Georg Solti.  

I often sit on the stage edge in full view and on more than one occasion have dropped my trousers at this point but I swear nobody has ever noticed. 

Chatting with members of the audience during the interval or sometimes after concerts I'm often asked what do I think of the maestro. And the answer ... "marvellous" ... of course.

But what do you see when you watch a maestro?  As a player one occasionally finds oneself looking up to see what's going on. 

People often ask, "how do you follow that? I didn't see a beat".  Well guess what?  If a maestro stops beating, does the orchestra stop?  No.  The orchestra spends its life playing together whatever is going on on the podium.  

The only problem comes when just one section/player decides to follow the beat.  As long as the orchestra universally has decided that the beat isn't being particularly useful then there is no problem. 

At the end of the day if the orchestra isn't together, nobody is going to blame the maestro, because he/she doesn't actually make a sound.   It amuses me when someone from the audience says that they heard such and such a maestro.

A few years ago, during an encore, a maestro having started the piece, then left the stage. The audience went into raptures. What a clever chap.

One of the frustrations of being a maestro must be when the orchestra doesn't follow your nuance of  change of tempo.  What does he/she do at that point? Go his/her own sweet way, parting company.  Or ... follow the music?

When that relationship is established it's difficult to change. 

Seriously though.  Where do you see the beat?  

Of course in the arms and hands.  But next time you look, just see if the nodding of the head is doing the same as the arms. Often that is ahead or behind what the arms are doing.  And then have a look to see if his/her foot isn't in fact even further in front or behind that.  You start to see his/her trichotomy.

Case study

Salzburg festival.  The maestro was Sir Georg Solti.  The piece Mahler Symphony 5. The Adagietto. The hall full. The most elegantly dressed audience you have ever seen.

It's a slow movement. It got slower and slower.  We waited for him .... he waited for us.  Sir Georg was famous for his huge almost animal drive when conducting. ... he  couldn't use it here.  

The rehearsal the next day he was furious. "What happened", he screamed. He was famous for screaming. "Why didn't you play?", he asked.  "I waited and waited and you didn't play!"

Well what a give away.  He was waiting for us to play so that he could follow.  

 

Don't worry maestri. All is not for nothing You give something for the audience to look at. They can see what a maestro is feeling about the music.  

And, hey, have a look here ... the violas are about to come in ... as if they didn't know.

Yes it's to let you the audience know. What a clever chap.

 

  

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When one door closes ....

.... another opens?

I joined the LSO on the 24th April 1979. Keen and eager and sitting near the front of the first violin section. On 25th November this year I'll be 65 years old, sitting nearer the back, and under the terms of the membership I'll be leaving the orchestra. Perhaps not quite so keen and eager, but hopefully a better musician. But as my long time friend and colleague Claire Parfitt keeps saying ... "there's many a good tune played on an old fiddle".

At the end of this year I'll be retiring to Tavernes, a small village in Provence. 

Its a massive change going from a full time job in the LSO to a life in France.   Someone said, it's like going from being a small fish in a big pond to being a big fish in a small pond. I'd like to explain that Flaque is french for puddle. Secheresse is when there's no water at all. ..... I thought it might help to write about it.

Its got to the stage now where most concerts Im playing pieces for the last time. And after 38 years, most pieces have a personal history to them. Some funny moments, some challenges, some delights and some train crashes too.

Playing in this band evokes profound feelings. I'm grateful for having had the privilege of playing with such great musicians and for having many as friends. I have been apprehensive about how to approach these final months. I'd like to treat it as a celebration.

cables at Abbey Road Studio this morning

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