My wife used to be a midwife, a job description which when mentioned at parties usually provokes misty eyed looks, cute smiles and cooing followed by the retelling of countless birthing tales. The reality of the job however is very different from the image which most people carry with them; long hours, bad pay and the constant walk of the thin edge between life and death. It’s not what you might expect and it’s not for everyone. Similar preconceptions about the music business are prevalent. At an event last week, one of my colleagues encountered a variation on the, but what do you do during the day question. It went something like this.
“So do all of your concerts start at 7.30?”
“Yes. Yes they do.”
“Do you find it difficult to get here in time, you know, after you’ve finished work?”
It’s been on my mind recently since my eldest son, who has recently finished his GCSE exams was called into his head of 6th form for a meeting. It went something like this.
“Congratulations on your exam results! You must be very pleased. I’d like you to go to a meeting about applying for Oxbridge.”
“Oh. Really? I hadn’t been considering that.”
“Well you should. Your exam results are in the top 8% of GCSE results.”
“Yes but I really wanted to go to college not university.”
“What do you mean? What do you want to be when you’re older then?”
“I want to be a musician.”
“Oh I think you could set your sights a little higher than that don’t you?”
“My dad’s a musician actually.”
“Well it’s fine as a diversion but not a career…”
I await the next parents evening with interest.
Sitting on the stage in the Alte Oper in Frankfurt considering this career advice, I looked around at the massive auditorium, the beautiful architecture and tested the exceptionally clear acoustic. It’s a stunning venue in a country which takes its culture very seriously indeed. As Daniel Harding begins the rehearsal, the sound of Mussorgsky’s wildly untamed original version of Night on Bare Mountain shrieks into the hall and rebounds off the walls. I can’t help thinking that the head of 6th form should come and sit in my seat for a bit and reconsider his opinion. The version we are playing is not the familiar reinvention by Mussorsky’s teacher Rimsky Korsakov but his less modest/more Modest version. Although I was unsure at first, as the later version is such a perfectly formed piece, I’ve grown to enjoy this original version. The wild extremes with Sharon shrieking away 37 octaves higher than anyone else, the strings digging deep enough to break their bridges and the brass wailing like banshees, it becomes a more terrifying panorama with its ominous pauses and edge of the seat tempi. Unlike in RK’s version, there is no salvation from the toning church bell, there is no pastoral woodwind passage to calm everyone after the witches sabbath, we are left with the descent from the mountain and into hell. It reminds me very much of the atmosphere created by Berlioz in the fantastic symphony.
After something familiar viewed through a different prism we are onto well known warhorse territory with the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. If you heard Christian Tetzlaff’s astonishing performance in the Barbican the other night, there were times when he seemed to be continuing the mood from the overture. He played like a man possessed – and I mean that as a complement. Now, one of those beautiful things that I like so much about music comes into play. In Frankfurt, the soloist is Julia Fischer. Same orchestra, same conductor and importantly the same notes in the same order and yet…just how can it be so different? Julia was astonishing. I wouldn’t dare to venture if one soloist was better than the other, it’s not a competition and I’m no expert, but what they both brought to this most familiar of works was extraordinary. Fischer was an altogether cooler customer, but that isn’t to say she lacked passion, far from it. The sound of the second movement was gorgeous and as the woodwind section intertwined our melodies with hers, she arched her back and turned slightly to make eye contact. It makes all the difference to us. At the opening of the finale, she flew out of the blocks and never looked back and never put a foot wrong. Flowers from the hall and from someone in the front row were richly deserved and the guys on the front desk of violins who inherited them from her smiled like little schoolboys as they compared the different the bouquets and their different sizes. Boys will be boys. Her encore by that most underrated of composers, Hindemith, was a revelation. Stunning playing.
For me though, once again it was my colleagues who stole the show in a performance of the Firebird. There are too many individuals who take solo turns in this most pictorial of ballet scores to mention individually, but all of them would happily be able to stand at the front of the stage and keep up with the great soloists. Having played the piece many times with Valery, it was refreshing to find new colours and textures with Daniel conducting. As with Tetzlaff and Fischer, Harding and Gergiev use the same score but achieve remarkably different results. And no, I’m not going to tell you which I prefer. As an extra before we moved onto Bonn, Frankfurt clapped long enough for an encore and were rewarded with Khovanschina overture. It’s an exhuasting programme to play and to be honest after being assaulted by Mussorgsky and all for nearly two hours the last thing you feel like doing is floating out the slow sultry melodies from this piece. I didn’t have to as I was playing second piccolo in the Firebird so it was nice to sit back and listen to Chris Richards floating his melody out into the darkness of the hall. It’s so big, you really can’t see the back of the auditorium from the stage and it seems like a huge space to fill, but Chris manages to sound expansive and delicate at the same time. Absolutely beautiful. To reach the back, you need to set your sights very high indeed to provide a beautiful diversion for the audience. My colleagues do that in extraordinary ways day in, day out. I’m glad they didn’t listen to their teachers, and by the audience reaction, so was Frankfurt.