When I was about 12 years old my mother worked at a Catholic school, and one Easter our whole family was able to go on the trip to Rome. Even as a pre-teenager, the ancient splendour of the city impressed me and I have always wanted to go back. In actual fact, I have been back on several occasions with the LSO, but despite what you may think, we don’t always get to see much of a town, particularly in Europe where we often move from place to place on a daily basis. I have seen the amphitheatre since that school trip, but from the bus window as it took us away from the concert hall to our hotel somewhere outside of the city itself in what appeared to be Rome’s version of Slough. Although Britain has old buildings and other ancient sites like er…Stonehenge, the whole of Rome seems to be at least two centuries old. There are so many buildings, that in London would have multiple preservation orders on them, that I remember being quite alarmed at seeing some ancient columns being drilled into by workmen to erect the scaffolding for one of the Pope’s many speeches during Holy Week. Near our home in the Barbican you only need to glimpse a small section of the once great London Wall that had been carefully preserved to see the difference to…well…most of Rome. It is a city of small courtyards and meandering back streets that never seem to lead to the same place twice.
Italy is a country full of surprises, or at least that’s what I tell myself as we pull up first in Bergamo and then in Brescia into what can only be described as bad hotels. As we trundled into the outskirts of the town I spotted a forlorn looking steakhouse, one man sitting in the window pushing meat around a plate, staring into the distance like a Hopper on holiday. The coach slowed to a stop outside and I realised it was in fact the hotel restaurant. I smiled to myself and remembered the italic print on the schedule, a Sue Mallet special: ‘NB The hotels are BASIC’. There were few options due to the Giro d’Italia bike race taking place nearby. I checked my schedule and noticed that these italic warnings were actually referring to the hotel in Udine which I am on my way to now. This was the nice hotel.
I had chosen the late flight as I really didn’t want to get up at the break of dawn. The disadvantage of this was that I had a quick turnaround at the hotel before going off to work. I sat as glamorously as I could in my hotel room and chewed on my baguette that I had brought with me from Heathrow airport as CNN burbled in the background. I imagine this isn’t the picture you have of the life of an orchestral musician. Anyway, we arrived at the theatre, which was a beautiful wedding cake affair with a beautiful audience. The town of Bergamo, once you leave the hotel hinterland, is beautiful, with half of the buildings perched on a rock which you have to use a funicular railway to get to, and the rest huddled around its base. It is quite stunning and reminds me of my first trip to Rome. Not that it is similar in any way, the architecture is quite different, but in that way that you can walk down a small street, take a left and find yourself in a courtyard with a small church and a dog sunning itself in the corner kind-of-way. I could lose myself quite happily here.
Unfortunately, losing myself, or my way at least, was not what I had intended in the concert. That is however dear reader, what happened. Whenever we have traveled, no matter how tired we are, or how far we have come, the concentration levels are high on stage. We safely negotiated the peaks and troughs of the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra, an incredible orchestral showpiece with more than a passing nod in the direction of Mr Bartok. In the second half we had the old warhorse that is Tchaikovsky’s 4th symphony. Funnily enough, we don’t play it that much and I like to think that it still retains a freshness with an Italian lilt in Antonio Pappano’s hands. If you say Tchaik 4 to a bassoonist, they will think instantly of terrifying slow, low solos and quiet diminuendi which peter out to nothing (on this occasion being executed quiet brilliantly by guest Principal Joost Bosdijk). If you mention it to a piccolo player, they will think of that little bit of quicksilver that leaps out of the texture in the third movement. It’s a tricky moment made worse by the fact that the piccolo doesn’t play in the first two movements, leaving the poor player to sit and listen to two things. Firstly the music going on around them and secondly the voice in their head telling them it’s all going to go wrong. Of course in the hands of Sharon Williams, it all sounds so effortless. I’ve played it myself in a former life and I can tell you that it is not. The opening pizzicato section, which is rudely interrupted by the oboe, repeats itself and at this point we in the woodwind section have about 127 bars rest, after which we jump onto the moving train of the string section.
Only…we missed our stop. I’m not sure entirely what happened, tiredness maybe, under confidence, but these things happen. As we approached our entry, I counted and listened and I heard the previous two bars, took a breath and prepared to lead the woodwind section in and…nobody moved….and….two bars of silence in s l o w m o t i o n . It was like being in The Matrix. Tony looked up at us half way through the bar when we should have been playing and the entire woodwind section as one, perfectly together, did absolutely nothing. Two bars of silence before the strings came in and then we came round from our collective amnesia and continued as if nothing had happened. I often tell my pupils, if they make a mistake in a concert, don’t stamp or swear or roll your eyes and alert people to your mistake – many people won’t notice at all. In fact on this occasion, so impressive was our unanimity, that Christine Pendrill, who was listening in the audience, realised that something was different, but couldn’t quite remember what was supposed to happen in the silence. Oh well, happens to everyone. Tony just smiled. Move on.
At the rehearsal last night in Brescia, we played bit of Lutoslawski and then moved onto Tchaik 4. First movement. Second movement. Oh dear, it’s the third movement. Sniggers all around. We did some bits and nothing was said and then we moved onto the fourth movement. Crikey, maybe we were so convincing that even the conductor himself didn’t notice – though I doubt it. Just when I thought we’d got away with it, Tony spoke up.
“Hey woodwind! Do you need to do that bit?”
“Come on guys, I’ll make sure I bring you in tonight, but do you want to do it now?”
“No, we’ll be fine.”
“OK. Well, I gotta tell ya, you guys sacred the s*#t outta me last night. Don’t do it again!”
We all laughed and the movement passed off without incident apart from the enormous shuffle of feet when we did play in the right place in the concert.
Brescia seemed closed after the show, we’d been told that restaurants wouldn’t stay open late and by the time we left the building, it was 11.30pm. Fortunately, my group of friends has a secret weapon in the form of Lorenzo Iosco of Tuscany. He could charm the shirt off most people’s back, but in Italy, he really comes into his own. When we eventually found him, (he wasn’t in the second half) he had found a small family restaurant which had stayed open especially for us. It was down one of those little lanes that nobody else would find and we had the place to ourselves. Having a translator meant that we could try dishes that had previously remained unexplored. Some antipasti washed down with their home made beer, toasted bread with fatty ham drizzled with honey and pickled vegetables was sensational. This was followed by local wine and risotto and linguine for the others, while I had malfatti, which sounded like a Welsh insult to me, but turned out to be a kind of gnocchi with spinach and ricotta. Delicious. I’m never quite sure what’s going to happen in Italy, this country of surprise lanes and tastes. It’s full of gems which I shall try to remember in the basic hotel which we are heading towards. I think it’s going to be fine though. Lorenzo already has somewhere in mind for lunch…