I have a window seat on the flight back from Cologne. I’m a creature of habit and whilst I don’t mind this seat on a short flight, on a long haul I always end up feeling rather trapped and stuck in my place. Looking out at the wing, which is obscuring my view as we descend across London, there is some writing as if a daredevil graffiti artist has been at work. It warns, DO NOT WALK OUTSIDE THIS AREA. I can see the ground approaching but on this occasion I am happy to heed the warning and stay firmly where I’m put.
When we started this period of work with Sir John Eliot Gardiner last week, he began by paying tribute to Sir Colin Davis. He told us of how he had influenced him and of course mentioned performances with the Chelsea Opera Group with Colin at the helm conducting Berlioz. That to me was no surprise, Colin and John Eliot’s interpretations of Berlioz are the finest we have in my opinion. What was more of a surprise was that when John Eliot first approached Colin and asked his advice on becoming a conductor, he was told to go away and learn the Rite of Spring. This took me back to last summer when I was doing some research for a project I’ve been working on (more details later) and came across a flyer in the archives of Carnegie Hall. It was for a concert in 1963 in New York, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rite. It was to be conducted by the veteran conductor who had given the fabled premiere at the beginning of the century, Pierre Monteux, at the time Principal Conductor of the LSO. Monteux, who died the following year, was 86 when he was appointed to the LSO in 1961 and it seems that he was in need of assistance from a younger conductor for the tour in ’63, a conductor who would conduct some of the rest of the programme and also some of the rehearsals should the great maestro feel the need. The conductor in question was a young Colin Davis. I cannot help but wonder whether the advice to the young John Eliot was the same advice given to the young Colin Davis by Monteux. Colin and I spoke about it last year and when I showed him a copy of the flyer, he simply said, “Good heavens, where on earth did you find this? I’d completely forgotten about it!” When people ask me what a conductor actually does, think of the link from Stravinsky to Monteux to Colin, a span of a century in two conductors. What a huge part of musical life we have lost…
John Eliot has been celebrating his 70th birthday with us and has surprised me with his repertoire choice of all- Stravinsky. I suppose I was expecting Beethoven or Berlioz, but he seems to have no wish to be stuck in his seat and is walking wherever he chooses on the wing. Last night in Cologne, we gave the final performance of Oedipus Rex and ended up with the customary free beer kindly provided by the hall. I am now absolutely convinced that we always play better in Cologne because we are conditioned to expect free beer afterwards. In any case, as I wasn’t in the first half of the concert, after the rehearsal I went back to the hotel to freshen up and get changed. As I walked back past the busy cathedral area of town I approached a small round piazza which I began to cross and was immediately shouted at by a security guard. I am not fluent in German, but by his gesticulating and sign pointing, I think he was shouting something along the lines of, “Do not walk outside of the area!” He continued to shout at other people too but I could not figure out why as the sign and shouting were all in German until at last, the final sign was in English. To cut a very long story short, the piazza, or platz I guess, is directly above the stage – in fact, it seems to be the roof of the concert hall and if there is a performance on, you aren’t allowed to walk on it as people in the audience can hear your shoes. I’m no architect, but I’d consider that a design flaw. I carefully walked around the piazza and backstage just as the wonderful strings of the LSO were coming off.
As well as the fantastic soloists I mentioned in the last blog, the three soloists who step forward from the Monteverdi Choir are extraordinary. The ladies and gentlemen of the woodwind section were trying to figure out how one of the most slight of singers seemed to produce a big resonant bass voice. John Eliot informed me that David Shipley who sings Tiresias is not only a less than expected size for a bass, but still only in his early 20s. One to watch I think. Having stood in front of the LSO to play a concerto before, I know how nerve wracking it can be when you are asked to step outside the comfort zone of ensemble work to be a soloist; so all credit to the singers who have really made this performance extra special for the orchestra. I look forward to seeing John Eliot again later this year for some Mendelssohn. If you want to, I think you’ve still got a couple of days to listen to Oedipus on the BBC iPlayer and of course, the performance was recorded for release on LSO Live later on.
I mentioned a project that I was working on earlier and at last the time has come to share it with you properly. I know many of you follow this blog and have done since it started way back in 2007. Among the thousands of views it has had, I have been encouraged by many of you to continue writing and many suggested that I write a book. Some of you may have seen an article I wrote for BBC Music Magazine a few months back about the discovery of some diaries from the LSO tour to the USA in 1912. After reading them, I couldn’t help thinking that things hadn’t changed that much in a hundred years of touring and in many ways, the diary of timpanist Charles Turner read a little like a tour blog from the past. I had intended to write an extended blog about the difference and similarities between our experiences but as I delved deeper, the article got longer and longer and…well in short, I have written a book. As you are my longest standing readership, you have the chance to get hold of a signed copy before anyone else by clicking on the cover image below. I’ll tell you a little more about it another time and also we will be running a competition for a few of you to get a golden ticket to come to the book launch at LSO St Luke’s on 28 May.
I have to confess that I am a little nervous about the whole enterprise, it’s not something I had ever considered until recently. However, it felt like the right time to ignore the warnings and walk outside the area.