Our arrival in Paris was heralded with the low roar of one hundred wheeled suitcases being dragged from the Gare de L’est to the Hotel du Nord. Parisians enjoying a cup of coffee and a cigarette on one of the swarm of pavement cafes around this area looked up as it sounded as if a low flying aircraft was making its way up the boulevard. What appeared in front of them was the strange sight of a travel-weary snake of musicians arriving at the same hotel we always stay in next to the Station. As I queued to get into the hotel, I looked across the street at the Eurostar check in where after the Sunday afternoon concert we usually get on a train home. Sadly, on this trip, after the last concert in Paris, we are flying down to Milan and Turin. I know, I know, I’m moaning about going to places that probably sound glamorous and exciting, which they indeed are, but it feels like we’ve been on tour since the start of March and the thrill is beginning to wear off. Besides, when I say we are going to Milan, what you think is going to happen and what is actually going to happen are two different things. We fly from Paris this morning and arrive, with delays because of fog, at 1.30. Then we get on yet another bus to the hotel, which needless to say is a 20 minute bus ride into the centre of Milan. The hotel restaurant closes 30 minutes before we arrive and I’m told that there is nothing much around the hotel. I have a sandwich from Paris in my bag just in case – one should never undertake Scriabin on an empty stomach.
As we arrived early at Paris Orly airport, we were told to queue in the group check-in. This helps us as we can all stand in a long queue which we love doing. It also helps the airport staff as we don’t clog up the check in area for all the normal people going on holiday and things. After we’d queued for 30 minutes, they decided that we were in the wrong queue and we all had to join the other queue. All 90 of us. So we all moved again and the staff working at the airport were not prepared to budge an inch. In fact, they were thoroughly unpleasant. By the time the plane was supposed to take off, only half of the orchestra had actually checked in such was their lack of urgency. Luckily, fog delayed the flight by an hour. You can imagine the joy that rippled through the queue at the end of a long slice of touring. Anyway, we took off and landed safely which is the main thing.
We knew that the hotel was going to be on the outskirts of Milan as it was a 20 minute bus ride into town. As we cruised on the bus through run down industrial estates we all laughed and joked about the fact that the hotel was probably around the corner. We all pointed at buildings that had been rejected from gulags and joked that they were probably the hotel. Then we saw the hotel. It was wedged between two dual carriageways and had so much concrete in an alarming shade of dysentery green that it made the Barbican look like the Taj Mahal. We disembarked with the touring musicians mantra, “I-expect-the-rooms-inside-are-nice-though-and-besides-it’s-only-for-one-night,” running through our heads.
“Welcome London Symphony! Your keys are over there on the table.” said the smiley lady in the foyer. I picked up my room key and turned to find the lift. Three young women across the foyer in very little clothing rose from their sofas and stared professionally in our direction.
“The restaurant is remaining open for you until 4 o’clock,” said the smiley lady in the foyer.
The professional women smiled and teetered nearer on very high heels.
“Is there free wifi?” someone asked the smiley lady.
“No. I’m afraid not, it starts at 6 euro for one hour.”
The three young women looked considerably more expensive. As the lift doors began to close on a now empty foyer, they sat back down to their smart-phones and I retired to my room. Which, it turns out, is quite nice.
The Scriabin is now growing on me. I suppose as the music becomes more familiar to us all, it begins to make more sense. Every time we play the 2nd symphony I notice new details that I hadn’t noticed before. This is one of the great things about touring, in that we repeat repertoire much more than a one-off performance in the Barbican and really get to know a piece; especially helpful in unfamiliar repertoire such as this. But also it’s extraordinary how different a piece can sound in a different hall. The tight compact sound in the Barbican is a world away from the high definition clarity you have in Salle Pleyel, still one of my favourite halls. Having said it’s clear, it does make the high and quiet stuff particularly difficult, especially when Valery was encouraging the strings to be barely audible immediately before I arrive pp on the top notes in the register. Tricky stuff. The enormous climaxes of the pieces, and they happen every few bars at times, are easily contained by the hall. It’s loud, but not unbearably so, and the whispered details in the quiet moments have pin sharp clarity. I’ll be interested to hear the sound on the LSO Live recordings we made this weekend in Paris, as if you’ve never heard the LSO in more than one venue, I think you’d be surprised at just how much the sound can change.
I will certainly have to bear that in mind when we play at the legendary La Scala this evening. Where I sit, it’s a hall which promises much. The decor, ambience and weight of history all play their part or course, even the present day posters have changed little since the golden age of opera. When you walk into the theatre it feels like there is something special going on. Like most opera houses though, the acoustic isn’t the most favourable for an orchestra and so, as in any hall, the rehearsal will be spent balancing the sections of the orchestra. No doubt, Valery will ask the wind to play out more in the solo passages as the sound doesn’t carry to well; a lot of it goes up into the roof above the stage, the brass will have to temper their dynamics to compensate and the strings will have to dig in more. Whatever the sound, a concert in La Scala is always an event, a memory to be treasured in one of the holy sites of music.
Having started the period of work with mixed feelings about the Scriabin, the performances seem to be getting stronger and stronger. With Turin tomorrow, a great hall in the old Fiat car factory, things will only get better. If you’re coming to the Barbican later this week for our final performances, you’re in for quite a show.