Last night we were in Cologne, one of my favourite German cities, with its beautiful cathedral and fabulous concert hall where we get free beer after the performance – I think I’ve told you about that before. We played the Widmann violin concerto with Christian Tetzlaff – a great performance and the composer, who was there was very happy! The second half was Mahler’s 10th symphony. He only ever finished the first movement which is often played on its own and the rest of the piece was left in sketches and short score and was finally pieced together in the 60s by Deryck Cooke. I find it a doom laden work with some huge climaxes and some of the most sparsely textured, intimate music written for orchestra, its cumulative effect is quite overwhelming. Daniel performed this piece with us about four years ago and it was a performance which has stayed with me ever since. Without wishing to overdramatise, that night back in 2004 was a life changing experience for me.
I have been writing this blog now for two years, it is sometimes serious, sometimes amusing, but it is often very difficult to explain in words which I simply don’t have, how music feels when you are sat on the platform. I would like to share a very personal experience with you, if you don’t mind.
In July 2004 I was fortunate enough to be blessed with a daughter who was adored by her two older brothers when she arrived. Two weeks later, I was in the same hospital in a CT scanner and being diagnosed with testicular cancer. I’m sure there are many of you out there who have been through a similar experience. I went from the highest of highs to depths of despair in a short space of time, the only good thing was that I had an excuse to sit down cuddling my daughter. This isn’t the time and place for details, this is a music blog (it will be in a minute, bear with me!), but I’m sure you can imagine, it wasn’t a time in my life I’d want to go through again. In any case, after an operation and chemotherapy, I returned to work, a little battered and bruised and groggy from the drugs which weirdly often left me trailing off in mid sentence having lost my way at some point during a paragraph – finally I was lost for words, something my friends were eternally grateful for I’m sure. As it turned out, I had managed to be ill in the summer holiday so hadn’t actually missed much work – oh yes, I may be artistic, but boy am I organised. I can remember vividly playing again in the orchestra was exhausting mentally and physically, partly due the nature of the operation and partly due to the hustle and bustle of simply getting to work.
The first piece I played was Beethoven 9, a suitably life affirming celebration that felt right to play for my first concert back. We were performing in the City of London Festival at St Paul’s Cathedral with Sir Colin and I can’t tell you how happy I was to be sitting back in that chair. But something had changed inside me and I didn’t know what to do about it. I had always been an instinctive player rather than an analytical one. This has its advantages, but when something goes wrong, usually technically, it’s not always easy to know how to fix it. You know how it feels when the music surges forward and you feel excitement, and at huge emotional moments, a shiver goes up your spine? Well those are the moments that are intensified beyond belief when you are actually involved in playing the piece. Those are the moments that make this job the best job in the world. That night, Sharon kindly drove me to Waterloo station, she could see that I was exhausted; I got on the train and felt very down indeed, something wasn’t quite the same as it had been, I simply didn’t feel anything during the concert, it felt like I was going through the motions, I mean, I’m sure it sounded fine but I just didn’t really enjoy it. Simple as that.
This continued for a few weeks, it was always the same story, I was sitting in one of the best seats in the house at the centre of one of the greatest orchestras in the world, and I felt nothing. I can remember speaking to friends about it and they always reassured me that it sounded ok, but I spoke to my wife and seriously thought about putting my flute in its box and walking away. Then one night before Christmas after a couple of days of rehearsal, we came to the performance of Mahler 10 with Daniel. It was not a piece I knew well, but you don’t need to read the programme notes to realise that Mahler’s obsession with death or more importantly, his own death, is never far below the surface. There is a particularly poignant moment at the start of the last movement where the texture changes so dramatically that it is as if the orchestra is inhabiting a different world altogether.
The dull thud of a bass drum, possibly a slowing heartbeat, or a drum announcing a funeral procession, and then the deep threatening rising scale on the tuba.
Another dull thud.
This continues until we reach a strange chordal procession and then a simple flute solo. In the score it is marked piano semplice – quietly and simply, that’s it. It is a beautiful tune that winds its way around a quiet string section who change to chords which never quite go exactly where you expect them to. It is deeply unsettling and eerily beautiful and heartbreaking moment at the same time. I’ve written recently about the loneliness of playing stuff like this, but this solo is possibly one of the most stunning pieces of music for the orchestral flautist in the repertoire. Anyway, in the concert, we worked our way through the piece until that first funereal thud and my heartbeat increased as the solo grew closer, but this time it felt different to the preceding weeks. As the tuba plodded away and the drum became more insistant, I could sense something in the music which exactly mirrored my state of mind, this doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it is all consuming and intoxicating. Daniel looked across the orchestra, cued me in, I closed my eyes and played. I can’t describe how it felt, but time seemed to stop, a wave swept across me, something which I had not felt in a concert for months, and suddenly something about that night and that piece changed something in me. I opened my eyes again towards the end to make sure we were all in the same place and it was over. I really have no idea whether anybody else heard anything different that night and that really isn’t the point, this was something very very personal to me. The music of Mahler flicked a switch somewhere in my brain. I have spoken to Dan about it over a year later and explained to him how I had felt, and we were both aware of it in last night’s performance; he just smiled and we both knew what each other was thinking. But four years on I find it terrifying, painful and wonderful to play the piece, all at the same time.
I fortunately am now in good health, but another of our orchestral family is unwell, he won’t be playing with us for a while. I hope and pray that he will be back soon because I miss his camaraderie and his musicianship.
It does at times feel that we work, play and tour together in this orchestra that we are like a big family. I am so lucky to have a job like this and the opportunity to express something that words cannot describe. But we all have to remember from time to time, that its not always just about the music.