Addicts Symphony is a Channel 4 documentary coming to your screens on Wednesday. It involves LSO players Matt and Bindi as they show how music can help people rebuild their lives which have been shattered by alcohol and drug abuse. I took part in a small part of the filming, and it was a moving and joyous experience. Of course, in the 21st century, a small advance press release is enough to send newspapers and social media into meltdown and judge the book before the cover has even been glimpsed. An article in the Guardian last week gave the impression that the programme is about the everyday abuse of substances in the classical music world to cope with the pressures faced as a performer. It’s a bit more complicated than that. The comments page on the Guardian website alone is a study in preconceptions and prejudice. This article prompted a response from violinist Tom Eisner about stage fright, and how many musicians now use exercise instead of alcohol and beta blockers. It’s a good read although, the truth is never black and white, and I suspect that the reality lies somewhere in the cracks. It’s frustrating that in the press one week, we in the ‘classical music industry’ are distant, elitist and irrelevant and the next week, we are drug crazed freaks. We’re just the same as people in every other industry. Still, watch the programme and then make your own judgement.
Speaking of exercise, this week we are mainly walking up mountains- even commander in chief, Kathryn McDowell, was to be seen at the rehearsal with walking boots on, ready to unleash her inner Julie Andrews. We are playing a couple of concerts at the Menuhin Festival in Gstaad with Sir Antonio Pappano conducting. It’s always fun working with Tony, but a special treat for us this week is a chance to work on some opera with him. As you know, Tony knows his opera and most of us are enjoying the chance to play this wonderful music. It’s also fantastic to hear singing of the highest calibre from our soloists Thomas Hampson, Joseph Calleja and the sensational Diana Damrau.
“Come on guys, listen, Diana had a recital in Salzburg last night and so she’s going to take it easy in this rehearsal,” Tony informed us.
Diana wrapped her scarf a little tighter around her throat and faced the auditorium (a tent). She then proceeded to let rip in an aria from Lucia de Lammermoor. The quality of the sound was incredible – like the noise swiss chocolate would make. She turned and grinned as the orchestra applauded at the end of the aria – if this was taking it easy, the tent was going to be in danger at the concert the next evening. Next up were Messrs Hampson and Callejo. In the empty auditorium, their voices boomed around the cavernous space and it was obvious we were in for a special night. Rather than a complete opera, we played a few overtures, fancies and barcarolles from the operatic repertoire and the singers sang lots of the famous bits from Traviata, Tosca, Manon and …er… Herodiade. It was the operatic equivalent of a penalty shoot out as each singer in turn came on to sing their favourite aria. Nobody missed, and you could sense the orchestra relishing the chance to play such incredible music and the singers…oh, the singers were sensational; they (almost) brought the tent down.
Today was a very flutey programme, the kind of programme that you need a stiff drink beforehand, although taking Tom Eisner’s advice to heart, I went for a walk by the river instead. We had already rehearsed the Nutcracker in London and the opener was my old foe, Prelude a l’apres midi d’un faune. I’ve written about it before so I won’t bore you by repeating myself, but I can tell you that despite playing it many, many times, it doesn’t get any easier. In fact, I think it gets worse. What was interesting, again, was just how different the same notes on the page can sound with a different conductor. Having got used to Gergiev’s ‘languid’ version which left my lungs feeling like I’d swallowed razor blades, it was quite a relief to find Tony wanting to move it forwards a little more. Naturally for a piece that requires excellent breath control, the more it moves, the better it is for me. However, it does present a different problem. The sensuous and erotic nature of the music is relatively easy to bring out at a very slow tempo. At a faster speed, there is a danger that it can become a little more workmanlike as everybody counts the 9/8 and 12/8 bars. It begins to move more rigidly rather than flow. Tony stopped us.
“Come on guys! This is supposed to sound sensual, and…” he looked into the middle distance, searching for the right word whilst making that Italian gesture with his hand that means, I’m looking for the right word. He didn’t find it.
Well, yes actually, I do. Sometimes it’s the fractional delaying of bar line, sometimes an unexpected change of tone colour, or a ritenuto on an upward phrase which lingers just a little longer than is polite, like holding a strangers gaze across a crowded restaurant. You know?
We continued. Tony stopped again.
“Come on Gareth, I not hearing it!”
Hearing what exactly? I was after all, playing. I could hear it. I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant.
“You know those three little crescendi…at the end?”
We all looked blank.
“You know what it is? Come on!”
He then proceeded to, how can I put this, sing the flute part with the three crescendi whilst simultaneously thrusting his hips in a way which saw Elvis banned from TV in the 50s. I actually blushed. The orchestra laughed nervously.
“Come on! Don’t be embarrassed, we all know what this is about right?”
Well, yes. I have three children. I have form… but we’re classical musicians aren’t we? All uptight and stiff. It says so in the papers.
I spoke to him at the rehearsal break.
“So come on! You know what I mean Gareth? Right?”
“Well yes Tony of course I know what you mean…it’s…well, this is a rehearsal and at my age, I have to save myself for the performance.”
After the rehearsal in the Gstaad tent, Sharon, Alex and I went for a quick bowl of pasta to develop the sound of the mirliton we were searching for in the Nutcracker. My walk earlier hadn’t really helped me find the sensuous nature of the music or calmed my nerves, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and have a glass of red wine and see if it helped. Whenever I get nervous, the first thing that happens to me is I feel sick. Consequently, anything I can manage to eat before a concert such as this is a bonus, although I declined dessert and left the rest of the flutes to make my way back to the tent to feel nervous on my own. As is always the case when playing l’apres midi, I run through all sorts of scenarios that could occur to disrupt the performance. I don’t do it on purpose, it just happens. This starts with running through all the mistakes I tell my pupils at the Royal College not to make, followed by the ‘running out of breath’ one and then the possibility of playing a wrong note in the bit that everybody knows. After I have pre-sabotaged my own performance, I think about all the other things that could mean I didn’t have to play it. Maybe there will be a protest at the concert; it happens. Maybe there will be a torrential thunderstorm and the noise of the rain on the roof of the tent will obliterate the opening phrase to all but the back desks of violas at my feet. Maybe, the tent, weakened by Calleja and Hampson’s Pearl Fishers the night before, will have collapsed and blown into Germany. Maybe Damrau lit a scented candle a little too close to the curtains and there is no tent left…
“I’m really sorry mate.”
I looked confused when Laurent apologised as I entered the dressing room which isn’t a room but a partition made from curtains.
“Why? What are you sorry about?”
“I just came in here a moment ago and there was a funny smell.”
With a programme like this, it’s not entirely impossible, I thought to myself.
“Funny smell?” I asked innocently.
“Yes, it smelled of burning.”
“I think somebody moved your tails and they had got pushed up against the lightbulb on the mirror.”
For some stupid reason, in dressing rooms around the world, you often find mirrors with super heated light bulbs all around their edge; like the ones Miss Piggy has to make her feel like a star in the Muppets. If you look carefully at the bottom sets of bulbs which are an inch above the shelf where you put flammable stuff like…violins for instance, the silver reflective coating is usually coated in black sticky stuff. This is the residue from cremated concert clothing.
“There’s a few holes in your tailcoat. It’s lucky I got here when I did or the whole tent could have gone up…”
Ways to get out of playing l’apres midi
#27 Leave your tails near a heat source and stand well back.
“…they were just starting to smoke when I moved them…”
Flautist Charged with Arson!
Debussy Made Me Do It!!! Claims defendant
“…at least it wasn’t your trousers…”
This is true. If it had been my trousers, the inevitable solo bow at the end of the piece would have been fraught with difficulty, not to mention that people would have assumed my nerves had finally gotten the better of me… As Laurent picked up his violin and continued warming up, I held my tailcoat up to the light. It looked like I’d been shot in the backside by a farmers blunderbuss after being found in the barn with his daughter. As I touched the fabric, the charred edges flaked off, making the hole even more obvious. As an omen for the impending performance, it didn’t bode well I thought, as a small coil of smoke rose from the detritus of my tails on the floor.
In the end, the performance went ahead with no more drama. My tails had cooled whilst the temperature of my performance hopefully, rose to the occasion. I closed my eyes and thought sensuous thoughts. And no, I won’t tell you what they are.
Prelude a l’apres midi is an erotic masterpiece. It’s also one of the hardest pieces to play under pressure. So when you next hear it and then read about how dull/irrelevant/drug crazed we all are in classical music, remember, we’re all just the same as you. Sometimes it’s just another day and another job; but on days like these, it’s sex, drugs and barcarolles.