Those of you who read my last post will know that I was just about to embark on my summer holidays, a whistle-stop trip visiting friends and relatives around Scotland. Delightfully, whilst on the Isle of Skye in the pouring rain, an old friend of mine dropped me an email asking if I was interested in playing for him at a concert at the Edinburgh Fringe the following weekend. I was able to reply that, by some coincidence, I was already intending to be in Edinburgh that weekend and would love to play. As I was already on my holidays in Scotland, I had no trombone or concert clothes with me. My friend sourced an instrument from my old tromboning mentor, Bill Giles, who was also playing. I’m glad to report we had a good old chat about appropriate use of the alto trombone (see “To Alto or Not to Alto”), and the unique awkwardness of Brahms trombone parts (probably worthy of it’s own blog post). I borrowed a tuxedo and trousers from my brother and treated myself to a new shirt and shoes. Despite, walking into the shop with the intention of buying some reasonably priced black concert shoes, I managed to walk out with a rather more expensive natty blue and brown pair. Hopefully the mismatch wasn’t too noticeable for the audience…
Anyway, the concert in question was The Orchestra of the Canongait performing at Edinburgh’s Greyfriar’s Kirk, a few yards away from the world’s most famous terrier, Greyfriar’s Bobby. It was the first concert in their Brahms’ symphony cycle and it was a real pleasure to play this demanding but immeasurably satisfying music with this extremely fine orchestra to a large and appreciative audience. I’ve known the conductor of this orchestra, Robert Dick since we were teenagers playing in youth orchestras together. In fact, my time in Edinburgh this summer was a real blast from the past, as I also had the pleasure of catching up with the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra who were in rehearsals for their summer chamber concert. They really are a phenomenon, not just in Edinburgh, but recognized nationally. But back to Robert. He is a quiet, unassuming, good humoured gent in day to day life. But once on the podium, the music seems to just pour out of him. He is a wonderful conductor. It’s difficult to articulate what makes a great conductor. How can the subtlest of movements somehow coax that big ship the symphony orchestra into giving a great performance? Possibly that indefinable difference between the craft and the art of music. I can recount many performances throughout my playing career that stand for me as particularly memorable. Yes, the players and the pieces go some way to explaining this, but more often than not it is due to the person at the front waving their arms. I can still remember the last time I had played with Robert and this orchestra, probably 10 years previously. It was Dvorak’s New World Symphony – a piece that has for many amateur orchestral players, become hackneyed and dull due to over-familiarity. This particular performance allowed me to appreciate it again with new ears. It was so exciting! And I was reminded that it is a truly great piece of music, which when tackled with care and commitment can provide something unique and special – the reason why live performance will always trump recorded music.
Thinking back on my move from Edinburgh to Manchester I can reflect on some of the other great performances that stick in my mind.
It took me and Susan a couple of years to settle in to the Manchester music scene before finding musical groups that we truly enjoyed playing with. This was to come when we joined the Stockport Symphony Orchestra, then latterly Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra and the Cheshire Sinfonia. These orchestras have the advantage of having close enough links with the Royal Northern College of Music to attract some phenomenal conductors and soloists. My second concert with Stockport featured one such conductor, Baldur Bronninmann. Baldur has since gone on to great things, http://www.baldur.info/, but at the time he was a conducting tutor at the college. Like Robert’s New World, Baldur coaxed a performance of an old orchestra staple, Sibelius 2, out of the players which to my ears was mindblowing. A year or 2 later, the orchestra had a chance to be the house band for a weekend-long conducting workshop in which several budding conductors got to have a go with a full symphony orchestra and get feedback from someone who knows how it’s done. Baldur was the coach, and it was fascinating to hear his hints and tips on how the smallest of movements and gestures could bring the best out of the orchestra. I was quite startled to realise quite how manipulating (in a good way!) a great conductor can be towards the players and how much little bits of psychology can bring out the best in the musicians. And this is all through movement! – hands, eyes, arms, the whole body. I think before this workshop I had kind of naively thought that great performance came out of what and how the piece had been rehearsed- what the conductor had said to the players etc. Important, yes, but this workshop highlighted to me in a very real way how much the greatest performances are shaped there and then on the platform as they happen. Another plus point for live performance.
Sitting at the back of the orchestra playing an instrument that spends more time on it’s stand than being played does offer you a unique perspective on each live performance. Unlike the audience, I listen to many hours of performance whilst watching the conductor face on, as opposed to their back. This teasing the music out of the player is fascinating to watch – almost like a ballet – except the movements are informing the players’ music, unlike a real ballet where it’s the other way round. Fellow Scot, Garry Walker’s ( http://www.garrywalker.net/) performance of Mahler’s 9th symphony with Stockport was another case in point. Both a joy to perform and to watch. Garry worked the orchestra harder then any other conductor to get this extremely difficult piece up to scratch, but it was the final 10 or minutes, strings alone where he wrung every last drop of emotion out of the music and the players. The audience and players alike barely dared breathe as the final chords died way to nothing.
Ken Wood’s( http://kennethwoods.net/blog1/) performance of Shostakovitch’s 7th Symphony with Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra was another great performance. Shostakovitch writes notoriously long rambling melodies and it takes a master conductor to give shape and purpose to this music. Again, this was another epic performance, where the proverbial pin could be heard dropping during the intensely desolate slow passages. Conversely, the climaxes were probably some of the loudest I’ve ever been involved in. Awesome!
A final couple of memories of the first amateur orchestra I played with after leaving university. Were back in Edinburgh again, with the Edinburgh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Alasdair Mitchell. I was a young noisy brass player who, like most young noisy brass players just wanted to play big noisy pieces. Imagine my disappointment when we performed 2 of the noisiest composers (Mahler and Wagner)’s most quiet introspective works, Das Lied Von Der Erde and Die Valkyrie Act 1 (The famous Ride Of The Valkyries doesn’t turn up until Act 3). I had sooo few notes to play! Rehearsals were deadly dull. But, in performance, back in that austere gloomy Greyfriar’s Kirk again, they were two of the most unique and memorable performances I’ve been privileged to be a part of. Das Lied was particularly special as it was my own Mum singing the solo contralto solo part. Orchestra, conductor and soloists all pulling together to create that one off unique event. Even the most professional slick recording sessions I’ve been involved with don’t hold a candle to these ephemeral moments (or in the case of the Shostakovitch concert, several hours – one of the longest classical concerts I’ve ever done!)
If you stuck with me this far, thanks for letting me ramble on about some of my favourite performances. Thinking about Die Valkyrie makes me think I might revisit a few more – next time I’ll concentrate on my experiences with music for the theatre – memorable times both below and occasionally on the stage!
A couple of gigs I’m involved with this bank holiday weekend, more info at this post summer events.
See below for the short version:
Sunday 30 August – Bring on the Swing at the Ring O Bells, Marple 3pm – 5pm
Monday 31 August – Lostock at Glaston-Bury! Wyldes Bar, Bury – 5pm – 6pm
Passes (6 quid) are available for this unique weekend long event, hundreds of bands playing at multiple venues throughout Bury- all in aid of the Bury Hospice.