Failure is not an option. It could be the tag line from any Hollywood movie about a sports star/secret military raid/politician from the last 40 years. Maybe if you’re behind enemy lines failure really isn't an option but in musical performance, it’s more of a state of mind.
There have been many times when I’ve been deeply unhappy with my performance as I trudge offstage and yet colleagues and audience members have congratulated me. Conversely I also remember coming off stage delighted with the way the flute section had played a very difficult piece in a high profile concert; we all felt that it couldn't have gone any better, and yet a reviewer simply said that it ‘was not a great evening for the flute section’…
So which one was the failure?
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail Better.
When I was studying at the Guildhall School of music last century, someone gave me a postcard with these words on after I had managed to get lost in a performance and recapitulated in the wrong key…Nowadays they’d probably just tag me in a meme involving a miniature dog du jour stuck up to its neck in horse manure, or an emoji. The thing is, I didn't understand the postcard, why would I want to fail? I didn’t want to fail and I certainly didn't want fail again, better or worse, richer or poorer…sickness and health is another story. It didn't make any sense and rather than ask someone what it meant I recycled it. I wanted to be a winner, I didn't want to speak loser. It’s a shame that I didn't ask someone like…my flute teacher for instance, the person I saw most regularly and probably failed in front of more than anyone else. It’s more that a shame, it’s ironic as my teacher at that time was Edward Beckett who is the grandson of Samuel Beckett, the author of the quote. Having said that, if I had asked him about it, I’d have probably discovered that although this little chunk of prose is ‘inspiring,’ in context it is much darker. Beckett wasn’t especially well known for his side splitting banana slipping gags or indeed his cheerful outlook. The full piece is more about the inevitable journey to the grave rather than a cute soundbite to camera explaining away your third unsuccessful appearance on Dragon’s Den.
I've been to many places in my life in the orchestra, but there are some that remain in my memory longer than most. The sounds echo in my head long after the last note is sounded, the aromas linger when the flowers are gone and the taste remains after the last drop is drunk. Many places demand that you leave your heart, but the unexpected fracture your soul and inhabit your dreams.
At the final stop on this two and a half week tour, I'd have been delighted to go home instead. I miss my family, I'm tired and I need a break...but there is one last concert in Hanoi.
I don't know about you, but my feelings about Vietnam are coloured from countless films and television shows about the war. Whenever I mentioned to friends that I was travelling to Hanoi to do a concert with the LSO, they usually had a puzzled look about them. Why go there? Is it dangerous? I didn't know what to expect and the 'experts' on trip advisor warned of all sorts of awful things that could happen to the unwary traveller. It was only two and a half days and then I'd be home. But it only took a matter of hours.
Arriving on Vietnam airlines, our sponsor for this part of the tour, I was greeted with an enormous bunch of flowers from the managing director. It was quite a surprise and of course my colleagues enjoyed taking the mickey for hours afterwards. Airports are almost exactly the same the world over. The road from the fake glamour of the terminal soon leads out into a hinterland of depots, warehouses and the detritus of international air freight. When landing in a new place, I always have to remind myself that visitors to London have to get through this kind of chaos before discovering the beauty of the city. If you've ever landed at any of the New York airports, you'll know it's the same deal. Hanoi is different. We'd not been out of the terminal for longer than five minutes before the buildings disappeared and we were speeding through countryside. Crops being plowed by farmers with their distinctive hats following cattle as they worked the fields. Women bent double, their hands submerged in the paddy fields. The view from my window so perfectly encapsulated the type of landscape I imagined had disappeared years ago that I began to wonder whether this was some elaborate ruse by the Hanoi tourist board. But as the fields stretched out to the horizon, it became clear that this was no Disneyland, this was Vietnam. As the sun dipped towards the earth, the light dazzled off the water in the paddy fields in a golden shimmer. It was breathtaking.
The centre of Hanoi couldn't be more different. The first thing that hits you is the noise. The traffic is unbelievable. As we lurch from junction to junction, our bus is surrounded by a swarm of scooters. They fill every available bit of roadspace like sand in a jar full of pebbles. When you look closer, the scooters are filled with all human life. One, two, three or sometimes more passengers perch precariously on the seat; sometimes whole families travel together on one scooter. Another flies past with about twenty kids bikes piled high on the back, narrowly avoiding the woman going in the other direction, her scooter entirely disguised with watermelons. And then by some communal extra sensory perception, the vehicles part, like a river round a rock midstream, and avoid the small, stooped woman weighed down with a stick across her shoulder, a basket at each end full of a fruit I've never seen before. She doesn't look or pause, but walks slowly across several lanes of traffic, safe knowing that the drivers and riders of Hanoi will drive round her. Breathtaking in a very different way. But it's not as easy as it looks as I try to cross my first road, my nerve gives out and I shadow a confident local instead. Surely it's easier to pass into the kingdom of heaven than thread your way through the Hanoi traffic.
My friends all go out for refreshment as soon as we reach the hotel, but I have interviews or do for radio 3 and the world service on the phone so arrange to meet them later. It's difficult to describe the city having just driven in and showered, but talking about the music is no problem, we've been playing it all tour. When I'm finally free, I go down to the lobby where Chi has come to take me to meet everyone. As soon as we go out into the balmy night air and disappear down a maze of streets, I see why he didn't even begin to try and describe where they had all ended up. It's 7pm and darkness makes the city seem even more mysterious. The roads are still buzzing with all kinds of traffic in the old quarter, but the pavements are full of scooters parked up in lines, so we have to trust the kindness of the locals as we stake our claim on the road.
The air smells sweet. A man squats on the pavement fanning charcoal, coaxing the flames to life, a plate of chicken ready to cook. A group of twenty somethings sit on tiny chairs, swigging beer, smoking and shelling nuts, the waste crunching underfoot. Two old men on the corner locked in a silent battle of wits over a chessboard look like they may not have moved for centuries and everywhere people sit outside talking, playing, being. There are decades of electrical wiring hanging from the telegraph poles like the roots of the banyan trees, feeding this buzzing city and it's only when you look up that you notice the unique blend of architecture, from modern to colonial and further back over a thousand years. When we find our friends at the end of a narrow alley they are in a small bar. They are the only people there except for the two women who run the place and if I didn't know better, I'd say it was the front room of their house. Chris tells me that the beers are 80p each, but she has to run down the road to get them. Maybe it is her house-maybe we are being overcharged, who knows; in Vietnam, the currency has many zeros and we are millionaires.
Everybody we speak to in restaurants and on the street knows about the concert. It seems like a big deal here, unsurprising as the massive stage has been under construction in the park for a week and the roads all down one side of the lake in the centre of town are being closed to traffic. Without seeing just how busy the roads are, you can't possibly understand just how big an impact that will have! No wonder everybody knows about the concert. As I grow weary, I sit on a park bench looking out at the dancing lights on the lake. There is an old man sat at the other end clamping a cigarette between teeth not long for his mouth.
"Parlais vous Francais?" He asks, the cigarette dancing at his lip.
"Oui, un peut."
He smiles and beckons me closer and we chat in broken French. He knows about the concert and is anxious to know if I like Hanoi? Was it what I expected, he asks. No, I reply. He laughs, no, it never is what people expect, it's always better he nods. He tells me that he is 85 years old and was a soldier in the war and he talks about how much better things are now. I am grateful for my schoolboy French. We shake hands and I leave him staring wistfully across the lake.
The next day after a little more exploring, is filled with interviews, a press conference and another radio slot. There is much interest in why we are here as we are the first British orchestra to visit. The Vietnamese press want to know how long we've been practicing their national anthem. Which version are we playing? Who orchestrated it...suddenly it's the piece that we are all worried about the most and in a way, the one we need to play the best.
There are giant screens erected on the road by the lake to allow anyone to watch, but nobody really has any idea of how many people will come. In front of the stage are hundreds of chairs for the VIPs. So after a brief sound check the orchestra play through the Vietnamese national anthem. I'm not in this part of the concert so I'm standing at the back of the seated area. I look nervously around at the locals bustling around putting programmes on seats, attaching seat numbers and all the other hundreds of small things that need to be put in place before such a huge event. As soon as the orchestra reach the end of the second bar of the anthem, they have all stopped what they're doing and are standing up, beaming at the stage. We must be getting it right...what a relief!
The day before a small group of players had done some education work at the local music college and today some of their students are sat on the stage; their excitement is obvious. We all too easily forget how lucky we are in London to have so much culture available to us and there are times when I see some music students looking jaded and uninterested in what's going on as they sit with us. For these Hanoi students though, this is an opportunity too good to miss. Bindi tells me that they were so excited to be asked to sit amongst us in the rehearsal as they know the LSO sound from recordings and couldn't believe that we would let them onstage. You can spot them easily from the seats because of their smiles. Some of them speak very good English, some very little, but once the music starts, we all speak the same language. Despite being in the orchestra for 17 years, I still find the sound of the LSO overwhelming at times and I can see the look on their faces as we begin. During the third movement of the Rachmaninov 2nd symphony, After Chris Richards stunning clarinet solo, the music builds to an extraordinary crescendo. I look across at the young violinist sat next to Maxine and he can't take it anymore, he is completely overwhelmed, tears rolling down his cheeks. Maxine stops and gives him a hug -we all know that feeling. It's a moment none of us will forget.
As we take the final bow of the concert we leave the stage and are told to go round the corner and wave to the crowds watching on the screen. I must admit that I assumed they would have left as it takes a few minutes for the orchestra to assemble there, but I was wrong. We turned the corner and the enormous cheer that greeted us was unbelievable. I can't tell you how many people were there, but they stretched into the distance as far as I could see. It was our turn to be overwhelmed. Ive never seen anything like it as they take pictures and high 5 everyone and shout and applaud...it's amazing and we could have stood there for hours, but we have a plane to catch. It's time to go home.
Quite unexpectedly, Vietnam has grabbed hold of me and won't let go. I'm very glad to be coming home, but I'm a little envious of the players who are staying there for few days to explore. Such a colourful, warm and welcoming place, I really hope to go back. As we head out on the main road to the airport, the swarms of scooters gradually disappear and our driver uses his horn less frequently. In my bag next to me is my concert flute, piccolo the Chinese dizi and a new addition which I picked up in the market in Hanoi, a sáo trúc, something to remember this trip by that speaks my language. It's dark outside the coach window, but I know that the unchanging landscape of Vietnam is out there, waiting for my return.
You can see more pictures and videos on the LSO storify page here
Mortals must age, plans go awry, dreams end too soon.
Love too deep, a shallow grave may hold, 'neath westering sun
The Peony Pavilion - Chapter33: Secret Plans
By Tang Xianzu
The poem carved on my flute spoke of the inevitability of growing old; the passing of time. For a brief moment, the winter sun caught a pear missed at harvest on the tree. Sitting in my kitchen in Surrey looking out over the skeleton of Spring, the once plump fruit, glistening with dew looked like the first bud before the blossom. But as the sunlight passed it revealed itself as the forgotten fruit of summer, shrivelled on the branch. I was practicing in my kitchen because of the view and because it's cold in the music room. I don't mind the cold, but the instrument I'm playing does. Playing my normal silver flute, extremes of temperature or humidity don't really concern me, however the flute I was practicing on was made of wood. Bamboo to be precise. I didn't want the wood to split.
There is something about the simplicity of a bamboo flute that connects with the past. A simple wooden cylinder with a few holes (8 in this case) is one of the oldest instruments known to man. When I think of the past of the modern Boehm flute, my performing predecessors come to mind instantly, as the concert flute that you would recognise was invented in the middle of the 19th century. The simple wooden flute however goes back to the earliest records of man; the players, the millions of flute players creating melodies from a few notes over thousands of years is something we can only imagine. Every culture I can think of has their version of a flute. Irish whistles to Japanese shakuhachi, Indian bansuri to Peruvian pipes. If music is the universal language, then the flute is it's voice.
The instrument I'm playing is from Shanghai and is probably the most famous of all the Chinese flutes, the Dizi (Roughly pronounced Dee-it-zuh). The eight holes consist of 6 finger holes, 1 embouchure hole (The one you blow over) and one between them all which is covered with a thin membrane of the soft internal part of bamboo. It looks a little like a cigarette paper but is even thinner and is called the Dimo. This vibrates when you play creating the distinctive buzzing timbre. I often grow tired of oboe and bassoon players moaning about reeds all of the time, but quite frankly, cutting the dimo to size and getting it in the right place is an art in itself, so I am slightly more sympathetic.
I've had various instruments over the years for use in the LSOs film work. If you really have nothing better to do, you can hear me playing dizi on the film Around the World in 80 days with Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But seriously, only if you have nothing to do...it's a terrible film. The flute I was practicing on and in fact, all of flutes I own have Chinese characters painted or carved on them...and I don't mean Jackie Chan. They are often fragments of Chinese poetry, so on a film session years ago I asked Chi what the script on my (very cheap from Camden Market) flute said. I hoped that it would be something to do with the summer breeze, or flower blossom, the passing of time or perhaps a wise proverb echoing through the ages.
"Can you read it?" I asked. It was quite roughly stamped on the headjoint.
"Yes, of course." Chi replied.
"Great! What does it say?" I asked, at last about to discover the true destiny of my flute.
"Made in Hong Kong."
In Beijing, jet lag renders all night as day. The smoke alarm on the ceiling pulses a red ring of light every few seconds and in my dreamlike state, it becomes the ring around a planet in my mind. The air conditioning unit thrums in the background and every now and then the dull ping of the lift drifts under the door as another traveller, lacking heavy sleep goes back to the bar. A late night call to my daughter briefly merges into sleep, but dreams end too soon. I hear a dizi in the distance playing a melody. As I open my eyes, the sound remains. I draw the curtains and look down from the 11th floor to see a man busking outside the tube station below. I'm not dreaming, he really is there. I decide to take this as a good omen. The rest of the orchestra has already left for Shanghai for a day off and it's just a group of five of us left in the hotel. As I descend to breakfast, I suddenly realise that hotels around the world are usually peaceful, half empty places, except when an orchestra arrives and takes over. I sit in relative peace but unfortunately the silence created by the orchestral void means I can hear the music being played through the speakers. It's the same as it's been since we arrived; a continuous loop of the first 40 bars of the 2nd Movt of the Mozart Flute and Harp concerto. It's been driving me mad. On an average leisurely breakfast, you can easily hear the same bit 25 times and I find myself humming it involuntarily for days. Today, the busker outside is winding an uneasy counterpoint, creating a musical landscape that Charles Ives would be proud of; however it's not the East/West fusion I was aiming for and so I quickly go back upstairs to get ready.
Poetry is the reason I was learning how to play the dizi and the reason I'm now sitting in my hotel room in Beijing about to give the world premiere performance of a new piece written for me by Raymond Yiu. We've been away from home for the best part of two weeks and there is a chance that my pear tree now has buds forming, but the view from my room is less than poetic. What I can see through the smog is a five lane roundabout suspended above a motorway that goes through the centre. The dream and reality are often far from each other. In Britain and around the world, William Shakespeare is being celebrated for his 400th anniversary but over here in China, their great poet from the same era, Tang Xianzu is being celebrated in much the same way. In a private concert for our sponsor Reignwood, we have put together a programme celebrating the two writers where East meets West. Tang Xianzu was well known for poetry about dreams, and one of Shakespeare's most famous plays deals with the dreams of midsummer.
The piece that Ray has written is titled, And Nights Bright Days, a line from Shakespeare's sonnet 43. It's a beautiful work inspired partly by the poetry of dreams and longing, (an excerpt at the start of this piece) but it also has a haunting and deeply sad quality - the work is written in memory of Ray's friend Andrew Lindup, who was tragically killed during its composition. It really is an honour to play it.
As I walk out onto the stage of the Reignwood theatre, I stand alone. It's a lonely place for a lonely piece. The pressure of a world premiere as a solo instrumentalist with the composer in the stalls is hard enough. The fact that I'm playing a Chinese flute to an almost exclusively Chinese audience makes me pause, the warmth of the bamboo at my lips. It's like taking coals to Newcastle or more suitably, importing tea to China. Out of the corner of my eye I can see my colleagues standing in the wings, waiting to see what's going to happen, intrigued. Up until now I've been quite coy and kept the dizi out of the LSO gaze, but now here I am, no turning back. I play and as the final note dies away, three hundred camera phones point in my direction approvingly. The sound that I make on the dizi is quite different to the sound of the professional player who entertains us at dinner. He plays with the Peking opera and the intense, distilled sound of his performance fits perfectly with the timbre of the singers and instruments that form their distinctive sound. I had taken their instrument and played it in a different style in a brand new piece - I'm not sure I'd have had the correct sound if I had been trying to play along with my Chinese colleague though! But my intention was never to imitate but using Ray's brilliant new piece, to create a fusion of styles. East meets West. One of the guests at the banquet afterwards came to speak to me.
"Did you enjoy the piece?" I asked
"Yes very much. It was interesting to hear a foreigner playing dizi. I've never heard that before."
"Oh, right. Well, how was it for you?"
"It sounded different, but at it's centre there were dreams and echoes of China."
I expect he writes the poems for the flute manufacturers.
Finally back in my room at the end of the day, I spoke to my family again. Jet lag is still allowing early morning phone calls.
"How did the Chinese flute piece go?" asks my daughter.
"Great! Like a dream darling."
"Good...are you coming home soon dad?"
"Yes, soon. Very soon..."
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day.
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me
Fragment from Sonnet 43 by William Shakespeare
I've never been in any doubt about the power of music. The shiver up the spine at the climax of a Mahler symphony, the profound solemnity of a Bach Passion or the memories stirred up by association of a particular piece in time. We often talk of music bringing people together in music marketing, but the true story below is personal and true. It involves my father and an LSO friend who we discovered recently had something rather special in common. With their permission, here is the story of David and Hilary.
There is a photograph of me when I was about 10 years old standing in front of the railings outside my Gran’s house. Visits in the school holidays to the South Wales mining village of Cwmllynfell where my father grew up were where my soul was cast in red. I treasure the memories of time with my Gran. The sunrise cutting of the coal, the burning of my trousers after too long lingering against the Rayburn, and the butter, inch thick on the pre breakfast Welsh cakes whilst mum and dad had a well earned lie in upstairs. The photograph looks like any other family snapshot, full of everyday details which would mean nothing to you. The silver railings with overpainted rust, the telephone exchange squatting next door, the whisper of the mountains behind the house, the red post box where copies of the Western Mail were posted to my father exiled in Surrey; and the bus stop. Of all them, it's the bus stop which makes me linger. It is full of what ifs, whys and might have beens. It’s the bus stop where an excited 5 year old boy sat waiting for his Aunty to visit from London. It’s the bus stop where in 1951 you'd be lucky to see a handful of cars pass a day. It’s the bus stop where my then 5 year old father couldn’t contain his excitement as the bus came round the corner. It’s the bus stop where my father nearly lost his life as he was run over and lay bleeding, stuck under the wheels of the bus. What followed was years of surgery and callipers to save firstly his life, and then what was left of his leg. By the age of 19 and the final operation, he was left with a limp and some serious scarring, but against the odds, he survivedFast forward to 2004, the LSO centenary year. Sir Karl Jenkins wrote Quirk, a concerto for me and my colleagues to play and I was delighted when I discovered we were going to play in Brangwyn Hall in Swansea. Friends and family came and it was a lovely occasion, particularly for my father. I wrote about it on the LSO blog. Some months later, a lady approached me in the Barbican foyer. She introduced herself as Hilary, one of the friends of the orchestra and explained that a friend of hers had told her about my blog. She said that she particularly enjoyed the one about Wales and Cwmllynfell, because she was from the same village! If you’ve ever been there, it really is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of place and we laughed at what a small world it was. Hilary and I had quite a long chat about it. She described where she had lived as a child and asked where my father had lived. I explained that he was at No 79, the house his grandfather had built next to the telephone exchange.
“That’s where the nursery used to be," she said.
A long forgotten conversation popped into my head. I’d always wondered why there was a gap between the houses where this funny little building was. Long ago it had been a nursery growing vegetables and flowers. It turned out that her father had owned the nursery! What a coincidence.
“What’s your dad’s name?” she continued.
“David. David Davies.”
There was a pause.
“Has he got a limp?”
And with that, frustratingly, I had to go and play. From my seat in the orchestra, I could see Hilary in the audience. She was sat with her husband Brian only a few rows in front of my mum and dad, but they had no idea. I didn’t see Hilary again for a while and kept forgetting to speak to my dad about it.
Just when you think that the past is forgotten, it has a habit of reappearing in the most unlikely places, or in some cases opening old wounds. In dad’s case, literally. Around this time, he had a pain in his bad leg and it looked as if something from the garden had got stuck, a thorn or something similar. When he went to the GP, after a quick dig around, he dug out an old stitch that had been missed once upon a time and had finally resurfaced after patiently working its way out over the last 40 years. It reminded me of Hilary and the conversation we'd had and weeks after that chance meeting, I asked dad about it.
So did he remember Hilary? Kind of, but he definitely remembered the nursery next door to his house. As one often does, he recalled all sorts of funny details. He remembered her, although he was a few years older and with a childhood interspersed with hospital stays, his memory was a little hazy. But the name Isaac popped into his head. He didn't really know why. There were more details about his Aunty's visit, but he kept coming back to Isaac. It seemed a strange detail to remember.
It was weeks before I saw Hilary again, running the friends of the LSO desk at the Barbican.
“Hilary! My dad does remember you!”
“He remembers the nursery and someone called Isaac.”
“Ah yes,” she replied, “Isaac was my father. He ran the nursery next door. I remember your dad because he had a limp. Didn't he get run over by a bus when he was little?”
“Well...yes he did!"
I was slightly taken aback that she would know or remember a detail like this from over 50 years ago about the little boy down the road.
"It's funny," I said,"That you can remember my dad and even that he was run over by a bus, and yet all my dad can remember for some bizarre reason, is your father Isaac!"
Hilary looked at me like I was missing something really obvious.
“Well it’s not surprising really. My father was there when your dad was run over by the bus. My mother used to speak about it. He tied the tourniquet around your dad’s leg to stop the bleeding which saved his life.”
One of my most precious musical memories is of sitting on stage, my part played out, listening to the dying embers of Mahler’s 9th symphony. Bernard Haitink guided the LSO through a performance which transfixed 6000 prommers at the Royal Albert Hall. The space between final tones and silence impossible to determine, the hush of held breath and hearts beating before thunderous applause. It was a moment I’ll never forget, the mixture of Bernard, the LSO, Mahler and The Proms. Anyone who’s ever played in a Prom will tell you just how special an occasion it is. I was playing again this year with the LSO under Gergiev as we made our way through all five Prokofiev concerti; an exhausting but exhilarating evening (Although the Prommers applauding the leader giving the A on the piano gag did get a little tired by the 4th concerto). I was back this week in a guise which I have written about before on this blog, the nervous parent. My son was playing at the proms for the first time. It was a performance with Sir Mark Elder and the National Youth Orchestra, and they too were playing Mahler 9. Wonderful.
Last term at the Royal College of Music, a few of my pupils were learning the Jouers de flûte by Albert Roussel. For those of you who don’t know the piece, it is a suite containing four movements, each named after a flute player from literature with each one being dedicated to a flute player of the time. These are the movements.
1. Pan - A god from Greek Mythology. Half man, half goat, not a hit with the ladies. He plays the pan pipes (from where they get their name). The piece is dedicated to Marcel Moyse - a flute player to whom entire generations have given god like status, although I can neither confirm nor deny the goatiness of his legs.
2. Tityre - Always a nightmare to introduce at dinner parties. Tityre, or for short to his friends...er...Tityre, was a shepherd from Virgil’s Eclogues. This one is dedicated to flute professor at the Paris Conservatoire, Gaston Blanquart. Flute Fact - He won 1st prize in Paris in 1898 playing the premiere of Faure Fantasie when it hadn’t been played to death. He also played in the premiere of The Rite of Spring and Pierrot Lunaire.
3. Krishna - The Hindu god. When he was young he played the flute and mesmerised people and animals. My dog leaves the room when I play. Roussel uses an Indian scale in this movement with flattened 2 and 6, augmented 4th, perfect 5th, major 3rd and 7th. This piece is dedicated to Louis Fleury, famous as the dedicatee of Syrinx. I expect you’ve heard of it as flute players always play it when there’s no piano.
4. Monsieur de la Péjaudie - Mr P is the main character in the novel, La Pécheresse by Henri de Régnier. It won’t surprise you to know that he is an awesome flute player but also a womaniser. In all honesty, he was more interested in the latter. It is dedicated to Philippe Gaubert. He was a well known flautist, conductor and teacher and composer of flute music that mainly only flute players have heard.
I really like the concept of pieces which form little portraits of famous fictional flute players and are dedicated to famous, real flute players. I would love to know just how much Roussel had a cheeky wink at dedicating a piece about a womanising flautist to one of the most respected musicians of the day! I can’t think of another piece that does this for the flute - maybe you know better than I. Programmatic music, musical portraits etc aren’t new, but I think that we could do with an updated version of jouers for the 21st century. Not only are there now thousands of really talented and influential flautists according to twitter who could be worthy dedicatees, but there are also a whole new generation of literary flute players. But why stop there? Let’s really update the concept.
I recently found myself in an unusual position. I had the bank holiday weekend off. Even more unusual was that the weather was good. For those of you not familiar with the traditional British Bank holiday, it usually means enduring hours of traffic jams to get to the seaside whereupon the heavens open. I think it’s possibly no longer just a tradition, but the law. So I was delighted to find myself with a well earned weekend with my family. My eldest son is currently obsessed with buying a classic car. Specifically a Classic Mini. I was alarmed to discover that it was called a Classic Mini. All it is is...well, it’s a mini. An old mini. A nice piece of rebranding that does several things at once. It makes me feel old. It differentiates between the BMW MINI and the… er...Classic Mini. It also gives a boost to the market value of rust. Adding ‘classic’ onto the front of a car marque is a bit like calling a jumble sale, a vintage clothing fair. Some are classics, but there are an awful lot of polyester cardigans with holes in the sleeves going for a lot of money. Anyway, I digress. We went to Mercedes Benz World to a classic car show, where owners observed our approach to their vehicles with the twitchiness of a trigger happy border guard.
And so it seems that classical music provokes strong feelings. I should be pleased really, for when it shuffles out and nobody notices, that’s when it ends. Not with a bang, not with a choral climax, not with a final joyous chord, but with a descent into a silence once filled with sound. Opinions, no matter how polarised will never be the enemy here, the enemy is indifference.
The audience matters and plays as much a part as the performers in a way. I see you. Every night, I see you, and you make a difference. To see the orchestra in rehearsal is to see a work in progress, a lump of rock being chiseled by the sculptor, the build up of colours in a portrait; but come the performance, the final work is revealed, the rough rock now smooth and defined, the numerous colours merge together to reveal a previously hinted at depth. Move a sculpture from the artists studio to a plinth in a square and it becomes a spectacle, a picture from easel to gallery can become a masterpiece despite the fact that they are unchanged from completion to viewing. A symphony though, is different. Nobody in the hall knows what will happen at the first downbeat. An audience may come with expectations, previous heights which they hope can be relived, bettered even; they may come for the first time with no preconceptions - or many. The performers hope to create a culmination of a week of rehearsals...but none of us know for sure where the evening will take us.
I was at Abbey Road studios last night. I didn’t play a note. It wasn’t one of those tedious sessions where you sit for hours waiting to play a note which they never get around to, I was there to talk. People who know me, know that the only time I stop talking is when my flute is on my face, but on this occasion, I was there to talk about the history of Abbey Road Studios and the LSO’s part in it. Such is the aura of the place, a place that isn’t usually open to the general public, that I really didn’t need to say anything at all. When you have a group of people who love music inside those walls, and they are surrounded by photos of the legends who have recorded there, in the corner is the old mixing desk from Sargeant Pepper and a piano used in A Day in the Life, and the Hammond organ from Dark Side of the Moon - well, most people just sit with a grin on their face and soak it up. A man who walks in as a CEO, once through the door is transported back to being the teenager in his bedroom dreaming of stardom once again. Any words or light shows or virtual reality are unnecessary. The zebra crossing, the studio, the history and the instruments speak for themselves and oh how I wish the walls of studio 2 could talk! As producer/engineer Jonathan Allan, who records us regularly in studio 1 said last night, “We record anything here...as long as it’s good.” With a long list of names that span time and genre, Elgar, Menuhin, Bartok, Prokofiev, Glen Miller, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellars, Star Wars, Harry Potter...the list is endless and proves his point.
If music speaks for itself and needs little embellishment, then why is it that the classical music ‘business’ seems intent on continually reinventing itself?
After the thrill of the American tour, it was back down to earth with a bit of a bump this week. In fact, not just a bump, but a bit of a shock. When I heard that John Alley, the keyboard player in the LSO was retiring, I assumed that it was a mistimed April fool or a miscalculation on the birthday spreadsheet. How could he be retiring? John has been part of the LSO ‘family’ (as we have to call ourselves these days) for as long as I can remember. The unmistakeable white haired pianist is not just part of the fixtures and fittings of the orchestra, but of London musical life. There are very few musicians who have affected so many musicians of all ages and abilities as John. Yes, we all know about the internationally famous musicians, the heavily promoted conductors and soloists. We all know how important they are because their agents tell us. They win the awards, the OBEs, the Grammys and Gramophones. But, you mention the name John Alley to anybody who really works in music in London, anybody, and they will smile and have a tale to tell. I could fill the internet with personal recollections, be they his witty one liners which puncture over inflated conductors egos in rehearsal or a raise of an eyebrow during an audition which says more than any ensuing conversation, or the sight of the long white hair and the pencil behind the ear which reassured me during solo outings. John has just been there.
The man lies still on the street, his head ripped off beside his body. He doesn’t move in the heat of the afternoon. A mother and child check their step, and stare. Everybody else carries on, unmoved, in pursuit of the next big win at Blackjack. The child looks up at his mother for reassurance. She smiles, presses something into his hand and nudges him toward the man on the floor. Looking anxious as he passes the dismembered head, he summons up the courage to hand over the dollar bill clutched feverishly in his fist. The man on the floor opens his eyes, breathes out a rasp and takes a swig from a can of Red Bull. He raises himself to his feet, puts the dollar in his tip bag and picks up his head. The boy’s face turns to a smile as the man once more becomes Buzz Lightyear. Welcome to Las Vegas.
After the concert in Santa Barbara, we returned to the hotel in LA by bus. The following morning, before another bus trip to Costa Mesa, there is just time for breakfast. I wait for the elevator. Bing! The doors open and already inside are three women I don’t know and MTT.
“Good morning Gareth and how are we this morning?” he asks with a smile.
“I’m fine Michael thank you.”
We resume normal positions, all lined up like soldiers facing the front, not speaking; elevator etiquette is pretty much the same the world over. The doors close and we glide down towards the lobby in silence. Suddenly Michael speaks again to the lift.
“And...how was your ménage a trois last night Gareth?”
The women in the elevator shift uncomfortably. Silence.
We stop at the next floor, nobody gets in or out. The doors close again and we descend towards the lobby.
“I feel I should explain,’’ i say, still facing the front, “that ménage a trois was the name of the wine we were drinking last night.”
The atmosphere relaxes a little, but all the same, they leave promptly when we reach the lobby. Michael smiles a wicked smile and strides off in the other direction.
San Francisco evidently read my last blog. She didn’t want me to leave. At 8.30am yesterday morning we left for an 11am flight to Los Angeles. The shuttle to LA is such a popular route that there are often two planes an hour. The planes are small, two by two with a single aisle, it’s almost like getting the train to work. If you follow me on twitter, you’ll know how much I enjoy South West Trains daily challenges. Unfortunately, Delta airlines decided to take a leaf out of their book. We boarded a little late, I buckled up drifted off to sleep. I couldn’t believe it when I was awoken by the clicking of unfastening seat-belts, it’s not often I manage to sleep through a whole flight, even a short one. Sadly, all I’d slept through was the boarding process. Due to a fault, we had to ‘deplane’ and shortly afterwards, the flight was cancelled. LSO management went into overdrive and after a couple of hours waiting, boarding cards began to trickle out with instructions to either run to terminal 3, take a bus to San Jose or just wait around for the 4 o’clock flight. There was nothing I could do, I sat down to a burger and looked at Facebook as some of my more fortunate colleagues checked into the Biltmore in LA. I didn’t pay much attention to where anyone else was, or what flights they were on and so after I got bored of coffee refills, I walked out of the restaurant and was met with...well, nobody. I couldn’t see a single other LSO player. A prickle ran up my back. Had I misread my new boarding card? Had I missed my flight? Was I going to have to pay for a new ticket and miss the concert?
The sidewalk is blocked by a crowd. There is shouting and I stop to look. Two Chinese women are standing, arguing without a care over what seems to be a turnip. From the tone and volume of their voices, I’m guessing it’s an exceptional turnip. I walk on. A few minutes later, the pavement is once again blocked. Men in vests and shirts with rolled up sleeves are talking at speed in Italian. Although I’m not entirely sure what they are on about, the gesticulation, the differences in opinion and the passion flying across the corner cafe tables, means they can only be discussing one thing. Football. If you’re reading this in American, that’s soccer. I carry on up the same street and fairly soon, I’m one of a handful of people without a healthy beard and slightly too short trousers. The remains of the handful are women. The landscape is dominated by coffee shops. Not the ubiquitous costabucks, but independent, eco friendly, probably vegan and reassuringly expensive coffee shops. It’s a bit like being in Shoreditch but with post ironic sunshine. I arrive, hot and jet lagged at Fisherman's Wharf where the sweet smell of boiling shellfish overwhelms the early flowering Jasmine of the nearby residential roads. I skipped breakfast and the lure of the seafood is irresistible. I dive in to a restaurant, take a table looking out across the harbour where the towers of the Golden gate bridge thread through the masts of the fishing fleet. I order shrimp, and relax. I realise that for the last thirty minutes, I’ve been walking around with a huge grin on my face. San Francisco does that. The trouble with touring is that whilst I’m having a great time, at every turn I see something else that I wish my family were here to share. The criss cross slopes of Lombard street, the cable cars, the bridge, Davies Symphony Hall with our name on it, Alcatraz...and so it goes on, it’s easy to fall in love with this place and to be honest, if my family were here, I have a hard time of it. I left my heart in San Francisco, or so says the song. I love the city, I really do, but I left my heart somewhere in Surrey.
I suppose music imitating nature isn’t a new thing. Whether intentional and explicit as in Beethoven’s pastoral or just through the patina of place and time - Shostakovitch perhaps - you can’t get away from it. Walking around New York City earlier this week, I had my headphones on, Nirvana playing as I walked purposefully down to the bottom of Manhattan to visit my favourite bookshop, Strand Books. Nirvana can make quite a noise, but even they couldn’t drown out the sounds of the city which layered themselves on top. The sound of illegal street sellers shouting in one direction and looking for the law in the other, the constant car horns sounded for a thousand reasons and none, music dripping from stores and the chatter of tourists excitedly spotting landmarks for the first time. In the end I gave up, removed my headphones and floated downtown on a jet lagged soundtrack of the city...and you know what, there were no cows, I heard no Sibelius but instead the rhythms and tones of the Gershwin piano concerto we were playing that night, seemed to drift in and out. Not surprising I suppose in this city of infinite possibilities.
I never really got Sibelius when I was a kid. I’m not the only one either. My mother in law has always loved his music, and repeated plays as a child, left my wife slightly traumatised by what has become known in our house as ‘that symphony with the cows.’ She was scared of it as a kid. In case your relationship with sound and visuals isn’t as vivid as my wife’s, the cows in question are the low grunts from the basses, tuba and bassoons that underpin the final movement of his second symphony. You’ve probably never thought of it before, but if you listen with a child’s ears, it does so
I always wish my grandparents were still alive when I visit Buckingham Palace. I know that my Gran would have been so impressed that I was going to see the Queen. The fact that I was simply playing in the orchestra whilst it was actually Simon Halsey who was being awarded the Queens Medal for Music would be a minor detail - by the time she’d told everyone, my 30 minute performance would most likely have been upgraded to a knighthood in the village. Still, without wishing to boast, I have had several brushes with royalty. It’s very interesting watching how people think they are going to react upon meeting the Queen and the way they actually react. Some people get terribly republican and mutter about not believing in the the system and so on. In my experience, when faced with royalty, they usually end up performing the most extravagant bow in the line up. I don’t know if it’s nerves, but I always seem to end up making a joke at an inappropriate moment.
The internet nearly broke this week.
The thing that everyone has been talking about, has an opinion on, knew about all along, caused websites to grind to a halt, dominated twitter, had some commentators declaring that they knew years ago, had others moaning about it because...well I don’t know really and even making it onto the news - well all of that and more, it’s finally out in the open!
I knew all along and was delighted to discover officially this week that that dress is black and blue
Elsewhere, you may have heard that we have a new music director. I am delighted, excited and can’t wait to see where the next chapter takes us. The impact of having Simon at the front can’t be underestimated. I’m not going to repeat all the articles which have been written. I’d recommend Tom’s piece here though
...and on the final note of the bass clarinet line, someone coughed and then said, ‘Sorry!’ - it ruined the moment…"
Mark Elder describing an atmosphere breaking interruption in a recent performance of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony. You know the bit? After that beautiful clarinet solo in the first movement where the bass clarinet takes over on four unbearably quiet descending notes then a brief pause before hell is unleashed? A misplaced cough can ruin a hushed moment for the audience and in this case, as they are the only four notes the bass clarinet plays in the whole symphony, it can ruin their night too. If you go to or perform in a concert at this time of year, the chorus of coughing that marks the end of a movement ranges from the sleeve stifled hack to the full on attention seeking consumptive death rattle.(Conspiracy theorists and hacks, note the non capitalization).
I think we can probably all agree that not managing or bothering to stop coughing, or at least trying to make it quieter is annoying and at worst disruptive. But what about concert etiquette in general? Are there a whole set of unwritten rules for classical music concert going? Do we all know and agree what they are? A friend of mine told me last week that she finds the atmosphere intimidating at orchestra concerts, she feels like she might do something wrong without even realising. That’s not good, and I as a player I don’t want anyone to feel like that.
I’ve got a confession to make. Star Wars was the piece of music that first alerted me to the spectacular sound of the London Symphony Orchestra when I was a kid. The fact that I play in that orchestra and played in the soundtrack for the last two films still brings makes me smile.
That’s not my confession.
The orchestra that first stopped me in my tracks when I was a child was the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The piece that got me hooked was the final movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. I know a lot of people love the famous slow movement, but it was those powerful brass melodies from the finale that made we want to listen to more - that and the disco drumbeat of course…
Yep. The first time I heard the ninth symphony (at least before it segued seamlessly into Tchaik 6) was on a Hooked on Classics album. For what it’s worth, my earliest exposure to the foundations of the Baroque flute repertoire was from Hooked on Bach.
I watched Tom Service’s documentary, The Joy of Mozart the night before I flew to Vienna. In it he explored the making of the Mozart myth and the fetishization of the composer; from the little statuettes in the shops in Salzburg which bear no resemblance to contemporary descriptions of the man, to the Mozart Chocolate balls, a weird concoction of marzipan and chocolate. No doubt the Austrian Ambassador spoils his guests with them instead of Ferrero Rocher…
The Mozart ®© that is peddled in the streets of Salzburg and Vienna seems so far removed from the reality of the man (as far as we know) that the actual music and the personality cult industry have become detached. You want to listen to Mozart in Vienna? You’ll be wanting to buy tickets from a man in a cloak, arrive by horse drawn carriage and enjoy it only in the light of flickering candles then…
Sure enough, the second I board my Austrian Airline flight from Heathrow, the loudspeakers are blasting the most unsubtle version of Eine Kleine nachmusik I’ve ever heard. Just as I think it can’t get any worse, The Blue Danube rears its saccharine head and I can’t wait for the roar of the engines to drown out the aural destruction of the music heritage business. I, unlike many, cannot claim to know what Mozart would have made of it all, but a man who could write such extraordinary music encompassing the depth of human emotion would most probably be surprised to see the way his legacy has been airbrushed and sweetened for public consumption in the 21st century.
I’ve lost count of the the number of times I’ve heard a pop song on the radio followed by listeners saying, “Is that it? I could have written that!” The simplicity of the form (that’s why it’s so catchy!) can sometimes make it sound obvious, almost like you’ve heard it before. I heard a story once about Sir Paul McCartney who when he first wrote the famous song, Yesterday, thought the melody so familiar that someone must have already written it. It’s not just music either. Without a doubt, every time I visit the Rothko paintings at the Tate Modern in London, the audience is split. One group will be standing in quite contemplation, staring deep beyond the picture, awaiting the vibrant red canvas to give up its secrets. The other half will walk past and say something along the lines of, “Well...it’s just a red square isn’t it? I mean...I could have done that!”
But they didn’t. Lets be honest, thinking of a great idea immediately after you’ve seen the same idea which had been previously thought up by someone else...well, it’s not a hard won skill is it? The wheel? Well, I coulda thought of that...
This week has been one of those times where a complex idea was deemed to be easy, and something which looked so simple on paper was probably the most challenging moment of my week. If we don’t include concentrating on the music whilst the extraordinary Barbara Hannigan sang and danced a few feet away from me…
Many of you have been asking about lessons, and also about excerpts from the orchestral repertoire. I suddenly seem very popular when a flute job is advertised...
Anyway, I've recorded a video for the good people over at Principal Chairs. It will be online soon where you can hear my thoughts on Daphnis, Mahler 9, l'apres midi and Brahms 1. Until then you can see a preview by clicking here
Audition...One of the most powerful words in the music business. On one side of the table sit the panel, silent, critical, pencils sharpened ready to puncture the fragile bubble of competence and self belief you’ve carefully constructed for yourself. To them, auditions are a testing ground for talent where they are in an all powerful position. For the panel, auditions give them the power to decide the direction your career is going to take with the stroke of their pen. And you? The very mention of an audition gets your palms sweaty, your heart-rate increases like Starbucks have opened an outlet in your chest and any self confidence you had has disappeared down the toilet that you seem inexplicably drawn to…
Read the rest at Musical Orbit
El Sistema this, El Sistema that...there have been times over the last few years when I’ve grown sick and tired of hearing about the music education method famous for producing Gustavo Dudamel from within the ranks of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Every time they appear in Britain, the press go into a frenzy. The jackets! The twirling instruments! The dancing! Of course, celebrating young musicians is wonderful and I’m delighted that it receives coverage in the mainstream media, and for the record, I happen to think that they are brilliant!. I just wish the coverage didn’t often have the subtext of I wish we had stuff like this in Britain. Of course, it’s not just the media, music students can be just as bad. I can guarantee that when regular visiting orchestras come to London, students are fighting to get hold of a ticket, but when they can get a £5 ticket using the excellent Student Pulse App for a London based orchestra, suddenly that essay that had been meaning to get around to writing demands to be written. It seems to be a feature of being British. That self deprecating humour that we’re famous for and foreigners find endearing (so I’m told) often also manifests itself in being unable or unwilling to celebrate our own home grown talent. In short,(look away UKIP) if it’s from overseas, it must be better.
Having briefly moaned about music education and the future lack of practitioners in my last/first blog post, here's some good news. The picture above is of the offstage brass of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain giving it some during rehearsals. I should declare some self interest here - my son is one of them! They are giving concerts in Leeds tomorrow and at the home of the LSO, the Barbican on Sunday night. Back to school for most of them on Monday. I know it's often said that a picture can paint a thousand words. Well, if you want to know what the young upstarts thought of rehearsing with John Wilson, you can read what NYO harpist Hannah Allaway thought about it in her blog
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