Monday, 23 July 2007

Gig-a-Blog™ (Dvořákathon, Cheltenham Town Hall)

The Salomon Orchestra did a "Dvořákathon" on Sunday 8th July in Cheltenham as part of the Music Festival there. We played all nine symphonies in one long concert, lasting from noon to about 8.30, with the brilliant Martyn Brabbins (Salomon's President) conducting.

In previous years there've been a Beethovenathon (2003) and a Tchaikovskyathon (2005). I missed both of these and I think that this year may have been the last opportunity, so I overcame my reluctance and said I'd do this one. I will I suppose be able to tell my grandchildren about it, though just how interesting they might find it is another question.

We had three trumpets, Rob H (former Salomon regular recently returned from Paris, likely to be a regular again I would think/hope), Richard K (Forest Phil colleague of Rob, incredibly busy player, seems to do about 93 orchestras), and me. Both the Rs are very strong players.

The maths: two trumpet parts in each symphony, times nine symphonies, is eighteen parts - so we each did six symphonies, which is quite enough thanks. I wondered if we needed more players but it was difficult enough fixing how we had it, so we just had to manage. I was hugely helped by Rob agreeing to do it and bringing Richard: I was in big trouble previously. Mercifully, I only played first in one symphony (no. 2): RH and RK are both better players than I and I'm very grateful that they were prepared to do more than their fair share.

The rehearsals, three nights in the week before the concert, were interesting. I'm not sure why (some orchestra member's connection, I guess) but we were at the BBC studios at Maida Vale. All very historic and fascinating. We were in Studio 2, which is no longer used for recording although I got the impression that it may still be the rehearsal base for the BBC Singers. Next door, Studio 1 is very much still in use and is, I think, the home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Doors were labelled with all sorts of exciting and mysterious things, and there was a certain feeling of solidity and history and importance to it all.

The building itself is not all that impressive. It's got a nice single-story facade and was built, I understand, as a roller-skating rink in the early 1900s. It also got bombed during WWII. Inside it's practical rather than exciting, and round the outside of the studios has the disconcerting feeling that you can walk further in the corridors than on the corresponding length of road outside. It's interesting that a building of such historical significance is so self-effacing when you see it.

Some of the music we had also belonged to the BBC and was, I thought, historically interesting. A couple of the trumpet parts were stamped thus:

The property of

- which, I'm told by Someone In The Know, dates it back to the 1920s. I love that "London Station" bit! Also, one of my parts had ornate additions, both beautifully hand-written hinged flaps and pencilled-in extra lines, with annotations like "this ending for Dorati", which I rather liked.

The rehearsals went quite well considering how much music we had to get through. It was all quite fun, though some of the earlier symphonies were a bit difficult to love, certainly from the trumpet player's viewpoint - too much and too high, all to relatively little effect. In contrast, the writing in the later symphonies is more sparse and more directed - you feel as if you're contributing in a much more meaningful way rather than playing just to make a noise.

Martyn had a delayed train journey to one rehearsal so it was started by Charles Peebles, who was great.

The other thing I remember most clearly from Maida Vale was that one evening I had a cup of coffee which I am quite sure was the very worst I've ever paid for: quite disgusting and pretty much undrinkable. I know people traditionally joke about BBC coffee but this was out of some perfectly normal-looking machine, for goodness' sake - how wrong can it actually go, one wonders? Plenty wrong, apparently. Bleagh.

Fast forward a couple of days to the Sunday. We'd had the option of a coach, leaving Victoria early, but Robert decided to drive and lives in Walthamstow so he very kindly came and picked me up. It was a great drive, the tedious London bit giving way quickly to proper countryside. The second half of the journey was really pretty.

We were saved from a silly parking farce by the Festival people squeezing us into the Town Hall car park and there we were. It was all rather nice and civilized - there were rooms for the orchestra but also a huge and rather posh one used as a green room, where they served food all day. I'm told by old hands that this year was less good than the previous ones, having been done by a catering firm rather than volunteers, but actually it was fine anyway, as far as I was concerned. Just round the corner from there they had a table set up supplying tea and coffee all day along with the all-important biscuits. So I felt we were pretty well looked-after.

We started pretty promptly at 12.00. At first I felt quite keen, and of course there was the excitement of playing 1st in the Second Symphony, which I suppose kept me a bit more focussed. There was a break after every even-numbered symphony, and I wasn't in 3 or 4 so I had a long time off - especially as, I think, the lunch break was sometime round then as well.

I didn't want to leave the building so I missed seeing Cheltenham properly - another time maybe. So I just wandered around a bit - the building is rather grand and beautiful - and chatted or read or drank tea, or all of these. Oh, and the Town Hall, bless it, has open-access wireless to which my PDA connected in a refreshingly trouble-free manner. (The Town Hall photo at the top is by the excellent Adrian Pingstone by the way.)

After a while I found myself back on stage for the Fifth Symphony. I'm sure it was around here that I started to feel I was losing the will to live a bit. However, I muddled through it somehow and then enjoyed my last symphonic-length break with Richard and Robert blazing their way through no. 6.

In the next official break there was some shifting around to do as we were joined by some local musicians for the last three symphonies. In the brass we only got one player, a very nice bloke from the Stroud Symphony. He was a comeback player, who wanted to make it very clear from the outset that he was not intending to come blasting in and play all the solos: far from it. Indeed when he came and sat down he charmingly announced himself as ''Auxiliary Second Trumpet" and this is pretty much how it worked. He wasn't loud and mostly stayed out of the way, and was entirely sensible and helpful in his approach. I'm hoping he also enjoyed himself!

In fact, there was supposed to have been a more first-player type of person but he didn't turn up; it could have maybe been difficult, given that we already had two rather good first players, if this guy had showed up and wanted to play everything. I'm sure we'd have worked something out but it was perhaps easier that this didn't arise.

Once the new, augmented orchestra was in and settled, it was on with the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. I must say that for this whole rather long concert Martyn was really excellent, keeping it going amazingly well musically, with a great rapport with the audience. Naturally he didn't get any symphonies off, but seemed to be incapable of feeling fatigue - he just kept going and going. An incredible performance.

Moving on to these later symphonies I began to feel that it was clear why they are so much better-known. Even just from my blinkered view as a trumpet player - as I said before, the writing's just so much better!

I'm ashamed to admit that I don't know the Eighth all that well. In particular, I had sort-of forgotten, oops, that its last movement starts with just trumpets so I was rather shocked when Martyn cued us and we came in and no-one else did. Ack! Fortunately the appropriate reflex kicked in (aha) and I just kept going. This despite a small deputation led by Sprengel, the Imp of the Left Shoulder, lobbying urgently for the "Drop The Trumpet And Run Away" solution. In fact, a few people came up afterwards and said nice things about it, which as well as being gratifying and perhaps a little embarrassing, was confusing. Either I played, in my sudden terror, so quietly that they really only heard Rob, or being taken by surprise like that suits me, and I should try henceforth to forget about every trumpet entry? Hmm.

With the Eighth out of the way we just had the Ninth between us and the road home. I perhaps needed reminding, a little, that there's a good reason for the popularity of the Ninth: it's such a fantastic symphony! It was good fun to play it again: I am pretty sure that the last time I played in this symphony was in CASO in the late 1970s. I think there was a general desire to have as many as possible on stage for this last one so we had all four trumpets, which was nice.

The audience seemed to really like it and we, and especially the indefatigable Brabbins, were given a very nice response at the end. As, no doubt, was Dvořák too. Though I'd very much enjoyed doing the Ninth, I was quite relieved that there's no Tenth or Eleventh. I was pretty tired, but delighted that I had participated in this rather unusual and memorable event. Thonk you and good night.

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