Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Gig-a-Blog™ (Cardiff University Symphony Orchestra, Cardiff University Concert Hall)

Saturday, 3 November 2007
and bits of Friday and Sunday, to boot.

This weekend involved a massive mobhanded descent (well, six of us) on Cardiff due to this concert being led by our own dear Daughter of Middlestness. Naturally this will not bias in any way my fearless and highly critical reporting of this excellent event hem hem.

"Interesting" background information that you don't need but are being offered anyway includes:

  • The big car wasn't well, so I had to take the little car, which is also not exactly in the first flush of youth. It is also not as nice, comfortable, fast, well-equipped etc, indeed I could happily condemn it as quite inferior were it not for it being significantly less likely to lose all its oil and water then blow up. Tsk.
  • You couldn't get a hotel room for love nor money in Cardiff that night. I say Vogel, I hear you murmur, must have been a very popular concert huh? Well yes, and I bow to no man in my admiration for this fine orchestra, but actually there was also a boxing match of some colossal significance taking place at the Millennium Stadium (capacity: 74,500) and this may also have contributed to the problem in some minor way.

Erm right so on we go:

We had complex journeys. Becca drove down from Manchester, Eva and Deb came on the train, and I drove down from London but stayed the previous night in Chichester and then drove up from there with Mum.

Because of the Cardiff hotel situation we were staying way out of town, in fact, nearer Usk, at the very nice Cwrt Bleddyn Hotel.

Mum’s and my journey up was lovely. It was a very nice sunny late autumn day and the trees almost all the way up were an amazing display of colour. I seem to recall reading, earlier in the year, that it was forecast to be a good autumn for leaf colour, but I cannot remember why this was supposed to be so. Maybe I'll see if I can look it up (or not). Anyway, it did seem to be particularly spectacular.

Given the complex travel arrangements I was a little worried (i.e. gibbering) about punctuality and as we left in good time then had quite a pretty fast, clear run, we were well ahead of schedule by the time we were entering Wales. As we hadn't yet had lunch we left the M48 (the old M4 over the original Severn Bridge) at Chepstow and drove up the Wye Valley. On such a nice day and with the aforementioned autumn colours, this was a truly beautiful ride. We found ourselves in Tintern at the Abbey Hotel, right opposite the said abbey (photo at page top), and had very pleasant bar snacks there looking out over the lovely view. Pretty goshdarned near perfect. Then after a stroll down to look at the abbey and riverside (more fantastic red, green, orange, yellow, brown, gold - and the rest - catching the sun across the valley) we were off again.

In an area like this it's perhaps a mistake to entrust navigation to the GPS without checking its work. It certainly got us to Cwrt Bleddyn but along the most incredible filigree of tiny roads, such that you worry that meeting another vehicle would be a real problem; or else that the road is about to peter out in the middle of nowhere or, embarrassingly, in some farmer's front garden. In fact none of these things happened and the drive across was interesting and very pretty, as well as a bit disconcerting, so a net gain, really.

At the hotel we checked in and looked at access and so on, and had a cup of tea (but of course). It's a good place - some kind of manor-house-type building much added-to, but in a tactful enough way that it doesn't frighten the horses. The staff are very nice and helpful and the rooms were fine, though our particular corner was short on views. The public rooms that I saw - the lobby, dining room and bar - were pleasant and rather classy. Access was OK-ish: they'd given us clear warning that it's not yet fully accessible, but they helped in every possible way and it was all pretty cool, basically.

By the time tea was drunk my timetable anxieties were getting their claws in and we set off for Cardiff. It actually did get quite worrying as the traffic going in was appalling. As well as the boxing there was a firework display on (nearest Saturday to Guy Fawkes, innit) and the roads really couldn't take it all - we chugged slowly along at walking pace for what seemed like days. We did, however, make it and there met with Becca, who showed up at pretty much the same moment, and with Eva and Deb who were annoyingly calm and relaxed. Huh, train travellers.

The music department porters had kindly and helpfully carved out a wheelchair space. They had very nicely put it absolutely as close as possible to Lottie so that Bec would have been eye to eye with her from about a metre away, maybe a touch less. I don't know what this would do to you but I'll cheerfully admit that I don't think I could play a note like that, though fortunately I do not lead orchestras. No-one wanted to reject the porters' kindness but after a hurried consultation a polite delegation was sent to request a teeny shift and we ended up seated in a much more moderate position at the first crossways aisle.

While on the subject of the venue, I should just add that I rather liked the concert hall, which is actually in or at least attached to the music department. It has a nice atmosphere and feels like home but is big enough to get a decent-sized concert in.

The concert was (of course) wonderful. No, but it really was: the orchestra was great and Tim Taylor did a fine job conducting it with admirable clarity. I've seen him conduct before and he's struck me as someone who knows not only how he wants the music to sound, but also exactly how to communicate this to an orchestra. Seems obvious I know, but you'd be amazed how many conductors have one ability or the other but not both. And indeed I suppose a few have neither: but let us not start on that downward slope lest they start retaliatory blogging about bad trumpet players they know...

Chabrier's España was first, a flashy and exciting start to the concert. Next came the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major which was truly stunning. The soloist Christopher Andrews can really play. Oh and I know I should try not to be so parochial about the instrument I claim to play, but the extremely prominent and exciting trumpet part - no, seriously - was delivered with great style and verve by some talented young person, so well done them too. After the interval came a stormy, exciting and dramatic Franck Symphony in D minor. In this symphony, to misquote someone, I am never quite sure whether I like the actual music, or just the noise it makes, but the latter was more than impressive in any case. One way or another, it's quite a symphony and the orchestra certainly delivered on Franck's promises. I sort-of loved this symphony when we did it in CASO decades ago and I sort-of love it now. I probably ought (in a perfect world) to try to educate myself about Franck and his other music a bit. Finally, a Satie Gymnopédie (arranged by whom?) made for a very pleasant encore. Just as well, since the lengthy, warm and enthusiastic reception after the Franck clearly required another nice tunette to send the audience home (or indeed on to the boxing, I suppose) with the right amount of bounce in its collective step.

So all in all this was a fine and very enjoyable concert and I thought Lottie led well; and indeed looked nice, having I think invested in a new dress, er, an ting, for the event. We were very proud of her.

After the event I was pleased to meet, briefly, the famous Tim Taylor, having heard so much about him from Lottie. It's very odd doing Meet The Teacher when your child is a university student! But TT seems very nice. We've spoken and emailed in the past (a question of the Boehme Concerto in E or is it F minor, and where, pray, are the orchestral parts for F?) but we hadn't met. It's probably even more excruciating having your Dad talking to university staff than it is at a school function but we were both in a hurry so Lottie's pain was at least brief, and bravely borne.

Following that we went our separate ways, Lottie no doubt to party the night away and us oldies to stagger off back to Cwrt Bleddyn. Due to deficient planning we were hungry and had no accessible restaurant in mind, let alone booked: however we just went back to the hotel and let room service solve our problem, which it did very nicely. We had a sort of Sandwich Summit in Becca's room, and at some point I visited the rather swish bar for a (purely medicinal) whisky and, d'you know what, it was all perfectly pleasant.

In the morning I was delighted to find that Becca could get into the dining room by dint of a bit of an exterior tour and a steplet or two, but nothing to defeat the parental muscle (gnah! wagghh! ungghh!!) Having paid roughly a billion pounds for the hotel it's difficult (and indeed uneconomic) to resist when you're offered a cosmic megabreakfast: so I didn't. I had the full Welsh and, while I cannot now remember how this differs from a full English, I do remember that it was delicious. Erm, and indeed far from ungenerous. Yes.

I ran Eva into Newport to catch a train home. After that the rest of us had a shortish wander round the hotel's grounds, which are exquisite - all little streams and bridges and stuff, a very pretty setting.

I very much enjoyed Cwrt Bleddyn and would very happily spend more time there. If they spent a few bob changing the accessibility from Nearly to Actually, and kept the helpfulness they already display, it would be truly stunning. They are so close that it's quite tantalizing.

So goodbye, nice hotel, and off we set again back to Cardiff to meet Lottie and Jake and have an excellent lunch at the Grape and Olive, a trendy and very pleasant pub-restaurant not very far from Lottie's house. This place she had sussed out in advance, and had done a top job: it was really lovely - food, décor, access, staff, the lot - and I would very much like to go back one day, maybe in the evening after a walk or something, when I'd do it more justice. (Clue: can you say "hotel breakfast"? Good, good.)

Having consumed a light-yet-nutritious™ (thank you Ken) lunch I somehow managed to get back to the car (possibly on hands and knees, groaning piteously), and drive it (possibly from the back seat) back to Lottie's house. Have I learned a lesson here? Doubt it.

At Lottie's, farewells were said and we zoomed off to all - well, several - points of the compass. Bec was off north(ish)wards for Manchester; Mum and I dropped Deb at Cardiff station then set off for the motorway. Unfortunately there'd been a serious accident and everything was badly jammed up, with no chance of avoiding it for many miles, so we just crawled along. Eventually we were able to get off the motorway and divert round the rest of it, going round the edge of Newport. This was a bit tedious but rather enlivened by our being overflown, at low altitude, by the biggest flock of rooks I've ever seen. There must have been hundreds, maybe thousands, and it made a truly awe-inspiring sight.

I think poor Becca had a bit of a rubbish journey too, having been unable to completely avoid the effects of the same jam, and ended up taking quite a while to get home too. Ah - update - I had forgotten that after that Becca ran into the Worst Fog Ever while snurgling her way up through Wales, and that that was what made her seriously late back. It was really very bad indeed, thick and persistent, for many miles - she nearly got lost going round a roundabout at one point, because the exits and signage were so obscured. Nasty!

I can't remember much about the rest of our journey, which suggests that it was probably uneventful. So let's assume that I got Mum home safely, had some permutation of tea/snack/kip/chat - or indeed all of the above, then set the autopilot for Norf London and off I went. All in all, very very pleasant and well done that Leading Lottie. Woo.

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