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Hop 'n drop to Perugia

Thu May 28 2009

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One Concert in the Life of a Touring Musician

So – how have we weathered these last eleven days?

To summarise: four concerts in three venues: Kings Place, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and St. George’s Bristol; three days of ‘Giulio Cesare’ at Glyndebourne; two days of rehearsals at Maida Vale studios, rounded off with a one-night dash to Perugia. Perhaps the deafening silence during the four-hour coach journey from Perugia back to Bologna airport on Monday morning speaks for itself.

The Italian bit began on Sunday with an alarm call at 5.30 a.m. in a hotel near Gatwick. Those awake enough to think of it, boarded the airport bus last in order to get to the check-in desk first, ahead of the double basses, timps and cellos. For, without such tactics, the best-laid plans for a leisurely breakfast and a strong cup of coffee, prior to take off, can fade slowly into a distant dream as time drips by in the first of the interminable queuing procedures that are the hallmark and curse of air travel. Even getting through security can induce moments of character-building restraint. For, on various memorable occasions in the past, instrumentalists have been ordered to hand over tuning forks, hundreds of pounds worth of spare strings and vital, expensive reed-making knives and pliers – packed into suitcases nowadays. As musicians, possibly the most profound question to be asked during the whole tedious business is: “Any sharp instruments in your hand luggage?” Strapping the cellos into window seats can become a moments of high entertainment for the cellists: British Airways, for example, always produces miles of regulation blue rope, with much fussing at the departure gates and in the cabin. On this occasion, the captain warmly welcomed the OAE on board, before thoughtfully informing the other passengers that the orchestra was responsible for a delay.

At Bologna airport, once all the suitcases and timps were through and the basses inspected for damage (a vital ritual at the end of every flight) it was out into the surprisingly fierce Italian sunshine (at least 30 degrees rumour has it), off with jackets and scarves and into the waiting coach. By this stage the five-hour kip at Gatwick began to feel somewhat inadequate and it was all too tempting for some to snooze through four hours (excluding lunch stop) of panoramic views of mountains, lush green fields, olive groves, vineyards and distant hilltop towns.

As ever on these hop ‘n drop one night trips, when finally making it to the hotel, the length of recovery time allotted to us before setting out again is of huge importance. There are times when we are running so late that we get a mere ten minutes or, sometimes, no time at all. Thankfully, on this occasion we were granted an hour and a half before finding ourselves back on the bus for a fifteen-minute journey to the town centre. Up until this point the most significant and perfectly reasonable question on many people’s minds might well be: “Why?” As in: “Why on earth have we come all this way for one concert?” Eleven hours of travel and not a note played, yet.

However, the inner voice of disquiet becomes somewhat muted in a town as sensational as Perugia. At its heart is a spectacular, unspoilt medieval city, living history built in a wonderful mixture of rough brick and stonework with narrow cobbled streets, high walls, shuttered windows, fountains, arches, wooden balconies in hidden courtyards, outside staircases, open squares and glorious churches. This extraordinarily beautiful place is worth experiencing, even for a few minutes.

Hidden away is the Teatro Morlacchi, typical of many Italian hill town theatres to be found in the region of Umbria, this one on a modestly grand scale. Backstage is a warren of winding stairs and old fashioned dressing rooms in need of a lick of paint. Peering into the unlit gloom from the stage itself there is a wonderful view of the auditorium, a space of generous proportions with a superb painted ceiling and at least six storeys of elegant opera boxes sweeping away from the stage in a giant semi circle from floor to ceiling – all scruffy grandeur and fading upholstery.

Relief from the heat outside was not to be – always a problem for our vulnerable, gut-strung instruments: hot and dry conditions make the strings go down in pitch whilst the woodwinds react to the heat in the other direction and go up. On tour the basses and timps often have to cope with the effect of temperature extremes, being subjected first to the freezing cold in the hold of the aeroplane, to uncomfortably hot temperatures in some of the concert venues; conditions that can damage instruments and alter both sound and performance.

After a rehearsal with Robin Ticciati, followed by a snack and a hasty change into concert clothes, the concert started at 9.00 and was over by 11.15 – sixteen hours after leaving the Gatwick hotel; our Italian audience was treated to an evening of Sterndale Bennet, the wonderful Schumann Konzertstück for four horns, and Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony – in an atmosphere not so much of cool mountain lochs, Scottish mists and surging seas, more a case of sweating brows and breaking strings.

Finally, bed for some, food and drink for others – inside or out – on this perfect, warm and still evening.

But whatever the choice, at 6.00 a.m. the alarm awoke us bossily the next morning and we shuffled blearily and wearily, sorry, I mean bounded light-footed and eagerly onto the bus for a second dose of the long journey back to Bologna (without stop), the joy of airport procedures, and a much delayed flight back to Gatwick; our fault again apparently. This time BA had no blue rope and refused to let the cellos into the cabin. However, on looking up the rules the captain discovered that it was permissible to use just the safety belts, but only if the cellos were worth nothing. Suddenly, all five cellos were worth nothing. On arrival at Gatwick a handful of utterly mad persons went straight to a rehearsal, but most headed for home. I walked through my own front door at about 6.00 p.m.

So – how have we weathered these last eleven days?

To summarise: four concerts in three venues:  Kings Place, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and St. George’s Bristol, three days of …….etc etc. Kindly read the opening paragraph again if not completely exhausted by now.

By 2.45 on Tuesday afternoon we were back in the pit at Glyndebourne for a warm up before the second performance of Giulio Cesare.

And on the way home at 11.30 that night, a flash of fur dashed into the road in front of my car, and that was the end of someone’s beloved cat.

Susie Carpenter-Jacobs, violin

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