02 October 2013

Dear Readers, you will be delighted to learn that I learned my lesson from the previous Friday's flight fail, and arrived at Heathrow last Sunday in exceedingly good time to catch our plane to Madrid. In fact, one could say that my travelling group of upper strings were probably a tad over-cautious, arriving as we did almost before check-in had even opened. But better safe than sorry! Frankie our Tour Manager was impressed and bemused in equal measure.

It should have meant plenty of time for a nice leisurely breakfast and a thorough olfactory examination of all the fragrances in the duty-free, but unfortunately I managed to spend most of the next hour in a stagnant security queue. I watched enviously as instrument-carrying colleagues breezed through the myriad alternative gates and off to luscious lattes and pretty perfume sellers. My queue was stuck because the one male security man whose job it was to wave through us waiting men was far more interested in helping out the one female security lady, and for obvious reason. She was very pretty, but he was fawning over her to an embarrassing degree. His long line of seething male customers grew more and more frustrated, unable to pass through the portal to collect belongings which had long since travelled through the scanning machine. The only upside was that we too were able to watch the female security girl go through her slow, unhurried motions. I still wished I had a latte though.

The flight was mostly uneventful, apart from the spectacularly poor attitude of one Iberia employee who had clearly got out of bed the wrong side, or who simply hated people, or perhaps both. I was finally presented with a glass of water at the third time of asking, about an hour after the initial request. It was dumped onto my flappy table and half of it sloshed out onto my newspaper. Thankfully it missed the sports section.

We arrived on time, and quickly noted how little a late September Spanish day has in common with a British one - I went straight to the nearest shop and bought an ice cream. Coaches then ferried us to our regular Madridian hotel, which is central, has nice modern rooms and large fake antique vases in the lobby. At least I think they're fake. There are also green apples everywhere in trendy glass displays, which look nice and shiny but taste pretty weird. I think it's the wax coating that does something to the flavour. A couple of hours for lunch and a shower, and we were back on the buses for the 30 minute ride to the hall, the Auditorio Nacional Madrid. I really like it - it's big, slightly cave-like with cool temperatures, dim hall lights and bright acoustics. Backstage is good too, with large dressing rooms (it's astoundingly rare for us to have enough space to change without head-butting a colleague's bottom), a gents toilet with Wild West swing doors and free cups of proper, freshly-made coffee. It's not far from Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabéu stadium, and I thought briefly about asking Frankie to get a message to their new Welsh player telling him some other Brits were in town and that maybe he'd like to come to the concert. But there were enough distractions for the audience during the performance without the attendance of an over-priced footballer, as phones went off at regular intervals, and each time they did they were drowned out by the exasperated tut-tutting of the other concert-goers. Unfortunately, two noises don't equal silence! But the concert went very well, with the Orfeón Pamplonés choir in wonderful voice, and our sensationally sensitive cello section dared to play paradisal pianissimi in the recitative-like passages when Juliet is stirring from her deep sleep. We celebrated with cervezas.

The next day Gijs Kramers, Katy Woolley and I went to explore Toledo, 70 kilometers south of the capital. Unfortunately the high-speed train we were aiming for was fully booked, and despite our implorations to let us stand for the half-hour journey, we were refused. So we spent the next two hours low-speed rowing and walking around the picturesque Parque del Retiro, before returning to the station and plonking ourselves into our well-reserved, high-speed seats.

Toledo was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1986, and you see why the second you step off the train. The station alone is worth the journey, with decorative brickwork and elegant clock tower. The Old Town requires a good set of legs to reach, set as is it on a hill over the Rio Tajo. There is a knife or sword shop on every corner, displaying the historical significance of steel to the city. We headed for the largest, most impressive building we could see, a former 3rd century Roman palace named Alcázar. It was where the King of Spain, Charles I, received the explorer Hernán Cortés in 1521, and now it is a library. Certainly the grandest I've seen. There's a little cafe at the top from where we took photos of thousands of tiled roofs and bought limey ice lollies.

We wandered the narrow streets, heard a busking cellist, inspected the spectacularly decorated cathedral and found a nice cafe for lunch, before heading back to the station and Madrid. A lovely touristy day. But of course, there was another concert to give! We went straight to the hall, rejuvenated with coffee and refamiliarised ourselves with our instruments. The programme was the Eroica / Symphonie fantastique one, so minimal rehearsal was needed, and it was another splendid gig. More infuriating phones, but the orchestra flowed through the familiar passages with joie de vivre, and we received another fantastic ovation.

On our return to London I spent the next few days with my wife, popping to IKEA for some last minute baby stuff and generally making her feel as comfortable as possible. We had a lovely evening with friends at a local pizza restaurant, and on Thursday we played the last Romeo and Juliet at the RFH. The love scene music became a welcome earworm, and 24 hours after the first serious signs of movement on Friday, my wife presented me with our first child, a beautiful baby girl, at 9.36 on Saturday morning. I had taken off the concerts in Windsor and Basingstoke months before, but was still scheduled to play in Esa-Pekka's 30th Anniversary concert the next afternoon. We had had two sleepless nights, but Ana was happy for me to go and take my place onstage as part of an enjoyable, significant milestone. I wasn't needed for the first half, so spent it scoffing homemade brownies in the Artists Bar in an attempt to get enough sugar to see me through the Symphonie fantastique in the second half. Despite almost nodding off during the cor anglais solo in the 3rd movement of the Berlioz (sorry Jill!), I held it together, and we blasted through the demonic last movements to bring the applauding audience to its feet. At the end there was an unexpected treat, a short film of members past and present talking about E-P's dramatic debut in 1983 and his subsequent rise to position of Principal Conductor. Most amusing was his response to the question on whether he thought his debut had gone well. He then gave a short address of thanks from the podium, and talked about how he feels this orchestra is genuinely like a family, with biological and musical bonds that go back generations. He of course married one of our violinists, and I felt it was extremely apt, since my mind was naturally with my new family. Afterwards I went to his dressing room to thank him for the wonderful concerts and tours, and received a big sweaty hug and a message of love for my girls.

Music is an extraordinary thing. Heart, mind and soul go into its inception, and they must also be present at the creation of sound in order to truly convey the messages and meanings held within. I think it is rare and difficult, particularly in this age of financial stress and instant gratification, for performers to spend so much time together, travelling and touring, building connections both on and off stage, in order to play so damn well. It requires sacrifice and dedication, and it's not for everyone. But when we have an inspiring figurehead and inspiring music in front of us, and years of world class tradition behind us, being in a concert hall with this outstanding ensemble is a genuine privilege. Thank you for reading this blog, I hope I've managed to convey a sense of what it means to be a Philharmonian. Please come and say hello next time you're at a Philharmonia concert, wherever it may be.