20 September 2013

The second part of our pan-European tour began on Friday 13th. We were due to be flying from Heathrow to Zurich at some ungodly hour for a concert in Lucerne, and for this blogger things went far less than smoothly.

I have a new phone - words that will always set alarm bells ringing through the minds of tour managers. It's pretty and powerful and could probably propel a person to the moon, given the right app. All I wanted it to do that morning was help me get out of bed on time. Unfortunately, the alarm bell I wanted to ring through my mind did so when my train was leaving, rather than when I should have been getting up in order to catch aforementioned train. Admittedly the error was more human than mechanical, as I'd set the thing in a sleepy daze late the previous evening after packing. And when it finally did go off, forty minutes late, the brutal noise I'd somehow selected shocked me into a foul mood - the poco crescendo of paradisal harp-eggios I was expecting to waft me awake had been replaced by a fearsome blaring siren, the like of which was used to warn of impending toothy dismemberment by veloceraptors in Jurassic Park. I jumped out of bed, threw my clothes on, kissed my beloved good bye and ran into the rainy greyness. In my haste to leave the only socks I could find were those stupid ankle-less sporty ones, which feel mighty weird when you're wearing jeans and brogues. I'd packed the others the night before, see? I flapped wildly down the hill with my suitcase tilting this way and that, like a grumpy bear dragging a recently deceased gazelle. The fates and Southern trains conspired against me, and I was left panting and dripping on the platform as the train firmly closed its doors and departed, mocking me with its serenity.

Notwithstanding the unfortunate start to the journey, I should have still been able to get to T5 with around 10 minutes to spare before the check-in closed. That is, until the Piccadilly line train I was on decided to change destinations, meaning a further delay and wait for the next T5 train at Hatton Cross. When I finally arrived at the terminal I reckoned I had two minutes. I ran manically for the lift, got in and prayed for a swift ascent. I watched in horror as a foot jutted between the almost closed doors, forcing them to open and to allow all 583 of my fellow tube passengers to join me in the painfully slow, heavy trundle up to Departures. I fairly ripped the doors apart and repeated my bear/gazelle impression across the vast marble-floored hall towards Zone G. Per, our wonderfully calming Orchestra Personnel Manager, was for once looking agitated, and when I reached him the terrible news came - I was a minute late, and the computer-operated BA lady wouldn't let me deposit my bag. I had missed my first ever Philharmonia flight, on Friday 13th. I howled like a bear that had been cranially assaulted by a monkey wrench. (I should perhaps state that I have never actually heard the noise a bear makes when thwacked with a wrench, monkey or otherwise, nor should I wish to. I also am not sure if bears drag gazelles about.)

I was secretly relieved to discover I would be joined in the late club by Jill Crowther, cor anglais extraordinaire, who had got stuck on the roads - partly because it meant neither of us were alone, and also because she's a lovely travelling companion. After commiserating with each other, we had no option but to catch the next flight to Zurich, and then take a train through the glorious Alpine countryside to Lucerne, where we arrived, tired and considerably poorer, half an hour before the rehearsal began. All our official travel is taken care of, but if you miss a flight, coach or train, it's up to you to make your own way. Still, it could have been worse. At the magnificent hall I found a shower, had a cup of coffee and took in some exceedingly fresh air and fine views from the stage door, before going inside to warm up and get into pro mode.

We performed Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet again. I said in the last blog how gorgeous parts of it are, and here, second time through and in another wonderful hall, we were able to relax into our storytelling roles comfortably. The Love Scene, where the two youngsters tell of their sweet and tender awakenings (unlike mine that morning) was played so beautifully. Have a listen to Esa-Pekka conducting it at the Proms a few years ago.

After the concert we went for a couple of beers at the old Rathaus Brauerei which overlooks the River Reuss and the amazing 14th century Kapellbrücke bridge. Built of wood and at a funky diagonal over the river, it suffered severe fire damage twenty years ago, but was happily well restored. Now thousands upon thousands of spiders live under the triangulated roof, which also houses some amazing 17th century paintings depicting local tales. Well worth a visit, despite the spiders.

Early the next morning I left the hotel, walked along the lake and eventually found a park with a deserted little beach. Despite it being light, there was not a soul in sight. The water was chilly, but I went for a swim anyway, and felt tremendously refreshed. At around half seven a bell tolled and suddenly people appeared from every street and began doing stuff. It was like a scene from The Truman Show, when Jim Carrey's character goes missing and the big boss starts ordering people to suddenly appear at various points throughout the town. A little strange.

After breakfast we took buses to Arth-Gauld train station, from where we travelled three hours to Milan, and then changed trains for another three hours to Rimini. Somewhat dazed and blinking in the strong sunshine, we got on more coaches to the hotel, arriving eight and a half hours after leaving the previous one. On top of the previous day's travel experience, I was very glad we'd now be staying put for two nights. And to further lighten the mood, there was a free dinner to look forward to. Our generous Swiss supporter Vincent Meyer was hosting a meal at a lovely fish restaurant by Rimini Marina, which meant white wine aplenty, all sorts of Adriatic delicacies and a very large O Sole Mio cake. It was a fun night. The grappa wasn't strictly necessary, but seeing as we had nothing to do until late the following afternoon, it was consumed with typical Italian flair and abandon.

The next day I went to the beach, swam, fell asleep for an hour and woke up with a pink belly, despite the clouds. I had another dip to cool off and then walked back to the hotel via the Old Town, which had lovely buildings, street entertainers, pizza slices and ice cream. The evening concert was a brilliant programme of the Eroica and Fantastique symphonies, played to a very appreciative audience in the wonderfully bright and shiny new hall. Sometimes Esa-Pekka decides he needs fewer or greater numbers of string players, depending on the size of the stage, the acoustics or the music itself. Those who are only needed in one of the pieces (like many of the percussionists in the Berlioz in this concert) are still paid the same as the rest of us. If we were paid by how many notes we play I'd feel sorry for the cymbal player in Bruckner 7 who has literally one crash to perform! For this concert we were at full capacity, and it went brilliantly.

On Monday we again had a double train day, this time to Bolzano via Bologna. We had time for a quick cafe stop between trains, and I ordered a fruit smoothie. What arrived was a large glass of chopped, but most definitely un-blended, fruit, and a long spoon. A DIY smoothie, if you will. It was quite amusing and perfectly edible, but just a little more solid than I'd hoped. Once in Bolzano we were bused to the Four Points Sheraton hotel, which has a very nice pool on the 7th floor with large windows framing the nearby mountains. We were back on the coaches at five for the 45 minute ride to Merano, which is not, I discovered, the same place as Murano. The latter is famous for being a glass-producing island near Venice, whereas the former is a very posh, pretty place with a spa and river and elegant, compact concert hall. One look at the interior decor of marble and glass and we knew it would be loud. We did all fit on to the stage, just about, but the latter movements of the Berlioz, with the brass thundering away, threatened to remove the roof. In the end it was ok, with screens and ear plugs helping avoid ear damage, but it wasn't the most comfortable of evenings. The audience loved it, of course, with several responding to the massive wall of sound that was the final chord with their own noisy 'Bravo!'s. As we had the previous night, we played as an encore Wagner's Overture to Act III of Lohengrin.

I managed another early morning swim before we dozed our way through two hours of yet more glorious countryside to Verona airport, from where we took a charter flight back to London. Charters are nice because they are never full, meaning you can spread out a bit, but the downside is they are always bumped down the list for landing time, choice of docking station and baggage handlers. The outer reaches of Gatwick are a long walk from civilisation, and we were still waiting for our bags an hour after landing. And then, in true Philharmonia fashion, we all trundled home to dump bags only to reconvene at 6pm in Abbey Road for four hours of recording sessions for a forthcoming Hollywood film. At ten the cheerful composer thanked us for our exemplary playing, and we went home for a few days of non-orchestral relaxation. All being well with the wife and unborn child, I shall relay another installment of blog after our trip to Madrid at the weekend. Thanks for reading!