23 November 2012
Avery Fisher Hall, New York.
Ginger Tree, Central Park.
E-P gives a moving end-of-tour thank you speech.
Manhattan from a boat.
At the 9/11 Memorial site on Thanksgiving Day.
Our magnificent, memorable tour of the United States has come to a close. The main body of the orchestra has been back in London for a couple of days now, but some of us decided to delay our flights home after the New York concerts to spend a few more days in this great city. Please forgive the delay in submitting this last blog entry, but as I write whilst sitting in a lovely Lower Manhattan apartment, with another sort of football on the telly (Thanksgiving NFL), I have had time to reflect on the great journey we've made over the past few weeks. Incidentally, the New England Patriots are showing the New York Jets no mercy, unlike Barack Obama who allowed a couple of turkeys to keep their giblets intact with his traditional Presidential Pardon. There's quite a bit to cover, so let's start on Saturday after Arsenal's comprehensive victory over Spurs. After a long day of travelling, made longer by my crazily early start to watch the football, we arrived at New York's JFK airport, jumped on some coaches and travelled into Manhattan. The orchestra were staying in a hotel near Times Square, but myself, Nathaniel and Jan (violins) had opted out of that, and instead found this apartment in SoHo (South of Houston) for the week. It's proved to be a great decision!
On Sunday we awoke to glorious sunshine (it's been great weather all week, in fact), and after a nibble of breakfast headed up to the Lincoln Centre in a cab. I asked our Moroccan driver whether he'd been affected by Superstorm Sandy, and his ranting, raving reply about climate change and the state of politics and the world in general lasted all the way uptown. It was nice to see a bit of passion, although his lack of focus on the road meant he missed the turn, taking us a few blocks too far north, and when he'd finally got us to the hall he then nearly drove off with our instruments in the trunk! Still, we arrived in one piece, if not completely at peace!
The rehearsal was mostly for Wozzeck, to be performed the following day, as we had a new singer in the title role, Simon Keenlyside taking over from Johan Reuter. The singers in these performances of Berg's harrowing opera have been brilliant, and I've particularly loved the consistently haunting beauty of Angela Denoke's Marie. We then topped and tailed the Mahler in readiness for the evening concert. Whilst being a grand, imposing hall to play in (there are precisely 64 red Exit signs dotted about the interior), we found the acoustics of Avery Fisher a little tricky as the violins sounded pretty soft in comparison to the wind and brass. But all great orchestras have to be able to adapt, and with Esa-Pekka's extra perfect ears guiding us, I think we rose to the challenge.
In the afternoon my girlfriend (who had arrived from London as we arrived from LA) and I took a bike ride in the sweeping, autumnal haven that is Central Park. This 843 acre rectangle of nature is a vital lung for the city, with the golden trees, gently rippling lakes and curving, undulating roads and pathways creating a strong juxtaposition with the right-angled grid of concrete and brick buildings that border it. Having worked up an appetite, we headed to the famous Carnegie deli for a late lunch. Famous for its massive pastrami sandwiches, a sign reads, 'Not all skyscrapers in New York are made of glass and marble.'
So, our last performance of Mahler's 9th. All I can say is I felt we reached new heights. Familiarity is vital with pieces such as these, such complex, epic, arching works, and the orchestra 'felt' right from the opening cello heartbeats through to the exquisite, ethereal ending. As at every other performance on the tour, we were acclaimed by an appreciative, upstanding audience. Again, I was somewhat lost for words, and deskie Gwen and I shared a smile of mutual appreciation for a job well done. And how do you follow Mahler 9 at the Lincoln Centre, NY? Easy - go watch the new James Bond movie Skyfall at an Imax cinema on Broadway! It was great - a whole bunch of us went, bought far too much crappy food and sat back watching Britain's finest spy and feeling just a hint of smugness that we had the same passport as him. Dame Judi Dench as M and baddie Javier Bardem stole the show though. Great stuff.
On Monday we went to the brand new $1 billion Barclays Centre in Brooklyn to buy tickets for Friday's Brooklyn Nets v LA Clippers NBA game. I went to a fairly tame game in Florida in 2006, the Orland Magic v Charlotte Hornets, but this promises to be an altogether different experience, as the Nets are riding high in the Eastern Conference and the Clippers are top of the Pacific charts. The building itself is pretty awesome, with built in HD screens in the sweeping steel structure, and the Nets have only just relocated from NY, giving the borough of Brooklyn its very own professional sports team for the first time since 1957 when the Dodgers baseball franchise moved to LA, and the fans are chomping at the bit. This video explains the rivalry between the Nets and the NY Knicks pretty well!
The last performance of the tour was attended by the great and good of the New York classical music world. Great pianists, conductors, singers and soloists were in attendance. And it was simply amazing. Simon Keenlyside was mesmerising. He wasn't performing Wozzeck, he was Wozzeck. I felt as if the story literally came alive. Regular readers will know of my personal struggle with 'getting' this music, even after knowing the story, but this was truly an incredible hour and a half of a masterwork being brought fully to life. The New York Times review was spectacular.
After the tumultuous applause had abated and the umpteenth curtain call had been acclaimed, we all left the stage in a happy daze and did what all professional musicians do who have a 5.30am start - went to the pub to celebrate! Now, I personally didn't have to do anything at 5.30am, but my heroic colleagues had to get to the airport to fly home. I imagine quite a few of them had sore heads and slept off the affects of a two week tour and several beers on the flight back to London.
In the past few days we've been up the Empire State building, walked 5th Avenue, lunched with a cousin, met an old friend for breakfast overlooking Macy's Thanksgiving parade, visited the moving 9/11 Memorial site, taken a boat tour of Manhattan island and the Statue of Liberty, walked the High Line, bought mugs in the M&Ms store in Times Square, eaten vast quantities of pizza and sampled some classic cocktails. New York is a wonderful, diverse, energetic city, full of life. But is it also resiliently dealing with the trauma of attacks by the religiously ignorant, and with the results of the environmentally ignorant devourers of fossil fuels that so affect mother nature. And, in the last couple of days, news has reached us of the death of a dear colleague, Justin Jones. He battled cancer, fought a great fight, but lost his life just as the orchestra returned from tour. In a way it is fitting that we have been playing pieces that make one think about life and death. Every organism on earth is programmed to fight for survival, to sustain life and keep death as distant as possible. But, of course, we all succumb in the end. I think it is good to think of our mortality from time to time, to remember those who have fought in wars to protect our freedom, and to honour the memory of friends with whom we have worked and shared happy times. Playing this music, with every ounce of our beings, to other humans on the other side of the world is a fitting way to honour Justin's memory. So, with the last moments of Mahler's requiem-like symphony lingering in my mind, I leave you with the words of Sergei Rachmaninov...
'Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.'
Thanks for reading.
17 November 2012
Sunset over San Diego Bay.
Katy Woolley plays the horn.
Intrepid explorers on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Linda gets to grip with US size pizza.
Salonen Returns! X-rated action.
The-mo Walcott. Geddit?! 5-2. Again.
I've just awoken at 4.30am on Saturday morning in LA in order to watch the North London derby between Arsenal and Totnum on ESPN2. You may gather from the spelling that I'll be supporting the men in red, having been a Gooner since childhood and a season ticket-holder since 2006. The nature of our job, however, means that I am yet to attend a single game this season. The touring, travelling, rehearsing and recording we do means we never get a regular day off, let alone weekends. As a self-governing, non-salaried orchestra, we ask the management to fill the diary with as much work as possible so we can maximise our income. It means we have to be clever and selective in taking time off for the important things in life, like family, friends and football! I love rugby and cricket too, and later on England will take on the Wallabies at Twickenham, while the cricket boys are getting thumped in India. Two out of three ain't bad, so I've got my fingers crossed for the red half of North London to be singing tonight. Unfortunately the lot from the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road have just scored, but we never keep a clean sheet so that's hardly a surprise. Right now though, we're playing like it's 5am, which, er, I suppose it is.
My friend Rosenna East is a lovely ginger violinist who plays with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Edinburgh. I had a great few weeks playing principal viola with them back in 2008. She is also a real, professional blogger, having learnt how to write at Oxford University, and she's just had a lovely piece on touring published by the HeraldScotland. You can read it here while I celebrate the fact that Totnum's goalscorer, a former Arsenal player, has just been sent off for a horrible foul on our diminutive Spanish genius Santi Cazorla. Come on Arsenal!
We're leaving California in a couple of hours, and yesterday I thought I'd ask my colleagues to provide me with any nice photos they have taken on their visit to the Golden State. Call it lazy journalism if you will, I call it clever! A few of the younger generation hired cars for the week, driving down the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco, before heading to the concerts in Costa Mesa, San Diego and Santa Barbara under their own steam. Despite occasionally cutting it fine time-wise due to poor route choices (getting lost) there were no reported mechanical mishaps. My California highlights have included seeing a gorgeous sunset over the San Diego Bay, an incredible breakfast at the Original Pantry in Downtown LA, seeing our name up in lights at the magical Granada Theatre in SB, and having a heavily moustachioed, grinning cowboy tell me that I "have something on my lip" as I passed him in the street. See?! My mo is visible and causing offence, or at least mirth. Please donate for the PhilharMOnia Bros. More Mo-tastic pics to follow from New York!
Football Update - the mighty Arsenal equalised, went ahead, and scored a third goal before halftime! So I'm delighted to say the early start has (so far) been well worthwhile.
One downside of touring is that if somebody gets ill with a tummy bug, it can easily spread around the orchestra, and I'm afraid to say that that is exactly what's happened this week. At first it was just one or two people, but last night we arrived in Santa Barbara with at least half a dozen sufferers. Some managed to soldier on, but others were simply unable to take to the stage, as the symptoms were manifesting themselves at both ends of the digestive system, if you get my drift. Our Eb clarinettist Jenny was too ill to play, meaning principal clarinet Mark had to take over the big solos on a borrowed instrument in the Berlioz. Our brave bassoon section was also depleted, as were the cellos and basses, and we were very grateful to Jim, the bass trombonist of the LA Phil, who came in at the last minute to deputise for Dan, who was bed-ridden. The Symphonie fantastique has an awful lot of heavy brass action, and the boys sounded fantastic despite all the disruption. As the old adage goes, the show must go on, and it did emphatically, earning us yet another standing ovation from our vocal American audience. E-P is pretty much guaranteed hero-status in the these parts, and he has been guiding us through these programmes with verve and passion, with fantastic results.
Speaking of verve and passion, while I've been typing, going through all the photos, packing my suitcase, having a shower and proofreading this, I am overjoyed to say that the mighty Gooners went on to win by the emphatic margin of 5 goals to 2! And not only that, but goalscorer Theo Walcott was sporting a truly terrible 'tache during the post-match interview. Mo Bros, we are not alone! Today is clearly going to be a good day... bring on New York, New York!
16 November 2012
The spectacular Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Hall.
The cavernous Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
Ludwig van Beethoven statue in Pershing Square, LA.
The PhilharMOnia Bros with Richmond, MO legend!
The amazing Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa.
The 315 foot railway, Angels Flight. Cute!
We've been based in LA for three days now. I've been walking around the city, visited a beloved cousin in West Hollywood, taken loads of photos, played in some great concerts in wonderful halls in LA and Costa Mesa. And I've been thinking about what to write for the next blog. But there has been one overriding feeling I've had since we arrived here, one omnipresent issue, that I can't ignore. And to address it, I'd like to tell a story. Is that ok? Thought so!
On 1st September 2009 the Philharmonia was to convene at the Watford Coliseum, a nice hall a little north-west of London, to record Stravinsky's incredible The Rite of Spring for a brilliant project called Re-Rite (which might be coming to the US next year - look out for it!). I had been off work for the previous few days, and had left my viola on the truck (I know, I should have been practising...). I got to Watford by cycling to Euston station, taking the train to Watford Junction, and then cycling from there to the hall. I arrived, unusually for me, two hours early, as I'd wanted to do a good warm up, practice the tricky bits, and still have plenty of time to change into my concert regalia for the filming.
On arriving, I discovered to my horror that the truck, which I had assumed would be there, was in fact on its way to Prague for a concert we were giving that weekend. I had no viola! After a few choice words, I realised there was just about enough time for me to pedal like fury back to the station, get back to Euston, race home to collect my second instrument, and then return just in time for Esa-Pekka's downbeat at 2pm. I rushed outside, jumped on my bike, and set off like the clappers.
There's a path from the stage door which runs alongside the building for about 40 yards, and then a small road off to the left where cars park. The entrance to this road was guarded by a long metal pole barrier that faced directly towards the path I was now hurtling along. It was supposed to be in a horizontal position, about three feet off the ground, to stop cars just driving into the road. But it had been bent upwards over time, and now, despite being locked in the 'down' position, its end was actually up about six feet off the ground. Which meant it was pointing right at me. Which meant that I couldn't see it as I approached at about 20mph (I told you, I was in a hurry).
I smashed into it, my left collarbone taking the full impact, and I was very effectively jousted off my bike. My head came forward, banging into the top of the barrier, my legs shot forward underneath the barrier, and I landed heavily on the concrete, my lower back taking the blow. Several years before I had suffered a slipped disk in a rugby scrum, so I knew that the first thing you do if you have a back injury is not move. I was in a lot of pain. An ambulance was called, and when they arrived they put me in a neck brace and on a stretcher and took me off to Watford General. On arrival, they took a load of x-rays, gave me a load of drugs, and then set about finding out how much damage had been done. The collarbone was broken and I had compressed one of the vertebrae in my back. But, apart from that, I was ok. And after a few hours I realised that the least painful position to be in was actually standing up. So, rather than hang about at a hospital waiting for my Dad to pick me up, I thought I'd walk, very gingerly, back to the hall and listen to some rather cool music.
It took me about an hour to get there, and when I did the first person I saw was E-P getting lashings of make-up applied (purely for filming purposes, I should add). He had of course heard about the accident, and I explained that whilst I sadly would be unable to play that day, I would live. He seemed satisfied with my excuse for leaving him a viola short, and wished me a speedy recovery. It was to be three months before I played again. (You might by now be wondering what the hell all this has got to do with Los Angeles, but trust me, I'm getting there!)
A few weeks later the orchestra was playing up in Gateshead at the wonderful shiny slug that is The Sage. As I had already booked my train tickets, and was on some very heavy drugs, I decided to travel north anyway to spend the day sightseeing in the city, and then to go to hear us performing The Firebird with E-P. The brilliant luthier who made my instrument, David Milward, lived up there, and I had got him a ticket to come and hear us. It was a cold, sunny day, perfect for walking gently around, admiring the architecture and the local wildlife. After a few hours I passed a cinema which was showing a new film called The Soloist, starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. I knew nothing about it, but liked the actors and as I was tired and fancied some popcorn, I bought a ticket and went in.
It was amazing. The film tells the true story of a talented, schizophrenic musician called Nathaniel Ayers who had to drop out of the Juilliard School in New York after suffering a nervous breakdown. He ended up alone and homeless on the streets of LA. His family thought he was dead. He was befriended by a journalist, Steve Lopez, who overheard him playing on a battered, two-stringed violin next to a statue of Beethoven in Pershing Square. (That's another nice story - they were going to erect a statue of William Andrew Clarke Jr., the founder of the LA Phil, but he told them to honour someone more worthy, so they put Ludwig up instead). It's powerful stuff, brilliantly acted, and the use of music is exceptional. At one point of high emotion the waft of sonorous air that is the slow movement of Beethoven's 9th begins, and it totally got me. And the funny thing was, halfway through the film, the two main characters go to Walt Disney Hall, pushing Nathaniel's cart of worldly belongings into the building, and suddenly there appears Esa-Pekka Salonen striding onto the stage to conduct the 'Eroica' with the LA Phil! What a pleasant surprise. And a few hours later I watched him conduct the Philharmonia for real. It was all a little surreal.
So! Why have I told you all that? This is why. We're staying in Downtown LA, in the shining, glass-towered financial district, moments from Disney Hall with its bold, blingy roof. Money is all around us - rich people, wealthy institutions. And yet, right there on the corner of Lombard and 2nd Street, is Nathaniel Ayers, still pottering about with his trolley, playing his cello and trumpet. Still homeless. And everywhere you go in LA, you see these poor people, and it can't help but affect one's whole perception of the place.
Of the top three cities in the US for homelessness, we have visited them all. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago. And in each we have seen people who's lives have been eroded to poverty, alienation and desperation. In this city, so concerned with celebrity, stars and style, it is particularly poignant that it is also so clearly unable to deal with this problem affecting the poor, which has only grown worse in the recent economic crisis. The Hollywood film industry made a star of a homeless man; but he is still here, still homeless. Sure, he's played on 60 Minutes, and is probably one of the only people of his demographic in society that has a Wikipedia page. But his story sums up for me the way LA, and indeed much of America, works. The whole capitalism thing is great in one regard, in that it encourages, or forces, people to work hard to try and 'succeed'. The best, or cleverest, or most ruthless, can get very rich indeed. But there is no safety net for those who don't make it, or who get ill, or whose luck runs out. About 50,000 people sleep rough in LA every night, sometimes double that number. And it's not, according to my cousin Rachel, just the immigrants, or the people born into poverty. A perfectly happy middle class worker can have an accident, just like mine, and be landed with a hospital bill of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Jobs are lost, homes are lost, and suddenly, they become one of the failures of capitalism.
I don't know how to fix it. I'm not even quite sure why I've felt so compelled to write about it in a blog about an orchestra tour! But I am a visitor who's been unable to ignore what he sees, and, as a musician, I feel an empathy with Nathaniel Ayer's love of music. It was his talent that drew him to the public's attention, but once the red carpet was rolled up, the city seems to have moved on. If I hadn't misread the schedule and arrived in Watford without a viola, and then broken my collarbone, I may not have seen the film and been so moved by it that on seeing the homeless people of LA, wanted to write about them. Maybe Nathaniel can be an example and an inspiration to all of us who love music. His story can help us remember that while expensive tours and halls and hotels are fun, they are not, and never will be, what music is about. It is about humanity, in all its forms and guises; it is about freedom, regardless of class or financial success. It is apt he was discovered playing under a statue of Beethoven. And if we professional performers remember that, we'll be doing people like Nathaniel Ayers a service.
12 November 2012
Lovely Lombard St, nice and curvy.
Turning a San Fran tram by hand.
Seals. Fat and lazy. Golden Gate Bridge in distance.
Lunch at Fog City Diner. Felt like a seal afterwards.
The trumpet section at Alcatraz. Best place for 'em.
Matias and Esa-Pekka after Mahler's 9th.
Viola Night fun!
On Saturday we had the whole morning and afternoon free, and so a lovely bunch of adventurous people gathered for some San Franciscan exploration fun. We took the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) train into town, and then set off trekking towards the north city shore, from where we wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge, and maybe some seals if we were lucky. San Fran is a truly wonderful place, especially on a gloriously sunny day. It has all the shops, cafes and restaurants you could possibly want, and the buzz of an energetic, diverse US city, especially on a weekend. It's small enough to traverse on foot, and its volcanic hills give it a magical geographical advantage as, if you have the energy to get to the top, they provide exceptional views of the Bay, the bridges and the Pacific Ocean. The architecture is also a massive draw for those walking the streets, as buildings of every style change the scene continuously.
After leaving the main shopping area around Union Square, four of us headed north up Nob Hill to see Grace Cathedral and enjoy the views. As we laboured up the steep incline we were passed by a chap who couldn't have been a day under 80 who was RUNNING up the hill. Quite frankly it was embarrassing. Being outpaced by anyone like that would ruffle anyone's feathers, but an OAP trotting past who wasn't even sweating was quite something else! At the top he stopped to chat to a local and we caught up with him. He said he ran up 10 or 11 hills DAILY, which kept him in shape. I was trying to look nonchalant, but was failing miserably as my beaded brow testified to my recent lack of exercise and surplus of cheesecake. He was so sweet, and said how much he'd enjoyed visiting London back in the day. We followed his directions through some secretive public gardens to find the famously windy Lombard Street, which has eight hairpins for descending cars in just one block, making it the world's most curvy road. The views from the top were breathtaking.
Once we'd taken some pictures we continued down the street to Little Italy (which has little Italian flags painted on every lamppost just so you're sure you're there), and then found the Buena Vista Cafe, famous for Irish coffees, with wonderful views of the GGB and infamous Alcatraz. A fact I happen to know without the help of Wikipedia is that the famous bridge's rusty red colour is actually called International Orange. Yet another reason why San Fran is immeasurably cool. In the crowded cafe we sat at a table with a lovely friendly family, who wanted to hear all about our trip, and who expressed an interest in classical music, and Mahler in particular. I told the father, John, all about the 9th symphony, and suggested that a visit to Zellerbach Hall on Sunday to hear us perform it would be very worthwhile. He said he'd try and make it. We then walked east towards the piers on the Bay, passed one of the famous trams being turned at the bottom of Hyde Street, saw some fat lazy seals at Pier 39, and then went to the Fog City Diner for lunch.
The FCD is an SF institution. It's named after the morning mist that often rolls in off the Pacific, covering everything in sight. Their speciality is the onion rings. Thick, heavy bands of onion are coated in a dark brown batter which is just irresistible There's a menu up on the wall from 1985 and there they are, loud and proud. So of course we ordered a double batch of them, some burgers and a malted chocolate 'shake. Pure heaven. It's the kind of place where you simply cannot leave any food on the plate, despite knowing that the journey home will be a slow, stuffed waddle. We managed it all, just.
Back in Berkeley, the evening concert was Wozzeck. I think I was in a bit of a food coma and found it a little tough-going, but the audience again responded as if they'd just seen one of the most amazing pieces ever written played by one of the best orchestras in the world. Which I guess they had! And Esa-Pekka certainly looked pleased with our efforts.
On Sunday we had the morning free, and then a lunchtime rehearsal and matinee performance of Mahler's magnificent, magisterial 9th. I find it to be the single most difficult symphony in the repertoire, for several reasons. The notes come quick and fast, especially in the middle two movements. It's a challenge just reaching them in time. The key changes every few bars, meaning it's impossible to settle into a hand position. There are lots of sudden tempo changes. It's harmonically very diverse, full of accidentals and grace notes, and the music is printed in a deeply unhelpful small font so even those of us with decent vision struggle to see all the notes. And, of course, it is overpoweringly emotional. At the end of most concerts you can turn to your deskie and share a laugh about a funny bowing or an interestingly coiffed member of the audience. Not after the 9th you don't. After our performance here I basically couldn't speak for several minutes, and for me that's saying something! It really is the end of life, a transportation to another world, and if you put as much into a performance as we do it affects us players as much as the audience. Music matters, and in Mahler's 9th especially so.
Post-gig I got a shot of the Zellerbach Hall's polite, passionate director Matias Tarnopolsky with E-P, and then as I left the building I looked up and saw John the family guy! He'd come along purely because of our chance meeting in the cafe, had managed to get a ticket and had loved it. It's things like that that make touring so special. Once back at our hotel it was a quick turnaround as we had one of the highlights of this or any other tour - Viola Night!
We headed into San Fran to find a couple of bars and a restaurant that Gwen and I had been recommended. First up was Zeitgeist in the Mission area. The broad bar with dozens of local beers and a Hendrix-inspired jukebox was very enticing, so we headed in, grabbed some bubbles and moved into the huge beer garden, complete with towering Eucalyptus trees and very friendly locals. We got chatting to some of them and found out a chap called Dave was originally from Beckenham! My great mates Chris and Laura just moved there - it's a small world. (Laura was Classic FM's Primary School Teacher of the Year - very proud!) Then we walked a few blocks to another great bar, Benders, where yet more friendly locals (the city is clearly full of them!) asked questions about violas, the blog and the mo. I don't think they quite believed they were in the presence of V-list celebrities, but once they'd Googled 'Philharmonia US tour' and found the photo of me and the bean, there were enthusiastic handshakes all round! We couldn't stay long though as we had a reservation at le Colonial, a wonderful French/Vietnamese restaurant Downtown. We jumped into a pair of cabs. Our driver was Tunisian, and seemed to have been in the city as long as we had. Needless to say our group arrived several minutes after the other! But that was fine as it gave Linda a chance to change into her posh shoes (with a little difficulty - we'd had about five drinks by then), before we climbed a wide set of stone stairs and were presented to a nice round table, already resplendent with some white Napa Valley wine and a smattering of jolly violists. The food was fabulous, the wine flowed, the conversation was convivial, and by the end of the evening I was pretty sure the smiling staff had probably had as much fun as we had.
So four highly memorable days in northern California came to an end. More great music, and lots of great memories. I love San Francisco. It's the people that make a city, and these guys are warm, welcoming and ready for anything. I can't wait to return. In other news, we've now raised £85 for the PhilharMOnia Bros' Movember effort. Which is pretty lame, given the grief we're going through. I just survived a San Franciscan bar called Benders, for goodness sake! It's for a great cause, and once we get into three figures more mo-photos will appear. What more incentive to donate could you need?!
Tomorrow we head south to El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles! The PhilharMOnia keeps on rolling.
11 November 2012
Wonderful Art Deco Berkeley Community Theatre.
Jimi's stage. OMG.
The sweeping seats, packed with history and dust.
The Wall of Peace, Berkeley, CA.
On Thursday we flew to San Francisco, jumped on a coach, crossed the Bay Bridge and arrived in Berkeley, all set for four days of northern Californian fun. And during the journey, I got to thinking about our life in the orchestra, and why we all decide to follow this wonderful, winding path of making music. Everyone who becomes a musician can look back on a particular moment of inspiration that set the course towards a life dedicated to producing 'sonorous air', as the composer Busoni so beautifully put it. As a child I was enthralled by the great Itzhak Perlman performing Tchaikovsky's ravishing Violin Concerto and by the terrifying power of Mars from Holst's The Planets. But for me, the first time I felt utterly, completely blown away by sonorous air was on hearing the soaring, white-hot sounds of Jimi Hendrix's guitar. Thunderbolt time!
His famous songs, Purple Haze, Hey Joe, Foxey Lady, If 6 was 9, Voodoo Chile, are brilliant. I bought all his studio albums, and listened to them so often I was confident enough to once sing Red House at a pub karaoke session in Brentford. Happy days. But the moment I truly fell head-over-heels in lifelong love with the superstar from Seattle was when I saw the video of a gig he played on 30 May 1970, during which he took Chuck Berry's 1958 rock'n'roll classic Johnny B. Goode (wonderful song, even better dancing!) and set about 'Jimifying' it. Like Hendrix, I love the original - but what he did with it was completely new, outrageous and thrilling. It was the most incredible musical expression of freedom, power, virtuosity and spirit, and it set a benchmark for me of what all musical performance should aspire to be. And it happened right here in Berkeley, at the Community Theatre. Which is two blocks from our hotel.
So on Friday morning I awoke at 3.30am, too excited to sleep. By 8.30 I decided enough was enough and I left my room, turned left out of the hotel, and started walking. I was nervous with excitement. I've played at the Royal Albert Hall many times, another venue where Jimi produced his magic. But here, on a crisp November morning with the piercing Californian sun on my face, the prospect of seeing the building in which my musical passion was stirred was almost too much. I passed a Buddhist centre, a grand old post office, and then, there on the left, appeared a pair of solid metal doors above which were written the words Berkeley Community Theatre Stage Loading 1930 Allston Way. An image of Jimi Hendrix entering the building at this very spot flashed through my mind. My first musical god had been right here! I took a photo. The building itself is a glorious white 1940 Art Deco structure, designed by Henry H Gutterson and William G Corlett. It seats 3,491, and on that day 42 years ago the place was packed with screaming, hero-worshipping students. I began walking around it, the energetic buzz of history in my head a complete contrast to the deserted, peaceful silence of the present. I suddenly spotted a side door which was slightly ajar. Pulling the handle, it swung open. I couldn't believe it. I went inside.
A dank, dusty corridor curved away in both directions. Heavy wooden doors on the inside of the bend clearly would lead to the auditorium. I tried one, and to my amazement it too opened, revealing another wide passageway that was completely unlit save for red Exit signs. I stopped and listened, but there was no sound. I went in, the door swinging shut behind me, leaving me in almost total darkness. My heart was racing, through a slight fear of the dark, the danger of being caught breaking and entering, and the possibility of actually getting into the very auditorium where Jimi had played. I turned left, and after 20 meters or so a silhouette of a doorway appeared on the right. It was the entrance.
The place was spectacular. The stage was directly in front of me, with a beautiful green curtain draped behind it, and thousands of green velvet chairs spread out in perfect, gently sloping rows to either side. I took another photo. I walked forward and emerged from under the huge balcony and saw the gorgeous fan-like ceiling. At that moment it felt like the most beautiful space I had ever been in. I went up onto the stage and looked out, from the exact spot my hero had been in all those years before. I spent several minutes in sensory overload, just looking, feeling, smelling the history. Then suddenly I got a bit scared and thought I'd better leave. I made my way back through the darkened passageways and came out blinking, back in the real world. Wow. I was actually shaking a little when I got back to the hotel. What a morning!
The rest of the day involved a rehearsal for Wozzeck, and then the evening concert, our first at the imposing Zellerbach Hall. There was a lovely selection of cookies backstage, which no doubt helped inspire our wonderful playing. We started with a great little piece by our esteemed composer-in-residence, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Helix is like a musical vortex, with soft, slow lines speeding forward, gaining energy, until the whole thing stops abruptly. I love it, it's very effective, and the audience seemed to too. Then came a blockbuster performance of Beethoven's 7th, and the Symphonie fantastique. Yet again we were treated to a rousing standing ovation, so much so that we gave them two encores! The first, Quattro versioni originali della "Ritirata notturna di Madrid" di Luigi Boccherini sovrapposte e trascritte per orchestra by Luciano Berio must have one of the longest names of any piece ever. It's a beautiful set of variations on some Spanish night music, much fun to play. And to round things off we played a bit of Wagner, the overture to the third act of Lohengrin. Another great gig, met with almost as much enthusiasm as that Hendrix gig all those years ago! A few beers with an old mate followed, a lovely end to an unforgettable day.
8 November 2012
Beauty (bean) and the Beast (my mo).
Delightful Rock doves keeping warm.
The view from the top of 'Big John'.
The Cheesecake Factory. Read it and weep tears of jealousy.
Linsey Alexander at Buddy Guy's. Bluesy brilliant.
Wednesday definitely had a morning-after-the-night-before feel to it! There's an Irish bar called Miller's right next to the hotel, and after getting back from Champaign late on Tuesday, most of the orchestra ended up there celebrating a great concert and the local boy's election win. The beers flowed, and before we knew it the clock said 4am! So it took a special effort to drag myself from the extra massive kingsize bed the next morning to grab some breakfast and go and see more of this fine city. That's the trouble with being a blogger, you have to go and do and see stuff to write about, hangover or otherwise!
Our lovely tour manager Frankie wanted to see the 'bean', a massive shiny, silvery sculpture in Millennium Park. So we did. It's an arrestingly beautiful object. I was here in 2006 (briefly) when it was being built, and they were busy fitting the panels together before soldering and polishing them to a beautifully smooth finish. As big as a house, you can walk under its curves now, and the reflections are almost too much for a sore-headed violist to take. We thought we'd kill two birds with one stone by getting a shot of the bean and my mo together. Talk about Beauty and the Beast!
We had a quick look inside the imposing Cultural Centre, whose insides are filled with marble, delicate mosaics and a sparkling glass dome. I then left Frankie to do some real work before heading north towards the Chicago River. I passed an Eternal Flame which local homeless pigeons were putting to very good use. (I've never understood people's dislike of these wonderful birds; they have beautiful neck feathers, they bob about in comical fashion, and are actually rock doves. One day I'd like a pub called the Ginger Pigeon.) I passed the Chicago theatre, Macy's store and the Hard Rock Cafe, before arriving at one of the many small bridges that cross the river. Opposite were the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower, two of the city's iconic structures. The Tower must be unique in that it contains dozens of pieces of rock and stone from many of the world's most famous buildings. There's a bit of Westminster Abbey, the Pyramids of Giza, Chinese temples, the Parthenon, Edinburgh Castle - it's amazing. I learned (by eavesdropping on a guided tour) that the Tribune newspaper asked its journalists around the world to gather, 'by hook or by crook', pieces of these famous buildings, and send them home. I'm not sure whether to be angered by the wanton destruction and theft of other nations' treasures, or happy that I now know the answer to this hypothetical pub quiz question - 'Where can you see the Great Wall of China, Jerusalem's Temple of David and Dublin's General Post Office at the same time?'
Continuing north up Michigan Avenue I passed Michael Jordan's Steak House (His Royal Airness had been there just the day before, dammit) and the old Water Tower that dates from 1869, before I made a left on Chicago Avenue to go and see Holy Name Cathedral. This, I confess, had less to do with a religious yearning and more to see the spot where some of Al Capone's foes were gunned down by the mob boss in the mid 1920's. Sadly I couldn't find the white chalk outlines.
A few blocks away is the John Hancock Centre. This 1127ft tall, iron-girded monster was the tallest building in the world outside of NY when completed in 1970. The lift to the 94th floor observatory is the fastest on the planet, travelling at an ear-popping 26ft per second. Once at the top the views across the city and Lake Michigan are stunning, even with a bit of cloud about. There's a nice cafe and a very informative wall of historical articles, pictures and maps. I never would have guessed that the first person to build a permanent shed at the mouth of the Chicago river was a black chap called Jean Baptise Pointe duSable. He was the son of a slave and from Haiti, and is commemorated by a statue on the spot of his dwelling. The history of the US is of course full of stories of immigrants making their mark, but somehow this one seems particularly remarkable. So far north, with harsh winters and local Indian tribes to deal with, he was an excellent carpenter, cooper, farmer and fisherman who survived and thrived. Without his courage and talents, this city might not be here.
On the way out I got a little lost and found myself in a place called The Cheesecake Factory. So I did the only thing possible, and asked the bouncy girl on reception what her favourite was. Unsurprisingly given her size, she had two - Reese's Peanut butter and Chocolate, and Key Lime. One of each then, please! Being a nice sort of chap, I carried them back home untouched for general sharing at half time of the evening concert. They were sub-lime (geddit?!). Sorry.
I will, at some point, actually talk about music as well as food and buildings. That is, after all, why we're here! But to be honest, for me the more exciting pieces are the Mahler and the Berg, as we've just done Beethoven for 9 months, and the Berlioz is an old favourite. If you actually want to hear me talking about the Berlioz, you can do so here! My deskie Gwen was very excited indeed to be playing in her home town hall. She had her parents and about 70 other assorted family members and friends present, and they were treated to another really fabulous concert. The hall is stunning, a beautifully crafted auditorium dating from 1904 that looks and feels intimate, and yet seats over 2,500. It is bright, light and perfect for dazzling Beethoven and dashing Berlioz. Esa-Pekka was on great form, demanding extra bass power during the loud bits, real pianissimi during the quiet bits, and a lush, beautiful sound during the, er, lush, beautiful bits. And at the end there was another bear-like roar of approval and an instant standing ovation. Looking out over the sea of smiling, shiny-eyed faces, it was wonderful to see such a hugely diverse audience. Ok, I guess most of these people would have been on the wealthy side, but there were people of all ages, all ethnicities and probably all religions, and it showed again what a wonderful thing music is, providing joy and happiness in a truly universal manner. Chicago has grown and been built by people from across the world. Their motto is 'I Will', and it's been a pleasure to spend a few days in this positive, energised, classy city, sharing what we do with them in a positive, energised and, dare I say it, classy way.
After the concert, despite the onset of jet-lagged tiredness, a few of us decided we simply had to go to Buddy Guy's legendary Blues Bar. An elder statesman of the guitar, Linsey Alexander, crooned and plucked his way into our hearts. He was hilarious, walking up to seated patrons whilst playing and singing. My favourite song was Big Woman. 'She broke my couch, she broke my chair, she broke my table, she broke my stair...' Brilliant. He came over to our table in the break, and his charm and hearty laugh persuaded us to buy his cds as much as his talent did. It was a perfect end to our stay in Chicago. Tomorrow, west to California!
6 November 2012
Mike Fuller is delighted with the Pizza at Giordano's.
The lobby of the Palmer House hotel.
The B-F-K-A-S-T (W T)
A Brachiosaurus' butt, outside Field Museum.
Nate and Jan (violins) flank the funky Philharmonia poster outside Symphony Hall.
After a fairly uneventful 8-hour flight from London (two G&T's, two white wines, two amusing movies (since you ask, The Watch and The Wedding Video)), here we are - Chicago, Illinois! We arrived on Monday evening just in time to experience the last 24 hours of a star-spangled, red, white and blue flag-waving Presidential election race that seems, from my outsiders's point of view, to have left many Americans wondering whether either candidate is actually worth the effort of voting for at all. President Obama is here in the Windy City, and as you'd expect, every news channel is packed full of neatly coiffured expert talking heads who all seem to be sure that no-one can be sure what the outcome will be. Virginia is key, apparently. Personally, I hope the 44th incumbent gets another term in office, and that this time the Republicans allow him to actually do stuff, rather than stopping him doing stuff and then complaining that he's not, er, done anything. This isn't elementary school playground people! Whilst out walking this morning I conducted my own staggeringly scientific poll, asking a deli sandwich maker, a Loop railway worker and a traffic cop whether they were voting. I can exclusively reveal that two out of three people will indeed be voting, and for Mr Obama. Thanks to all who took part, especially Reagan (the cop) for saying she actually liked my Movember mo. Bless her. More on that later. Ok, enough with the politics already...
What is Chicago famous for then? Chicago-style pizza, I hear you cry! Yes indeed. Also, Al Capone, the Building-Formerly-Known-As Sears Tower (now Willis Tower), Lake Michigan, many animal-related sports teams (Bears, Bulls, Cubs, Blackhawks) and a pretty decent symphony orchestra. So, once we'd landed, been whisked through immigration (15 minutes?! Must be some sort of record) and transported to our hotel, a nice big group of tired, hungry travellers wasted no time in heading for Giordano's, a classic deep-dish pizza place not far from the lake shore that Gwen Fisher (viola, Chicagoan) highly recommended. We ordered some excellent local Goose Island beer and settled down to try and fathom out Monday Night Football whilst waiting for the epic-looking slabs of cheesy, meaty goodness. Mike Fuller (bass, Californian) and Nathaniel Anderson-Frank (violin, Torontonian) were on hand to impart some American Football knowledge. The Philadelphia Eagles were at New Orleans Saints, and on this occasion the Eagles had their wings well and truly clipped, due mostly to their apparent inability to successfully throw the ball to each other. Seriously, they were dreadful. The quarterback got sacked (and possibly therefore fired) repeatedly, and when he did manage to actually release the ball it inevitably was intercepted or dropped by the receiver, presumably because they were so shocked the thing actually reached them. I do quite like FOOTball, as it's pronounced stateside, but can't help feeling they're cheating somewhat with all the padding, the ad breaks, and the fact that they completely change the team for OFfense and DEfense. Rugby players are clearly much harder. But still, it's a good, meaty pastime. As was the pizza! Totally worth the wait. Forget the Papa John's rubbish you get in the UK, this stuff was three fingers deep, waistline-expanding mouthfuls of heaven. I have a feeling I may run out of positive food adjectives on this tour.
This morning (Tuesday), after a good night's sleep in our beautiful hotel (dating from 1871, the lobby is a dazzling, chandelier-lit hall with an amazingly decorated ceiling), I went out exploring on my own. That's one of the nice things with our orchestra - if you want company, it'll be there, but if you want some alone time then no-one bats an eyelid. I decided to walk the Loop, the historic and Batman-ridden elevated train route around downtown, to get a feel for the place. A little independent deli had a fantastic 'Italian' sub for breakfast, and I ate it looking up at the towering Willis Tower. It's very tall. I'm not sure whether Bruce Willis was involved in the renaming effort, but after Die Hard I suppose he may well have been. A chance bumping into of three members of the percussion section led to us all completing the Loop on the train, which was fun and felt a bit like the DLR in London. I then headed off to look at the Field Museum of natural history and Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears. Both are surrounded by a large field, also known as Grant Park. The stadium seats a piddling 61,500 souls, and is therefore the smallest arena in the NFL. It is named for all the brave people who fight for freedom, and there's a very smart waterfally wall with the badges of all the US armed forces and Coastguard and National Guard. The club logo is an orange bear, and they won Super Bowl XX in 1986. Marvellous.
Walking back to the hotel I met Reagan, who was keeping roads clear for Obama's convoy. After politics and orchestra tours, we discussed my mo. As I mentioned earlier, she seemed in favour, which is strange because despite wearing sunglasses she didn't seem to be blind. It's horrible. But I guess there are quite a few Americans who willingly sport moustaches - Snoop Doggie Dog (rapper), Jimi Hendrix (guitar god), Richard off Friends (actor) to name but three, and so maybe they are deemed quite 'normal', when in fact they should be anything but. Especially when they're ginger. Anyway, my point is, I felt very self concious about my Movember mo talking to Reagan, and it's only 6 days old. It will only get worse. So please, make my embarrassment worthwhile by donating to the PhilharMOnia Bros' prostate cancer appeal. Five of us are doing it, and if we reach £200 by the time we get to California you'll get a photo. Thank you. http://uk.movember.com/mospace/1297082
In the early afternoon we set off by coach for Champaign, Illinois, for our first concert of the tour. Here are some facts about the place. It is 135 miles south of Chicago, and 178 miles north-east of St Louis, Missouri. Its population is 81,055, making it the 11th largest city in the state. Bob Dylan co-wrote two separate songs called Champaign, Illinois. In 1985 the city hosted a gig called Farm Aid, which raised over 7 million dollars for farmers. The city covers 22.46 square miles, of which 99.87% is land, and 0.13% is water. 0.1% of the population is Pacific Islander. For more fascinating facts about the place, visit Wikipedia.
The concert was fantastic. Given the jetlag, it was truly remarkable. Beethoven's Second totally rocked. And at the end of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique there was a bear-like roar and instant standing ovation. One bloke screamed "Bravo!" as if he'd just witnessed the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. And as we set off for the two-hour journey back to the Windy City, news came through of Obama's victory. Someone with brilliant foresight just happened to have a bottle of Californian Cab Sav to hand to celebrate! But not too much, as tomorrow we play Chicago itself. Can't wait!
1 November 2012
The musical symbol of Dortmund, a flying rhino! Well, why not?
Joint Principal Horns Nigel Black and Katy Woolley enjoying some Dortmundian rottwein post-Wozzeck.
Giraffes at Dusseldorf airport. No, I don't know why either.
Hello, and welcome to the new Philharmonia blog! My name is Sam Burstin, I've been a violist in the orchestra since 2005, and I'm honoured to have been asked to relay to you the sights, sounds, stresses and stories from our tremendously exciting tour to the Unites States of America, for which we leave on Monday (stormy Sandy permitting!).
The Philharmonia is famed for its touring schedule. As readers of the recent Beethoven blog will know, we travel far and wide, both nationally and internationally, playing wonderful music to hundreds of thousands of people each year. And in these times of financial stress and economic woe, it is even more important to keep alive art and culture, the honey of the human soul, to inspire the young and empower and enliven those feeling the pressures of life. And tours don't get much better than this!
We'll be playing some amazing music in some of the finest cities, in a country famed for its cultural fusions and artistic excellence. America has such an incredible history of diversity, with European, African and Asian influxes over the centuries, and these works are so powerful and universal in their meaning, they will touch the hearts and minds of all who hear them.
Mahler was a collosus of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a composer and conductor, he changed the world of classical music forever. His 9th symphony, the last he completed, is an incredible journey through life. The great American musician Leonard Bernstein said the four movements were, in turn, farewells to happiness, the countryside, city chaos and finally life itself. The ending of the finale is without equal; extraordinarily emotional, lingering beauty, moving to another world. I get goosebumps just thinking about it!
Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck is the horribly tragic story of a man whose life collapses about him. To be honest, when we started rehearsing it a couple of weeks ago, I couldn't stand it. Seriously, I was sat there in Watford wishing I was somewhere, anywhere else, playing something, anything else! It's atonal (without a home key), is difficult, and lasts for 90 minutes. And I was a little hungover. But, once the absolutely incredible cast of 10 singers joined us, and the three choirs joined us, and the off-stage band struck up, and the honky tonk piano was banging away with abandon... well, I'm delighted to say that it all made sense! It truly is an astonishingly powerful, moving work, with moments of great beauty too. Just please make sure you read the libretto before listening to it, as like me, you probably won't get it without understanding what's going on!
We're also playing pieces by Beethoven, Berlioz and others. Guiding us through them all with fantastic Finnish finesse will be our Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who is well known to American audiences after his 17 years at the helm of the LA Philharmonic. We have just returned from performing both the Mahler and the Berg in Dortmund, Germany, and I can tell you that these concerts are going to be quite brilliant.
The last time we went to the States was May 2008, and I particularly loved San Francisco. The bridge, the Bay... the Saloon, Fog City Diner! All places I can't wait to revisit. Boy, those onion rings... And I'm delighted to have violist Gwen Fisher and bassist Mike Fuller, real All-Americans, to call on for local insights into Chicago and California respectively. So stay tuned for what promises to be a wonderful few weeks, with weather reports, election hysteria, Thanksgiving tales and, of course, some magnificent music-making.
Finally, some of you may know about the Movember movement. Men (and possibly some women!) around the world try to grow a moustache for a month to look silly and to raise money for prostate cancer. Some of us have decided to join this very worthy scheme, and so if you would like to sponsor the PhilharMOnia Bros in their quest for Movember, please follow this link and give generously!
Photos of the mo growing will appear sporadically over the next few weeks on this very blog... You have been warned!
Thanks for reading, the next one will come from the Windy City - Chicago, USA!