Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The cutest thing on earth...

Panda pic
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

...has to be this fuzzy starlet from Washington DC. Sorry, Solti!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Warming the cockles

The Pianist Magazine/Yamaha Amateur Piano Competition held on Saturday night for the first time has awarded its first prize to a 79-year-old piano tuner who once prepared instruments for Liberace but has never played in a concert hall before. Jamie Cullum awarded the prize and magazine editor Erica Worth is justifiably very, VERY proud of the event she's initiated. Doesn't this just warm the cockles of your heart? What a change from all those beastly, corrupt, political piano competitions that young pros have to endure... Read more about it here.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Moving stories

Some dips into the blogroll have produced deeply moving moments today:

Evelio writes about the laser surgery he's had on his eyes this week, and the sensation of finally being able to see properly. Words like 'congratulations' just aren't enough.

Cathy Fuller writes about some metaphysical musical shivers, most notably about Schubert's A major sonata, with tremendous sensitivity and beauty. And I'd have loved to hear Renaud Capucon play the Korngold Violin Concerto!

Speaking of Korngold, Andrea has just discovered Die tote Stadt. Weird coincidence or fate knocking, she asks, pleading for my help. Fate, Andrea. Definitely Fate. With Korngold, it always is.

Plus - not blog-related - Roy Howat's performance with the Panocha Quartet at the Wigmore Hall this morning finally lifted the lid off the Faure First Piano Quintet. It's a much maligned piece and Roy's new edition attributes this, basically, to the fact that someone seems to have slapped the wrong metronome marks onto it at some juncture. It was FAST. Very fast. But fabulous: out came the Faurean elan that is so often missing from interpretations that decide it should be as esoteric as esoteric can be. The last movement worked for me for the first time ever. The performance really moved. In every way.

I don't understand why the Wigmore Hall still calls its coffee concerts Coffee Concerts. You get a free coffee, orange juice or sherry after the performance upon production of your ticket. Everyone makes straight for the sherry.

Saturday, November 26, 2005


Yesterday's two extracts from Gramophone were both written by Knights of the Realm.

No.1: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, composer, Master of the Queen's Music.

No.2: Sir John Tusa, Managing Director of the Barbican Centre.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Living daylights?

I don't usually buy Gramophone. But this month Philippe Graffin's CD 'In the Shade of Forests' has made Editor's Choice and an extract on the cover CD - he's plastered all over the thing! - so I thought I'd better get a copy. Gramophone is celebrating its 1000th issue and it proves full of interesting things to read, not only the review of Philippe's disc by Rob Cowan, which is marvellous. I'll post a link to it as soon as has sorted out the glitch on its Editor's Choice page.

[UPDATE, 3 DECEMBER: Finally, they've done it! Voila!]

The magazine's celebratory articles include a section in which they've asked musical bigwigs to contribute short pieces about why classical music matters (unfortunately heralded with a picture of an audience giving a standing ovation in a plush hall dressed in penguin suits - not the most encouragingly egalitarian approach and not a regular sight anywhere in the UK except Glyndebourne!) Some are succinct and moving on the reasons why we can't live without music, others fully representative of the dense academicism that puts so many people off the stuff altogether. Here are two. Anyone want to guess who wrote each of them?

1. Classical music is unique, in that its grammar, syntax and formal construction present an abstract discourse in time roughly equivalent to that of the most ambitious architecture in space, in which thematic material of contrasting functions is subjected to variation, development and transformation in organically consistent ways, with the tonic of the home key providing a sense of direction over large spans of time - not least harmonically - making multi-dimensionality possible in time, with an ever-changing focus between foreground, middle-ground and background, which as a vanishing point enables this to happen in space. This has no equivalent throughout civilisation.

2. Think of a world without the joys of Rossini, the consolations of Schubert, the ambiguities of Mozart, the austerities of Stravinsky, the complexities of Birtwistle, the diversions of Ligeti. No, don't; it would be too awful to endure. For at least 1000 years, from medieval plainchant to Renaissance polyphony, though two Viennese schools and on to contemporary minimalism, 'classical music' has demonstrated a continuing ability to adapt, form and reform itself, and divert into new codes, discipline and shapes. Throughout this time, 'classical music' has remained universal in its language, extending its reach globally in a remarkable way. If it wasn't also about exhilaration, exultation, anguish, despair and pathos, it would not have survived or deserved to.

Identification tomorrow!

Elsewhere in the magazine, critics are asked to a) select any musician of their choice to give them a Command Performance; b) choose their greatest disc ever. It's refreshing to find Jed Distler choosing Barbra Streisand for his Command artist - and volunteering to accompany her! But the fact remains that the vast majority of musicians chosen by critics in both categories are DEAD. Is there any other field in which young creative artists have to struggle quite so hard to hold their own in the present day against the reputations of their forerunners? At least in literature, the reputations of Tolstoy or Jane Austen don't actually prevent new books from doing well. But any young pianist on CD has to battle the recorded legacy of Rachmaninov and Horowitz, while violinists are up against that of Heifetz and cellists Casals or du Pre.

I'd agree with many of these critics, of course - I'd love to have heard Heifetz, Rachmaninov or Cortot live, and I'm certainly with Rob Cowan on longing to hear Fritz Kreisler play the Elgar Violin Concerto. Still, I've also heard a lot of great stuff right here and now. As I don't write for Gramophone, here is my request for a Command Performance:


Thursday, November 24, 2005

From Russia, with teddy bear

The St Petersburg Philharmonic concert last night was quite an event. A huge orchestra crammed on to the Barbican platform - not for these guys those trendy slimmed-down bands - and, presiding over them, the modest yet magnetic figure of Yuri Temirkanov, whose combination of authority, focus, musical fidelity and genuine feeling makes him one of the few maestri whom most musicians not only respect but also love.

The tone blew me off my chair in seconds. Oh, those strings. To die for... Brahms 2, in the second half, was a chance for a serious wallow: those violas! Those cellos! Oh yes, yes, YES! But the first piece in the programme was a highlight in itself. The Suite from Prokofiev's Cinderella doesn't hit the concert hall often enough - I've only heard it live before at the ballet (admittedly, the Ugly Sisters bits aren't the same without Frederick Ashton) - and it has some glorious moments. The best, for me, is the striking of midnight: it's as if you are inside the mechanism of a great grotesque clock with the cogs and wheels grinding and clonking around your ears. And the greatest magic is the moment of silence when it's over and you have to surrender to the big tune that signals all is lost and pumpkindom regained.

So to our young pianist, Denis Matsuev, who was the soloist for the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody. Apparently he's 30, but he looks like a 14-year-old teddy bear in a penguin suit who wants, when he grows up, to be Sokolov. I swung both ways, listening. Some of it I loved; some I admired; some had my eyes and ears on stalks; some I hated. His tone in the quieter parts is truly beautiful: loving phrasing for the famous tune, the clearest, most gleaming sound and beautifully limpid phrasing for the fast solo variation that I've come across; but he's not above thumping the hell out of the piano at the top end of the spectrum (Sokolov's tone, please note, remains rich and glorious even at FFFFF). Sometimes he let things run away with him: the excitement becomes too extreme, he overheats and the sound, and concept, become less controlled and more questionable than they should. But my attention was absolutely with him the whole way, which is more than I can say about Lugansky's performance of the same piece last year (=bored silly). I'm convinced, too, that there was a sense of striving for something beyond the ordinary, a visceral excitement, hints of a far-seeing beauty that one hopes he'll develop over the years. His encore was breathtaking: a virtuoso fantasy on The Barber of Seville, dizzyingly fast, light as a feather, spot-on timing, the whole thing assured as a mountaineer at the summit of Everest. The hall went bananas. The friend I was with, incidentally, absolutely hated his playing - "He's slick, he plays fast, so what?!"

But I feel this was more than just another teddy bear's picnic - though Matsuev will probably be dining out on his success with the audience for years to come. The place was full of music-biz bigwigs cheering him to the rafters. Like him, loathe him or both, I think he'll be back.

UPDATE, FRIDAY 25TH NOV: Here's Richard Morrison's review from The Times. Seems like he doesn't share my taste for yummy string tone. He's right about the fluffed horns and missing flute phrase in the Brahms, but frankly I didn't think it was worth mentioning those because a) find me a horn section these days that DOESN'T fluff anything, b) the band was probably in the midst of tour-funk knackeredness. His comments about Matsuev are pretty interesting.

MORE, TUESDAY 29TH NOV: Here's Erica Jeal's review from The Guardian.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Why is Faure like the No.28 bus?

Some good gigs in London this week.

The Wigmore Hall is enjoying a plethora of Faure. Tomorrow (Wendes) and Thursday, the fabulous Leopold String Trio and the delectable pianist Pascal Roge (his website is sensational!) are giving programmes that include the two Piano Quartets, one per night. On Sunday morning at 11.30 the ever-popular Coffee Concerts feature the Panocha Quartet from the Czech Republic with pianist and Faure editor Roy Howat, offering the first London performance of Roy's new edition of the Piano Quintet No.1. We could be in for some surprises there, as Roy has reached the end of a long battle with a French musicologist who was so outraged by his discoveries about the work's tempo indications (and, we expect, much more too) that he attempted to censor the entire effort out of existence...More details of Wigmore gigs here.

Wednesday is clearly the big day. While Pascal and the Leopolds are in full flight at the Wigmore, Tom's band, the LPO, is performing Mozart Symphony No.40 and the Rossini Stabat Mater at the Queen Elizabeth Hall - details and last few available seats here - and on Thursday they're off to Rome to do the same programme in the San Giovanni Cathedral.

Meanwhile, I shall be sloping off to the Barbican to hear the St Petersburg Philharmonic and Yuri Temirkanov who are currently touring the UK - Prokofiev Cinderella Suite, Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody and Brahms Second Symphony. The soloist in the Rachmaninov is a rather interesting youngster, Denis Matsuev, who is 30 and a Tchaikovsky Competition Winner (incidentally, a former pupil of the same legendary professor who taught Nikolai Lugansky pre-Tchaik Comp win). Will be intrigued to see if I enjoy his performance more than Lugansky's a year ago.

On Saturday at Cadogan Hall there's the final of the Pianist Magazine/Yamaha Piano Competition for Amateurs. Inspired by the success of the Van Cliburn similar set-up, an acolyte contest to the main competition, this one seems to have caught everyone's imagination and seven competitiors, including a piano tuner in his seventies and a financial manager from the City are going to battle it out on the Chelsea stage in front of 600 people plus Pianist editor Erica Worth and a jury including Martin Roscoe, Kathryn Stott and Jamie Cullum! Blimey. I don't know why they put themselves through it. I had quite enough trouble in front of Stephen Kovacevich and ten friends in his front room. Go, guys, go!!! Chase that dream! Read more about it here.

Out of town, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and our very dear friend Marc-Andre Hamelin are touring Poole, Exeter and Southampton tomorrow, Thursday and Friday, playing - you guessed it - Faure! The Ballade, namely, which Marc is augmenting with the Falla 'Nights in the Gardens of Spain'. Full details here.What is it about Faure? Nothing for months and then everyone is at it at once.

That, in case you were wondering, is why Faure is like the No.28 bus, on which I used to rely too much when I lived in West Hampstead.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Bleak house?

Plenty of food for thought in the December edition of BBC Music Magazine, which landed on the mat this morning (you can order the mag here, though the articles aren't online).

One of its most valuable fixtures is Richard Morrison's Comment page, which this time presents the most sensible writing I've yet seen about the crazy crisis now facing our poor UK orchestras, who are usually tackling one crisis or another but had recently been lulled into a false sense of security by the government's 'Stabilisation Programme'. This time, absurd Inland Revenue bureaucracy appears to be to blame - though not solely.

There's plenty of stuff about it in the press, so I won't restate the detail. Briefly, if the Revenue gets its way and stings them all for National Insurance arrears, the results will bankrupt 4 out of 5 British orchestras.

If that included the LPO - and I'm afraid it would - Tom and I would have to sell our house; a budding novelist would find herself back at the subs desk; and Tom says he'd like to be a train driver if he grows up. Worse, where would our souls be without our music?

Richard says:

"What all this adds up to, I believe, is a national crisis. Do we want a viable orchestral profession in Britain or not? The question is as stark as that. Of course musicians cannot be exempt from the tax laws. But it does seem mad for the Culture Department to invest £35m in 'stabilising' our orchestras, only for almost exactly that sum to be snatched away by the Inland Revenue."

Furthermore, he points out that if all those orchestras went to the wall and their musicians were denied a livelihood, the Revenue certainly wouldn't get its desired £33m.

Also in the magazine there's a fascinating article about the music boom in China, which points out that an entire generation of potential music-lovers was lost because of the policies of Mao. Obviously things are less extreme in the UK, but Richard remarks that he's observed hundreds of empty seats at fantastic concerts in Birmingham, Manchester and Scotland: What we are reaping now, I fear, is the withered harvest of a national music curriculum that has left two generations of school-leavers unequipped to understand symphonic music. Expecting the orchestras to remedy that with 'outreach' projects is a bit like asking cancer patients to heal themselves with aspirin." (Crikey, why has it taken 10 years for someone to admit the truth about 'outreach'?!)

Were Thatcher and Major the British cultural equivalent of Mao? The following will seem harsh, but in China, Chinese traditional culture was supposed to replace Western. Here, Western culture was being elbowed out in favour of...nothing but mindless, soulless consumerism.

That's quite enough ranting... I shall stop panicking, take another Kalms tablet and get back to work on the next novel.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

New voices

The Blogosphere never stands still for very long and while I've been spacing out on Mendelssohn and Barkauskas, new voices have been making themselves heard! Readers with good German should have a look at this: Trip to Asia, a preview blog about a new film featuring Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, discovered via not only our old friend at On an Overgrown Path but also Sequenza 21, the contemporary classical portal that everyone seems to have known about except me. Several music journalists in the States have started their own blogs: check out Danny Felsenfeld's Felsenmusick, Marc Geelhoed's Deceptively Simple and Anastasia Tsioulcas's Cafe Aman. All well worth reading and duly added to blogroll here, along with Mackenzie Chan's Top Ten Sources, Mac kindly having written to ask if I mind being included in the classical list. Mind? moi?!? Thank you, Mac!!

Meanwhile, a more familiar voice in the shape of Cecilia Bartoli: my article following my trip to interview her in Rome, Sweet Rome (see September 05 archives) is in The Independent today. Read it here.

UPDATE, 4pm: I've also been overhauling the index to include a range of stuff I've been meaning to add for a while, but never got round to before. There's not much rhyme or reason to the order of the links, but please have fun exploring them!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Smile, you're in the paper

Tomcat was rung up by The Guardian the other day and this is the result. He's talking here to Stephen Moss about the recent kerfuffle over the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's gloomy facial expressions. I love the comment about only needing to be truly awake between 7.30 and 9.30pm.

Apologies over the delay in your comments appearing recently, by the way. I've introduced Comments Moderation but have just discovered that it wasn't working because my browser is deeply incompatible with Blogger and I have to work that elaborate system via Tom's computer when he's not looking. A few guidelines: I will be REJECTING any comments that are anonymous, abusive, advertising-oriented or otherwise iffy. Now that we've been Blog of the Week, we've got standards to maintain!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Sunday discs

A few CDs that have come my way recently that you may enjoy too:

Marc-Andre Hamelin's new disc of Schumann (Hyperion), featuring Papillons, the Fantasiestucke Op.12 and Carnaval. There's so much fantasy, warmth, tenderness and sheer 'oomph' about Marc's playing here that for the first time I'm willing to relegate my previous Carnaval favourite, Youri Egourov, to the back-burner shelf.

Double Dream (EMI), a bizarre but oddly successful programme of improvisations on some well-known piano pieces on two pianos, played by Mikhail Rudy and Misha Alperin. I approached this with some caution, but found it amazingly compelling: the two Mishas choose works including Schumann's 'Prophet Bird', Janacek's 'On an Overgrown Path', and works by Chopin, Prokofiev and Bach besides Alperin's original compositions, and take them meditatively to places you'd never have dreamed they could go.

The Florestan Trio plays Mendelssohn (Hyperion). This is WONDERFUL. Mendelssohn needs a very special soundworld, driven with elan and fire yet full of air and lightness and subtlety. The Florestans give him the lot. Not many CDs make it straight onto my iTunes (that's on the computer, not an iPod, which I don't have...), but this one did and I play it every time I need cheering up.

The Wanderer: Luiza Borac plays Schubert and Liszt (Avie). Dynamic, glittering, galvanising and sensitive playing from this wonderful young Romanian, following the Wanderer Fantasy with a smashing selection of Italian-themed Liszt from the Annees de Pelerinage.

Vytautas Barkauskas's Duo Concertante and more (Avie), recorded live in Vilnius last year by Philippe Graffin, Nobuko Imai and the Vilnius Festival Orchestra under Robertas Servenikas. I was THERE when they recorded it (see Archives, June 2004) and it sounds every bit as good on CD as it did on the day. The piece is fabulous, full of colour and imagination, with the two characterful soloists on top form. On the disc Philippe also plays Barkauskas's Violin Concerto, Jeux, which he commissioned and recorded the previous year - again, playful, quirky, intriguing music that lives in a special imaginative world of its own.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Anyone else cry over old movies?

I disgraced myself yesterday by dissolving into FLOODS at my oldest friend's dad's birthday party. The evening included (convoluted explanation omitted) a viewing of an astonishing film from the 1940s entitled HUMORESQUE, starring Joan Crawford and John Garfield, with Oscar Levant as light relief/fantastic pianist. John Garfield plays a gifted young violinist from a disadvantaged background in New York. Joan Crawford is an older(ish), wealthy, married, society party-giver who helps his career and falls for him in the process. He falls for her too. She drinks too much, is deeply insecure and a little short-sighted (in many ways). He plays music, music and more music - played on the soundtrack by Isaac Stern. Music arranged and conducted by Franz Waxman, including his wild version of the Liebestod from Tristan for violin, piano and orchestra - to which Joan Crawford ultimately goes to pieces and drowns herself. The screenplay is multilayered, insightful, accurate and original and turns out to be by Clifford Odets. I was a snuffling wreck at the end.

Sample line: "A French philosopher once wrote down 300 ways of committing suicide. He left one out: fall in love with an Artist..."

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Last week I was asked to write a big feature about orchestral life for The Independent. Unfortunately it seems that logistics at the paper have turned a big, three-page article into a rather small less-than-two-page one, which my editor assures me isn't my fault. That means that the best funny stories and some of the people I talked to have been excised from it altogether. Therefore I'm doing something today that I've never done before: I'm posting below THE FULL ORIGINAL TEXT OF THE ARTICLE - the director's cut! And here's the printed version, PLAYING FOR PEANUTS.


My husband, Tom Eisner, doesn't have a job. He has a vocation. He spends his working life making a noise on a wooden contraption in the London Philharmonic Orchestra's first violin section. In a week when it has been revealed that the government's planned changes to National Insurance payments could bankrupt most of the UK's orchestras, Tom, like his vastly talented colleagues, is determined to keep on making that wonderful noise, come what may.

Orchestral players have greeted this development with a certain ennui. British orchestras are political footballs: falling down the crack between the floorboards of European subsidy and American, tax-broken sponsorship, they benefit a little from both yet substantially from neither. Many have breathed a sigh of relief since the Stabilisation Programme moved them on to an apparently secure footing for the first time in over a decade; the possibility of that progress being wiped out in one swoop is deeply depressing. Still, they're accustomed to lurching from crisis to cock-up.

They're as subject to the latest government whim as nurses or teachers; they're underpaid and undervalued, given the extensive training and expertise demanded by their jobs; worst, they are often misunderstood by a public who sometimes ask them, "What's your real job?" But the focus, the excitement, the team spirit and the thrill of making music with up to 99 other people in front of an audience can prove utterly addictive. "Playing in an orchestra is a vocation," stresses the LPO second violinist Fiona Higham. "If you thought of it simply as a job, you wouldn't do it."

Given lousy pay, antisocial hours, extremely hard work, huge stress (performance nerves reduces some to beta-blocker dependence), it's not surprising if they find peculiar ways to let off steam. My first taste of an orchestra's combination of closeness, mutual pocket-dwelling and nutty humour arrived the Christmas I was engaged to Tom. The band gave me a calendar bearing a photograph of my intended, rather the worse for wear in a pub, rising to a challenge of unzipping some crucial pieces of clothing and exposing what lay below. Everyone had signed the back of the calendar with comments like: "Where is it?" That was before I knew that the same practical joker who'd planned this had also initiated an orchestra-wide sweepstake about how long our relationship would last. He's since left.

It's far from easy to get into an orchestra. British orchestras have a unique system for appointing new members. In continental Europe and the US, the candidate who plays best on the day of the auditions gets the job. Here, after auditioning, several prospective appointees are taken 'on trial' for a few concerts, sometimes many. The process can take a year or more. While the LPO's co-leader, the South African violinist Pieter Schoemann, was on 'trial', he lodged in our loft for an excruciating seven months of vacillating decision-making, comfort-eating Singapore noodles to the eternal refrain, "You've almost got the job..." Luckily for everyone's sanity, he did get the job. "I'm sure the noodles helped," declares Pieter. He was lucky. The No.3 position has not been filled in eight years.

Still, most musicians are convinced that this system works. Annie Oakley, principal percussionist of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, points out, "I'm always astonished that other jobs, like teaching, can be filled after only a spoken interview, which doesn't tell you anything about how someone will do a job. Ours is a nerve-racking system, but very fair."

Once a player is in, the pressure is on. The French violinist Philippe Honore recently joined the Philharmonia as principal second violin, a half-time post in that orchestra. A long-time member of the Vellinger Quartet, he hasn't been in a symphony orchestra before. "I'd never thought I would enjoy being part of such a big noise so much," he laughs. "I'm enjoying the social aspect and the repertoire. But we have very little rehearsal for a demanding schedule and difficult programmes. British orchestras work two or three times faster than any in continental Europe - and the amazing thing is they are better, too! Working under such pressure gives the concerts a real 'edge'; the downside is that there isn't time to explore the music in more depth."

That's the musical side, but life outside is equally pressured. Orchestral players are finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet. A "rank-and-file" (in orchestral slang, "wank-and-smile") player can earn up to £40,000 per annum in the London Symphony Orchestra, but the equivalent post in the London Philharmonic and Philharmonia orchestras is unlikely to bring in more than £30,000, while in the north it's more like £25,000. Musicians in the self-governing orchestras are on Schedule D: there's plenty of flexibility, but if they don't work, they don't earn. These orchestras offer their members no pension schemes, no health insurance beyond in-house benevolent funds and, in some cases, no fixed retirement age either. Players in salaried organisations like the CBSO, Halle and BBC Orchestras have increased stability, but less flexibility and less ready cash. Money was more plentiful in the 1980s - today there are fewer recording sessions, less sponsorship, more competition for commercial work such as film scores and advertising.

With house prices impossibly high and instrument prices soaring too (a fine Italian violin can cost the same as a flat) players are increasingly turning to alternative sources of income: teaching, property development, massage and more. Bringing up a family becomes a logistical nightmare. One LPO violinist, a father of two, found an orchestral job in Germany, where life is duller but more practical. Another dad has departed in favour of installing bathrooms.

Some couples go as far as deciding not to have children at all. Miranda Davis, a freelance orchestral viola player, is among them: "I couldn't think how I could do it," she says. "You can only earn enough money if you work extremely hard; if you don't, the money isn't enough to support a family. Besides, kids can feel absolutely bereaved if their mother just vanishes on tour for several weeks." Orchestral work places enough strain on a marriage to begin with: "When my husband was teaching in a school, he had to be up by 8.30 and crashed out at 9.30pm, but I often wasn't home until nearly midnight," Miranda says. "And if you go away on tour constantly, the danger is that you may start leading separate lives." Add to that the pressures of a musician practising in a flat while their spouse watches TV, and love's young dream could quickly sour.

That is, if love's young dream can be found. Daniel Meyer, now a second violin in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, started his career in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. "I remember being shocked at how impossible it was to meet anyone outside the orchestra. We worked so many evenings that social life didn't exist. I remember several of us going to a disco in Boscombe out of sheer desperation. We met some Catholic nurses."

Daniel, now a father of two (he married an orchestra librarian), is also bothered by the lack of career structure: "At the equivalent professional level, if I was a doctor I'd be a consultant, and if I was a lawyer I might be a QC. But the rewards don't match up in terms of career building or status." Or, of course, income. "Most of my colleagues now do something else as well. There's nothing wrong with that, but the trouble is that people aren't doing it from choice. It's wonderful to play in an orchestra and do what you love doing, but you often find yourself effectively subsidising your own job."

Performance stress, stage fright, sheer nerves, can take a tremendous toll, especially for a principal player whose personal sound is constantly exposed. Annie, about to retire after 40 years with her orchestra, exclaims, "It can be terrifying. We had ten years of difficult 20th-century repertoire under Simon Rattle, which was hard for the percussion - and you're on your own at the top of the orchestra!" That's one reason healthy living plays a bigger part in orchestral life than it used to. The old drinking culture, "the group of players in the pub by 11am," as Tom describes it, has vanished, while the number of players jogging or going to the gym has risen. Increased competition for jobs in orchestras and jobs for orchestras means that nobody can afford to rest on their laurels.

Wild parties on tour also aren't what they used to be. Tom remembers a 'towel party' in a hotel room in Italy in 1986 to which the police was summoned by the businessman in the room next door. "These just don't happen any more," he says. "People have grown up a bit; they no longer think the world owes them a job."

That doesn't mean there's no fun on tour. Sue Thomas, the LPO's second flute, says, "If you're in a gorgeous place and you've done a wonderful concert where everyone feels electrified, you can't imagine that everyone will just go to sleep - that's when we wake up!" Electrification was the order of the day when Wynton Marsalis and his Lincoln Center Jazz Band recently joined forces with the LPO for a UK tour. Fiona was one of a group "following the jazzers around to the jazz clubs after the concerts while they let their hair down, improvising for half the night!"

Tom, during a stressful German tour, once livened things up by playing a trick on his friend Robert Pool, another violinist. He phoned his hotel room at 3am and announced, "The coaches are leaving in ten minutes!" Robert leapt out of bed and grabbed a glass of water from his table, draining it in one go. Unfortunately, the water contained his contact lenses. He got his revenge the next night: Tom returned after dinner to find that all his possessions had been cleared out of his room.

"The concert hangs over you all day," says Tom, "and afterwards, you feel as if you've been released from prison! When it goes well, you feel fantastic; when it doesn't, you're really pissed off. The old saying that 'you're only as good as your last concert' is still true." Tony Byrne, LPO co-principal viola, adds, "What annoys me the most is the press! When you've done a concert that you know was fantastic and then you read an indifferent review, you think, 'was this guy actually there?'"

The most unpopular face tends to be the one facing the band from the podium. Tony recounts, "When I first joined the orchestra, an old-timer took me to one side and said, 'Laddy, one thing you have to learn: the conductor is your natural enemy,' as if it was a blood sport!". The cliche of the autocratic maestro, stamping and screaming at his cowering band, is sadly based on fact. I witnessed a rehearsal when an eminence gris yelled "Terrible!" at a tired-out touring band after just a few bars, and a moment later added that the few lines they'd just played "smelled". Several years earlier, I saw a conductor unnerve a fine soprano to such an extent during a rehearsal that in the concert she suffered a memory lapse.

How do players cope with such bile? "I shut my eyes and look the other way," exclaims Fiona. "Fortunately there aren't many of them left: nobody will tolerate it any more." Sue says, "I find it quite amusing. One conductor sang along out loud with a soprano in a concert and the people in the front row must have thought they were getting two for the price of one!"

"We want to do what the conductor wants," says Daniel. "But sometimes they're so bad at conveying what they want that we end up having to guess. My worst experience was with the late Gunther Wand. He stopped us and said, 'Don't play so "muurr" - play more "muurr". We had no idea what he was getting at. We tried again and he still wasn't pleased. Eventually he said, "Yes, that’s better!" - but to me it sounded the same and I had no idea how to reproduce this supposed effect. That was deeply frustrating. But people still talk about him as if he's God."

A top-notch conductor makes the world of difference: "It's been incredible to have the chance to play with people like Wolfgang Sawallisch, Daniel Barenboim and Klaus Tennstedt," says Fiona, "and now I think that our principal guest conductor, Vladimir Jurowski, is something special. I think he has the potential to become as great as anybody."

So much for conductors - what about soloists? The ones who join the fun are always the most popular and the younger orchestral players sometimes go out clubbing after a concert with young soloists like Sarah Chang. Less welcome are stars who send a thank-you card afterwards addressed to the section principals by name, ignoring the existence of rank-and-file players. For a soloist, touring with an orchestra can produce some surprises, as the pianist Lucy Parham discovered in America with the BBC Concert Orchestra: "I didn't know the orchestra's conventions, so had no idea when I first got on the tour bus that the seat I chose would be mine for the next 30 days! We played sweepstakes on the coach - everyone put in $5, the person who won would buy all the drink for the coach the next day and we dreamed up some zany things for people to guess. I had to guess someone's favourite flavour of condom. Because I made the effort to fit in, I quickly felt as if I'd been taken 'to the bosom of their family'."

Nothing cheers up an orchestra more than the words FILM SESSIONS. The LSO landed Harry Potter, while the LPO was employed for Lord of the Rings. Film sessions are good news, but a potential roller-coaster. Matthew Gibson, a double bass player with the LSO, explains: "A week of film sessions can add £2000 to your income. But a director can suddenly postpone the sessions by two weeks, which means that it doesn't fit into the orchestra's schedule any longer." That can be taken as a huge disappointment at best, a near-insult at worst - players cancel family holidays for such events, only to find them, and the pay, snatched away at the last moment. "We depend very much on their whims," says Matthew. "But that's the commercial world."

In the end, the words 'kitchen', 'heat' and 'out' come to mind. Miranda left a full-time orchestral job after seven years, "feeling I was almost on the verge of a breakdown. The life was too 'fast' for me. I was physically exhausted, my playing was deteriorating and I desperately needed to see some different faces. I wanted to give up altogether." But she didn't. "I love playing my instrument and you can't give it up easily when you've invested most of your life in it. Besides, what could be better than giving people pleasure? Classical music is one of the most positive and beautiful creations of mankind. And when I've worked, everyone claps! How many people have that appreciation at work?"

Maybe that's also why, despite the politics, the gossiping, the practical jokes, the financial vacillations, the long absences and the constant sound of the violin in the front room, I've never regretted marrying an orchestral musician. I will only be worried the day he stops whistling the tunes on his way home.


Second violin, London Philharmonic Orchestra

I grew up in London and studied at the Royal Academy of Music, but was launched into the profession accidentally, when I was offered work touring with an excellent chamber orchestra. The Academy wouldn't let me go, so I left, knowing this wasn't a chance I should pass up. I freelanced in London for ten years, mostly with chamber orchestras. But when I had my first taste of playing with a symphony orchestra, there was no turning back: I landed some 'extra' work with the LPO, playing Mahler and Strauss, and fell completely under its spell.

For the past 13 years I've been a single mother to two daughters. This is a hard profession even if you have a spouse who can cover the antisocial hours when you're working; my children have been with au pairs most of the time. They've been virtually orchestra mascots! Their father used to be a leader of the orchestra, they've toured with me and they know everybody in the orchestra. They both play instruments, but they don't want to become musicians, because they can see the hours I work and the way I've been struggling financially in the past few years.

One huge reason why orchestras struggle is because conductors' fees are so high - I think people often don't realise that a conductor can earn up to £15,000 for one concert, while we're paid around £100. As a rank-and-file player it's difficult to earn more than around £30,000 per annum. The only way I've survived is by doing some fairly astute property deals, which have effectively subsidised my life as a musician. Generally I'm very happy in the orchestra, though. I've had some amazing experiences playing with the world's greatest conductors and soloists. I think we're all very fulfilled people.

Sub-principal oboe, BBC Philharmonic

I come from Gloucestershire and I've been playing the oboe since I was nine. By the time I was 15 I hoped I might be able to play in an orchestra, but it seemed like a distant dream! I studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, graduated in 1995, then freelanced for six years before joining the BBC Philharmonic as sub-principal oboe. My favourite concerts are the Proms: I love the wonderful hall and the enthuasiasm of the audience.

My twin boys are just over a year old now. I took a year off when I had them, the maximum time that I could, to get some sanity back into my life. It's tricky to manage the schedule, but we're incredibly lucky to have a flexible part-time nanny - without her, we'd struggle, because two nursery places would cost more than my salary. I don't tour at the moment as I can't travel with the boys; the orchestra allows me unpaid leave. Fortunately my partner is an accountant and is very understanding and supportive. It would be much more difficult if we were both musicians.

I do feel secure in my job in terms of the warmth and emotional support among my colleagues, but with any orchestra in the current climate you can't be certain where it's going to go in the future - with all the movement and rethinking in the BBC, you're never sure what's going to happen next. The whole orchestral scene is like that: we love it, but sometime other people don't see the necessity for it.

As I'm a sub-principal, often playing first oboe, some concerts are more stressful than others. But I enjoy that. If you're mentally with it, you take a deep breath, give a good blow and go for it!

Double bass, London Symphony Orchestra

I've been playing with the LSO since 1990 and have been a full member since 1992. I studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and originally I came from Shropshire. I started the cello aged eight and was so bad at it that my teacher said I should try the double bass! There were very few bassists in Shropshire, so I soon found I was in demand for all kinds of gigs. Once I started playing in groups with other people, I caught the bug. After music college, playing in an orchestra was the natural thing to do.

One of my most memorable moments was when our education and rehearsal centre at St Luke's opened - it took years of planning, fundraising and setbacks, but now it's a wonderful, atmospheric space. I'm involved in the LSO's education programme, Discovery, which is very wide-ranging; 60-70 per cent of the orchestra participates in it in one way or another. I think orchestras have become much more flexible in what we can offer the community - it justifies our existence and I think we have to do that.

I feel proudest when we've played really well, during that moment between the end of the music and the start of the applause, when you can feel the emotion hitting home. The sheer talent of all the musicians, hearing what we can do together on a daily basis - that's very inspiring. If you're on a rough tour, but then you sit down and play something like Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony and you hear the sounds and the ability around you - audiences sometimes think that it happens of its own accord, but everyone's effort and dedication and concentration is amazing. Everyone wants to do their best all the time, for the sake of the orchestra.

Second violin, Halle Orchestra

I'm a northerner from Lancashire, I studied at the Royal Northern College from 1974 to 1978 and I've been in the Halle ever since. Manchester is a fantastic city at the moment - we're resident orchestra at the Bridgewater Hall, which is wonderful, and the city has changed tremendously over the past ten years or so. New buildings, new people - it's a very exciting place.

Mark Elder is our principal conductor: I'm very happy that he's here. I think that Mark and the Halle came together at the optimum moment for both parties. We work hard, we do a huge range of music and we always seem to do it well, which I find very satisfying. A few years ago we had a financial 'wobble', which wasn't easy - but having been here such a long time, I've seen definite progress over that time as a whole, which is heartening. Today we're reaping the rewards of all the hard work.

I've been very involved in our educational programme since its inauguration. It's quite an international undertaking; I once went to Indonesia for two weeks as part of it and the Gamelan players I visited then came to Manchester to do workshops. We've done educational projects in places as diverse as Buenos Aires and Brussels.

We do have a lot of fun generally - it's a warm, friendly band. In 1996 when we had a residency at the Salzburg Festival, our football team took on the Vienna Philharmonic's team and beat them. They didn't like that! One less positive experience was the time we did Malcolm Arnold's A Grand, Grand Overture, scored for orchestra with three Hoovers and a floor polisher, and just as we were about to bring on three volunteers from the audience, one of the Hoovers blew up!

Friday, November 04, 2005


First, just to inform any orchestral players who took part in my Indy Panic this week that the article isn't coming out until Tuesday after all. Originally it looked like being today, but 'twas not to be.

Next, if you were thinking of coming to BELOVED CLARA in Islington on Sunday, please note that the actor will now be Malcolm Sinclair, not Charles Dance (who I believe had a film come in at the last minute). Malcolm has been our stalwart actor since the beginning, however, and it's wonderful that he's on board, so do please turn up if you can. Sunday 6th November, 5pm, St Peter's Church, De Beauvoir Road, London N1.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

In tribute...

This article of mine is in the Independent today. I don't usually write about theatre (much as I'd love to), but this involves Arthur Miller's "Playing for Time", originally a television play and now being staged professionally in Britain for the first time. It's about the women's orchestra in Auschwitz and has been deeply controversial in the past. Still, it's vintage Miller, in quality only just behind Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. The trouble with basing a theatrical work (or a novel) on fact is that people connected with the events or characters in one way or another are bound to feel something is wrong, which was very much the case here.

The second leading role is that of Alma Rose, Mahler's niece and the daughter of Arnold Rose, the quartet leader. Richard Newman and Karen Kirtley's biography of her, "Alma Rose: Vienna to Auschwitz", paints her as a far more multi-dimensional person than Miller, perhaps, credits her with being. She was not only a tough, non-compromising musician, but a vulnerable woman whose men (especially her husband Vasa Prihoda, violin virtuoso) treated her less than well, and a woman of tremendous inner resources and immense moral fibre. As both a human being, a musician and someone whose surreal, appalling fate was simply unimaginable, she holds a vast fascination for me. I'm glad to have been able to write about this play, which presents deep emotional truths even if some of its facts are not accurate, and to pay tribute in some small way to this terrible story.

The German song I posted yesterday was one that Alma and her Auschwitz musicians performed frequently. I found it in Newman & Kirtley's book (published by Amadeus Press), which is amazing.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

A song...

Sinig the following to the tune of Chopin's E major Etude, Op.10 No.3. Words by Ernst Marischka. I'll provide an explanation for this tomorrow. (Apologies for lack of umlauts - my browser and Blogger don't get along very well.)

In mir klingt ein Lied,
ein schones Lied,
und durch die Seele mir erinnern zieht.
Mein Herz war still.
Nun erklingen wieder zarte Tone,
ruft in mir alles auf.

Leben war fern,
Und Wunsche fremd.
Mein Herz! Wie ruhig warst Du lange Zeit.
Doch nun kam nah
All mein Gluck und mein Verlangen,
Tiefstes Sehnen, schlaflos Bangen.

Alles, alles lebt jetzt wieder auf.
Ich will doch nur
Frieden fur mein Herz,
Ruhe will ich nur,
nicht denken wieder (mehr)
An ein schones Lied.