Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Larking about in the Lakes

Ah, summer in rural England. The Pina Coladas on the beach. The heat and sun thumping down from dawn to dusk. The trays of fresh tropical fruit spread out by the hotel swimming pool. The...

OK, never mind. While we dodged from shelter to shelter (ie pub to concert and back) we pretended that it was autumn and we were students again. The Lakes are probably the most beautiful region of England, replete with walkers, dogs and bunny rabbits, and the Lake District Summer Music festival and summer school, based at the University of Cumbria in Ambleside, makes the most of the lovely venues in the area with concerts in Kendal, Ambleside itself, nearby Windermere and, in the case of the Messiaen project, the Theatre By The Lake in Keswick. The theatre is slightly out of the village and if you turn left and walk for one minute you are indeed on the lake - Derwentwater - which may be the loveliest of all. LDSM is the brainchild of Royal Northern College piano doyenne Renna Kellaway, who has run it for more than 20 years now; it's hard to imagine a more wonderful region in which to celebrate nature and music rolled into one.

Naturally the Lakes are overrun with tourists, so it's hard to get away from the cars, not to mention Peter Rabbit. Beatrix Potter settled there after she made the big time, and the cafe in which I stopped for soup and sandwich during a post-rehearsal stroll on Saturday was piping an audio-book of The Tale of Benjamin Bunny into the ladies' loos. To make the most of the area, you need strong boots, a good raincoat, a dog, a large chunk of Kendal Mint Cake and some very warm socks. You also need a pack of sandwiches, especially if you are giving concerts, because, anywhere in provincial England, it is very difficult to find a square meal after 10pm. I know we are supposed to be part of Europe now, but there are corners of the country to which this news doesn't appear to have penetrated. Like most places outside central London.

I have to say that Sunday evening was one of the most memorable events of my life. If anyone had told me 10 years ago that on 17 August I would be performing my own play with Robert Tear, that it would be created to complement the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time and that there'd be a team of some of the finest musicians I know playing the music, I think I'd have passed out with shock. We also very much enjoyed our pre-event event in the late afternoon, when festival boss Andrew Lucas interviewed me, Philippe and Charles about music, words and Messiaen, and the lads gave the UK premiere of an early violin and piano piece by Messiaen entitled Fantaisie which has just been published for the first time.

Pictured: top, Philippe, Charles and me by Derwentwater on Sunday afternoon; bottom, Bob and me in the dressing room before the show; middle, the Indian takeaway with which we attempted to solve the sorry-luv-the-kitchen's-closed-now post-concert conundrum when we got back to the campus on Sunday night - left to right, Charles Owen, Philippe Graffin, Hayley Wolfe (who played in the Saturday concert), Oleg Kogan and Chen Halevi. Not certain how the First Aid box got there, but I think we were hoping there might be a corkscrew inside it. The four boys and I shared a student cottage for the weekend. It was an enjoyable team-bonding experience, but being the only female resident I have now renamed the Messiaen work 'Quartet for the End of Time in the Bathroom'.

Sadly I didn't have my camera to hand for the most memorable image of all. After the lads arrived on Friday night, we headed for the pub, as one does, and being a Friday, it was full of very merry young locals. Now, a momentarily unattended cello case is not the commonest of sights in The White Lion in Ambleside, and Oleg's precious Italian instrument quickly attracted two feisty northern lasses who proceeded to drape themselves over it at some interesting angles, then turned the thing on its side, sat astride it and snogged one another. Their boyfriends took photos and promised to put them on Facebook...

It was all a very, very long way from where the Quartet itself started out: in a prisoner-of-war camp, Stalag VIIIA, near Gorlitz in Silesia in January 1941, where Messiaen and his friends performed in temperatures far below freezing, on rickety instruments, wearing what threadbare clothes they had, and clogs. Yet as it turned out, the story was closer to Keswick than we'd imagined. In the box office at the theatre, one of the members of staff is - like the woman in my play - the daughter of a former PoW. Her father was shot down over Germany during the war and was captured and sent to Stalag VIIIB, down the road from Messiaen's camp. We had tea; she showed me his letters, his diary, some photos from the time...one of which was stamped with the mark STALAG VIIIA. Incredible.

My huge and heartfelt thanks to everyone at LDSM and the Theatre who made the event possible, to my wonderful and now very bathroom-bonded quartet friends and to the incomparable Bob Tear. It was the project's first UK airing; but let's hope it will not be the last.