Thursday, April 19, 2018

Proms news: Roxanna rules the airwaves!

It's the Proms launch today and the great news is that the Last Night commission goes to our very own Roxanna Panufnik!

Roxanna rules the waves

She is writing a choral piece, Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light, for the combined forces of the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers involving a poem by the World War I poet Isaac Rosenberg and lines from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.

Today's tension is reduced, of course, by the fact that the whole programme went online at 7am, so there will be no repeat of the little adrenaline rush that accompanied the opening of the nice fat brochure at the press briefing, let alone of the time I teared up there on seeing the words KORNGOLD SYMPHONY on a Proms page for the first time ever. Everyone is tweeting their highlights and I've had a quick zip through the website to see what jumps out. No doubt I will have missed plenty, so please forgive me if your favourite concert does not appear in this post...

For opening night there is another new commission, this time from Anna Meredith: Five Telegrams occupies the whole second half of the first Prom, exploring communications from the front line of World War I, involving chorus, orchestra, projections and youth choir, in collaboration with 59 Productions. Indeed, it's a season in which the Proms sets out its stall for the celebration of female as well as male composers, with 24 featured across the two-month season. It does seem extraordinary to think that amid more than 90 concerts, 24 female composers is still really a lot... Eight are world premieres from composers receiving their first BBC commissions, including a piece by the splendid Laura Mvula and one by Bushra El-Turk. Tansy Davies's 9/11 opera Between Worlds is represented by the world premiere of a new orchestral suite from it, entitled What Did We See? Among the longer-established names are electronic stars Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, and there are pieces by Dame Ethel Smyth, Thea Musgrave - celebrating her 90th birthday - and Lili Boulanger (the centenary of her terribly early death is this year).

Women conductors? Some. Not a lot. Karina Canellakis conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Sian Edwards conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's Resound Ensemble in a "relaxed" Prom (explanation on site). Marin Alsop is here to work with a 'Proms Scratch Orchestra' in which amateur musicians can come and join in Shostakovich 5 with the BBC Concert Orchestra. The website kindly advises you to bring your own instrument unless you are a percussionist.

BIG stuff, which works so well in this setting and atmosphere, is laid on almost with the proverbial trowel. Mahler Symphony No.8. Messiaen's Turangalîla (with pianist Angela Hewitt). There's Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, from Glyndebourne; the Strauss Alpine Symphony, BBC Scottish/Volkov; the Brahms German Requiem, conducted by Richard Farnes. The LSO and Rattle do Ravel, with Mrs Rattle, Magdalena Kožena, singing. The LPO and Orozco-Estrada have the Verdi Requiem, notably with rising superstar Lise Davidsen (soprano). John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique presents an all-Berlioz programme, with Joyce DiDonato, among others. The Aurora Orchestra is playing Shostakovich 9 from memory. And there's a singalong for everyone, folksongs from Britain and Ireland - you can sign up to join in from 22 June.

Speaking of anniversaries, Bernstein gets a very thorough bonanza, the highlights including both West Side Story and On the Town, each with no less than the glorious John Wilson and his John Wilson Orchestra. Yes please.

One attractive innovation seems such an obvious idea that you can't help wondering why they haven't done it before: a concert focusing on the BBC Young Musicians of the year and the past, with a splendid cavalcade of winners and finalists from Sheku Kanneh-Mason to Nicholas Daniel and Nicola Benedetti and many more. Jess Gillam also gets to play in the Last Night.

Visiting orchestras: nice to see the National Youth Orchestra present with George Benjamin conducting an eclectic programme, and Proms favourites Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra on a return visit. The Berlin Phil is the biggest name, with Kirill Petrenko, and good on them for programming Schmidt's Symphony No.4 in one of their two concerts; and the Boston Symphony is hot on its heels, with Andris Nelsons and, not least, Mahler 3. The World Orchestra for Peace is back too, after a longish break, this time with a conductor less controversial than the last one and extremely fine, namely Donald Runnicles, playing Beethoven 9, Britten and a new piece by Ēriks Ešenvalds. The Bergen Philharmonic is here with Edward Gardner, the Rotterdam Phil with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and the Estonian Festival Orchestra performs Arvo Pärt. The Minnesota Orchestra offers Bernstein and Ives, with conductor Osmo Vänskä. Teodor Currentzis and his Musica Aeterna make their Proms debut in an all-Beethoven programme, which will be - um - interesting. Best of all, the Budapest Festival Orchestra is back, with Iván Fischer, performing Bartók, Enescu and Mahler's Fourth.

More premieres - there are 42 in all: new works by Philip Venables, Rolf Wallin, Per Nørgård and a bunch of pieces commissioned from composers including Uri Caine and Mark-Anthony Turnage to complement Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, courtesy of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra.

Late-night Proms are often special highlights and this year we can look forward to Sir András Schiff playing the second book of Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues. There's a concert exploring the sounds of New York City, one by members of the Buena Vista Social Club, and a visit from the Grammy-winning Senegalese singer Youssou Ndour. More ventures beyond classical include the rising jazz star Jacob Collier and oud virtuoso Joseph Tawadros. The National Youth Jazz Orchestra tackles Rhapsody in Blue, with Benjamin Grosvenor at the piano.

But there's nothing pop, nothing I can spot that would raise the hackles and headlines we normally start seeing in the tabloids around now. Perhaps they're worried about people dying of shock upon noticing the name of a pop group in a classical series? As one might say, plus ça change...except it could be that they're now rolling over and accepting that it's not worth the buss and fother.

Among pianists there are no big surprises - Yuja Wang, Khatia Buniatishvili, Louis Lortie, Bertrand Chamayou and Paul Lewis are there, and Seong-Jin Cho makes his Proms debut. Among singers, over at Cadogan Hall Dame Sarah Connolly makes her Proms recital debut. And watch out also for the wonderful Wallis Giunta singing some Bernstein. There are also talks to enjoy from writers including Sebastian Faulks, Salley Vickers, Patricia Duncker and many more.

The whole season kicks off with Vaughan Willliams's Towards the Unknown Region, a title which is kind of apposite at the moment. Can the Proms lift us, even briefly, above the morass of lies, corruption, greed, incompetence and stupidity that has driven this country into the mess it's currently facing? I bloody hope so. Two months of wall-to-wall musical relief will be very welcome.

If you can't get there, then as always everything's on the radio and a lot is on TV and computer.

Quick verdict: does what it says on the tin. A good, solid, enjoyable and interesting Proms season that does everything the Proms ought to do, without rocking the boat.

Pay your money and take your choice here.

Enjoy JDCMB? Your support, at any level, is warmly welcomed here...

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

If music be the food of love...when do we eat?

This is a perennial issue among those who spend more evenings at concerts or other performances than not. You need to eat. But when do you ever have time?

It's a more widespread problem than we like to admit. I remember interviewing a much bigger-time critic than I am and asking what the most challenging thing about this job is. Reply? "Working out when to eat. I've never cracked it."

Here is an extreme example, more extreme than usual. But frankly, usual is pretty odd too.

The other night I found myself in a position I'd never dreamed of. (Well... OK, yeah, I dreamed. Who wouldn't?) But there we were, the Silver Birch team from Garsington, glammed up in our silks, velvets and black tie, converging around 5.30pm in the Chandos Pub for our big evening as a finalist candidate for the International Opera Awards a few doors up at the London Coliseum. I've had nice things happen to me over the years, but never before been a member of a team in the running for anything like the "Toscars" (as it's affectionately nicknamed by the cognoscenti).

Of course, I knew as soon as I looked at my ticket that we hadn't won. The Coli is London's biggest theatre, and from row G of the dress circle it would take about half an hour to walk all the way down to the spotlit stairs to the stage, depending on the height of your heels. Sure enough, the Education and Outreach category was the first to be announced, and it went to...Opera Holland Park – which, incidentally, more than absolutely deserved it.

That was about ten minutes in, after the chorus of the Opera Awards Foundation bursary young singers had set off the proceedings with "Wach auf!" from Meistersinger, magnificently wrong-footing those who'd been preparing to stand up for the national anthem (a Your Highness was present). Final curtain was three hours later.

I'd had some soup and a sarnie before leaving home at about 4.45pm. This being London, distances are large and trains not always reliable, so you have to leave plenty of time for the journey. And this is what happens, time and again - if a more extreme version, as the awards started at 7pm and we were partying in the pub first.

• If you eat a "proper meal" at lunchtime, you fall asleep (at least, I do).
• If you try to eat a proper meal at 4.30pm, you're not usually hungry.
• If you try and eat in the pub, you can't talk to anyone because your mouth is full, and there wasn't really room in our little gathering.
• You can't sit in the Coli with your sarnies munching your way through the Toscars, especially not when Teresa Berganza walks in to collect her Lifetime Achievement Award and the whole place goes absolutely bananas.
• The interval is 20 mins and you visit the loo, bump into people and try to find the water jug in the bar.  You could queue up and see if they have crisps, but that would take forever and you'd have to down them so fast you might cough on the crumbs, which, needless to say, must be avoided. You could munch a sarnie somewhere, if you'd remembered to bring one, but even then you'd probably want to maintain your dignity and do it outside, and it was pouring with rain.
• More Toscars. Touching acceptance speeches from Brett Dean for his fabulous Hamlet, and from sopranos Malin Byström (Female Singer of the Year) and Pretty Yende (who won the Readers' Award). The intriguing sight of Serge Dorny, whose Opéra de Lyon won Opera Company of the Year 2017, presenting the prize for 2018 to the Bayerische Staatsoper, where he's shortly to take over as Indendant himself. And splendid performances from several stars including Young Artist of the Year Wallis Giunta singing Orlofsky's aria from Die Fledermaus in full-on Cabaret style with top hat, blazing presence and razor-edged diction. But you don't really want your stomach to start rumbling...

Wallis Giunta in a spot of Rossini - you don't want stomach rumbles when this lady starts to sing.

You can apply a policy of eating 'little and often', which is my usual solution. You should never leave home without a sandwich or a muesli bar or a banana. But there you are at the Toscars, and as the end of the third hour approaches you're feeling worse than light-headed.

What do you do?

• You can try and blag your way into the after-party - apparently there were vegetable crisps.
• You can go to the QEH and crash the Chineke!/reopening party, but there might not be vegetable crisps.
• Or you can leg it to the 22:33 home and thence to the tin of baked beans in the cupboard that you can hear calling your name.

The beans won.

We are possibly in a state of national cultural denial over people's need to eat. I've even been to weddings where the champagne has flowed...over a few dotted-around bowls of cheesy wotsits. Concerts and theatres usually start at 7.30pm, leaving you not quite enough time beforehand unless you can get away from your desk early, while making finishing time rather late to fit in a meal and the train home, or the other way round, without causing nightmares via heavy stomach and headache before bedtime. An 8pm start might give you time to eat, but then cause anxiety if you have a long journey ahead. A 7pm start usually indicates a substantial programme rather than an early finish - except sometimes on Sundays, which is always good, because we are also in a state of national cultural denial about people having actually  to go anywhere by train on a Sunday.

My survival tips:

• Always take a sandwich with you, or at least a muesli bar.
• Don't forget this.
• Don't have alcohol if you're at a do where there's plenty of drinks but no eats – unless you have remembered your sandwich and there's time to eat it.
• Pace yourself. Try to have several nights in per week, and cook a really good meal with wholesome ingredients and heaps of vegetables. Your health matters and so does your family's.
• Remember: if you do take your sarnie, then you can also crash whatever after-party is appropriate without fear of passing out.
• If everyone else is good at pretending to rise above it all and travel to higher realms, then let them. It's your stomach. Take responsibility. Take back contr...oh, whatever.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Positively brilliant

Last night the Queen Elizabeth Hall reopened in grand style with a performance by Chineke! which by all accounts raised the new roof high indeed. I couldn't be there because I had to go to something else (of which more shortly), but I'm pleased to offer an insider's view of what it was like to be part of that concert - because my husband was playing in it. He is, as you know, usually in the London Philharmonic. And my gosh, he had a good time. Over to Tom...

Chineke! with conductor Anthony Parnther (Tom is at the back on the left)
Photo: Mark Allen

So, my dear, some people were apparently quite surprised to see you playing in Chineke! But you are of an ethnic minority, technically - please explain?

Tom aged 24
One of the main misconceptions of Chineke! is that only black musicians may play in it; the mission statement clearly says “ The organisation aims to be a catalyst for change, realising existing diversity targets within the industry by increasing the representation of BME musicians in British and European orchestras.” I am sure anyone strongly believing in this, as I do, would be most welcome to participate, as either a performer or indeed as a financial sponsor.

I also feel a link with Africa: in my youth I was blessed with a splendid Afro haircut – my father used to say that I resembled the US activist Angela Davis... Obviously this stems from my Jewish roots. Going back thousands of years the Jews were undoubtedly descended from Africa. Hence my frizzy hair!

Chineke! players come from all over the world and are performers at the top of their game. Tell us about who some of your colleagues were? 

Tom with leader Tai Murray
Tai Murray, the orchestra’s leader is a truly marvellous violinist. At the age of 9 she debuted with the Chicago S.O. She has made a stunning recording of the Ysaÿe solo sonatas.
Mariam Adam, the first clarinet, has worked with Yo-Yo Ma, played as a soloist at Carnegie Hall, and is now based in France.
Samson Diamond, originally from Soweto, is now in demand everywhere as a freelance orchestral player.
Mandhira de Saram is the leader of the Ligeti quartet.
I loved the internationality of the orchestra. At least seven of the members are either born or based in Germany and Austria; from time to time I had to pinch myself – are we in London or Berlin?!

What it was like for you all to integrate into one orchestra? How is it different from playing in your usual orchestra?

I felt welcomed and very much at home from the start – musically it felt very similar to the high standard of the LPO.

What was the atmosphere like in the rehearsals and the concert?

At the start of the week I hardly knew anyone, and vice-versa. I must admit to enjoying that. I suppose after 32 years in the LPO, perhaps we know each other too well…
The big difference is that everyone is in Chineke! because they passionately want to be there – as opposed to simply doing “the day job” to which you are so accustomed, however good that may be.

Chi-chi Nwanoku
What did you enjoy most about it?

Feeling that together we had achieved something really special by playing exceptionally well. As a musician, that is always the most important aspect. I think Chi-chi Nwanoku can be extremely proud of what she has created here!

What’s the refurbished QEH like?

You might not guess it from looking at the place from the other side of the river, but it is really wonderful. I played in it a lot 12 years ago when the RFH was being refurbished, and it is transformed. The stage is now much more comfortable and spacious and as it is wider, going clean from side to side of the hall, the acoustic is even better. The wood looks beautiful and shiny and warms up the hall. The foyer is big and welcoming and much more user-friendly. Well done, Southbank Centre – it’s money well spent!

What do you “take away” from this experience?

I love the sheer positiveness of Chineke!. When I really enjoy a concert, I want to shout from the top of the tallest building and tell the world. It’s depressing if you know full well an orchestra has done a wonderful concert, you say “that was great” and some cynic chooses to reply, “Was it?” Last night after the performance all my colleagues in Chineke! were enthusing about the great concert. Their wonderful inspiration is going to make me even more determined to enjoy the rest of my career!

You can hear the concert, which was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, on the iPlayer, here.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Under African skies

It's a big day here in rainy old London. Tonight the Queen Elizabeth Hall reopens after a two-and-a-half-year closure for refurbishment, and the lucky orchestra doing the concert is Chineke!, the UK's first BAME orchestra founded by the indomitable Chichi Nwanoku. I can't go, because Garsington Opera's Learning and Participation Department is a finalist for an International Opera Award for Silver Birch and so we are trooping off to the Coliseum for the awards evening. Wish us luck. Meanwhile, if, like me, you can't attend the Chineke! concert, you can hear it on BBC Radio 3.

And you can also hear a fabulous new CD from the pianist Rebeca Omordia, which explores the music of three composers from her father's native Nigeria. I loved it to pieces. The music is gritty, passionate, imaginative, startling and irresistible by turns - highly recommended. I asked Rebeca to do an e-interview to tell us more about it.

JD: Please tell us why you wanted to make this CD?
RO: I was always interested in exploring my Nigerian heritage (I was born in Romania to a Romanian mother and a Nigerian father) and the idea of the CD emerged in 2013 after cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, whom I was working as duo partners with, suggested I investigated if there was any music by Nigerian composers. After a long research I discovered a very interesting piano repertoire which I gradually started including in my recitals. The music was very well received and I decided to record it in order to make it known to a wider audience. 

JD: What's been your own path so far? And what does it mean to you, personally, to be performing and recording African music?
RO: My path hasn't always been smooth. I was born during Ceaușescu's regime when inter-racial marriages where not socially accepted and I had to put up with a lot of discrimination as a child, especially in school. I was fortunate to have very supportive parents who helped me overcome it and I somehow managed to integrate in a society that never really accepted me. In Nigeria, you must claim your father's country, so I am regarded as Nigerian, which always gave me a strong moral support as well as a strong feeling of claiming my African roots. Things changed after the Fall of Communism and gradually the society became more tolerant. 

I came to the UK in 2006 when I received a scholarship to study Masters at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and from that moment, my life changed. I was fortunate to win the 'Delius Prize' in 2009 which opened the collaboration with cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. We started working as duo partners in 2012, touring the UK, performing at the Wigmore Hall and on live broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 and so, I was never reminded that I was 'different' but I learnt to embrace it. The African recording became very much a personal project for me where I was embracing my African roots with all its cultural beauty and diversity. The title of my CD is 'EKELE' which in Igbo language means 'Greetings' and it is my way of bringing greetings from my father-land to the western world.

JD: How did you decide on the programme? 
RO: Deciding on the programme for the CD took a long time. Apart from Fred Onovwerosuoke's 24 Studies in African Rhythms, none of the music has been published so it took months and years to gather the material, and then, I had to select what would be best for a first CD. I hope that the recording will raise enough interest and the music will eventually be published. 

Rebeca Omordia
Photo: Silas Eziehi

JD: You've chosen music by three composers - Ayo Bankole, Fred Onovwerosuoke and Christian Onyeji. Please tell us a little more about them? (I was horrified to read that the brilliant Ayo Bankole was murdered...) 
RO: The music of Ayo Bankole dominates the disc and he is one of the most prolific and probably the most famous Nigerian composers to date. After studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London as well as at Cambridge University, he returned to Nigeria in 1966 where he was appointed Senior Producer in Music at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation and later became lecturer in music at the School of African and Asian Studies, University of Lagos. His early death, in 1976, at the age of 41, cut his career short  (him and his wife were murdered by his half- brother). As a composer, Ayo Bankole is renowned for his originality of blending elements of traditional Yoruba music with western classical music in his works. 
Award-winning Fred Onovwerosuoke (or FredO, as his friends call him) was born in Ghana in 1960 to Nigerian parents and was raised and studied in Ghana as well as in Nigeria. He received a scholarship and went to study composition at Principia College, MO, in the United States, where he is now residing. FredO became internationally renowned for the use of his chant 'Bolingo' in Robert De Niro's feature film 'The Good Shepherd'. The '24 Studies in African Rhythms' for piano is his most known work which has been recorded by various international artists. In 1994 he founded the St. Louis African Chorus, now renamed African Musical Arts Inc.,  to help nurture African choral music as a 'mainstream repertoire for performance and education'. 
Christian Onyeji, the youngest of the three composers (born in Nigeria in 1950), is Professor of Music at the University of Nigeria, Nssuka, and he specialises in the ethnomusicological research of African art music. 

JD: What qualities in the music itself stand out as particularly African in character? 
RO: In Nigeria, there are three main ethnic tribes (Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa) and people are defined by the tribe they come from, therefore, the music of each composer has the peculiarities particular to the music of the tribe the composer comes from. 
Ayo Bankole was Yoruba and we can find many traditional Yoruba melodies and rhythms in his piano works. Even though his music might sound European (especially his Piano Sonata no. 2), it is easy to detect an African influence. To Nigerian ears, his Yoruba tunes are easily recognisable. 
Christian Onyeji is Igbo and he explores the musical language specific to the traditional Igbo music. As an ethnomusicologist, he developed the 'drummistic piano style', which is characteristic to his piano works.  
'FredO' travelled all over Africa where he gathered material which he transcribed and used in his 24 Studies in African Rhythms. Each Study is inspired by the dance or the song of a different African country. Study no. 1 'Okoye' refers to the first day of the Igbo calendar 'Orie' that marks the 'Market Day' which causes reason for celebration.

JD: What would you say are the main challenges facing classical composers in African countries today? 
RO: Classical music is not widespread in Africa and most people still don't have access to it, so it is very difficult for composers to make a living as musicians, not to mention becoming internationally renowned. Most of them are lecturers, working in universities, and hoping their works will one day be discovered. The Musical Society of Nigeria (MUSON) is doing a great work promoting classical music. They run the national conservatoire of Nigeria, giving young people the opportunity to learn music at a very high standard - MUSON School of Music has produced internationally renown artists, including pianists Glen Inanga and Sodi Braide, and tenor Jo Oparamanuike who has now returned to Nigeria and runs the Vocal Department of MUSON School of Music. MUSON Symphony Orchestra gives regular concerts at Agip Recital Hall in Lagos, concerts which have a very good attendance. Their repertoire includes orchestral works by Nigerian composers which are a constant presence in their concert programmes.

JD: As an artist of international reputation with roots in Nigeria, do you feel you have a personal mission to get this music 'out there' and help it achieve the recognition it deserves? 
RO: I have been promoting Nigerian classical music ever since I discovered it and I hope my CD 'EKELE', the first CD of its kind ever released in the UK, will be a step forward for African classical music to gain international recognition. 

JD: How do you feel about the current explosion of equality awareness in the music field? What's your view on achievements to date, how much further there is to go and how the change of awareness can lead to real change? 
RO: We are living in a time when equality and diversity are more than just box-ticking in the classical music world. The tables are turning with 'diversity' and we are seeing young musicians from diverse backgrounds making their mark in the classical music scene. Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the Chineke! Orchestra are evidence of how powerful their impact has been in bringing a radical change to the classical music industry. 

JD: Do you have plenty more African repertoire up your sleeve for us to hear and enjoy after this disc? What would be your recommendations for further listening? 
RO: Besides piano music there are many songs and chamber music. There was a plan in 2013, while I was still playing with Julian Lloyd Webber, for Julian and I to perform some of the chamber music at the Africa Utopia Festival in Southbank Centre. Sadly, his injury prevented this from happening. 
Composer Fred Onovwerosuoke has done amazing work as the founder of African Music Publishers (AMP), in St. Louis, USA, creating a platform of production and worldwide distribution of scores and recordings of music by African composers. In addition to his own works, we'll find available music by  Nigerian composer Akin Euba and Ghanaian composer Joseph H. K. Nketia. 

JD: You've recently been to Nigeria on tour - how did it go? 
RO: I have a large family in Nigeria whom I visited many times but this was the first time I performed there and I had the most amazing reception. In Nigeria, you claim your father's country and I was welcomed as 'the daughter of the land'. It was beyond my expectations and I truly felt at home. The Musical Society of Nigeria (MUSON) was the main organiser and I was impressed with how well everything was planned and how smoothly everything went. There are always unexpected things that can occur on a tour but this time everything was just right. The audience was super enthusiastic and they made me feel like a star. 

Sunday, April 08, 2018

'Hello, George? Orchestre de Paris here....'

The other week, conductor George Jackson's account of his last-minute close encounter with the LSO, some lost Ubers and a banana case became my fourth most popular post ever on JDCMB (behind only the London Hamburger Orchestra, the story of Enescu and an interview with the divine Cecilia). So when he called up and said 'You're not going to believe what happened the other day', I thought he'd better tell us about it.... JD

Remember the Horse...
George Jackson to the rescue, once again

George Jackson
Photo: A.P. Wilding
It’s another Sunday morning, but this time, a more civilised 10:30am. And it’s Easter.  I have had an interesting weekend, beginning with fulfilling my role as ‘best man’ for a good friend (go-karting in Tower Bridge and a barbecue-style feast in East London for the stag) and complemented by listening to my local church choir singing the gorgeous Fauré Requiem for Easter Saturday.

I am sipping coffee and very slowly packing my case for a week in Paris, this time, working with my mentor, Daniel Harding, as second conductor for the gargantuan Ives Fourth Symphony (which requires three conductors).  I decide to check-in with the maestro by text, since he likes us to meet half an hour or so before each rehearsal in the Conductor’s Room.

A reply: ‘George, I have an ear infection.  The doctor just told me not to fly and that my antibiotics might clear my ear in 3-5 days. I’m so sorry.  Not sure what the orchestra will decide to do. I’m going to get back to you ASAP.  You might have to take over the concert’.


But then of course, I had just convinced my sister that her car had been stolen during the night (April Fool’s!)  So this must be another one of those.  It’s a damn good one!

Daniel confirms, via sad face emoticon, that it is not an April Fool’s….

‘Would you be willing to step in?’

I am fondly reminded of that Eddie Redmayne story, á la Joey Tribbiani.  ‘Yes!  I can ride a horse for the part.  Of course’. Always say yes.

So I do.

Seventy-five per cent of me still thinks this is an April Fool’s, and 25% is flooded with adrenaline. ‘Expect a call’...

The remaining 75% becomes adrenaline as the Orchestre de Paris’s management call within minutes, asking me how I feel, and whether, alongside taking over the main conducting of the Ives, I can also conduct the other concert items: Jonathan Harvey’s ‘Wheel of Emptiness’ with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and Jörg Widmann’s clarinet concerto ‘Echo Fragments’, which features the composer as soloist, and a mixed ensemble of Orchestre de Paris and Les Arts Florissants, pitted at opposite ends of the stage in a kind of orchestral time machine.  It’s a beautifully conceived concert, featuring all three orchestras performing side-by-side.

Remember the horse!

About an hour later, I am in Luton Airport’s branch of Wasabi.  I must be the first customer to inhale their (frankly, delicious) 'Chicken katsu yakisoba bento’ whilst poring over an A1 score of an 
Ives symphony (there is still a small soy sauce stain in the top corner of the second movement, page 46).  I am sure the other customers think I am rather odd.

Given my illustrious history of Uber mishaps, I am amazed that, having collected my luggage, an Uber is outside Charles de Gaulle within minutes, and we are speeding our way to Pantin, the Philharmonie’s neighbourhood in north-east Paris.

At the hotel, the first room I am given features a man in a dressing gown cooking pasta and watching Formula 1.  A quick trip back to reception confirms that they did give me the wrong room.  New key card for the room next door: that doesn’t work.  Three return trips to reception (and four flights of stairs each time), and I finally get a fresh room.  The Orchestra have very kindly left scores at reception for the pieces I have not yet seen, the Harvey and the Widmann.

I am sitting down at the desk by 6pm, opening up the scores, prioritising for the next day’s schedule (Ives in the morning, Harvey in the evening).

I break for a shower, where I count from 1 to 100 and recite the alphabet in French (that GCSE finally came in useful).  In a rehearsal situation comprising of about 150 on stage (the Ives features a large chorus too), it will be really important to make sure everybody understands clearly where we are starting from.

I doze off for about 90 minutes in the small hours, powered through the night by the adrenaline high.  The alarm officially wakes me at 8 to go into the Philhamonie for the first reading at 10.  I walk
through the deserted streets (it’s Easter Monday after all), track down a bakery where I order a double espresso and a very fresh Pain au chocolat.  Like the Pilgrim in Hawthorne’s ‘Celestial Railroad’, which forms the basis of Ives’ Symphony, I trudge towards the horizon, Jean Nouvel’s spiraling aluminium forming a curtain to open the week to come.

It’s going to be a wild ride….