1st May 2015

Austria – Slovenia – Athens, April 2015 (The view from behind a pair of timpani)

During our recent European tour with Julian Rachlin, we asked David Corkhill (Principal Timpani/Percussion) to write a journal describing life on tour with the ECO…

Imagine if you will (go on – you’re not doing anything else) that you’ve had an e-mail from the very fine orchestral manager of a well-known chamber orchestra based in England – let’s call it the English Chamber Orchestra (actually that’s not a bad name anyway) – and in the e-mail there’s an invitation to play with this orchestra in programmes of Mozart and Mendelssohn in some of the best venues across Europe – say, Vienna, Linz, Athens to pluck three European cities at random. Each night about 2,000 people will applaud you for playing so nicely, oh and you‘ll be paid. Not handsomely, but well enough. What are you going to say? Surely an offer you couldn’t possibly refuse. Are you listening at the back? There’ll be questions at the end.

Actually I love orchestral tours, which is just as well as there are lots of them. And in particular an ECO tour of Europe right now is possibly the best way to spend some of the final days of the General Election and being referred to as one of the ‘hard working ordinary people’ in a faintly patronising way (although the press has been refreshingly irreverent about a UKIP scenery collapse and Mr. Cameron’s story-telling abilities. Other party leaders are available for ridicule. It says something when mishaps are more memorable than policies. And you’ll just have to get used to my over-long sentence constructions and parentheses – I’m rather fond of them so get over it).

Monday 20th

It’s actually the day before we leave for, I think, Bregenz (note to self – must read schedule) and luckily a day off so it’s catching up with e-mails and so on, except Tom Alexander (very fine orchestral manager etc. – see above) has snuck one into my inbox saying the conductor has asked can I bring a tambourine. Mine’s not to reason why, I just need to pop over to the Guildhall School of Music in the City where I teach and pick one up. This is in addition to the triangle asked for last week so I mentally run through the possible additional repertoire we could be playing. Brahms 4? Carmen? Highlights from Mahler 2? Can’t wait.

Tuesday 21st

So hey-ho, it’s off to LHR 5 we go. And it’s early – a 7.30am check-in which is honestly just rude – but at least it’s light outside which is a tad less depressing than touring in winter.

I’ve just had an extremely firm pat-down by security. I hope he wasn’t just being friendly. It’s tiresome and odd that there’s so much queueing at security when there are so many X-ray machines lying idle (how often have you seen all of these expensive machines in use at LHR or any other busy airport for that matter? I thought so – never. Good answer. You must come again), and it strikes me that it would be a great use of the facility if our wonderful yet beleaguered NHS could use these machines during down time. I’m sure Herr Röntgen would be pleased to know his prize-winning discovery was being used in such adaptable circumstances.

It is Bregenz by the way. I know you were wondering. Is that in Austria? I’ve no idea – my Geography O-Level was a long time ago – and flying straight there would be far too simple of course so we’ll pay Zurich a courtesy call and take a bus from there. I tried to book my seat online yesterday morning just to make sure of a decent one – aisle, near the front, left hand side (the side that doesn’t have the morning sun full blast as we fly west to east) – but dear old BA won’t have anything to do with it. Their colleagues in Star Alliance are always happy to oblige but for BA any group more than nine people have to sit where you’re told and be quiet. So there.

Seat 21C, and you wouldn’t know it but we’re travelling at ¾ of the speed of sound. No wonder you can’t hear me at the back.

And now we’re not. We’re bus-bound to Bregenz (which is in Austria in case you didn’t know) and I’m having a good chat with Ian Brignall who is one of the managers on the trip, although he doesn’t have Pauline’s or Charlotte’s charm or good looks. Not by a long way. We have the musicians’ all-too-frequent conversation about the lack of really good conductors: we agree that there are many pretty good ones but hardly any that make a difference to your life, which is what a musical performance – a recreation of a work of art – should do to one extent or another. There’s a wonderfully impressive distant view of mountains topped with snow which goes some way to make up for it.

The Mercure Bregenz would not necessarily be your first choice of holiday hotel but it suits us just fine. Allegedly there’s wi-fi in the room although I haven’t yet managed to find out how to conjure it up, and the nice people at the front desk are really helpful about pointing me in the direction of suitcase shops. I’ve had a suitcase crisis and my very old and very faithful case has finally given up (although I suspect airport handlers may have had something to do with its metal frame that now looks like a cartoon stick figure) and I have immediate success in finding a perfect replacement in a sale! The day is going well.

If any of you have seen on television an outdoor lakeside opera performance for which Bregenz is famous – Carmen, Fidelio, La Bohème to name only three – you’ll know how extraordinary it is. Well, you should see the real thing (maybe you have). This year it’s Turandot and the scale of the set is immense. It’s all built on a stage that floats out on Lake Constance (firmly moored to the shore one hopes), and is gigantic in size and concept and completely outrageous, with only the sky and the horizon limiting the arch of the proscenium. These moments of serendipity are one of the nice things about touring – on what is an ordinary working day being agreeably surprised by something unexpected.

But enough of this tourist chat - there’s work to be done, and this week’s conductor and soloist Julian Rachlin has hot-footed it from Budapest (along with a Philharmonia colleague Sam Coles) where he has been playing Tschaikovsky with Ashkenazy, in order to rehearse the tour programme. The hall – Bregenzer Festspielehaus – is typical of its kind: designed to be a concert hall, theatre, opera house and conference centre, yet with attention to the acoustic demands of every circumstance. Hmmm. I’m not completely convinced that this always works, and here I can’t really hear the ECO’s violins quite clearly enough, and horn players John Thurgood and Brendan Thomas are finding it difficult to hear the bassoons. Despite having a conductor we always need to have aural contact with the rest of the instruments even in a large symphonic ensemble; there’s more chamber music activity going on than most audiences realise – listening and responding to colleagues for example – and with a first class ensemble like the ECO the conductor’s function is often that of guide and motivator rather than traffic cop.

The rehearsal finishes shortly after 10pm. A long day, but many are keen to see what Bregenz gastronomy has to offer and head off into the night.

Wednesday 22nd

Up reasonably early and the usual fight with the hot/cold balance of water temperature of the hotel shower. Breakfast is healthy and good and far more lavish than any us normally award ourselves. At home I for one don’t have staff on hand to ask what kind of coffee I’d like or make up a buffet of exotic fruit at any time in the morning that suits me. Not at least since my butler and cook walked out after that scandal in ’08. Surely you remember? It was in all the papers.

Back in my room I listen briefly via the internet to Mid Week on Radio 4 with the excellent Libby Purves. It was a source of great enjoyment on a recent trip to Japan to listen to James Naughtie and Justin Webb on the Today Programme at three o’clock in the afternoon.

So let’s see what Bregenz is all about. Just across the road from the railway station is a statue of Jodok Fink. No, me neither, but apparently he was an influential politician heavily involved in the move for Austrian independence in 1918 as the old Austro-Hungarian Empire crumbled after the end of the Great War. There’s even a Jodok-Fink-Platz in Vienna and a Straβe in his honour in Salzburg. So now you know.

There’s something endearing about a city where you can see countryside from the main street and where the tallest building is a church steeple. Edinburgh and Bradford for example. And Bregenz is a charming town in this way, but you quickly run out of interesting streets to wander down. I come across Tokyo, a Japanese restaurant that confidently boasts the longest running sushi buffet in western Austria.

Instead for lunch I go for a light Italian and don’t know whether to speak Italian or German to the Italian waiter so I resort to a bit of both and end up with Desperanto (n., colloq., a hybrid language popular with English musicians abroad when not quite sure which country they are in; e.g. ‘uno mineralwasser
per favore’).

Yesterday evening’s rehearsal seemed pretty well perfect to me but we have a three hour call this afternoon before the 7.30pm performance to make sure. No Mahler or Brahms for encores sadly but Sibelius’ Valse Triste and Johann Strauss’ Pizzicato Polka instead. Julian Rachlin seems content. The audience turns out for their fellow Austrian and the concert is energetic and very well received, although somewhat dispiritingly Pizzicato Polka seems
to go down better than the Mozart overture.

Thursday 23rd

It’s William Shakespeare’s birthday and we’re off to Vienna. Via Zurich of course. But I’m thrilled with my new suitcase (I’m easily pleased). So we travel by bus from Austria to Swizerland and take a Swiss flight back into Austria, and with barely an hour at the Viennese hotel I walk to the historic Musikverein where we’re playing this evening. Actually most of Vienna is historic in some way, although much of it stems from the mid-fifteenth century when the Habsburgs moved in and it became a significant cultural centre, further consolidated with the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the nineteenth century. A significant and suspiciously large number of composers seem to have died here – Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler to name but several – but this is more to do with Vienna as a cultural magnet than problems with the sanitation (although this may have played a part).

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra is allegedly rehearsing until 5pm although this isn’t their home – they usually work at the Konzerthaus a few metres along Lothringsraβe – so a rapid stage set for Tom and Ian and a quick check of the timpani we have been offered for the day for me, which shows them to be adequate.

In my view this is one of the most important concerts the ECO has given, simply on account of the venue. By common consent amongst musicians it has possibly the most distinguished musical history, probably the best acoustic of this traditional style of concert hall, and the audience represents the highest of top-end demography.

And it’s one of the marks of this remarkable musician, Julian Rachlin, that he is able go from conducting an energetic Mozart overture to playing a refined and complex Mendelssohn concerto, but he achieves it with apparent ease and tops the performance off with an encore – Ysaÿe’s 3rd Sonata. I had to ask. The full audience is delighted. Looking at this most well-heeled of all audiences I imagine everyone owns a pharmaceutical works or a shipping company or a bank.

Friday 24th

You easily get used to having limitless good breakfasts on tour. For the Victorian upper classes it was the way things were to have at least a couple of cooks assembling the kedgeree, cold game, devilled kidneys and so on every morning. It would really set you up for a good day’s empire-building.

Everyone seems to be in unreasonably good spirits on the bus this morning. I’m given a brief seminar by Jonathan Barritt and Shana Douglas on Ysaÿe’s violin sonatas. This is not just a tour – it’s an education.

Three and a half hours later in Slovenia we’re in a rather unpromising part of Maribor. The town centre is nicer, and although it’s difficult to tell from the completely alien language chalked on blackboards along a paved street I guess from the diners enjoying an outdoor lunch that these are restaurants. I end up rather unadventurously at a Cuban cantina. The music is terrific but I can’t guarantee the provenance of the piece of meat I’m looking at, and which they’re calling chicken.

The ECO concert in the Union Hall is the last of their season (which began with Sir Roger Norrington and the Salzburger Camerata) and the hall is small, loud, and resonant, but it makes a pleasant sound that the almost full audience appreciates. More than any other factor, an orchestra adjusts the sound it makes according to the room it’s playing in – attack, lengths of notes, amount of expression and so on – and here we have to work hard at reining in the orchestra’s sound. But another success, especially with Sibelius and Strauss sealing the musical deal.

We guess that Julian Rachlin will return home to Vienna after the concert, but for the rest of us the hunt is on for late evening inner nourishment. A handful of us take a recommendation from the hotel, and the Rozmarin turns out to be rather good not least in its range of wines which extend as far as a Pauillac for upwards of €1,200. We instead support the local economy by having some Slovenian dry Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon which are very pleasant indeed. Later I’m told that some of the orchestra have discovered an idiosyncratic local drink – green beer. Very green indeed apparently. I think it’s a brewing mistake that the brewer has been trying to offload as a Slovenian speciality to gullible foreigners. With success it seems.

Saturday 25th

Because Principal Flute Sam Coles’ surname and mine are next to each other in the alphabet our hotel rooms have usually been next to each other, which means that most mornings this week I hear excerpts from Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie wafting along the corridor. It’s a piece we’re both playing soon and nice to be reminded of it. This morning though it’s scales.

Back in the bus and heading north again on a longer journey to Linz, home of Bruckner and the oldest cake in the world (so they say). It’s really only on
tour that there’s any kind of opportunity to have anything more than a passing greeting with colleagues; Second Flute Kate Hill is a perfect travel companion on this journey and she keeps me fascinated with stories of her family, her school days, her new house, her old house, the flute world in general. Most entertaining, and the journey is over in no time, except the last half mile has to be travelled by foot as the roads surrounding the hotel are closed for a road race and the bus can approach no nearer. My room has a very nice view of the Danube which runs right outside the hotel and concert hall. It’s not very beautiful and certainly not blue. Goodness knows what Johann Strauss was up to.

I’d forgotten that there’s an early rehearsal and an 11am concert tomorrow (note to self – must read schedule), so what was going to be a morning of preparation for the new Guildhall term has become an evening in room 609 glued to my laptop. In a break I listen to Clive Anderson and Loose Ends streamed on BBC Radio 4 – the greatest broadcasting channel in the history of the world.

Sunday 26th

There’s something about peering into a computer screen all evening that makes you feel as though you have a hangover the following morning. Still, job done, and it should keep the students happy or at least uncomplaining. They pay such a lot for their tertiary education and they deserve value for their money; financing their education with the Students’ Loan Scheme is I believe a dreadful idea but it’s difficult to find a solution to this.

It’s not such a nice day: there are signs of overnight rain, and Pöstlingberg on the opposite bank of the Danube wears low cloud like a shroud. In the
breakfast room they’re playing Bruckner motets. Well, how appropriate – it is Sunday morning after all; these ecclesiastical works in my view are more
perfectly eloquent than most of his larger scale pieces. Now it’s Petrushka, probably my favourite Stravinsky ballet music. I don’t usually like music with
my food but this is a bit of a treat.

What a pity there hasn’t been time to explore this ancient Austrian city more. Unlike a week in Tokyo or four days in Novosibirsk, this is a more typical orchestral tour with travel plans for each day, often in different countries.

I’m at the Brucknerhaus early again and find I’m playing the adequate timpani we used in Vienna. Ian and Tom are there and have already set the stage so with nothing else to do we discuss Ian’s socks. This really is a good hall with plenty of well-lit room on stage for comfortable seating, and plenty of good
response from the structure and materials of the fan-shaped auditorium for the ECO’s sound to be heard at its best. These half hour balance checks – not rehearsals – are invaluable for personal and corporate sound and ensemble adjustment (as well as to make sure everyone is up and about).

With the concert over, guess what, back on the bus. Now it’s a brisk run to Munich airport for the flight to Athens although some players hope we’re going to stop for lunch somewhere. At least, some do want to stop and some don’t, but on tour a kind of democracy sets in, so we do.

Thirty five thousand feet up, give or take, courtesy of lovely Lufthansa. The food is very acceptable, and the in-flight attendant (as we must call her) does not demur at my request for one white and one red. And she knows the white is Chilean and the red is an Argentinian Cabernet Sauvignon. Full marks. My fellow passenger 1st violinist John Mills and I swap stories of comparable experiences with an airline nearer home and exchange examples of the gap between airlines that offer the same service over the same routes. There’s material here I think for a sketch based on our unbelievably brave chaps in their Spitfires and their opposite numbers in their Messerschmitt 109s, and how they were treated by their respective command centres. With Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Tony Robinson and Hugh Laurie of course.

Athens looms, and seat belts, tray tables, etc… you know the rest. We arrive at the hotel at 11.30pm but that doesn’t stop these hardened tourists going is search of local food and drink.

Monday 27th

Up and out fairly early to beat the midday sun. I’m aiming for the Acropolis area though not the thing itself which becomes unbearably full of tourists from
early on. Been there, done that, seen the ceremonial guard, had taramasalata in Plaka.

The Athenians have a lot to deal with: they have so much history, but the evidence is in a pretty bad way mostly caused by invading hoards of Spartans,
Macedonians and Turks, and fixing it all up will cost unimaginable amounts of money. In addition much of the modern infrastructure needs a great deal of
attention. I feel the city generally isn’t very visitor-friendly: the often narrow pavements are difficult to negotiate either because there are large gaps
in the paving or because someone has parked right across them, signs and maps round the historical quarters aren’t nearly helpful enough, and cars frequently and unforgivingly drive straight at you. At speed.

I’m not clear what arrangements Greece has with the EEC – they’re evidently going through a difficult series of tortured discussions, with both parties often throwing up their hands in despair. Like Venice, Athens is a special case, but the answers are much more elusive and the problems seem to be more about dealing with people than with materials.

I become lost near the Ancient Agora and the Hill of Mars, but it takes me away from the invading hoards of noisy children and teens on school trips. This is where Saint Paul railed against the Unknown God as related in the Acts of the Apostles, and the paved road leading to the spot marks the event and the saint. Vienna, Salzburg and Bregenz celebrate Jodok Fink, Athens has Απόστολος Παύλος (Apostle Paul to you).

On the way back to the hotel I drop into Panaghia Kapnikarea, an early Christian church stuck right in the middle of Ermou Street in the downtown shopping area. In its way it reminds me very much of Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Novosibirsk that I visited last year with the ECO (you must have read my blog of that trip? If you haven’t you should be ashamed of yourself); it’s on a much smaller scale but in the sombre gloom the vivid reds and blues and golds of the late 19th century Russian Orthodox building are clearly visible in this 11th century Greek Orthodox version. A calm retreat in the chaos.

And they’ve saved the best till last. Forget the inadequate hotel wi-fi - the hall is terrific. I’ve been here a few times (the other concert venue in Athens is the magnificent outdoor setting of Herod Atticus, a Roman amphitheatre just below the Acropolis), and it’s one of the best modern European halls, very much in the Japanese style. I know you like the Musikverein, but the Megaron has lots of nice wood, plenty of room, good lighting, and a lovely resonant sound; what more do you want? Oh yes, of course – a decent staff cafeteria. It’s on the sixth floor and has a great view. A fitting end to a very special tour. Since I was last here they’ve built an opera house next door. No matter what, even after three thousand years of occupation, art continues to thrive in Athens.

Tuesday 28th

The Ancient Greeks’ word for Art was ‘techne’ – that is, craft – and that to us is what it is. It’s the result of years of preparation and practice, a good deal of trial and error, constantly refining the object – music – with the best tools available, and the outcome is what we and our audiences experienced this week: a polished and living recreation of some of Mozart’s and Mendelssohn’s greatest works.

I’ve been through security and immigration at Athens airport, waiting for BA631 to be called (ECO musicians already on board may enjoy this moment), and am attempting to put this week into some kind of context.

In many ways this has been an ordinary tour – just a week round Europe – but in others it’s been another opportunity to enjoy and be part of some of the finest music making, to see new sights, have maybe a little time to relax, but have a job well done. And we’ve given enjoyment to, what, ten thousand people? Something like that. Maybe we’ve even changed the odd life. It’s occasionally been hectic with many miles covered and hotels visited, but a pretty good week’s work I’m sure you’ll agree. Not ordinary at all.

So thank you Nora and Barbara from RB Artists for organising the trip and looking after us so nicely and for your helpful yellow signs pointing the way in unfamiliar concert halls, thank you Julian Rachlin for magnificent playing and inspirational musical direction, thank you Tom for being a very fine…etc., thank you Ian for being Ian, but most of all thank you ECO: elegantly luminous strings, beautifully blended and vivid winds, brilliant brass.

On Shakespeare’s 451st birthday during the tour I recalled a moment from The Comedy of Errors – Act 1 scene 2 to be exact. Antipholus has clearly had a similar week:

Within this hour it will be dinner-time;

Till that, I’ll view the manners of the town,

Peruse the traders, gaze upon the buildings,

And then return and sleep within mine inn;

For with long travel I am stiff and weary.

© David Corkhill, 2015