28th Jun 2018

The English Chamber Orchestra on Tour in Turkey (Part 1)

An Orchestra, Two Sisters and Three Saints - Part 1: Preparing for Turkey

Our timpanist David Corkhill takes us behind-the-scenes as the orchestra prepares for our Turkish Tour

When I was young – I know, it’s difficult to believe there was ever such a time – as a new school year began in September the first essay we were always asked to write was ‘My Holiday’. I suspect the title was generated by teachers’ reluctance to begin the impossible task of improving our minds so early in the term and it was an easy ploy to keep us busy for a lesson or two. In comparison to my contemporaries’ and my efforts at describing a North Wales caravan camp or a week on a canal barge, children these days are more likely to reflect on their time in Morocco or Zermatt. Ah, yes – innocent days. Well, I’m not saying that Juliette Barber, the orchestra’s new marketing person, is anything of a school mistress, but when she asked for a ‘My ECO Trip’ blog I felt a worrying sense of déjà entendu. But it’s not every day a person is invited to visit the centre of one of the world’s oldest civilisations, and here we are preparing to take more samples of our Western culture, none of it more than 250 years old, to a place that boasts a living artistic tradition going back several thousand years – Turkey. So here, for what it’s worth, is my ECO trip.

The Pekinel sisters, Guher and Suher, with maestro Gerard Schwarz
The Pekinel sisters, Guher and Suher, with maestro Gerard Schwarz (photo © Colin Sheen)

Saturday 9 June, The Warehouse, London

As usual I’m already out of my cultural depth so here we are again at a pre-tour rehearsal and what’s more with a barrel-load of good repertoire. Actually just four pieces to be exact, so nothing like enough to fill a barrel, and they’re among the best of their kind. But before I let you into the secrets of ECO programming there’s a little edginess to tomorrow’s journey to Turkey. As far as I know it’s the first time we’ve been told to read UK Government Travel Advice about going anywhere at all. The last time I was given this advice was three years ago when I travelled to Damascus for some work just before it all went wrong in the region, and although this isn’t quite the same there’s still trouble on the eastern fringes of the country, and as in every country there are hotheads around. Added to which there are elections in a few days and we all know how animated people become at the outcome of voting with which they don’t agree don’t we? Oh dear. Fabio, is it too late to back out of the gig? Actually it would be most unfair even to think of giving the ECO’s hard working Orchestra Manager a question like that – he seems to be perpetually busy and has done a great job just getting us as far as here.

Oh yes, here, in case you didn’t know, is The Warehouse, a rehearsal venue in a quiet London SE1 backwater that we last visited as an orchestra with José Serebrier two years ago. This time our conductor is Gerard Schwarz and as I arrive he is running through some corners of the double concerto with pianist sisters Guher and Suher Pekinel, but the preparation is soon interrupted by the ECO brass players warming up. Not loudly, but it’s enough of a presence for the piano playing to draw to a close. I remember Mr Schwartz from a date several decade ago in Leeds Town Hall – he remembers it too and reminds me it was a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass, and he recalls clearly the then Principal Flute Wibb Bennett turning round during the rehearsal to the choir’s tenors to tell them in no uncertain terms (as only he could do) that they were FLAT!

Among familiar friends from the orchestra I’m absolutely delighted to see that Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay is leading the orchestra for this patch of work. Zsolt is a colleague from my time as Principal percussionist with the Philharmonia, which he leads, and his skills as a virtuoso violinist and as a diplomat, both of which are essential for a successful Leader, are legendary.

As well as playing timpani in Beethoven and Prokofiev on this tour I also have my percussionist’s hat on for Poulenc’s superb Double Piano Concerto, and accordingly there are extra instruments to unpack. There aren’t many notes for me to play in this piece, but Poulenc has a magical way of adding the right colours in just the right amount to make this one of his most attractive pieces. But then again, your correspondent is one of Francis Poulenc’s greatest fans, so I would say that wouldn’t I? There’s always a danger in rehearsals, especially those of unfamiliar repertoire, of a conductor picking away at a particular phrase or musical corner like the loose thread of a jumper and before you know it the thing has completely unravelled, but Mr Schwarz controls and co-ordinates things nicely and the concerto is despatched by the break.

Or so I thought. You’d imagine that after all this time I’d know better wouldn’t you? Go on, be honest. Actually I wasn’t the only one who thought that the Poulenc was over for the day – tuba player Jim Anderson had packed away and was out of the door in seconds as this is the only piece he’s in and he assumed, like several of us, that it would be Prokofiev after the break (there’s a lot of music to get through). But no, the Pekinel sisters want to run the piece as this will be the only chance to before the concert day, so fair enough, and out again with the percussion instruments and a shout from Fabio to Jim before he gets too far, and we play the piece. Then it’s Prokofiev’s deceptive ‘Classical’ Symphony. It’s extraordinary how the great composers’ first symphonies have no sense of being a try-out for later greater things. They arrive fully formed, usually with all the hallmarks of subsequent maturity (think of Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Walton, Mahler) and in this one too there are many of the eccentricities and surprises of Prokofiev’s more mature works. It was written in 1917, the year of the Revolution, and was finished just one month before the uprisings, and it shows none of the inevitable anxiety of his and Shostakovich’s works of later in the century. It’s a charming and happy piece and the ECO musicians leave for lunch in good spirits. On the way I bump into colleagues from the RPO who are rehearsing at St John’s just round the corner. It’s typical of London that great music is all round you wherever you are.

Back to The Warehouse and another, on the face of it, happy piece – Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. Some commentators even call it ‘cheerfully loud’. The work is familiar territory for the ECO and it’s no surprise that it’s perfected by 3.30pm, which leaves string colleagues with Dvořák’s beautiful Serenade to rehearse, and the rest of us with an early journey home and the last bits of life-organisation before a day spent at 35,000 feet or so, more or less out of contact with the rest of the world. To all intents and purposes we might as well be on the far side of the moon.

© David Corkhill 2018