28th Jun 2018

The English Chamber Orchestra on Tour in Turkey (Part 2)

An Orchestra, Two Sisters and Three Saints - Part 2: Izmir and the Great Theatre of Ephesus

Our timpanist, David Corkhill takes us behind-the-scenes on our Turkish Tour as we prepare for our concert at the 32nd International Izmir Festival

The English Chamber Orchestra performing at the Great Theatre of Ephesus at the 32nd International Izmir Festival with the Pekinel Sisters, Guher and Suher, and conductor Gerard Schwarz (photo © Colin Sheen)

Sunday 10 June, London to Izmir

For once the slog to London’s Heathrow Terminal 2 isn’t a slog after all and I make it in record time, although not as early as Fabio’s recommended 8.30am check-in. He was right to be cautious – it’s probably part of his job description – as the check-in area of the four-year-old terminal is already bursting at the seams, and in my case at least the check-in machine doesn’t work. It has a life of its own and makes sure I’ve scanned my passport, denied any possession of firearms, entered my air miles number, and changed my seat, before it tells me that I should really go to the desk to check in. What fun this is. Fabio is there and has been since 7.45am, but not even he can make a faulty baggage belt work. The nice Turkish Airlines representative does her best by at least handing out our baggage tags, and we wade through the slough of humanity and past security to airside. And by the way, security never used to be like this either and there was a time, imagine it, when there wasn’t a security check. Amazing to think. Mind you, suitcases didn’t have wheels then either so I suppose it’s not all bad news. And anyway, if check-in was fault-free and security was trouble-free there’d be nothing for me to comment on would there, and by extension, if life was fault- and trouble-free what would proper writers do?

It takes ages to walk through the retail city of Terminal 2 to gate B42 and it feels as though we’re half way into Buckinghamshire by the time we arrive. Filling a 350-seat Boeing 777-300 takes time but we needn’t have worried about the length of the queue as the plane remains at the gate for an hour for reasons that are concealed from us. It seems to be part of the current tendency to keep us in the dark when things go wrong – the frequent unexplained lateness of Southern trains (other rail companies are available for criticism) for example, and the habit of politicians of avoiding answering awkward questions. It meant that the hour and a quarter connection at Istanbul for the Izmir flight was now reduced to just 45 minutes which left us with barely enough time to scamper down the corridors of this vast airport. But we made it, and so did our luggage, and although the orchestra wasn’t quite hysterical we were very happy to have landed in Izmir and to be in possession of our cases.

Monday 11 June, Izmir and the Great Theatre of Ephesus

I’d always thought that Smyrna (Izmir’s original name) was somehow associated with Saint Nicholas of Santa Claus fame, despite knowing from Britten’s cantata that the Saint was proclaimed Bishop of Myra (Demre, just down the coast from here as it happens). Well, it turns out that it was a different Saint Nicholas. How about that? Nicholas, Bishop of Smyrna, was a 17th Century saint, while Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, lived in the 4th Century. There you are – it’s an education isn’t it?

And I have a room with a view of the Aegean Sea, so what could be better? Well, not much if you really want to know. And with a morning off it’s a welcome opportunity to have a decent breakfast, a walk by the sea, and do some more work on this elegant œvre. While I was out I found a quiet table outside a small bar overlooked by trees, and ordered a coffee. For me Turkish coffee is the only coffee and almost anything else is hot milk with a dash, so I’m sure you can imagine my disappointment when the waiter brought me something milky that he clearly thought a foreigner would prefer. It was good though, and it was a moment to do that with which I and all musicians of my acquaintance have little familiarity: doing nothing.

The only cloud on the horizon is the long journey to Ephesus for our concert at the 32nd International Izmir Festival, but again, what a joy it will be to revisit this ancient site. It doesn’t help that the taxi driver taking an early group of Fabio, double bassist Marianne Schofield and me, is very late and doesn’t know where to go precisely, and he spends half the journey on his hand-held phone talking to the local agent. But we arrived eventually and what a place to have a concert! For a theatre built 2,000 years ago it’s looking in pretty good shape, and the whole area, parts of which date to 300BC, is a magnificent tribute to Greek design and building skills. But like Greece itself, and Rome, and countless other sites in Europe and elsewhere like this, the site needs an extensive restoration that the original engineers couldn’t have imagined.

But again, maybe it’s like the arguments (forgive me if you’ve heard this from me before) for and against cleaning Köln Cathedral – some would like to see it restored to its former brilliant glory, others prefer the brooding sombre appearance of the uncleaned stonework.

Aside from these academic posers it’s far too hot to rehearse at the planned time as the varnish on string players’ instruments would melt in the hot sun, and Mr Schwarz is understanding and sympathetic and the six hours’ preparation in London will come in handy. In the event the delayed rehearsal was only long enough to play through the concerto as the wind suddenly whipped up and made our music flap inconveniently, followed by, guess what, rain. And not just any old rain – this was proper puddle-size Mediterranean stuff with a cloud cover of such threatening quality it would grace any Greek melodrama, and spectacular lightning and thunder straight from Zeus. A few of us thought we should be playing Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony instead. On and off went the rain, sometimes light, occasionally heavy, and a plan was hatched to start the concert half an hour later, leave out the Dvořák Serenade, and do away with the interval, all just to be on the safe side.

In gaps between downpours some of us went into the open to admire the Greek architectural legacy. Leading up to the open-air theatre lies a long and broad stone roadway built for the ancient audiences, and it’s some indication of how popular Drama was to them then. Tony Pike the orchestra’s clarinettist said it looks just like Wembley Way, and he’s kind of right. Meanwhile in the cramped 3rd Century BC backstage corridors a group of the more seasoned musicians were exchanging stories about distinguished maestros, and some of them not at all complimentary.

Eventually the rain stopped and the stage was swept if not dry then perhaps less wet, and what’s more we had an audience to delight. So on with the motley, or more exactly in our case, the all black, and off we launched into Prokofiev, Poulenc and Beethoven, all sounding clear and precise in this acoustic. Playing outdoors for us can be a little disheartening as the sound itself has no resonance whatsoever and it can be a somewhat unrewarding process. It’s a bit like looking at yourself in the bathroom mirror first thing in the morning – there’s just too much reality. But out there the auditory experience is good and we finish with a brisk Mozart Overture as an encore. We send the audience away happy into the darkness and they leave us with a sense of having contributed towards their enjoyment, which is more than can be said for Saint Paul. He was the centre of a riot here and only got away with it by being persuaded by his Ephesian friends not to go into the theatre. Go on, look it up – Acts Chapter 19.

In the interests of balance, there was just time as we were getting changed afterwards for a couple more reminiscences with Principal bassoonist Paul Boyes about another conducting legend, Kurt Masur. Many musicians found him difficult and grumpy, but we two at least enjoyed immensely our experiences of his conducting and music making.

Back at the hotel at a quarter past midnight, and with a bus to the airport in five and a half hours there’s little socialising and more packing. See you later this morning.

© David Corkhill 2018