London Viola Player, Violinist & Arranger For Hire

Same same but different

The weekend before last, 30-31 March, was largely made up of two orchestral concerts (and respective rehearsals) as far as I was concerned. They were very different, and yet shared some surprising (or perhaps not that surprising, once you think about it) similarities.

First up, and by far the more important in my musical biography, playing with Jeremy Backhouse, Vivace Chorus and Brandenburg Sinfonia at Dorking Halls. Now this wasn’t the first time I had played with a freelance professional orchestra (past concerts with Kent Sinfonia and Lincolnshire Chamber Orchestra fall squarely into that category, besides some borderline student/early-career pro ensembles); but it was the first time I had done so with a London one, and the first time of being booked for a professional ensemble as such through diary service MAS. So there was potentially a fair bit riding on the gig reputation and career-wise, besides a significant fee.

(A note on professional orchestras, in case of confusion: professional orchestras as we know them, including all the ones anyone outside the business has actually heard of, are referred to in fixing as ‘contract’ orchestras. Working with them is like a fairly ordinary job; you have a defined role, are assumed to play all the rehearsals and concerts to which your role is relevant unless you take holiday, etc. Freelance orchestras still pay (in general) union-agreed rates to all players, and have a frequently recurring core of musicians, but no one is actually bound to do every concert or guaranteed to be asked to do every one. Instead, self-employed players (hence ‘freelance orchestra’) are contracted on a concert by concert basis, usually from semi-fixed lists of preferred players but including filling out the ranks with others if they run out of list for a given performance.)

I had only been booked for this Saturday concert on the Wednesday; and the Thursday had been spent doing the Rugby School gig (see previous post), which meant I basically had a day and a half to prepare for this job. Preparation involving borrowing a tailcoat and an evening-dress waistcoat (I am so glad of living with two male pro musicians! Also of Oxford’s exam dress code meaning I already own a white bow tie); and doing some preliminary work on the music. I had been offered the choice between two Brandenburg Sinfonia concerts, only one of which had a known programme; I went with ‘better the devil you know’, only to eventually find I had turned down playing an evening of Mozart in much nearer-by Streatham! Instead, I went to Dorking and played Howells’ Sir Patrick Spens (a substantial setting of the Scots ballad for solo baritone, choir and orchestra; early, not well-known and somewhat more aggressively modernist than his more famous choral compositions); Britten’s Four Sea Interludes (orchestra only; famous for being difficult in various ways, and like the Howells I hadn’t played them before); and Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony (two solo singers, choir, orchestra; has definite tricky sections and is a fairly monumental piece; I had played it before but only on 2nd violin). Spotify at least supplied me with recordings of all three; Westminster Music Library, a fantastic resource I hadn’t previously discovered, has a score of the Britten (which is far too well within copyright to be worth googling for scans of, even for private practice); but no written copy of the Howells could I find. So I was still going to be doing a lot of work on the Saturday afternoon.

Few concert venues really have enough space to fit in a symphony orchestra and a large chorus; and while Vivace are not the hundreds-strong Northern choral societies or enormous combined Three Choirs Festival forces of Victorian legend, they are certainly on the larger end of the choruses I’ve played for. Them and us on the stage of Dorking Halls was not a very comfortable fit; positively crowded in fact. I had been booked to play #4 viola (of a rather undersized section, relative to winds and violins, of 4); but #2 pulled out at last minute, his even more last minute replacement didn’t make it to the rehearsal till a little while in, and with one thing and another I got bumped forward one to partnering the principal viola. At which point I was practically under conductor Jeremy Backhouse’s nose, literally in danger of thwacking the vocal soloists leaning forward for page-turns, and (when not relying on my own counting and listening) endeavouring to follow someone sat essentially beside me, without taking my eyes off the music and conductor of course! This is fairly standard orchestral stuff, but may be less predictable if you haven’t played in a symphony orchestra … Also, I imagine white tie and tails would be great for a cold medieval (or Neo-Gothic) church in winter, but it’s stifling in a concert hall with theatre-type lighting on an unseasonably warm March day with about 150 people on the platform.

It’s also an unsurprising consequence of there having been two Brandenburg Sinfonias out that evening (by the way, this is not an uncommon or considered unethical practice, lest it be thought I’m condemning it) that the orchestra were a little more freelance, so to speak, than would otherwise have been the case; that many fewer of them had played together frequently before, and so there was that bit more difficulty gelling in one rehearsal under an unfamiliar conductor and with an unfamiliar choir.

Ironically, we all had over 2 hours to kill (and I’m afraid there is not very much to do or anywhere very much to go in Dorking late afternoon on a Saturday; even the cafés were mostly shut) between the rehearsal and concert. I did use a fair bit of that time for green room practice, but it is easy to say that it could have been more beneficial to the players’ confidence at least to have spent some of it rehearsing. However, things are rarely as straightforward as they seem. Singers, in particular, usually wish to minimise rehearsal on the day and maximise the gap between rehearsal and performance so as to have their voices in as good shape as possible in the concert. And on the other hand, if you have hired a professional orchestra, then it is no longer a safe option to ask them to indulge you in an extra half-hour’s rehearsal without paying overtime. Three hours is a standard session; union scale rises thereafter and is of course (and reasonably) considerably higher if you want a second rehearsal, or for one of them not to be on the same day as the concert (basically because musicians are definitely compensated for having to travel to work, as most of them do substantially most of the time). So, with budgets tight for all the arts, even generally subsidy-privileged classical music (and even with large choir subs coming in every concert, though most amateur ensembles lose money on all their concerts), it’s hardly surprising if 3 hours in the afternoon is what you get regardless of the difficulty of the programme.

In a spirit of cautious self-assessment, I’m only going to commit myself to saying that I never got thoroughly lost in the concert, started and finished with everybody else, and I don’t think I struggled more than the average. The odds are that given a similar chance again I would do better, if only because the odds are that the music would be easier to play!

Had I been booked well in advance by Brandenburg Sinfonia for the Saturday, I admit I would probably have pulled out of playing with St Bart’s Orchestra on the Sunday in order to give myself a recovery day. However, it didn’t feel right to do that on four days’ notice when I knew violins and violas had already been cancelling, so I stifled my yawns and stuck with it.

This was bumping an amateur section, moving from the high-level uniform of white tie to the standard-crossing one of all black (confusingly, black tie seems to be exclusively espoused by amateur orchestras and scratch ensembles accompanying amateur choirs) and from mid-20th-century repertoire to, mostly, early 19th (Mendelssohn and a late Haydn symphony, with a premiere confusing matters). The main point of similarity is that there were numerous extras supporting the amateur regulars (in the strings particularly), and so they and the soloist in Mendelssohn’s first piano concerto were being integrated in one rehearsal on the day. And the budget this orchestra possesses certainly does not run to getting extra players for additional rehearsal, or giving them strong incentives to look at / listen to the music in advance … Once again, three hours was avowedly tight and I did some practice between rehearsal and concert (mistakes are so much more obvious in Haydn and Mendelssohn than most music from the late Romantics on!); though this time I think I had ironed out pretty much all the technical problems by the concert. But the addition to my fatigue from the Sunday’s work was much smaller than the load inflicted by the Saturday’s!

I did yet another orchestral concert the following weekend (last Saturday), and I have another choral society performance coming up this Sunday. However, in between I have a wedding to play for with Miracle Cure and have been recording with Finezza Strings, so watch this space for different musical exploits as wedding season starts springing!

The future is _ _ _ _ _ _

Not that I can see the future of course. Otherwise my career would be much less stressful and rather more successful …

The most recent number of the Musicians Union magazine contains a photo of the CBSO in action, being conducted by a woman. This is not significant; what is, far more significant than it should be though still a sign of progress, is that the female conductor is not the reason the photo is there, and in fact no one in the image is credited. I would be the first to agree that representation of women among conductors is still poor. Controversially perhaps, I think it is actually worse than gender equality among working composers (regarding commissions or getting performances of new works); there is a whole different situation involved in selection (or not) of works by dead female composers for performance and recording. It is certainly not controversial to state the situation gets worse the higher up the conducting profession you look.

All of which said, I spent Wednesday evening renewing my acquaintance with Harmony Sinfonia, after a concert clashing with an existing Kindred Spirit Duo gig meaning a term I didn’t go. This was a one-off evening, allowing Maria Marchant to do some symphonic conducting with an orchestra but without the pressure of getting to a concert performance. We then did something similar, with Beethoven 5 instead of Brahms 4, with our assistant conductor Sophie Carville! The significance being not just two rising conductors who are both women, but that both are being coached / taught (and were being coached in this session) by our musical director Lindsey Ryan; therefore an evening of not just women learning conducting but women teaching it too.

On Thursday I was at Rugby School (yes, that one, with the game), playing for a concert of concerto movements, arias and other solo features by particularly able pupils with orchestral accompaniment. I hadn’t bothered to research the school before leaving (I have higher priorities for preparation, even when I haven’t been booked for a much more high-stakes job at short notice, of which more in another post), and so arrived not even knowing whether it had at some point ‘gone mixed’.

All the kids performed excellently, even if they were clearly a little awkward being onstage in a concert hall (yes, of course Rugby has one of its own) as soloists with an orchestra of adults and conducted by one of their teachers, and showed it in different ways! Particular credit I think to the three virtuoso pianists who took a movement each of the second Rachmaninov, second Shostakovitch and Grieg concerti without showing any signs of struggle with the demands of them; and to a tuba soloist displaying great technical control without a need to ‘compensate’ performatively for the fact of playing that instrument in particular.

To return to my point, though: of 8 soloists featured, 7 were girls. Assuming that for any leading public school pupil money is hardly an object to music lessons, and that competition for their time and effort with academic work is universal (any posh school you’ve heard of will be substantially academically selective, even if the current wave of right-wingers suggests Eton could perhaps do with revising the way their exams work), it speaks volumes for the desires and commitment in action among that particular body of teenagers that the genders were that skewed. Not that stereotypes are dead – the girls numbered a cellist, a singer, two flautists and three pianists; the boy played tuba. (In, by the way, the first movement of the Gregson concerto, which deserves to be better known if only as a companion piece to the Vaughan Williams one in demonstrating tuba does not have to be a comedy instrument when given any limelight at all!)

This, coupled with the realisation I was the only male of 6 violas, intrigued me sufficiently to (eventually!) do some head-counting on the orchestra, composed of a handful of school staff but largely freelance players like myself.

(going on the orchestra list, which had a few tbcs still on it:)
Total number of players: 46
Male: 21
Female: 25
Although, interestingly, principal 1st and 2nd violins and cello were all male, despite the overall string ratio being 8:21.
And a male conductor.
(But, yes, read those string numbers again. As a male professional classical string player, or a male pro violist, I am quite definitely a minority; on Saturday, with a fully professional orchestra, I was (after one late dropout and replacement) again the sole male violist, though admittedly in a section of only 4.)

Of course, the correct answer to the subject line, based on these observations, is (depending on what slang seems familiar to you) ‘minted’ or ‘loaded’ (‘rich’ and ‘wealthy’ have the wrong number of letters). 8 public school pupils, and a conductor who can afford to pay an orchestra, even an amateur one (Harmony did come away with extra money in their coffers; Heaven knows they need it!), to further her professional development. Maybe at some point that will actually seem more significant than the numbers of each gender involved in any part of the musical profession.

Observed at a concert

To start a little before the beginning: Having walked from Egham station to Royal Holloway, Google Maps could do with revising the algorithm that states a walking route is ‘mostly flat’.

Getting a medium-sized orchestra plus in effect a piano trio of soloists (including full-size concert grand) onto the stage of what is really a large lecture theatre meant I was some of the time pretty much next to the 2nd bassoon, who I later worked out was a hired extra like me not a student member of the orchestra. She not only had a newspaper crossword on her stand for the long rests / periods where the conductor was only rehearsing the strings; but was doing the cryptic side not the comprehensible-to-the-uninitiated one.

Very good to see the (professional) conductor of a student orchestra insisting on the importance of ear protection for classical players, and to be able to see some of the nearer players are using earplugs, even if pretty basic ones. Massive step forward since I was a student 12 years ago, even if this orchestra is a lot better than most of the student ones I played in.

Oboe 2 / cor anglais not only has stickers on his containers of reeds to distinguish which instrument they are for, which surprises me not at all; but also a label saying ‘cor anglais’ on one of the instrument cases. Is the size difference not big enough to tell externally?

A cellist (clearly orchestra member and resident) tells me that it is possible to get a cooked meal onsite, without being a college member. I take this up, having already had a meal on the hoof en route in order to make an early afternoon rehearsal start, and am very grateful for her navigating the buildings and corridors to the dining hall! The bewilderment and faffing produced in the till staff by my paying cash and needing change is comparable to that I expect when handing over a £50 note in a supermarket. The young bloke apologises, ‘Sorry, we don’t get much cash.’ Nonetheless, the fact remains about half my gigs are paid in it …

Same cellist somewhat later confesses she ‘couldn’t find any heels’ and is doing the concert in her ballroom dancing shoes (probably competitive; it’s still quite a big deal in student circles, where these days dancers compete on behalf of their institutions and so are effectively fielded as teams). Leaving aside the question of why flats would be infra dig (maybe it would change the geometry of holding her cello, and so mess with her technique? This is not a serious suggestion I hope!), the only significant difference I can see about the shoes is that they have those floor-protectors on their stiletto heels (which is a common requirement of venues with wooden floors, even when not being worn for dancing). Of much more interest to me is that even, or perhaps especially, wearing about an inch and a half of heel, she has ‘dancer’s gait’: the weight is visibly carried on her toes not back on her heels. I imagine this, under these circumstances, to be something confined to ballroom (if we stretch that to include all Latin styles) and tap dancers.

First bassoon’s idea of fun in the empty last minutes before going onstage includes playing bugle calls. I point out to him that really using the keys of the instrument to do so is cheating, and am rather disappointed when he informs me that playing bugle calls on harmonic series alone would involve being unfeasibly high in the instrument’s range. Consider that a challenge laid down to woodwind players.

For some unknown reason, the green room contains a smart whiteboard / TV thing. During the interval, for some equally unknown reason, it is showing rolling BBC News focusing on Brexit developments. One of the students starts chalking up odds of various possible events on the ordinary whiteboard next to the swanky digital thing …

Being sat roughly equidistant between the trumpets, timpani and bassoons, I was certainly not going to forego earplugs (though I only had one in for the Beethoven concerto; hard enough to listen attentively to a cello soloist facing away from you with the entire string section in between as it is). However, the only point I didn’t have them in and wished I did was when the concert finished and some wisecracker student put George Michael on the smart screen at party volume. My case, bag, etc were right in front of it and I had just started packing up …

I still don’t know why the Beethoven triple concerto goes on for so long by means of so much repetition of material.

Finally, if you’ve reached this far – for my money, notwithstanding Britain’s biggest protest today (I went on the previous record holder, the Iraq war march of 2003, and that achieved, er … ), the most nearly plausible current avenue to avoiding a long walk off the Dover cliffs is to get the number of signatures on the government ‘revoke article 50’ petition higher than the number of Leave votes in the exit referendum. I believe that was 17.4m, and the petition is currently up to about 4.5m, so keep spreading the word to everyone you know who has an email address and is a UK citizen…deadline to do anything about it 12 April remember.

A very Irish weekend

I’ve seen some pubs advertise ‘St Patrick’s Week’ in the last couple of years. While I’d certainly be minded to dismiss that as a cynical bid to raise English Guinness sales, it seems to be already-embedded tradition to not confine Ireland’s patron saint to one day – on the other side of the Irish Sea at least; especially if his actual saint’s day falls inconveniently on a school night.

Elaine and I played effectively St Patrick’s themed – certainly overtly Irish – nights as the Kindred Spirit Duo on not one, not two but three evenings running last weekend (the last, Sunday, being St Patrick’s Day itself).

Rather appropriately, the cash fees rose as we worked towards the actual date (which I would guess is the one musicians are most booked out for, adjusting the usual supply and demand disproportion); although this bizarrely meant I was paid the most for the gig with the lowest travel expenses. Credit to our Friday night client, West Surrey Golf Club, for being the only one to think of feeding us though, as well as having the most people dancing before our last number. Interestingly, we accommodatingly started off playing quietly and slower numbers as most people were still eating; but our music must have been more interesting than a lot of the golfers’ conversation as half the nearest few tables were turned round to watch us within a few notes!

Not so much credit to the relevant train operator for cancelling the train I had carefully timed my departure to catch, leaving me waiting a little over an hour on Milford station platform. For your information, there is nothing else at Milford station. Nor for the delay to my train to Woking en route to Saturday’s gig in Ottershaw, apparently down to high winds (which I think must be this year’s wrong kind of snow), which meant I waited 40 minutes in a bus shelter for the bus after the one I had meant to get.

Ottershaw saw the classic pattern of some stationary approval through most of the set and then several people getting up to dance when we struck up Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ as our ‘last’ number (we ended up doing a La Bamba/Twist and Shout mashup as an encore, which kept most of them on the floor). I sometimes wonder what would happen if we put that song earlier, say second in the second set. Would all those over-60s who clearly remember it first time round dance for longer, or sit down again?

This gig also produced a most unusual testimonial to my fiddle playing (presumably directed chiefly at the speeding-up reel and hornpipe in the set and/or the group of jigs I take at a fairly no-prisoners pace, since I do very little ‘rocky’ soloing in this sort of folk-heavy covers gig):

‘I just couldn’t take my eyes off your fingers. They were going like maggots on a hot shovel!’

Clearly I’ll be using that on my next order of business cards.

Apparently there weren’t any high winds between Lee and Streatham Vale on Sunday, as the trains were undelayed. (Between ourselves, I’m not sure there’s anything between Lee and Streatham except houses, fried chicken shops and buses full of MLE-speaking teenagers. But maybe I’m wrong.) This gig was notable for two ‘firsts’, both by the same very vocal audience member, who had a battery-powered fan somewhat larger than the usual hand-held plastic device and the endearing habit of singing along into it a la stereotyped hairbrush:
+ I think the first time I’ve heard someone publicly admit to liking the Corrs (at least since I left school).
+ Definitely the first time I’ve seen someone reduced to tears by Molly Malone’s death in the song of the same name, even if assisted by substantial volumes of Guinness or, I suspect, Jameson. Clearly those hot-footed maggots have powerful emotional expressiveness.

I carp but I shouldn’t. In three days, using more or less the same set list and without doing any actual rehearsal (this must be at least the third year we’ve done St Patrick’s together, as well as an Irish social club one New Year’s Eve), those jobs brought in … well, I’m not going to name figures out of professional prudence, but let’s say about as much money as all the orchestral concerts I’ve so far played through my diary service.

Like all good Englishmen, I just hope the trains run on time next year.

A small Miracle

On Saturday 2 March, I played for a wedding reception in Frome with Miracle Cure.

The remarkable thing here is not going to Frome – though the town centre is very pretty and I spent a very civilised couple of hours there, and money I didn’t entirely have in the excellent independent record store, the following morning before heading back to London.

Nor is it that I was playing fiddle with a function band for the drinkin-n-dancin portion of the day rather than either instrument with a quartet for the ceremony and/or drinks and canapes; being something I have done before with The Duffys, even if not regularly, and roaming acoustic work with The Mechanics comes much closer to this of the two.

More important is that although this was in principle a one-off gig, it went well enough to also double as a kind of live audition. I think we all (band and revellers) had fun (except the band having to tour most of the vicinity of the house to find the celebration and a way to get gear into it at the start! Orchardleigh House is very big). Certainly the young drummer and bodhran player who confessed, giving me a lift to my AirBnB afterwards, that he’d never actually played with a fiddle player before, reacted to me breaking out the ‘cheeky speed up’ style of performing Irish dance tunes in the first half with initial shock followed by glee – and by beating me at my own game on a reel in the second half. I’ve never removed so many ornaments from a tune in the course of the performance in my life! Equally, leader and lead guitarist (unusually – most function bands seem to be run, unsurprisingly, by a vocalist/rhythm guitarist) Tristan was glad of my relieving him of the interlude melody in Dire Straits’ ‘Walk of Life’. Though I think the general response was (pleasant!) sheer surprise when I more or less seamlessly dropped in the much-repeated ‘lead’ line to Avicii’s ‘Wake Me Up’, shortly after it had segued from another song I didn’t know that uses exactly the same chord loop … The core of what I was there for may have been to play Irish fiddle on folky songs and especially a handful of trad dances, but I enjoy playing, and dislike being restricted by things like genre and instrumentation, too much to not get involved in the more straight-up ‘function’ side of things when I’m confident of having something to contribute.

In any case, the long and short of that was a follow-up exchange of emails with Tristan, asking firstly which of basically their current unfixed gig diary I was free for, and then booking in a total of 14 dates – I was evidently not just being asked to cover dates their ‘main’ fiddler is unavailable. Sadly they don’t show on the gig list on my homepage because I’m pretty sure all are private functions, but other than that I have absolutely no regrets!

I mentioned in passing above that I stayed in an AirBnB room after this gig; they are very much my go-to option for gigs where I can’t get home afterwards (which, given my currently-paused struggles with the driving test, is annoyingly more than it might be). Partly, this is because experience has found them to be reliably a cheaper way of booking a single room for a night than B’n’Bs, Travelodges or the like. Partly, because individuals letting out a spare room tend to be much more flexible and sympathetic about performance hours than hotel check-in staff (a typical arrangement is for me to pick up a key and drop off stuff I don’t need for the actual gig when I arrive in the town, as I will come in at something like midnight or later after playing and endeavour to pad silently through a strange house in the dark to bed!). And not least, because both the houses and the hosts letting out a spare room to strangers on the strength of an online rating system tend to be more interesting and welcoming than most, and certainly a darn sight more pleasant than a budget hotel room and receptionist.

What is interesting is that I had a few conversations about AirBnB shortly after the 2 March gig; and there are some fellow working musicians who love it at least as much as I do and would always use it as default option; and some, on an almost equally tight budget, who find the idea offputting, have never used it and say they only sleep easy in their own home or a hotel, not a stranger’s or near-stranger’s house. There must be psychological roots to this, but for the moment I’m just glad, with that string of far-flung weddings coming up and train fares what they are, that I find the cheaper option congenial!

An unreasonably melodramatic 24 hours

(this interrupts chronological sequence but is too bizarre a story, or collection of stories, to not tell while I think of it)

So last night (Saturday), I was playing a bar gig with Kindred Spirit Duo. Nothing unusual in that, though more gigs would always be welcome! Ruislip Royal British Legion do ask for a lot of music though – 2 x 75 minutes in effect, as against the ‘industry standard’ of 2 x 45, even if the pay is pretty much in proportion. And one of the bitter ironies of being dependent on public transport is that the later into the evening you get, the longer your journey takes. We ‘finished’ at 11:45, on schedule more or less, and did an encore. Having consulted Citymapper for options on getting home, I made it out the door at midnight and route-marched to Ruislip Tube station in under 10 minutes. However, part closure of the Metropolitan line and the extreme slowness of night buses (even though I got lucky and only had to wait, sheltering in a doorway out of the rain, for 4 minutes, for one) meant I got home just after 2am.

It seems to be getting more and more common for amateur orchestras and choral societies to have Sunday concerts, often late afternoon or early evening start rather than the traditional 7:30; so I should probably not express surprise at that either. I had been hired (my second job through MAS) to reinforce the viola section for one of these; but 3:30 concert meant 11:30 rehearsal downbeat, and it was in Harlow.

I duly hauled myself back out of bed after less than 5 1/2 hours’ sleep, and was on a train before 9am (yes, today, a Sunday). Train to London Bridge, Northern line to Bank and walk through the financial district to Liverpool Street were all straightforward. But as I entered the station, with a quarter of an hour to spare, there was an announcement on loop about trains being disrupted towards Cambridge due to an overhead line problem (I believe either it blew down or a tree was blown over onto it) near Bishop’s Stortford. Guess what line Harlow’s train stations are on? However, my train was showing as on time and not cancelled albeit without a platform indicated for boarding, so I waited. When it was due to leave in about 4 minutes, the departure time started to shift back, in sync with the passage of time so it was basically always expected to leave in 4 minutes. I checked for alternative train routes, and established there weren’t any. Eventually, the station list for my train was abruptly curtailed, stopping way short of Harlow.

At this point I dug around the Web to find a public transport route to Harlow without taking the train, and came up with taking the so-called Central line to Epping (basically the north-east corner of the TfL empire, beyond the M25 even; so as near to Harlow as you can get on an Oystercard!), and then a bus, followed by another bus across Harlow (I thought I’d probably replace the last bit with a taxi given I was going to be late).

To Epping, so far so good. Bus timetables said I had 15 minutes here; which was good, as my plan for the day’s timings and blood sugar management called for a second breakfast somewhere en route (it would originally have been in Harlow), since I didn’t know when I would get lunch with a rehearsal starting at 11:30 but I knew it wouldn’t be early! I found a lovely independent cafe; unfortunately, it was tiny, crammed full of people getting cooked breakfasts out as a Sunday treat, had only two staff on doing everything (not that there was room for more), and service was correspondingly long-deferred. I emerged just in time to see my bus disappearing round the corner, 3 minutes early (a real risk of buses at quiet times – essentially they make quicker progress without traffic or having to spend much time picking up and setting down). I was relatively little exasperated, there being another one due in 8 minutes (followed by an hour gap) and having sent a message through MAS warning I would be delayed, since I had no direct contact details for nor had received any direct contact from the orchestra.

The second bus did not show up. By the time it was nearly 10 minutes overdue, it was evident it wasn’t coming and I resorted to the demon Uber. Rather to my surprise, there was a driver available a couple of minutes away and the journey to the venue only took 15 minutes; so instead of arriving at noon, I actually walked in at almost exactly 11:30. (This isn’t the classical definition of ‘on time’ however; orchestral start times are always ‘downbeat’ times, meaning you are by that time in your seat, with your instrument unpacked and set up, with a music stand and music in front of you, ready to tune as a group and then play.)

The conductor was pleased to see me only a little late having been told I would be later, and cheerfully but with no indication of this being unusual waved me to the front right chair of the viola section.

Now the usual practice of amateur orchestras hiring professionals to strengthen their string sections is generally to put them at the back; on the grounds that even if they are perhaps better musicians in the abstract, the orchestra members have been rehearsing for several weeks and the extras are coming in, quite possibly sight-reading a few hours before the concert and certainly picking up tempi, bowings, interpretation etc. as they go along with effectively no time to practise between then and the performance, so they could probably do with a bit of cover and with having someone else to follow. Clearly Harlow Symphony Orchestra follow a different policy of bringing in pros to give them some leadership; I discovered that, at least, my desk partner and both front-desk 1st violins were also professionals hired in for the day (paying a pro to lead an amateur orchestra, attending all rehearsals, is not unusual, but Samantha had only been added today).

I should also explain for those who don’t play in orchestral string sections that the front-right player of each violin and viola section is usually the section leader – though in practice convention is that the violas defer to the violins or cellos if they are playing the same music (yes, violas really are bottom of the pile), I try not to be dictatorial about much especially when the time I have to master the notes is limited, and Olivia, next to me, was if anything sharper on copying in bowings and markings than me. Still though, if I’d have known I was going to be leading the violas before I arrived, I would at least have looked and listened through the music in advance, and probably like the orchestra leader spent some time on the tricky corners of Schubert’s 4th symphony (which I had played before, on viola, but apparently repressed the memory of the chromatic passage-work in the last movement). And/Or offered to swap places with Olivia…

In any case, rehearsal of the overture (Mozart’s to Cosi fan tutte) and symphony went more or less as they usually do on such jobs, except I had no principal viola to follow and had to do rather more copying uniform bowings from Samantha’s playing rather than the front desk’s copy! Unfortunately, it emerged that the soloist for the Brahms violin concerto (which I had not played before) had got caught up in the same transport snafu as me, with even less success escaping London. We rehearsed some of the tutti sections. (An aside: in concerti, only, the term ‘tutti’ (all) is used to mean the orchestra playing without the soloist, in distinction to ‘solo’ which is when the soloist is playing. This doubtless made perfect sense when the concerto as a form emerged in the mid-Baroque period, and in general the orchestra, apart from the basso continuo (17th-18th century rhythm section – the parallels with jazz instrumentation are strikingly wide-ranging), would play in alternation with the soloist(s) rather than accompany them. However, by the mid-19th century, concerto solos were being written with accompaniment of any part(s), or indeed more or less the whole, of the orchestra. It only struck me today how odd it is that in Romantic and later concerti, the tutti mark in fact tends to signify fewer people being involved (the soloist is silent) than solo!) The soloist eventually reached us 10 minutes before the scheduled end of the rehearsal. He and the orchestra regulars had apparently rehearsed the concerto at the previous rehearsal, and a good thing too since it was the first time he had performed it with orchestra and he had only started learning it 3 weeks earlier (you wouldn’t have known. Git. I’m so jealous.), but that was only of limited help to those of us who hadn’t been there then! We lucky few went into the concert having not played any of the first movement with the soloist, and indeed not played vast swathes of the piece at all except inasmuch as we had practised them in the green room between rehearsal and concert.

The last thing we ran in the rehearsal was the end of the concerto, which conventionally enough has some loud chords with double and triple stops in the strings. Literally a couple of bars from the break before the concert, the horsehair of my bow pulled out of the somewhat complex arrangement that holds it in place at the tip. It’s a professional job to put back together, though probably not a long or particularly expensive one – I’ll find out when I get it done, as soon as I have the time. Massive thanks to Olivia Volynkina for lending me her spare, though having to use an unfamiliar one (even after I spent most of the late lunchbreak getting used to it) and being told ‘Don’t break my bow!’ didn’t exactly make me more relaxed.

Rehearsal ended at 2pm; I certainly needed to get some lunch, so stepped out into Old Harlow to search for it. To find that it was sleeting. Unpleasant but perhaps not the weirdest of weather for a British March (after all, this time last year we had full-blown snow lying on the ground), but somewhat discombobulating coming a fortnight after 20+ degree heatwaves. At least the clouds had cleared by the time I came back from eating.

After all of which, I should probably put on record that Ionel Manciu’s Brahms concerto was jaw-dropping, and a near-capacity audience were very appreciative of the whole concert. Lest you forget why all this was happening to me.

However, my day was not over. There was no indication the train service to London had been restored, so my journey home would be more or less a mirror image of the outward one. Except there was no way I was paying up for another Uber back to Epping, even if it had been cheaper than I feared on the way out.

A map search revealed Harlow bus station, nearest connecting point to the buses to Epping, to be just under 2 miles away; with it being still light and dry (at around 5:30), walking seemed preferable to a probably long wait for a short bus ride. After a walk in the course of which a freezing wind did more to restyle my hair than my first girlfriend’s experiments with various products ever achieved, an on-the-ground search revealed that Google Maps marks Harlow bus station in the wrong place; all that stands where the map points you is a petrol station and a hospital car park. Some muttered swearing and head-scratching eventually led me to the discovery that the bus station was actually on the other side of a shopping centre.

The sleet / rain returned to falling by the time I got on the bus; by the time I reached Epping, the cars emerging from the station car park had a good half-inch of actual snow coating their rooves and bonnets. A mad world my masters.

I finally reached home about 8:45pm, so a 12-hour work-plus-travel day. My to-do list now contains ‘get viola bow fixed’, ‘seriously, buy a spare viola bow dammit!’ and ‘claim refund for train ticket’; but, for reasons that may eventually become apparent through future posts, it’s quite likely I won’t manage to tackle any of those things tomorrow. Here’s just hoping for less drama and more things going to plan …

More strings to my … plectrum?

I spent most of Friday 22 February at Piraxa Studios, recording some new promo material. I’d decided around the turn of the year it was time I had some demo material to show on all my serious instruments. Not least because a couple of agencies approached me in December about a job that might (though might not) have come off had I done this before then.

So while Matt Norriss patiently yet energetically shifted mikes, cameras, lights, DI feeds, headphones and music stands, triggered audio and video recording of multiple takes and repeatedly clapped in front of the camera for audio-video sync, I was (mostly) – playing mandolin.

(‘Mostly’ because I was also changing clothes, retuning (those unison pairs of strings, coupled with frets and high tension meaning you stand no chance of playing an in-tune note on an out-of-tune string, really show up if the instrument is still reacting to the new temperature and humidity!), tightening a loose pickguard screw, adding accompanying guitar and foot tambourine, and most importantly trying to see how many of the four resident cats would let me cuddle them. Although I had difficulty telling three of them apart.)

I reckon there are four likely genre / style areas where my mandolin skills might be hired:
country / bluegrass / Americana (realistically, in the UK the distinctions are rarely solid)
Italian traditional music
Irish folk and folk-like standards
classical

So I had put together a set of four excerpts to cover all of them, and then set about trying to record (and to some extent finally use) little enough of each to be an under-five-minute showreel. Because it needs to be watched by busy people looking to make a decision quickly!

Impressively, just 11 days after recording, Matt has single-handedly completed editing, syncing, mixing, mastering, colour grading and sorting out the things I didn’t fully make clear in my written brief … which is credit to his work ethic. That it sounds and looks so good is credit to his combination of technical skill and musical perception and understanding.

So voila:

Also serves as a good demo for my general hirsuteness, if anyone particularly needs a bearded or just downright unkempt video extra …

Also findable from my Demo recordings YouTube playlist, which is itself linked from the Playing page of this website.

Hire Matt for production, and me for mandolin (and viola and violin, and arranging). Simples, as apparently people from all walks of life say now!

Allow me to introduce…

…my new band, Finezza Strings!

If you know my instruments, answers on a postcard to why this is not a string quartet as we know it.

Not my baby as a project (that would be Hannah, cello and concentration face above), though I’ve been involved sourcing music, editing website copy, brainstorming and eating ‘business meeting’ curry and falafel as well as playing. But certainly a major new feature on my musical / professional landscape.

We are a chamber group, able to work as anything from a duo up to an octet (double quartet), though most bookings will probably be as a quartet (which means we can send regular members if someone is already booked, rather than being dependent on deps if four diaries don’t align for the event date). While functions and weddings will be the commercial backbone, we are keen to play ‘real’ chamber music in a concert environment as well, and discussions have tentatively begun about possibilities like exploring some of the piano plus strings repertoire.

I spent a thoroughly enjoyable January morning (it was freezing outside but thankfully not in the studio) with the group and engineer / producer Kim Halliday (highly recommended by the way, technically and as an all-round generous and lovely person), recording and filming promo material for our function showreel. When that’s finished editing we’ll launch the website (mostly already built), but for now you can keep up to date by liking and following our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/finezzastrings
For the more social media keen than I, I’m assured Twitter and Instagram feeds are also imminent!

Musically it might seem like I’m stretching a point to talk up a wedding quartet showreel, but having played a number of weddings with a number of quartets this did really feel out of the ordinary in terms of sheer class of delivery. Pachelbel’s much-derided and abused Canon actually sounded like Baroque music (dare I say abandoning arrangements in favour of me swapping from viola to violin may have helped reduce the usual gloopiness?); the Meditation from Massenet’s Thaïs would not have sounded out of place on the concert platform (all credit to Marian Givens, first violin for this session, since this piece is very much a violin solo with accompaniment nobody really notices or remembers); and I could practically see the lighters waving in Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’. Once the website goes live, a look through the biogs other than mine might well explain why this was musically a cut above much of my function quartet experience! In the meantime, we await your call (or Facebook message) to demonstrate our abilities for real …

I look much more atmospheric and creative with the focus elsewhere in the photo and in monochrome. Might get a new set of portrait photos done in this style actually.

Working week

For the last five evenings, and tonight still to come, my workplace has been the Questors Theatre Studio in Ealing. Musical engagements rarely last that long, so it won’t take much guessing to know I’m playing for a musical:

Yes, I know the day of the last night is a bit late to repost marketing material …

A rather unconventional one however.

The Last Five Years is a two-hander, the halves of a couple. Jamie’s timeline moves straightforwardly enough forward through the relationship; Kathy’s backwards, from separation to first date. They only get one actual duet, in the middle of the show, though in some other numbers one is talking in gaps between the other’s singing (and they are where their timeline has got up to, not at the same point – even from the band, this is a tad confusing!). That minimal cast are accompanied by a small and unusually-textured band for musical theatre: piano, guitar, bass guitar, violin, two cellos. The show is of course being MD’d from the piano, directing from the keyboard appearing to be as normative in the theatre today as it was in the concert hall in the eighteenth century.

Stylistically, there’s a lot less of the Broadway grand gesture too, with punch lent by Latin, rock-n-roll and piano-led gospel-funk styles, humour from Sinatra-and-Basie swing (seriously, I’m sat next to the guitarist and his part is marked ‘à la Freddie Green’), mannered pseudo-klezmer (Jamie is Jewish) and country, and emotion from an unexpected near-Riverdance minor key gig, some surprisingly artful referencing of ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ and an all-too-rare ability to handle recitative-like singing and drone / pedal point-based rather than chord progression-derived harmonic structure. All six instrumentalists are worked hard though (I wish someone censor telling orchestrators about false harmonics, and make double stops sound a lot more difficult), and there is of course musically nowhere to hide with such small forces. Visually too in this case as we’re located at back of stage in plain view of the audience (though at least as the run’s progressed I’ve been able to watch bits of the show in some of my rests, themselves much shorter than usual in pit work!).

What with this and renewed recent work on the Streisand show (see previous post), my violin technique has been unusually thoroughly drilled lately! However, back to more familiar territory soon as I learn a few more Irish covers and fiddle tunes for a wedding at the start of March – and they should hopefully be free from harmonics, double stops, awkward key signatures and tricky rubato timings, though not necessarily from extended fluid runs of fast notes!

Winter has arrived

No, this isn’t a post about Game of Thrones (of which I have not seen a single episode, despite having played two different string quartet arrangements of the theme, using it regularly in busking sets and quoting it in my improvisations on Kindred Spirit‘s song about a dragon … ). No, the winter in question is the voice and face of my new job, Winter sings Streisand.

Winter and her MD / pianist Simon have been doing duo shows of the music of Barbra Streisand for a few years, and they did one previous outing of the combo, theatre setting version last summer. However, Saturday 26 January was my first show with the project.

While the musical atmosphere and the shape of the arrangements are very faithful to Streisand live, film or album versions, this is not an ‘acting’ show – Winter is full of personality as a fan and the show flows through informed (sometimes récherché!) anecdotes and biography, but there is no attempt to adopt the elder singer’s persona. Given how much Streisand acted (acts, rather – she is still an active performing presence) her songs it would be rather pointless anyway, and certainly a step backwards in terms of taste.

It makes absolute sense in those terms to have a live band, allowing the stretching and squeezing of time so characteristic of the style to be done in reality rather than following one set of nuances with a backing track. And this Winter certainly does, keeping me on my toes with timings and rubato that are confident and well-judged but also daring! Streisand’s accompaniments have varied from a jazz combo up to a symphonic Broadway orchestra, so there is inevitably some creativity involved in arranging the show for a viable touring band of violin, piano, bass and drums (I particularly enjoy the number where I get to step into the shoes of a big-band lead trumpet!). But is it bad of me to say I think some of the 1980s repertoire gains from replacing the masses of spacey synths with slightly more acoustic, or less era-specific, timbres?

In theory, this is the ‘same show’ each time – same set list, same personnel. But, on the other hand, the freedom of many of those performances and the fact that the linking narration is prepared but entirely unscripted means each performance is unique and genuinely responsive to that night’s audience. (Plus, Simon, Winter and I had a very productive session honing the violin arrangements yet further this week, so the next audience gets another ‘premiere’ version!)

A very nearly sold-out and highly enthusiastic audience at Basildon’s Towngate Theatre clearly had a great time (and had to be denied a second encore) on the 26th. The next show date is 6 March in Bury St Edmunds, but we have bookings almost all across the country up to the end of the year and new dates being added all the time, so check my gig list for one near you. And don’t miss it!