Saddo abroad

Saddo abroad: April 2011

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Teenage angst

I was back in my old alma mater yesterday, King's College Cambridge, singing in the Chapel. I think I may have finally conquered the fear that overwhelms me whenever I start to sing in the place, but I'm not sure. It's a fear rooted in my first ever experience of singing under it's famous fan-vaulted ceiling.
It was September 1975 and I was seventeen. I had applied for a Choral Scholarship to King's which, if I was successful, would get me a place in the choir the following academic year. I was desperate to get into King's. Nowhere else would do, but the system was that you listed in order of preference which other colleges you would also like to consider. Such was the rivalry between King's and St John's that if you put either of them second you could forget it altogether. They weren't prepared to be anybody's back-up.
What I didn't know then was that the Choral Scholarship also guaranteed a place in the University without the need to sit the entrance exam that I was currently cramming for, not too successfully.
The selection process was pretty tough. All the applicants descended on Cambridge for two days and were put up in college rooms. The first round, the one I actually dreaded most, was where you were sent into a small auditorium and were made to sight-read in front of all the choral directors. The ability to read well was key as the top choirs covered a lot of repertoire and there wasn't enough rehearsal time to cope with stragglers. I was crap at reading which I blame squarely on poor education in that department in my early years.
After the first round a list went up of who was through to round two and who could go home. Despite having made a hash of my sight-reading they let me through.
The next round the next day involved singing an aria in either St John's or King's or both. I had to do both, St John's first. All the candidates sat in a line on a pew, and one by one we got up and did our party piece. Mine was a Handel aria. Various choir masters were dotted around each chapel, mostly looking pretty bored. We were all incredibly nervous.
Half an hour after my St John's audition (which wouldn't have been in my case for St John's itself, as I'd nailed my colours to the King's mast, but which was for any other colleges that might be interested) I was down the road in the choir stalls of King's waiting my turn. I sang my aria in this wonderful building that I already loved with a teenage passion, and when I finished, thought "that's it, nothing more to do", when Philip Ledger the King's Organist announced he was worried about my sight-reading and wanted me to have another go at it. Oh crap. He handed me a copy of some Magnificat or something, told the organist to start from such-and-such a bar and off I went. And when I say off, I mean it. I hadn't a clue. Not only that but all the other candidates were still sitting there watching me melt into a pool of humiliated goo. I think I remember wanting to jump into the Cam and drown.
When I'd finished wrecking the brief piece of Howells (I'm pretty sure it was Howells), Ledger said I could go but to wait outside. So I walked out in a state of despondency. He'd found me out. I was a fraud.
A few minutes later he came out of the chapel and told me that he was giving me the scholarship. He said my voice was "terrific but for God's sake go away and learn how to sight-read".

Despite the happy ending, it's always been the seventeen year old in me who turns up first when I've gone back to sing as a soloist. "This is it," he tells me, "this is the moment they find out you really are a fraud." If I'm lucky I've been able to shut him up, but not always. Yesterday I actually felt too old to be putting up with that shit anymore. But that's not to say he won't put in another appearance sometime.

The weather was warm and gorgeous yesterday and it reminded me of a tour of Japan when I was in the King's Choir. We used to sing concerts in our cassocks, worn over white shirts with college ties, trousers and black shoes. The boys had to wear their Eton collars.
It was August and unbearably hot and humid, and back in the 70s air-conditioning was not so common, even in Japan. One night the heat was awful and the men went onstage looking angelic as we always did in our red cassocks, but underneath none of us was wearing any trousers. We were wearing underpants though.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Tuning in

I had my first full "In Tune" experience today. For those who don't know, it's a two hour show on Radio 3, the BBC's classical radio channel, which highlights concerts and musical events which are coming up in the music calendar. Every day they have some guests who perform live in the studio.
I say my full experience because I have been on the show before but then all I had to do was chat about the St Matthew Passion from a studio in Bath. We were promoting a performance with The Bach Choir and luckily they already had a tape of a broadcast performance we had done a couple of years beforehand. I sat alone at the other end of an ISDN line while in Broadcasting House in London Sean Rafferty, the host, fired me questions over the ether and we listened to bits of the tape.
Today I was helping to plug a concert I'm doing in Cambridge on Friday - the rarely-performed "Golgotha" by Frank Martin - so I had to take a train up to London, rehearse with a pianist, hang about, do a sound check, hang around some more and then, well, go for it. It's an exhausting business this promotion lark.
I wasn't alone. Our soprano Ailish Tynan, and mezzo Sue Bickley (an avid reader of this blog as it turns out. Hi Sue!) were in on the act too, each of us with bleeding chunks to contribute. The difficulty was that none of us has performed the piece before and though we're all prepared, we haven't done any proper rehearsals yet, despite Sean Rafferty saying on air that we had. We do that on Thursday. So our knowledge of the piece as a whole is confined to our stuff and not much more. None of us, apart from the conductor, had got a handle on the entire oeuvre and yet we had to go on the radio and sell it.
The concert will also be broadcast on Radio 3 so this was our chance to tickle the taste buds of the potential listener so that he'd eschew all the other distractions on offer on Good Friday evening and tune their dials to us instead. It's a tough sell and we did our bit, spouting enthusiasm from every pore. Sue was so enthusiastic that during my stint of being interviewed (about which I can remember practically nothing) she hurled a plastic cup across the live studio. Well that's how it sounded as I struggled to find a cohesive argument for a piece of which I am familiar only in bits. I think perhaps that in her relief at being done she just dropped the cup, but I like to think of her chucking it in a fabulous display of upstaging.
The studio is a grim environment in which to sing - acoustically dry and unforgiving, though I think (and hope) they add a bit of flattering reverb in the mixing booth. More unnerving perhaps is the immediate presence of your conductor and colleagues who have nothing better to do than listen to you from only a few feet away.
The odd and surprisingly pleasant thing is that it feels as if we've got the hard bit out of the way. Friday's performance may well feel like a walk in the park compared to the scrutiny we've faced today. Well, you can but wish.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Le Flaneur Genevois

I have been in Geneva a week now and I think I have the measure of the place. Let's skip quickly over the excruciating prices and the rash of impossibly chic designer shops that make me want to raise the barricades and start a revolution. Oh, I'm not that radical but the vile smugness of them drives me mad. And where do their employees get off on looking so snooty and disdainful? Don't you dare try and sneer at me! You work in a bloody shop for God's sake!
You see? That's the trouble with Geneva. You just want to yell at all the self-important bankers, financiers, jewellers and spoilt-brat Porsche drivers that you find around every corner.
So, moving swiftly on, I have found a few things that can make the cheapskate, like me, reasonably happy.
A couple of transport tips for the Geneva neophyte:
When you arrive at the airport, there's a ticket machine in the luggage hall that will give you a free ticket, valid for 90 minutes, enabling you to use any form of public transport to get to your destination in town. So you can take the train and then a tram or whatever, absolutely free. Very civilised.
If you're staying at a hotel, the hotel will give you a free travel pass for your entire stay!
As we're staying in digs we don't benefit from this but there are all kinds of passes you can buy for not much money. I only discovered a few days ago that there are various ferries that ply across the lake which are also part of the public transport system. It is perfectly feasible on a sunny day like today, to plant yourself in the stern of a boat and potter back and forth all day, all for seven francs (about £4.40), the price of an all-day pass after 9 a.m. And the boats don't seem to stay on just the one route, but switch their routes every time they arrive at a pontoon, so you're not repeatedly covering the same stretch of lake. (If you're hotel hasn't given you one, you can buy a day pass from the machines at every tram or boat stop. You need coins though; exact change.)
The other day, just because I could, I took a tram to France. I got on by our flat and took the 16 for about ten minutes to the end of the line at Moillesulaz. I got off, walked about ten metres and crossed the unmanned border. I love doing that. (In Strasbourg once I did a very dreary walk out of town just so I could invade Germany on foot. Well, it makes a change eh?)
Not that there was much to see the other side. Just more of the same really, which was pretty dull. I ended up buying some groceries in a Casino supermarket, which was a bit cheaper than doing it in Switzerland. I did feel oddly furtive though as I recrossed the border (even though I'd spied several Swiss doing the same thing) and walked the half hour back to the flat.
There are some decent museums in town which are free and oddly empty. I like that though. I'd rather see some good paintings in a quiet gallery than fight the crowds to glimpse a celebrity piece elsewhere. Though some joy in the latter can be had in opining loudly on the ghastliness of Renoir in front of a bunch starstruck tourists. It can be a bit like going into a MacDonalds and saying at the top of your voice that you think the Jonas brothers are talentless twats, but so very worth it.
The last tip is a restaurant we stumbled upon in the Paquis. It's a scruffy Italian place with indifferent service, but it's homely and authentic. Pavarotti's name is emblazoned on the outside and the chef, who waddled in from time to time, doesn't look dissimilar.
I had the 32 franc menu (about £21) - a mixed salad generously topped with anchovies, rigatoni with pesto, saltimbocca with sautéed vegetables and a slice of strawberry tart - amazing value for Geneva (or Milan for that matter), while Lucy had what we thought was going to be just one course, but turned out to be two, for 22 francs. She had a mixed salad then two scaloppine served with linguini in a fantastic tomato and garlic sauce. She had some of my tart, of course, and the waiter anticipated this by bringing her a fork. If I went again, I'd do what Lucy did and choose a so-called single dish as the portions are massive. My only quibble was that we weren't shown a wine list, just offered some suggestions, and we only found out our half-litre bottle of Nero d'Avola cost a disproportionately expensive 24 francs when the bill came. It's cash only and we just scraped by with what was in our wallets.
I'd definitely recommend it for chic-weary visitors and it's called La Locanda Toscana, and is at 61, rue de Berne.

One last Bob story

A story Bob Tear told about himself:
Bob sang the Verdi Requiem only once in his life, in unusual circumstances, when he was quite young. "Once was enough, love."
Bernstein was conducting it at the Royal Albert Hall and Carlo Bergonzi was due to be the tenor soloist but fell ill. Bob was called in at very short notice and being the consummate musician, pretty-well sight-read it.
At the end of the concert, in full view of the audience, Bernstein grabbed Bob's face in both hands and planted an open-mouthed kiss full on Bob's lips. Then as they were taking their bows Bernstein, holding Bob's hand, turned to him and said:
"You know, if you had a proper high B flat you'd have one of the great tenor voices of the world... Bad luck!"

Monday, April 4, 2011

A few Bob anecdotes

Scene: a crowded cafe in Newcastle.
Bob looks around the room, waits for me to take a sip of coffee, then says at the top of his voice : "SO CHRIS, IS YOUR BROTHER GAY LIKE YOU?"

Scene: Durham Cathedral, packed for a concert. Bob is the conductor. Tonight is the night when there are loads of simultaneous performances of the Creation taking place all over the country, in aid of the hospice movement. One of these performances is being relayed live on Radio 2 and the idea is that all the concerts will start at exactly the same time, so while we wait on the podium the radio relay is being fed directly through the cathedral's tannoy system. A cheery Radio 2 announcer is describing the scene in detail and the plan is that he'll give a countdown to the opening downbeat, at which point the tannoy will be silenced and we'll start. Bob, next to me, is fidgety.
Announcer "And now coming on to the platform are tonight's soloists, Helen Screechy, soprano, (I've obviously changed the names to protect the real, well-known singers) Justin Yelp, tenor, and finally David Strained, bass. They have rehearsed this afternoon and I can tell you they are in fine voice... "
Bob turns to me, baton poised, and says really rather loudly: "WELL LOVE, THAT MAKES A CHANGE!"

I posted this one on Facebook but it's my favourite and it shows Bob's wisdom to perfection.
A very well known bass said to Bob "My ambition is to be the best bass in the world."
Bob: "That's lovely. How will you know?"