I’m sitting in Utrecht central station, awaiting departure for Düsseldorf. There’s a cosy place here called Yoghurt Barn. Where they have shamelessly misquoted The Godfather….”I’m gonna make him a yoghurt he can’t refuse”…..for some reason, but they make an excellent cappuccino. Our concert last night took place in Vredenburg Tivoli – another unusual facade, this time resembling the Connect game. Inside, a welcoming artists area with plenty of space. Which made up in part for the cramped dressing room. There’s a lot of good-natured bumping into each other and hunting for shoes, a mirror – and where are the toilets?
It had been a long travel day with minimal downtime at the hotel before rehearsal. Travel hiccups are inevitable sooner or later and we hit problems arriving in Rotterdam. All further trains onward to Utrecht were cancelled. Over a hundred musicians and staff, including conductor Ed, rode the escalator up to the platform – only to descend a few minutes later. Cue some intense but smooth recalibrations by our admin team. Who discovered we could take a train via Den Haag. We obediently herded off to another platform…….baaaaaaaah. We were an hour late getting into Utrecht and even our baggage was further delayed by road. I found myself with fellow Brit, solo flute Anna, automatically turning to that very British solution for All Things – a nice cup of tea.
The acoustics this time were very different, the empty hall giving a hard, bright edge to our sound and making it a challenge to hear each other. This is why a “soundcheck” rehearsal is so important. Adjustments have to be made, guided by the ears of Nils Erik, our assistant conductor, who moves around the hall and gives valuable feedback to Ed. Our section had additional issues with the placing of the trumpets just inches from the last few cellos. We had to shuffle chairs to create enough space for a minimum safety distance. This is vital for aural protection – being exposed to such high decibels for whole rehearsals and concerts is proven to damage hearing irreparably. And for obvious reasons, wearing earplugs does not allow optimal participation and communication within a group. So it is something I vigorously engage with. There are widely varying perspectives to accommodate, not least from conductors concerned with the bigger picture of sound and their communication with the winds, who are placed behind the strings. Once again, the audience surrounds us. This adds an extra dimension for those seated behind us who can experience the expressiveness of Ed’s face as he guides us through his interpretation of the music. Alice Sara Ott is in sparkling form with Grieg again, prefaced by Strauss. There’s no room for sleepiness in Don Juan, especially in our energetic rendition. Break time, and I get to appreciate the Dutch version of Jaffa Cakes, supplied by our team. A burst of sugar now can be helpful. There’s the usual scramble for toilets and water, priorities for musicians. Then back onstage for Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. An energetic shout of “Bravo!” at the end is followed by one of our encores. I can almost see those little trolls scampering across the stage. It’s good to see the smiles all round as we file offstage to pack up and peel off concert clothes. As this was a late start concert, I opt out of a celebratory drink and relax in my room, which this time is ultra comfortable. It’s a fine balance on tour, between well-deserved post-concert socializing and pacing oneself to withstand the rigours of being on the road and producing high standard performance each day.
Wednesday morning, and a slow breakfast in my room with the European news channel (almost exclusively “le Brexit “) wakens me sufficiently to make it over to the station and that cappuccino. This time, the train is running without problem, a smooth ICE across the border into Germany. Around me, all is relatively quiet. Colleagues either knit, read or watch movies. I see that Martin opposite me is deep in the latest Ann Cleeves. Today’s is a short journey, with more time at our hotel in Düsseldorf before coaches transport us to Köln for rehearsal. The hotel is an oasis of comfort, much-needed as the muscles start to ache. Some time to unwind is welcome. The fact that the hotel is Japanese is underlined when I try out the bath and discover my knees are under my chin. But the sushi is the perfect light snack before a concert. We are in Düsseldorf, an hour away from Köln, because a huge conference has appropriated all hotel rooms in Köln itself.
Phiharmonie Köln is familiar territory in the shadow of the cathedral. A magnificent hall with excellent clear acoustic. Our crew is under the gun because another orchestra is still in rehearsal right before us. We maintain a holding pattern backstage, locating the usual facilities and retrieving concert clothes to save time later. The crew hurries to reset the stage and we get the all-clear to go on, like curious animals when released to explore new territory. Will this chair work? Can we see? Is there enough room to use a full bow, or will I be poking a hapless viola player in the ribs? Left a bit, right a bit….. I note that the audience here in Köln is particularly well-dressed. They seem discerning – here they are used to the very best orchestras and soloists so they don’t give approval lightly. Ed has clearly had his caffeine intake because Don Juan tonight is literally breath-taking. Truls Mørk takes over to present his rendition of Elgar’s Cello Concerto. His beautiful pianissimos encourage our own sensitive accompaniment and the applause is well-deserved. He adds in an encore of a solo Britten movement which in my opinion suits his style even better. I am – dare I say it – beginning to be ready for a change from Brahms. It is heavy to play with such full intensity, but there are still exquisite solos from within the orchestra to enjoy. The challenge is to keep it fresh and alive when repeating the music. The audience has warmed up by now and bestows enthusiasm upon us, which we reward with more scampering trolls. A unique feature of concerts here is being presented with a cold local beer on leaving the stage. Obviously musicians appreciate this. As I’m not actually a beer-drinker, I pass mine on to a thirsty colleague, now with one in each hand. More scurrying around between instrument and wardrobe cases and we are ready for the coaches back to Düsseldorf. Think I may try that bath again……
Maybe one of the trolls brought a more malevolent relative because those turn out to be my last concerts of the tour. We travel onwards to Nürnberg, also by train. The platform staff begin to hyperventilate as they anticipate the boarding of a whole orchestra and how it may take longer than the allotted three minutes. Which will shatter the German efficiency. I’m already feeling unlike myself so I’m glad to subside into my seat. It becomes clear that I will only see the inside of my hotel room as the Bug takes hold. High fever and a digestive system which is in revolt degenerates to the point that I can only lie there. The thought of having to continue travelling now is tough, but somehow I drag myself along, onwards to Heidelberg the following day. I hear of the orchestra’s success from colleagues, sad not to participate myself. Bodil leaves a bag of medicine and a hot water bottle on my door handle……I’m deeply grateful for the care. I’m unable to eat but try to keep up the fluids. And finally, departure day. My knees seem to have gone off somewhere else, there’s only cotton wool holding me up. Processing through Frankfurt airport is mercifully painless and the flight home short. It has still been another great tour, despite my personal troll. And we have garnered some excellent reviews. Job well done! Onwards and upwards.