Somehow I have been catapulted from October into December, landing in an ungainly heap and brandishing Christmas “To Do” lists. The whirlwind activity of our achievements through November was enough to relieve the average person of breath. An intense workload that left me unable to remember which day it was . I feel I’ve only just come up for air. But it culminated in one of the high points of my orchestral career.
Dedicated work produces results. A two week odyssey into the world of Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes. We had previously performed the work at both Bergen and Edinburgh festivals, so we stepped back on board at an already elevated level. Knowing it inside out, we could bring greater depth and weight into this multi-faceted opera. The genius of Britten is revealed in his unerring ability to embrace the timeless theme of a petty, insular community ostracising someone who is “different”. Whilst maintaining a self-satisfied attendance at church and thereby observing the niceties. Britten doesn’t shy away from peeling back the layers of the ugliness lurking within us. Throughout, the untamed forces of nature – wind and sea – are captured by the orchestration. I can almost taste the sea salt on my lips, feel the lash of spray, the greasy rocks under my feet – hear the mocking cries of seagulls. When you live a piece of music so intensely, you wear it daily. It was a running commentary to all my (brief) activity outside rehearsal. Popping out to buy coffee (“Mind that door!”) or an hour or two at home (“we’ll do our knitting by the sea”).
The camaraderie between all involved in the production evolved into a real affection where there was already mutual respect. Our own choir was joined by several others, all amateurs, showing exceptional commitment to the project. Following a performance on home turf, we took the production to Oslo. I opted to take the train both ways, a seven hour trip through fairy tale winter landscape. The snow thickened into a whiteout glare by the time we reached Finse, the highest point on the line. We deposited passengers at isolated points, some of them gliding away on skis to remote wooden cabins and certain peace. I tried to read, write or knit, but often abandoned the lot to simply stare out at the eerie ranks of snow-burdened pines, so memorably captured by Norwegian artist, Theodor Kittelsen. A favourite work of his depicts a solitary bird perched on a tree and viewing the vast whiteness, saying in awe “It’s snowing and snowing!” Exactly my reaction as our long train snaked and swayed through the cold silence. Travelling in this way, you start to get a feeling for the sheer distances in Norway. And I haven’t even travelled the actual length of it yet either.
Oslo Opera juts out almost into the sea, the angle of descent allowing for people to walk up onto the roof itself – an impressive piece of architecture. As usual it takes a while to get our bearings. Yup. Every time. I spot colleagues in one corridor and then again in the next, bewildered. “Have you seen…?” “Where are the wardrobe cases?” and the usual “Have you found the toilets??” This, despite the signs painstakingly distributed by our advance crew. We are disorientated. We wander past parked sets for Hansel and Gretel, trying not to scrape our shins in the gloom. And at what point shall I eat the salad I brought with me…?
On site general rehearsals are about balancing in a new acoustic. Added to this, offstage players have to be placed for the right effect. More adjustments. At least we have enough room to play without crashing into each other. Or getting a viola bow in the eye. Spirits are high. We’re ready. Brushed, lipsticked, polished and warmed up. The Oslo audience cheers and gets to its feet some three hours later. A massive success which bodes well for London. There are also free drinks in the foyer. Concentration is thirsty work! Sadly no Oslo critics made the effort to attend , but we and the capacity audience present know that tonight we showed beyond a doubt what we “Westlanders” from over there can do.
No rest for the wicked, they say – or the victorious. Come Monday morning, we are straight into double recording sessions of Peter Grimes for Chandos. Now to capture that performance freshness and zest under the beady eye (or ear) of producer Brian Couzens. Again and again. Tightly planned so as not to wear out voices or keep soloists hanging around unnecessarily. We give everything. And more. Starting at ten in the morning is a tad unfriendly for singers. I pass mezzo, Catherine Wyn Rogers and joke around with the sung phrase “Good morning, good morning!” She laughs grimly and quotes back at me “more like ‘Murder most foul’ at this hour!” Every staged sound effect also has to be recorded, even Catherine’s retreating footsteps off stage, which sets us giggling. The soloists preserve at all times a great sense of humour which we appreciate and reciprocate. Some of their lines require a lot of text delivered with exact timing. Tripping over tongues is inevitable after multiple takes and provides light relief along with comical expressions. We know pretty much every word by now. This is a very different kind of concentration – there’s more tension in the body, with awareness that any accident or unwanted sound could ruin a hard-won take. But by Wednesday night, PG is in the box – a recording to look forward to.
A group of us opts to travel a day early to London, where we will present Peter Grimes at the Royal Festival Hall. Having time to spare ahead of rehearsal is grounding and a welcome break. I stroll across the river in crisp, bright weather, heading for my favourite bookstore with a coffee reward along the way. Covent Garden bristles with decorations and the mingled scents of pine and mince pies. No sign of any hot chestnuts yet. Down Bow Street with images in my head from Dickensian illustrations. I keep walking down Piccadilly and beyond. Carnaby Street is wonderfully mad, with illuminated jellyfish and shrimp dangling weirdly overhead. It feels good to be here. This city has seen so much and I love the history of it. Londoners are tough and resilient, mainly chirpy and helpful despite the overwhelming crowds. I’m certainly getting my steps in. The tracker on my phone congratulates me for my activity achievement so far, managing to sound only slightly condescending.
It’s a good job that our hotel has a thousand rooms because the whole orchestra and combined choirs are now in residence. Refreshed on concert day and post Full English, I take the short walk to RFH under the looming London Eye. I’m as likely to get on it as I am to skydive. Or enjoy Brussels sprouts. Each to his own. Another code to remember at the Artists’ Door, more corridors and lifts. This time, clothes, instruments and stage are all on the same floor. Brilliant. Reunited with the cello – which seems in an unusually good mood – I take my place on stage. We do our usual spots. The acoustic feels dry. And the stage itself is freezing cold. We are sold out tonight, so that should help.
Just a few hours later, having wallowed in the bath and nipped past Marks and Sparks for more salad delights, I’m back. Backstage is buzzing. Vocal warm ups follow me down the corridor and I dodge around lurking horns and trumpets doing their thing. Bass players are doing their famous lightning change half inside the bass cases. Mostly outside. No nonsense with trekking to the changing rooms for them. Five minutes to go and everyone is onstage watching the last of the audience squeeze into place. The choirs are wrapped around above and behind us. It’s a big moment.
Ed bounces on, the soloists take their places. As the drama unfolds, I can sense sizzling around me – from our concentrated brains and from the audience sitting in legendary silence, totally hooked. Getting a roar already at the first interval sets the tone of the evening. This is going to be Something. And it is. There’s a stunned silence following the last note as Ed holds the strands of magic a little longer – then the audience erupts. On their feet and cheering. It’s a rarity. I’m feeling electrified by their response – moved to tears by what we have just done. And proud. So proud. Our Norwegian orchestra came to London and conquered. We all hug each other when the audience finally lets us go. Instruments are packed down for the long road trip back to Bergen in our truck. Beer is handed out, traditional at the end of a tour. We are giddy with our success, still stunned. Popping out like a cork from a bottle through the Artists’ Door into the chilly night and excited chatter. We move on to the nearby favourite musicians’ bar under the rail bridge. The red wine goes down smoothly, the first of many toasts. We have to be up early for our flight, but we all want to linger, savouring the bubble, the culmination of so much hard work. And what a reward! By the time we are back in Bergen, all of London’s press has started to heap praise and stars on us. This was sensational, all are agreed.
Thanks to everyone who enabled us on this voyage. Especially our world class stage crew – simply the best!! And to Benjamin Britten for this unforgettable opera – I think he would have been quite pleased with us…..