In which the weather gods are appeased…..

Freyr, one of the Norse gods who has responsibility for rain and sun, spent much of May having a laugh at our expense. In fact, he must have invited his friends along too. We were subjected to every possible weather variation. As I shivered in snow in the first week of May, I could almost hear them up on their respective clouds. “Ah go on now….throw in a bit of hail and wind! That’s it…look at them! Haaaa ”

The following week we were bewildered into stowing the umbrellas and shoving bare white toes into sandals. As usual, I got sunburned in my excitement at seeing the Big Yellow Thing in the sky. A week later, it was back to nine degrees and pessimism. Impossible to gauge when to finally pack away those winter woollies.

I’m beginning to think….cautiously….that those gods have tired of their game. For now. Maybe they went on holiday. In any case, summer temperatures are creeping back into Bergen. Regularly overlaid and sprinkled with rain, just to guard against complacency.

I am to be found sipping a latte (yes, it’s a coffee moment) in the cool breeze outside a simple café, out of the way of Bergen’s bustling centre. I need no book. I am observing the pages of life turning all around me. A whippet yawns expansively, then trots after its owner. I love whippets ….their delicate, fine-boned structure and narrow, intelligent heads. Tail curving apologetically against the back legs. Dappled coat. In the other direction, an enormous wolfhound seems to take its human out for a constitutional.

An abundance of tiny toy dogs, so fashionable and oh so yappy. Bred to the point of fragility …. I worry they will get stepped on. Electric cars, passing with that creepy science-fiction whirr. Sparrows eyeing me hopefully. I have no food.

There’s a rare telephone box across from the café, overshadowed by the rack of pristine electric City bicycles. It looks like a relic from another age, familiar yet unfamiliar. I expect the clumps of tourists will soon stop to click away, as they do at even the most unexpected corners. Packs of them swarm and cover the city, often stopping in the middle of a road for the perfect photo. The same one replicated throughout their group.

I navigated with difficulty past them to reach this café. Around me sit handfuls of tourists of the quieter, more considerate variety, content to sit like me and drink in the atmosphere. Languages fly over my head as I catch a salty whiff of the nearby sea. Seagulls are bold and cheeky, stalking in close and keeping an unblinking eye out for opportunity. Now the air smells new green and warm, with a hint of the North never far away. People wander, many hand in hand. On some days it feels as though the world in front of me is full of couples. A stroll together, a chat, a giggle, then sharing the silence. They pass me by as I watch.

Norwegians love their hotdogs almost as much as we Brits love our cuppa. There’s just one place in Bergen I know where they really are something else. Rumour has it that even the King has made a pit stop there when in town. The smell is more appealing to me in summer weather, conjuring up a holiday, outdoors atmosphere.

The National Day has just passed, and the locals take a pride in sprucing up their window boxes and entrances. I enjoy wandering past a succession of restored wooden front doors, intricately carved and lovingly painted in bright, smart colours. There’s a cat sprawled inside a window box, squashing the heathers therein. He mews a greeting as I pass but doesn’t stir.

Bergen is at last full of green again. I find trees comforting and soothing. Like benevolent beings, calmly observing, absorbing. On damp evenings, I listen to the blackbirds singing joyfully through my open windows. There is reassurance in a tree. It will be there, most likely, long after I’m gone. I’d rather a tree planted than a gravestone, for sure. A wagtail hops out of my path. A cheeky little bird that always makes me smile. I count the things on my walks that make me smile. Earlier, I walked by a man who went down on his knees to spontaneously embrace his dog. Man and hound, in total understanding and affection. I smiled all the way to Grieghallen.

May was an intense working month for the BFO….hence my delayed post. The International Festival here naturally involves the orchestra, as indeed it should, usually in concerts of the off-the-beaten-path variety. But we managed to pay homage to our beloved Grieg, along with some exquisite and rewarding Mahler.

Latterly, we have been recording with our familiar Chandos team from the UK. Their professionalism and respect produces fruitful and fulfilling weeks, which will later translate into another stunning CD. Recording sessions make different demands on us, notably of stamina and concentration. The discipline to jump straight into a segment of the work and deliver a clean and convincing account of the music. Again and again with the same intensity. We are drained by the end of a week, but the sense of achievement is enormous after the last take as we hear producer Brian intone his famous word, “Marvellous!”

I continue on my walk, past the wonderful array of boats moored in the harbour, their owners enjoying a well-deserved “utepils “, or “outside beer”, on board. They don’t seem to care that the rain is back. Onwards, past a hotel disgorging a bunch of bewildered tourists who are anxious about what to wear. In a city where you can get all four seasons in one day, I can’t blame them. Someone stumbles out in unfamiliar new hiking boots. Likely product of a bulk buying session in Millets. “It’s trying to rain, Joan!” That sounds so typically British that I giggle, enjoying the moment.

A week at Moniack Mhor

Rattling along ever narrowing roads in Gordon’s minibus with six strangers, I’m slightly apprehensive about what lies ahead. A week in the middle of nowhere (The Scottish Highlands) with twelve writers who are surely more experienced than I am. We round yet another bend and finally Moniack Mhor is revealed, white and nestling at the bottom of the track. We are 1000feet up and the wind tries its best to knock me over. And then we are absorbed gratefully into the warm farm-style kitchen, welcomed by Angie and Rich. We settle in, awkwardness melted away by the wine, snapping logs in the burner and the embrace of squashy sofas. The last few participants are blown in the door and we are complete – a very appropriate 13, ready for our Crime Writing Week.

Around a long refectory table warmed by candlelight, we get to know our tutors, Stuart MacBride and Allan Guthrie, over a delicious moussaka. I tell Allan that our paths have crossed before – as youngsters on the inaugural National Youth Orchestra of Scotland course. And I produce the photograph, him clutching a bassoon and me, a cello. Our careers have since taken us in very different directions, but music was there at the beginning.

After dinner, we find our way through the darkness to the Hobbit House, a straw bale studio. There is irresistible charm in its circular structure and smoky log cabin smell. The tutors lay out the schedule of our coming week and what it entails. The excitement ramps up a notch. I can’t wait to begin.

As I’m in a twin room, I’ve been based down in the adjacent cottage where the tutors occupy the upper floor. I’ve struck lucky with my roomie, Charlotte, who is here from Edinburgh. It turns out that we get on well, and our residency of the ground floor proceeds in light-hearted and friendly co-ordination.

With a nine thirty workshop start, I’m up early, curious to explore. The ferocity of the wind has calmed somewhat, although the lines of daffodils are still bobbing and dancing a frenzy. There’s something special about the Moniack air. At first, the silence is thick and absolute – a deep peace that drops the shoulders. Then one by one I hear the curlews, the contented sounds of the horses in the field. The nearest one looks up and considers me, still chewing. He tosses his head at his companion. “Lookit. ‘Tis another of ’em. And no’ even a carrot tae be seen. Prrrrrrh!” I am clearly found wanting.

Snowy peaks still stretch above the early mist. But Spring has certainly arrived, despite the chill. Banks of gorse blaze an impossible yellow as I trudge up the path for breakfast. A cup of tea warms the body and puts my brain into gear. I’m going to need it. We potter around between toaster and stove. Heather arrives with more fresh eggs from her chickens – they taste glorious. We ponder the unfamiliar stove top. Why isn’t this ring reacting? Remembering my frustrations with computers, I remark darkly “Error. Pan Not Found!” Charlotte and I giggle as we discover our mistake and set the eggs to boil. We start to match names to people – and discover a lot of us start with J. This could be tricky. Some have travelled a short distance – others have come as far as from New York. And I of course made the trip from Norway. We’re all at different stages of our journey as writers, but we’re here with common goals. To learn. To improve. To be inspired.

It’s the start of an incredible, unforgettable week. A week of eagerness, intense brain activity, blankets, giggles, weather, emerging friendship – and achievement. We work hard. Workshops until lunch, followed by individual tutorials, then time honing our work in progress (WIP) and homework, followed by evening workshops. Total immersion and few distractions. And opportunities to wander off down the road and chat with the Highland cows. Who seem equally unimpressed with me. I can’t really see their eyes under the gingery fringe, but something about the tilt of their horns tells me all I need to know. Yup. Another writing student. Pish. Charlotte, by contrast, seems to have locked onto their wavelength. She informs me that communing with the cows has produced an inspiring new direction for her WIP. There’s inspiration to be found around every corner. I feel coccooned from the current harshness of the world, transported to another, gentler reality. There is clarity of thought here. I’m gaining tools, absorbing so much.

Stuart and Allan are gifted and compelling tutors. Humour is never far away and sometimes I ache from laughing. But we have also become a solid group. We listen to, encourage and applaud each other. We share our anxieties and questions. And we have no need of a clock. As morning coffee break approaches, our noses twitch – home-baking smells reach out from under the kitchen door to reel us in. We fall upon Jillian’s shortbread and scones. Such a welcome treat. And back to work. We cover a lot of ground. I feel my brain expanding with all that I’m learning. I’m excited, in heightened awareness and so very glad that I took the steps to come here. I feel alive and curious about everything. More enticing smells herald lunch – a giant farmhouse spread which includes baked potatoes or quiche, salad, cheeses and fresh bread.

We each have two one to one tutorials throughout the week. These prove enormously helpful, rich in advice and reality checks. Every writer has to learn not to be precious about their work – to be willing to chop and change and even scrap huge chunks. It is painful but healthy. Choosing to have my sessions earlier in the week gives me plenty of time to get my brain whirring, re-thinking and re-drafting.

After the first night, we take turns in teams to prepare dinner. The recipes and ingredients are laid out already – all we have to do is cook, serve and clear up. The Wednesday Team, with Yours Truly on board, set to work and produce (we reckon) superlative Balsamic Roasted Sausages with veg and sweet potato mash. Fruit crumble rounds off the meal. Cooking in a team proves to be good fun, particularly in the later stages when we feel an accompanying glass is in order.

On Wednesday evening, we are joined by our guest speaker, forensics expert Professor Dave Barclay. His presentation is so fascinating that we forget about bedtime. Here is the perfect opportunity for 13 crime writers to discover how best to kill off their fictional victims and leave little or no trace. Having consulted on cases all over the world, Dave is a mine of information. Forensic science is an area that intrigues me – I could sit there listening and watching all night, but another early start is approaching. Dave keeps us on the edge of our seats, a speaker with a natural humour yet practical approach which eases a raw audience through some fairly gruesome scenes.

Our final night dinner is memorable – haggis, neeps and tatties with whisky sauce. My ears catch faint sounds from outside as we wait…..could it be?….yes! To everyone’s great pleasure, our haggis is piped in expertly by young Mitch. I admit to a tear in my eye as the haunting pipes skirl around the table. Zigurds does the honours with an impressive delivery of To a Haggis by Robert Burns. After which we raise a wee dram and toast “Slàinte!”

Following the haggis dinner, we file into the Hobbit House to each give a reading of our work. Reading aloud for up to five minutes feels like a long time. I’m nervous. I have radically changed my work, bearing in mind the tutors’ advice and all that I’ve learned – but will it work? What will they think? One by one, we read. I’m enthralled and impressed by my fellow writers, the scenes they conjure up and the talent in the room. So much variety. When the tutors tell us they are impressed by how much we have improved in a few days, I feel relief and pride in our achievements. It’s early days but we have put new knowledge into practice, been boosted and given confidence to continue learning the craft. What a week!

The weather has improved throughout our week, sun making the white walls sparkle. I’m up early, unwilling to miss a moment of my last morning. Fat bees buzz in the gorse, and a large hare lollops without haste down the hill. The horses are too busy grazing to bother with me. I breathe in the warmth, squinting out at the mountains, now a blue-purple haze. It feels like a piece of paradise and I don’t know how to leave.

The staff at Moniack Mhor are treasures. Nothing is too much for them. It seems as though they have thought of everything. There’s always a roaring fire in chilly weather, advice on hand, help when you need it. All delivered with warmth and generosity. Many thanks to Rachel, Heather, Angie, Rich, Laura, Jillian – and Nicky, who led us on a beautiful walk up above Loch Ness. Special mention also to the various dogs – Mac, Koko and the lovely Cashew.

And last but by no means least, a huge thank you to Stuart, Allan and Dave. I’ve gained so much from this week and I’m determined to get cracking and keep working on my writing. As for Moniack Mhor – I will be back just as soon as I can!

BFO Spring Tour….from Utrecht and onwards

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.

BFO Spring Tour 2019

It is not only only (as the Norwegian saying goes) to get a whole orchestra mobilised and transported on tour. But the routines are efficient and we made it to Paris. Paris in the Spring. And the weather has obliged magnificently.

We left a damp Bergen (nothing new there) and arrived to a balmy evening of 19 degrees. After some unscheduled extra circuits of the Gare du Nord area whilst our coach driver tried to decide which hotel was ours, it was time for a meal. A charming local bistro provided beaucoup d’ambience and large helpings. Gradually, the dust began to fall off my French.

Sunday brought out the sunglasses and eagerness to try out the new concert hall. La Seine Musicale, at only two years old, has the appearance of a squat metallic dumpling. Shining tiles wink out from its perch on an island. Barges slide past accompanied by flying ducks. On such a day it attracts families mingling with concertgoers. The interior is spacious and well-planned. Something we musicians appreciate. Nobody wants to climb too many stairs in heels and carrying an instrument. A logical layout saves time and precious energy. So far, Salzburg takes the prize for the longest walk from stage to dressing room. So far….

Entering an unfamiliar concert hall is an interesting moment. We “feel” the acoustic and stage. And marvel at the design – in this case, a lace effect design to the ceiling which draws the eye. And, pre-performance, a multi-coloured lighting design which drew the eye a little too much from reading the music. I grimaced at my stand partner, then resplendantly bathed in red. The acoustic proved to be good. The onstage temperature rose. But it was worth it. A sell-out audience received us with evident enthusiasm as we delivered a first half of Grieg. They were charmed by the soloist, Alice Sara Ott, who practically skipped over to the piano in bare feet and a flowing yellow creation. I’m guessing that, like some drivers, she prefers the immediacy of contact with the pedals. And there are no heels to trip over. I noticed several French women observing this with an “ooh la la!” expression. I assume the elegant French would feel incomplete without their chaussures. Our Brahms 1st symphony was intense and exciting to play. When you are seated with a colleague who breathes and makes music naturally in sync, who is flexible to every nuance, it inspires. My buddy, Bodil, admitted that she regularly experiences that moment mid-performance when the thought “I love my job!” flashes through her mind. Exactly the same for me. Ed Gardner conducted without a score , and I think that made us all feel even more connected. The audience reaction was such that we served up two encores, introduced nimbly by Ed in French.

A late afternoon concert allowed for an excursion into the Latin Quarter for dinner. More delicious, simple French offerings accompanied by a mellow Côte du Rhone. The timetabling of our concerts allowed for a free Monday in Paris. Time to charge our inner batteries again. The rest of the tour will have a tight schedule.

I located Café de Flore, haunt of writers past and present. Hopefully the atmosphere and inspiration would rub off on me a little as I savoured my coffee and tarte au citron. I observed the true Parisian waiters, with proud bearing and formidable efficiency. They graciously allowed me to speak French without a hint of disdain for my efforts. I was content to sit a while and watch people milling by. Men with a noticeable air of “je ne sais quoi ” about them, wearing their sharp tailoring and natty shoes with nonchalance and exuding spicy cologne. The women either ooze Chanel, with flashy jewellery and bags worth a fortune, or achieve that deliberately casual look that is equally expensive. Above all, they are comfortable with themselves – Paris is in their blood. I was last here nine years ago. I forgot just how beautiful this city is. Stunning architecture, particularly for me the Art Nouveau on doorways and balconies. Spring is well underway. Cherry blossom and wisteria garnish areas bursting with that vivid first green of the year. A bit more wandering and I felt the need for some cheese. I notice that people move with purpose here, sure-footed even whilst glued to their phones. Everyone is listening to music through ear buds. Tourist groups blunder heavily towards The Sights. I avoid the overly loud voices and take the path beside the Seine for several miles. Here all seems serene. Couples enjoy le picnic , complete with real wine glasses (this IS France), dangling legs over the edge. An eager spaniel (what spaniel is not eager?) rockets down the Batobus ramp to cavort in the water, emerging to shake water all over its laughing owner. Again, I watch conversations. The gesticulating, the true Gallic shrug, the expressive faces. I love the tones of this language, the music in each word. I meet up with Bodil for a drink and the waiters are boisterous, teasing with laughter in their eyes. The air smells warm and promising. We are in summer tops. The Parisians still shiver in coats and scarves. To us Northerners, the return of al fresco dining is a welcome delight. People whizz past on electric scooters. There is so much I want to see, but my feet say non. I walked off all the calories I consumed yesterday. Not for long. Four of us discover a bistro in the Bastille district with lashings of charm. And of cream. On top of our crêpes flambés . Ah well. When in Rome…..

Paris, you beguiled me all over again. I will return soon. In my next post…..concert number two, in Utrecht.

Of inspiration. And a fly…

I haven’t posted for a while – since Salzburg, we have had some hectic weeks and all-consuming programmes. Millions of new notes to learn or polish. But boy, has it been worth it! Rich musical experiences that demanded and received all my energy – and yet produced even more.

Working on Shostakovich Symphony number 10 with the young Finn, Klaus Mäkelä, was memorable. We knew within the first two minutes of rehearsal that here was something quite remarkable. Aged only 23, his presence and poise is that of a conductor with decades of experience. He enabled us – which is the mark of a great conductor. There is something about Finland which continues to produce a deep vein of talent in this profession. I have loved the music of Shostakovich since my teens, particularly once I began to learn the symphonies. I know number 10 well, but I saw it with fresh eyes through Mäkelä’s interpretation. Attention to detail was exacting and yet revealing, as new layers emerged thanks to correct balancing of voices. We were making chamber music. And it showed. I can honestly say I came offstage positively ready to go right back on and play it again. We eagerly await his return.

More Shostakovich a week later – the glorious violin concerto number 1 in the expert hands of Vadim Gluzman. And Copland Symphony number 3, conducted by Andrew Litton. What little Copland I know, I like very much, but this work was new to me. (I love that about my job – that I’m always getting to learn something new.) It was instantly recognisable as his voice – I always see vast American landscapes, maybe viewed from the back of a horse. And there’s usually a wistful trumpet in there, lonely and noble. Homesteaders, quilts flapping in the prairie wind, mountain trails. And a bit of a lively knees-up in the barn. It certainly kept us on our toes, with his signature rhythm patterns and passages which defy easy fingering. It also got rather loud, as Copland becomes enthusiastic with his drums and brass. This is the symphony that includes the famous Fanfare for the Common Man. It’s a goosebump moment.

The goosebumps were back in force last week. Ed Gardner was back with us, leading us through Schönberg’s Pelleas and Melisande. Learning this took most of my remaining brain cells, not least because the publishers (the focus of much gnashing of teeth in the practise room) had made such a poor job. The print proved challenging to read even when enlarged by our ever-obliging librarian, Johan. Was that a flat or a sharp? A rest or an unidentified blob? The only solution was to listen to and become as familiar with the music as possible in the short turnaround – certain parts had to be almost memorized. Again, a new work for me, but one I grew to love (just as well because we will be recording it in June). Plenty of juicy, if demanding, cello themes – and then all those flats/maybe sharps to fit inbetween. Not content with giving us that workout, the programming powers that be had also decided to drop in Don Juan, by Richard Strauss. As the saying here in Norway goes – “It’s not only only!” Meaning generally, easier said than done. Sure, it is repertoire for us, but demands a fresh look at those tricky passages every time. And Ed wanted, naturally, full power and energies, leaning over to encourage us as if extracting our very DNA. I delivered everything I had and then some. Exhausting for the body, but exhilarating. (Did I mention I LOVE my job?)

Then, my emotions got a workout, to say nothing of the goosebumps. Norway’s own Lise Davidsen joined us for Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. She is a truly astounding young soprano, for whom everything appears effortless. Best of all, for these songs, she also possesses a glorious depth to her voice. For me, the Songs are pure genius. If I ever get any choice in the matter, they are what I hope to hear as I leave this world. They are not religious – they are greater than that. Rather, a sublime serenity, a poignant viewing over the world in deep thankfulness. Strauss sets the words, poems by Hesse and Eichendorf, with perfection, mirroring every detail in his use of instrumentation and phrasing. You can hear two larks (piccolos and flute) soaring upwards, hear summer “smiling”. The “starry night” is created in a few notes of colour change and a cooler, brittle instrumentation. The vision of the unfettered soul – his treatment of the word “seele ” – wishing to soar up freely is given wings in the heart-wrenching violin solo. And then the poignancy of the final song, At Sunset, describing the tiredness at the end of life with acceptance: “how weary we are of wandering” – Strauss emphasises this word, “wandermüde”, in a slowing of pace, the darker tones of the voice. And the final words, the questioning tone in the voice – “Is this, perhaps, death?” – looking into the sunset. It’s true, these songs mean a great deal to me. I grew up on the Jessye Norman recording, then later discovered the version by Kiri Te Kanawa and Georg Solti, which has remained my favourite. But Lise Davidsen challenges that. I sat in on rehearsals and performances (a smaller ensemble was used). The hairs stood up. I cried, in deep gratitude that such beauty exists. How lucky I am. How lucky to be able to understand and take part in a world of such sounds.

The Songs were programmed right before our final work, Don Juan. Not easy to make that transition from so much emotion and come back onstage to produce musical fireworks again, but somehow we did it. We were joined this time by the Grieghallen fly. I don’t know if it is auditioning for a small part, but its enthusiasm was impressive. Don Juan sent it wild with delight, shooting past our heads to do a circuit of the violas before returning. As it was a sizeable fly, I was afraid it might blunder into my eye. At one point, it hitched a ride on my bow hand, to the visible amusement of my neighbour. It departed in a frenzy. I’m sure it will turn up again soon at a critical moment.

So yes… has been intense! Meanwhile, at last I can walk to work in daylight, a huge improvement. Could Spring be around the corner? And I have been working on other writing ideas. Of which more later ……

BFO in Salzburg………….third concert

Our departure time on Saturday morning will be a truly gruesome 0730 deadline, so for the last full day in Salzburg I opt for a slow and civilised start. Breakfast in the room helps me out the door by mid-morning feeling rested and ready to stretch my legs in the now familiar streets. Getting to know this city has been a particular pleasure. Everywhere I go, I’m met with outgoing, friendly people who are interested in talking to me. My German is now less rusty and I am given the space to practise it. The temperature has fallen again so my walking tour soon sends me in search of a café. Café Fürst is brimming with old-world charm, a mind-boggling selection of cakes – and history.

Paul Fürst created the famous Mozartkugel chocolate in 1890. His great great grandson now runs this café and confectioners. The shop also has a display of unusual tiles… I spend the rest of my free time finding some local specialities to take home and taking leave of my favourite corners of Salzburg so far.

Our rehearsal today is scheduled right before the concert so I head to the hall early. It is already buzzing with activity. Various bits of Brahms issue from backstage and dressing rooms. The admin team is in full flow, ironing out problems and addressing queries. They have around 100 musicians to look after. And keep firmly on course.

Maestro Mena is concise in our short rehearsal, revisiting any problem areas and clarifying others. Often with helpful comments like “Here, I need more CARiss!” We look at each other. More….what?? “CARiss!” It turns out that he requires us to CARESS the notes as we play, producing a tender sound. Bless. He may have his own unique take on English words, but we still love him. Over the years we have grown wise to his unusual phrases. We know that when he asks us to please birth here, he wants us to breathe. He admits the speed of our earlier Brahms performance was due to the “crazy conductor,” but we are not alarmed. Adrenaline does strange things.

Or…”Caution! Danger of slipping on fast notes…..”

After a further superlative performance by Håkan Hardenberger, we get to find out how the conductor adrenaline is behaving. It is a slightly different reading from our previous one, but that is refreshing. This, the last concert of our Salzburg residency, feels special. And the audience reacts. Once again, cheers and vigorous applause. The two Grieg encores make their appearance and this time the trolls are not merely marching – they are gallopping in March of the Trolls. Mena has a glint in his eye as we end with a flourish. It has been an enriching few days of music-making together.

We are all on a high as instruments and clothes are packed for the journey back home to Norway. The massive BFO truck is already purring outside – our crew will be loading almost the second we close the cases. My cello buddy, Bodil, and I slip around the corner to the musicians’ pub for a celebratory gin and tonic. It feels good to celebrate what we have achieved this week. Charming a Salzburg audience to such a degree is no mean feat and we are proud of the whole orchestra.

By the time we emerge into the sinking temperatures, the truck is locking up and ready to go. We watch and wave as it lumbers off on the first leg of its long journey – they will first drive overnight all the way up to Hamburg. It is an emotional moment watching them leave with the precious cargo on board and the distinctive logo of our orchestra along the side.

Crossing the bridge for the last time, we come upon a trolleybus stuck midway and two men attempting to push it. It has lost contact with the overhead power lines and needs to be moved nearer to them. Bodil and I offer to help. So two blonde cellists lend a bit of muscle and enthusiasm to the general effort – and it works! The men laugh, a little surprised and we walk on, laughing. We have our uses….

I’m sure most of us are barely conscious, leaving our hotel at 0730 the next morning. It is a cruel hour after a concert, but I’m also looking forward to getting home, being reunited with my cat, Max, and catching up with sleep (and washing.) On Monday, we begin Amadeus week – with fresh inspiration in our baggage. Thanks for the tour!

We not only move a lot of notes around … but also a trolleybus. No problem.

BFO in Salzburg………….Second concert

As the weather still holds, I decide to visit Hohensalzburg fortress, Central Europe’s largest preserved fortress dating from the eleventh century. It is an incredibly steep climb and my knees won’t thank me for it. So I hop on the funicular – similar to our own in Bergen – the oldest in Austria, built in 1892. Presumably the steel cables hauling us up the acute gradient are not the original ones… I’m relieved to escape at the top and am almost literally blown away by the magnificent panorama. All of Salzburg lies below, surrounded by spectacular snowy peaks. The wind is eye-watering and clearly it is only sensible to seek shelter in the café for coffee and strudel. It’s a good job we return home on Saturday – my willpower wilts under the culinary temptation.

As the day progresses, large parties of tourists spill onto the streets and I decide some rest before concert number two is a good move. I pass dogs the size of small ponies. Maybe tiny ones would just disappear into the snow? The dogs, like their owners, are very polite but I catch one shaggy hound eyeing me assessingly. And intently. I say hello. He keeps staring. I haven’t seen a single cat so far.

Darkness has fallen by the time I walk back towards the concert hall. It is six o’clock and suddenly all the bells begin to ring out, one after the other. The bells of the Dom and surrounding churches. Walking through gloomy passageways over cobblestones, I’m passed by someone in a flowing dark cloak and hat. I feel as though I may be in a scene from Amadeus. The opening of Mozart’s Requiem is running through my head. Somehow, despite the tourism and kitsch souvenirs, Mozart the man remains very present in every part of Salzburg – the cobbled streets, the old signs swinging gently overhead, the venerable old-style coffee houses and the river Salzach itself. I feel conscious of walking in his footsteps, seeing glimpses of what he saw; hearing bells, the clop of horse hooves, the Austrian dialect; smelling the coffee, chestnuts and wine. It is comforting to know that he existed and that he left us such musical treasures to experience.

My cello is patiently waiting for me backstage and of course, the dressing room trek is back on. I realise there are also dancers and singers at work somewhere in the bowels of this building. I’m followed on my walk by a baritone efficiently using the corridors to warm up his voice. Upstairs, our musicians are using every corner they can find to similarly warm up. The countdown begins. Sverre and Erlend are running the stage with Swiss efficiency. Chairs, stands, equipment need to be whipped on and off stage between works, depending on ensemble size. And both sides of the stage need to be readied for a precision entrance at seven thirty.

Håkan Hardenberger dazzles again, this time with a concerto by Haydn and Three Mob Pieces by H. K. Gruber. He makes the most of these hugely contrasting works and the delighted audience is rewarded once again with an encore. Mahler’s first symphony requires large forces, especially in the horns and trumpets. It is a work of many layers and infinite detail. Maestro Mena is in playful mood and keeps us on our toes reading his intentions. But that is the best, most giving way to make music and tonight our Mahler is magical, nuanced and glittering. The finale is most striking for the whole row of horn players rising to play standing. A triumphant sound that makes me feel proud and raises goosebumps. Mena raises the tempo in exhilaration and the audience erupts in cheers. I’m delighted to see their wholehearted appreciation – the musically refined Austrians are discerning critics, not given lightly to such displays. But tonight, we get a standing ovation – and my knees get a workout from repeatedly rising and sitting. Mena introduces our two Grieg encores with typical humour, merely indicating the composer’s name on his score to the audience and winking. There’s a murmur of pleasure from the whole audience as they recognise the opening bars of Morning Mood. We also serve up some Grieg trolls dancing into a frenzy and giving our valiant wind players a workout as Mena drives a punishing tempo.

The euphoria makes the corridor hike seem shorter and groups of us disperse into the evening chill, in search of some celebration. A sizeable portion of the orchestra ends up in the same Italian restaurant where we keep the waiters busy and toast a second successful performance. Time is flying – one more concert remains.

BFO in Salzburg…………Concert nr. 1

Salzburg has shaken off the snow clouds for now and basked under the sun. The temperature still requires the use of two scarves and two pairs of socks, but despite the stinging red face, I’m enjoying the reveal. Shortly after nine, the orchestra has begun to navigate the inner recesses of Haus für Mozart. The route to our dressing rooms takes us through an endless rabbit warren of a basement. We could be missing for days. It pays not to forget anything one needs on the journey.

Our soloist is the Swedish wizard of the trumpet, Håkan Hardenberger. His stamina is breathtaking – but luckily not literally for him. On our first programme is the concerto by Rolf Wallin, named “Fisher King” – a fiendish ask of any trumpeter, but this one takes it in his stride. It seems he is equally impressed with us. Contemporary composers tend to ask for multi-layered effects with exacting detail – and yet expect the accompaniment to be gossamer-fine in transparency. We must never swamp the solo voice. Taxing, but possible. The trick is to avoid getting carried away. Not too much fishing….

With Maestro Juanjo Mena

Maestro Mena is in good form, insisting on attention to detail but reminding us “I still love you all!” He hands over the baton for part of the first Brahms symphony to Nils Eirik, our assistant conductor. He travels with us and does a vital job of assessing balance and detail from the body of the hall. And he’s prepared to take over as needed. He is gaining experience and adding to his knowledge through working closely with our conductors. It is good to get the feel of the hall and iron out any remaining kinks in rehearsal. We have also been made welcome here – a small chocolate is left for each of us on the music stand.

The intense cold outside drives me back to Café Mozart where a Goulasch soup hits the spot and provides internal central heating. I wander a little further but decide a rest in the hotel room is a wise move. The adrenaline covers a lot at the time, but a full concert performance undoubtedly demands and extracts a considerable amount of energy. All is quiet next door – no practising. And I sleep. Much restored, I admire a pink and gold sunset on the walk back towards the old town. I believe a coffee is in order….

At the concert hall, I run into colleagues emerging bemused from the long hike along corridors to rescue their concert clothes. It’s not a trek I want to take more than twice. All the women are squished into two incredibly small rooms, so there is much jostling as we wobble on one leg and dive head first into evening gear. Backstage, violins occupy every spare chair, brass players warm up with a series of rude noises and reeds/strings/sticks are being checked. I find Gard Garshol checking his cymbals and I’m struck by the helpful reflected pool of light as I take his picture.

Gard Garshol

The hall is almost full and we are greeted with an enthusiasm that continues throughout the evening. Maestro Mena is so refreshed that the overture to The Flying Dutchman almost breaks land speed records. Or so it seems to us as our fingers indeed fly over the strings. I’m sure my eyes are wide and staring as I try to suck in all the information racing past. The Salzburgers are charmed by our glistening foreheads and superhuman efforts. We are but the warm up act for Håkan Hardenberger who puts his magical trumpets through their paces. As I tell him afterwards, his artistry almost makes me wish I played the trumpet. Almost. Wallin’s concerto is not the most easily digested work for an audience, but the reaction is such that an encore is demanded and delivered – an exquisite version of My Funny Valentine. You could hear the proverbial pin drop. The audience is totally on board. Our Brahms symphony turns into a lively, vibrant reading. I can feel hundreds of pairs of ears actively listening. Mena is in his element, creating and projecting his vision of the work. Always a pleasure to work with, he is unfailingly courteous, the perfect gentleman and a man of generosity and humility. I well remember one visit he made to Bergen when, come rehearsal break, he produced enough Spanish tortilla for the whole orchestra. He had made it himself at his hotel. A gesture we much appreciated.

The closing chords of the symphony bring cheers. It’s always a great feeling to stand and receive warm audience appreciation and look down at individual smiling faces. You make a connection from the stage and it is addictive. We serve up two Grieg encores from Peer Gynt and it seems that the applause will go on and on. Finally, the conductor leaves the stage arm in arm with the concert master. Now for the long walk back down all those corridors to change clothes. We find the traditional haunt of all musicians appearing at the hall – a cosy bar carved into the mountain rock. We are enjoying the well-earned post-concert glass when people from a nearby table approach. They have been in tonight’s audience, recognised us and want us to know how much they enjoyed our concert. It is fantastic to get such feedback and it warms us as we return to the hotel in a truly Siberian wind. A hot bath – the perfect end to the day.

Salzburg….Day Two

More snow has fallen overnight but the efficient Austrians have tidied it away and helpfully spread grit for a safe foothold. The cold is nipping my ears and the sky looks as though it isn’t convinced it is finished with snow. I’m wandering through the frankly quaint streets of the old town. Yes, it really does look like a postcard. A carriage drawn by two horses rounds the corner and I’m struck by how easily one could be back in Mozart’s time. A carillion of bells chimes out what I recognise as Papageno’s aria from The Magic Flute. Next week, BFO will be accompanying the movie “Amadeus.” Being in Mozart’s home town takes on extra significance. No coincidence then that I find myself enjoying coffee and strudel in Café Mozart. When in Rome….

It is housed in a building from the sixteenth century, with plush red upholstery and deep-silled windows. A group of nattily-dressed Austrian gents have gathered for their regular coffee hour. Other guests read newspapers on wooden frames, old style. Tradition remains deeply ingrained here.

Mozart, I note, had a distinctive nose … judging by the profile on the wall. That such a wealth of utterly sublime music bubbled out of this man is always remarkable to me. The poor soul has been martyred on the altar of tourism for sure – and yet, with just a little imagination, one can fancy he could appear around any corner. Visiting the house in which he was born, I try to feel that atmosphere, despite some overly-loud tourists seemingly impervious to the shadows of greatness imprinted within the template of this modest building. The ceilings are low, floors wooden and creaky. I’m moved by Mozart’s correspondence with his wife and the deep bond between them. They reveal a refreshingly human, earthy and delightfully humourous spirit. Nothing saintly about him, but a real, flawed man. Through which music flowed and blossomed. Nothing mystical or divine about it – simply a true genius, anchored within a man who embraced play on words and retained a curious naivete about much of daily life outside music. It is humbling to be here. Family portraits line the walls. I’m thinking Mozart took more after his mother in looks…. But you never know how honest portrait painters were. There is a note from father Leopold, bemoaning the fact that he himself has been made to look fatter than he actually is, especially considering the necessary position of the violin making his neck look thicker. The politics of portraiture throughout history tended toward the ” bigger equals powerful” theory – size zero would definitely signify weak and ineffectual – so possibly Leopold ought to have felt gratified by the artist’s efforts.

Re-entering the streets below, I feel the need for rest and relaxation back at the hotel – by no means assured when my closest neighbours opt for a practise session. It’s a delicate balance for a touring orchestra – when and how to balance rest and practise without driving everyone else mad. The day ends with a delightful Austrian meal in the company of colleagues, every mouthful worth savouring. I opt for the Salzburger Nockerl dessert, which arrives looking not unlike a triple-humped camel. Mercifully it is airy and melts in the mouth. The waiters have a keen sense of humour and banter happily as we switch between Norwegian, English and German. After a little more wine, we find we have settled on a happy blend of all three. A bracing walk back across the river deposits us back in the hotel at an unusually respectable hour. Rehearsal awaits us at ten in the morning. Concert day!

BFO….Residency in Salzburg

Bodil Erdal, Jane Odriozola and Astrid Birkeland (tour leader)

Row 4 on the flight to Salzburg has been dubbed “the Library” – all three of us there are happily engrossed in a book. Well, in my case, it is partly a necessary distraction technique when I fly. The sky is not Jane’s comfort zone. It has been a long day – in fact starting already the previous day with an intense rehearsal. Back home to pack, and a new rehearsal only hours later. Lots of repertoire to get through. The irrepressible and ever cheerful maestro Juanjo Mena is in charge of the baton. Most conductors employ word imagery to get their desired point across, an image designed to give us that lightbulb moment “Oh…YES…you want it played in THAT way…aha…” Mena is one of the more inventive exponents of this technique – curiously it frequently involves farm animals. Once, we were encouraged to deliver our pizzicato notes with the resonance and inevitability of a cow pat being dropped. I like to think we delivered. Today there was again mention of cows – this time in a field watching a train go past. “I love you all,” pronounces the maestro. The affection is mutual.

The end of rehearsal today looked a bit like the Haydn Farewell Symphony – no sooner was one group of instruments done than they were whipped away to be packed down and loaded onto our waiting truck. Humans meanwhile were absorbed onto coaches bound for the airport. Today’s plane is a Czech charter. I hazard a guess that the seating was designed for size zero models. The crew is polite and attentive however, and we gently chill in our various ways. For the Library row, a glass of something cold to accompany the books goes down well. A tentative peek out the window reveals the lights of Austrian habitation. We are travelling into the heart of a Europe currently battling heavy loads of snow. Our instrument truck has quite a mission this time. For the rest of us, some much needed rest tonight and tomorrow, as we prepare to present three concerts to the discerning Salzburg audience.