The flavour of language….

20181026_165018       I love language. It makes me endlessly curious. I like the feel of it on my tongue, the sound in my ears, even the sight of it written down. And yes, it even tastes different.

I have encountered quite a few by now. Norwegian is my second language. This has given me access to two other Scandinavian languages, related, but each with their own unique flavour. I’m intrigued by the differences I notice whilst viewing the crime series which are done so well here in Scandinavia.  Swedish tends to imprint on the ear an almost petulant tone with its rise and fall….something I often detect in Russian. Although there are similarities in vocabulary with Norwegian,  Swedes either pronounce them differently or introduce a set of completely new words. There are also sounds which are unique to Swedish. I remember my early days in the orchestra, green and knowing little Norwegian. Imagine my shock when the conductor of the week began taking the rehearsal in Swedish with a strong Finnish accent! I later learned to recognise this, but it was proof that Swedish was easily understood by Norwegians. And then there’s Danish….

Danish has been unkindly described as sounding like Norwegian spoken with a mouth full of hot potatoes. And it has to be said – sometimes it may sound rather as if someone just coughed when actually it was a question! It is less distinctly enunciated than the other two languages, the words full of glottal stops. It’s a popular joke to present the unwary with tongue twisters like “Fem flade flødeboller på et fladt flødebollerfad ” – (five flat cream buns on a flat cream bun plate). I know. But if you hear it in Danish, the tongue gymnastics are impressive. If you can get your mouth around that phrase, you are doing well! There’s definitely something charming and cosy about Danish to me … a sense of their famous hygge. Devotees of the series “The Bridge” get to experience interchanging Swedish and Danish, and can appreciate the beauty and differences in both. Thanks to my preference for crime series, I’ve reached the stage where an absence of Norwegian subtitles won’t prevent my understanding.

I learned French and German at school and understand both pretty well, thanks to my international colleagues and the very useful Netflix, which offers up films and series in so many languages. And here I’ve become aware of how much a given language colours and affects the pace of a film. After the constant barrage of sound – spoken and music – predominant in many current American films (there are many lovely exceptions, notably older movies like On Golden Pond), I find myself drawn to French productions. They really use silence as a language. They don’t feel the need to fill up every meaningful space with aural pollution. It is often left up to the viewer to join the dots – you have to engage and watch with active brain. The French consider the viewer astute enough to work it out. I love the sound and feel of French, the way it immediately alters your facial features. And in come those Gallic shrugs. The same person is altered, absorbed into a new persona, according to the language spoken. There are some amusing examples of this on YouTube, with people saying the same word in a host of different languages.

There are usually conversations going on in German at any given time in my workplace. Which helps me keep my ear in. I enjoy German most of all in a poetic sense, used sensitively in music. In opera or song, a composer has the added responsibility to set words in such a way that the full beauty of word and music is mirrored and revealed, enhancing each other. Richard Strauss achieves this in his Four Last Songs, settings of poems by Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a finer mesh of the German language and music. The soaring result is sublime.

20170703_231748       Yes….this was actually a leaflet I found in Italy. The “& gestures” amused me greatly. But it’s true that Italians use gesture much more than British or Scandinavian speakers. Sitting at an outdoor café in Lucca this summer, I was fascinated to observe people from a distance, unable to hear, but certainly getting a few descriptive clues from the gestures. They are a true extension of the voice. I can read and understand a good deal of Spanish and Italian, and it’s enough to get around with, although I’m not up to flowing conversation yet. In my early teens, I discovered opera. My preferred method of listening would be armed with the libretti. So my early knowledge of the Italian language was largely based around sighs, traitors, love, broken hearts, fine eyes…and the phrase, “are you crazy?!”  I watch films and series regularly in Spanish, with Norwegian subtitles to check my understanding when it goes too fast! I could listen to – and watch – Javier Bardem speak all day…. Maybe it is my musical ear that makes me particularly sensitive to the cadence of language.

A new language is like a code to be broken. Links to be found. Roots to uncover. In the far North of Norway live the Sami, traditionally nomadic, following their reindeer herds.  They have their own TV channels, proudly nurturing and maintaining the Sami language. I sometimes listen in. Sami has a softness around it that rolls from the mouth like mist. It sounds very much of the Earth, timeless and in tune with the vast landscapes. The softening of edges remains evident when they speak Norwegian,  much like that of Gaelic speakers when reverting to English.

A few years ago, I learned the Russian alphabet. Cyrillic is at first confusing, because a few common letters remain but are used in a totally different way. I must have absorbed more than I realised because I find I read signs or anything that pops up in Russian without thinking. My brain soaked up a fair amount of vocabulary whilst watching Russian news programmes. I picked up enough to register the interesting variations in interpretation of the same world news item compared to British or Norwegian news channels! A lot of thriller series I enjoy contain Russian characters and I get some fun out of recognising some of their spoken asides. It comes in handy when exploring other countries too. A stroll around Prague, for example, showed me that some Czech words were familiar even without the Cyrillic.

Threads are evident throughout Europe between certain language groups. The exceptions intrigue me. Hungarian has no such obvious links and I was reduced to guesswork. As in every country I visit, I made the effort to learn a few basic words but much of it remained beyond me. I noticed some evident and mystifying translations such as this one on a building. Sounds like something out of Harry Potter!

20171010_151036     I admire every effort to preserve a language or dialect. Every attempt to reach out and try a new language is similar to wine-tasting. How does it feel on the tongue? What does it make you feel? From here in the chilly North, Spanish and Italian conjure up those lazy summer evenings where ones fluency evolves with each refilled glass. Such language can be voluptuous, languid, rich with that Mediterranean mañana feeling. And then there are the arguments. Spanish at full speed is quite an experience. And in both Spanish and Italian, the creativity of insults cheerfully hurled out of the window whilst driving are impressive.

There simply isn’t enough time left on this Earth to discover and learn everything that interests me. But I’m certainly making the most of my Now. With a mind that darts around like a butterfly, I have no choice! I watched a series in Welsh, of all things. They are proving adept at those dark, Scandi thrillers. I was sufficiently intrigued to look up a few basic pronunciation rules. I’ve also taught myself a few words of Arabic which is after all an important world language, even more so here in Europe. Being able to recognise and respond to some basic phrases can only be valuable and shows respect. I fear yet another new alphabet and script will be beyond me though!

What I already have on my plate is the perfect brain health workout. Appropriately enough because, as a musician, one never stops learning. How colourful is our world! Music is a plethora of languages. And at the same time, one unique, common language which rises above borders, race, religion or politics. How amazing is that?! Music is heard. Music is felt. Whether or not you speak someone’s language.

Books are friends…

20180826_132513      As the days grow shorter and that annoying rain lashes at the windows, the urge to cosy up with a favourite book (or two) reasserts itself. And I’ve been taking a good look at the importance of books in my life. I was lucky in that I was encouraged by my parents to read from an early age. I was an only child, not gifted with making myself popular at school and already considered a bit weird by my classmates because music occupied a lot of my time. I was not up to date with their tastes in music or tv, so close friendships didn’t come along until much later. As I found I much preferred the worlds within my books, I wasn’t too bothered by this. I had, as some of my teachers were known to remark, a lot of imagination. I’m not sure they all meant that as a compliment. It’s interesting to realise, looking back, that certain books….and the teachers who introduced them to me…have lodged themselves firmly in my mind ever since. In a Perthshire primary class, Mr Gray began to read out loud Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, Kidnapped. His delivery was such that I hung onto his every word…..and even now I can quote from it. It was also in his class that I happened to win a prize for my recitation of a Robert Burns poem, in Scots. As the only “sassenach” in the class, this was ironic but nonetheless an honour I enjoyed. I began scribbling numerous stories.

Mrs Elizabeth Tweedie was a formidable woman with a twinkle in her eye. Bubbling with enthusiasm and vigour, she taught me English at Perth Academy and encouraged further my scribblings. She wrote on my final report that year “keep writing, Jane!” I never forgot those words of encouragement. And here I am, Mrs Tweedie….resolved to keep at it.

20180926_135535           I couldn’t wait to dive back into my latest book each day. They became my real friends and I felt a huge sense of loss as each one was finished and I had to resurface. An unforgettable moment that remains with me was when someone cleared out their book collection and I was given three bulging carrier bags of random books. And what treasures I found within! The complete Narnia Chronicles. This appeared to me like the world I had been waiting for. I re-read them throughout the years and they are very special to me. The Mouse and His Child made me cry, as did The Velveteen Rabbit. Written with such simple beauty. Ring of Bright Water was also in that bag of goodies. I don’t think I have ever cried so much over a book as that one….especially when I went to see the film, despite its inaccuracies. Black Beauty was a sure fire tearjerker to such an animal softie as myself. And I was entranced by Charlotte’s Web. I’m deeply grateful for the existence of these gems.

I like to think I already recognised the feisty female characters predominant in such classics as Jane Eyre and Ballet Shoes. And Anne of Green Gables felt like a bosom friend indeed. I already had in my bookcase What Katy Did and the two sequels. Of course they are somewhat dated now, but the message within is essentially valid. I much admired Jo March in Little Women. She was determined to forge her own path, doing what she knew she did best.

There’s something enticing to a child about any delicious food references in stories, and I was no exception. I was somewhat surprised in later life to discover the actual taste of goats milk and cheese, having fantasized about Heidi’s satisfying mountain meals! And one of the best descriptions of a picnic turned up in The Wind in The Willows. Ratty’s idea of the basic necessities to be enjoyed on a river outing were mouth watering. I loved these characters, especially the house proud Mole, in his cosy little home. I can still hear his rare outburst of irritation … “Onion sauce!”

The Little House on The Prairie series offered a window onto a family who really had very little, yet made the most of everything. I can still remember the vivid picture the author’s words created of Christmas and birthday treats of intense but much valued simplicity. Still a very valid reminder today. I devoured both my own and my father’s allotted quota of library books most weeks, and progressed to Dickens, which I initially found hard going. But what a world he painted! A Christmas Carol became a Christmas Eve tradition for me. I found horrible fascination in Scrooge closing his bed curtains and awaiting the ghost. And then I read David Copperfield. Laughing at the bizarre names and traits he gives many of the characters, although the grim background is never far away.

Further up the school, I remember the revelation of learning to read and analyse poetry and Shakespeare. There’s a special thrill in peeling off the layers and finding the depths of meaning often concealed within the language…..just like paintings. So many dimensions. I was fast discovering a thirst for the past and authors like Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer popped up in my reading pile. Any timeslip novels were eagerly consumed…I still love the idea of travelling back in time. If I spot an antique carved wardrobe, I get that tingle.

My reading tastes remain as wide as possible. I’m a great one for armchair travelling…..in the current era that is. Expeditions, biographies, romances, folklore and myth, history and comedy. I still dare not take a Bill Bryson out in public with me. The last time was on a train journey where I got some very funny looks because I kept giggling.

I think one of my greatest thrills (and current ambitions) would be to write a novel and see it in print. A new friend. I’d like to take this opportunity to give special mention to someone who has just published her latest crime novel…..Paula Williams. (Please see the link in my Menu). Murder Served Cold comes out officially next week but my copy arrived early and I read it in one day! That should tell you something about the quality of excitement within the covers! So bravo to Paula….great inspiration for me.

It has been a joy to list and remember all my favourite childhood books again. I will be working on replenishing my collection ready to be dipped into at will. Kindles really aren’t for me. The feel of the page, the smell of the book…and not relying on a battery. I nearly always have a book in my bag, along with my notebook, for those dead moments between recording sessions or to calm my nerves on a flight. And there’s one beside my pillow every night. Who can be lonely with so many worlds to enter at will? I believe that passing on my love of reading to any future grandchildren will be one of the best things about entering that next stage. Guiding, as the small face lights up with wonder as we open the door into the ultimate escapism …… there can be no better gift.

Autumn moods…

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Maybe it’s because I’m an autumn child, but I have an affinity with this time of year. The tree outside my window is still glistening with last night’s raindrops. And a lucky beam of sun is glowing through the thinning leaves, warming and intensifying the gold, rust and dull green colours. Here in Norway we call the season  høst (harvest). As language fascinates me, I note with interest that the Scots equivalent turns out to be hairst. Very similar.

It’s a time of transition. A time that speaks a welcome of all things cosy – new soft slippers to slip chilled toes into, brushed fleece bedsheets with soothing hot water bottles. And that enticing atmosphere indoors. Or the Scandi sense of hygge.  Finally the heating goes back on, the tea lights come out and thoughts turn to koselig (cosy) evenings whilst autumn storms growl at the windows. I get into a different interior colour palette. The greys of my sofa are softened with earthy nature tones. As we progress towards winter, rustic reds will join them.

20180926_135514 I find creating mood around me a great aid towards creating word pictures. I’m susceptible to colour and texture. And I’m quite capable of spending time in a knitting shop just admiring and stroking the myriad shades of softness. Sometimes this inspires a story or even just a descriptive phrase to be filed away in my notebook. Names of different yarns can evoke a mind picture which leads one off on a particular…er…thread of thought. The age-old stitch patterns such as Faroe, Fair Isle and indeed Norwegian fascinate me, already conjuring up images of the respective wild environments. And the history of camaraderie, community and companionship of women knitting together, originally in perhaps one of the very few social happenings in their daily lives. A chance to knit, catch up with the gossip and support each other through tough lives at the mercy of the elements.

On my walks, I sometimes view landscape through squinted eyes, where I get a better feel for the colours. Seen as a tapestry or material collage of shapes, hues and textures. The proximity of seven mountains surrounding Bergen makes for dog-walking heaven. I’m passed by two shaggy, sodden hounds wearing identical canine grins of satisfaction. On the end of their lead comes a sensibly rain-proofed and rosy owner, heading determinedly for that hot drink.

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There’s a certain pleasure in getting togged up in clothing layers and then shedding a few as you enter a café and embrace that fragrant mug. The ambience of this particular establishment is slightly marred by the arty-farty light fixtures hanging low enough to dunk me on the head whenever I take my seat. Style is not always practical. And oh the horror of discovering that the “scone with jam” I ordered to accompany my coffee arrives accompanied by a lurid, glowering pot of marmalade. Marmalade is not jam in my book. I have loathed it since childhood, consistent in that at least. Along with beetroot, Brussels sprouts and blackcurrant. No deviation or wavering. It’s an absolute. Sigh. No matter. The scone is warm and crumbly, having no need of more than a scant application of butter. Coffee and scone are consumed in contentment.

There’s a different smell to autumn. A musty, dying-leaf earthiness. A wind-whipping sharp edge as you inhale. The new awareness that summer clothes really can be packed away, to be longed for in the never-ending wait for the sun’s return. The harbour waters are lashed by sudden gusts, a tang in the nostrils, boats tugging moodily at their ropes. And then there’s the increasing impracticality of umbrellas. I probably have at least six, between home and work. They won’t live long. The current one is in its death throes. One spoke is already trailing like a broken wing as I struggle to master it. The mechanism spitefully jabs my finger as the whole thing blows inside out. Glorious final moments of umbrella defiance, at one with the wind. I drop it in the bin as I pass, where it joins a rainbow of similar corpses.

2015-10-11 14.05.29   Then a welcome burst of colour. Red Cat – a local – treading fastidiously amongst the matching leaves. Graciously granting me an audience. I pause to worship, which he accepts as his due. The russet and white fur rumbles with purr. I open the treat packet I have brought home for Max and present him with one. Max won’t mind. We part company, each satisfied by the moment. As the sun considers calling it a day, I head the last few metres along to the green door. Beyond which is Max and cosiness. A large mug of tea. And a good book.

The open eye…..

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I’ve had blogging in mind for some time now, but blame Jo Nesbø and his gripping crime novels for eating into my writing time. Distraction is delightfully everywhere. And I’m a willing participant. Pinning my mind back down again is a problem. Inspiration and food for that imagination is all around us – in everything, if we only open those eyes. I’d be tempted to add…. remember to look up. However, as you’ll no doubt remember, looking up in Bergen can earn you a rather wet face. Looking down as a result of this actually led to one of my more unusual pieces of inspiration.

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Whilst waiting to cross the road, and contemplating my sodden shoes, I spotted it. There on the pavement, plain and insistent on a slip of paper. “Du er ikke stygg.” Or – You are not ugly.

Wow, I thought. What a vote of confidence from the ground in front of me! I felt ridiculously cheered. And then it was off. My mind. Chasing the concept of more messages from inanimate objects around me. The same part of my mind that spent much of my childhood hoping to find a wardrobe which would grant me access to Narnia. Well….you never know.

This little interlude had the effect of heightening my senses for the remainder of the day – a reminder that inspiration is there for the taking. It takes practise, but you can get into the habit of observing life around you like an artist. Sizing it up and completing shapes. Adding colour palettes. Adjusting elements to suit the style of writing you prefer. I try to exercise these writer observation muscles even whilst apparently sitting in one of my favourite cafés.  A woman “parked” her dog right outside the window whilst she collected her caffeine. And I observed said dog for a few minutes, met his mellow gaze …  and wrote the equivalent of a thumbnail sketch of him. By which time his owner returned, the dog yawned and uncoiled his springiness into action, shaking his chocolate wool in careless elegance. They headed off up the mountain. My notebooks are filling up with characters, animals, scenes. And also feelings. It can be challenging to figure out how you convey exactly a certain emotion – it may feel clumsy at first. But if you have the presence of mind to whip out that trusty notebook whilst experiencing said emotion, a few key words can later transport you back to the accuracy of the moment.

Memory is unlocked by senses. I rounded a house corner recently and came upon a perfect tub planted up with pinks, a delightfully old-fashioned flower whose sweet scent transported me immediately back to my Scottish childhood when gardens were filled with rose bushes which actually had perfume, unlike many of the anaemic versions provided today. Of course, with my profession as a musician, my aural memory is often all too easily triggered. Sometimes my brain will obligingly produce a symphony for me to listen to all night. Every single page of the score. Not the ideal moment.

Before autumn … and the rain … settled in, I spent one of the last unusually mild days escaping the latest surge of tourists, enjoying my cappuccino seated in one of Bergen’s many exquisite backstreets. Here, the white painted wooden houses jostle for space, punctuated by quaint Narnia- type lamps and proudly enlivened with bright flowers flowing over tiny balconies. The sun reaches down between the buildings and finds my whiteness. Cobbles here require the kind of sensible footwear tourists may wish they had remembered to pack. And everyone is making wild guesses about the coming weather, judging by the frankly alarming assortment of gear people carry. The residents are barely bothering with a precautionary brolly.  My ears picked up bits of passing conversation which drifted in and out of earshot like a faulty radio. I remembered to look up. And considered the seagull, impassively occupying the lamp post. They are as big as cats, some of them, with startlingly human voices. They sound exactly like someone trying to imitate them, as they whine, complain and bicker amongst themselves. This one has legs which trigger another memory. When my daughter first began to draw, she would offer up pages covered with stick people. We dutifully queried the large  blobs drawn midway down the legs. “Those are knees of course!” came the slightly scornful answer that children manage so well in the face of adult ignorance. I laughed to myself whilst considering the similarities of seagull knees. Maybe a children’s story idea was hatching…..

On my way home, still with eyes determinedly open, lo and behold there appeared the second message of the day. A Post-it pink heart casually stuck to the wall of a house. “Vær grei,” it advised. “Be nice.”

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And finally…..Warsaw

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An orchestra on the move is sometimes an amusing sight. Herd mentality reigns. We follow the tour leader’s instructions, which on some occasions change as new information comes to light. The check in desk may have been altered. Like sheep, we switch direction. Someone amongst us starts. To the bewilderment of fellow passengers. “Baaaaaaaa!” Much giggling. Grabbing some food is a priority. It’s not certain when the next meal may be squeezed in. Sometimes the available time is better used taking a nap and shower. Restaurant opening times do not always fit well with our schedule. It can be an obvious shock as an entire hungry orchestra descends on one bistro post concert. So we graze throughout the day where we can. Just like sheep.

Apropos sheep, the tiny puffs of cloud outside the aircraft window look decidedly ovine. I generally try not to look out. Or down. The combination of flying and heights makes me anxious. And there are five flights on this tour. All the same, I notice with interest how the field patterns vary from country to country. Here in Poland, they resemble long thin strips, longer than in the Netherlands. Whilst those in the UK are different again and far less linear. The plane smacks unforgivingly down on the runway, only slightly behind schedule. Which is already tight. The herd is on the move again – the same process as before, only this time in Polish.

Warsaw is experiencing 29 degrees and high humidity, and the orchestra steams on the waiting buses. To be enveloped and coccooned within the cool embrace of our rather lovely hotel is a blessed relief. Two hours until departure for rehearsal. We have to use it wisely. I opt for a salad and pot of tea before a rejuvenating shower in a bathroom large enough for the whole after party. No time for sight-seeing. What we do see from the bus is the usual mix of communist type linear blocks alongside ornate, older buildings cheek by jowl with contemporary shapes. The Teatr Wielki displays glimpses of character and elegance. The word Ballet is spelled out on a wall in used pink ballet slippers, underlining the dual use of the building.

The stage itself has a noticeable “give” to it, ensuring that footsteps anywhere on it produce small shockwaves. As the audience space has less depth than previous halls, it should feel even more intimate. Tonight, we have replaced the “Flying Dutchman” overture with one written by Paderewski, as a compliment to our hosts. Paderewski himself was that unusual combination of politician, pianist and composer, and the work opens with a poignant melody from our solo cellist, Rudi. The audience clearly appreciates this gesture – they are eager and ready to welcome Leif Ove Andsnes onto the stage with the Britten piano concerto.

As I take my turn to be rotated off the concerto, due to smaller ensemble requirements, I stow the cello and tiptoe off the backstage area, shoes in hand. Time to gather the considerable energy needed for the last Sibelius symphony of this tour. And maybe locate a coffee. A couple of us pad down the red plush carpeted stairs to the main entrance foyer, a grand affair, resplendent with intricate marbled floors and fine glass chandeliers. I’m still in stockinged feet. The marble is cool after the heat of the day and my elegant concert heels are not designed for more than entering and exiting the stage. My nose alerts me to the location of the hissing coffee machine. One cappuccino later and I’m good to go. I’m following the progress of the concerto over the sound system and I head back towards my cello case, passing a woman waiting to present the customary soloist’s bouquet,  at present dangling casually from her fingers.

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Our crew are on alert, ready for their next stage set-up and piano removal. I tease them about their earpieces and resulting FBI style.

I can feel a renewed surge of energy from my colleagues as I adjust my seat and the pages. We have arrived at the final performance of this tour and everyone is pulling the stops out. Ed Gardner, the conductor, practically fizzes onto the stage and the symphony surges into motion. I’m very much in the moment, feeling the vibrations through my chair, as though I’m a segment of some mighty beast. The themes get passed around between sections and we anticipate and respond to each other. All too soon the wall of crescendo reaches its pinnacle and the audience roars. We have given of our very best tonight. Standing to receive the applause together with my colleagues, I’m elated, relieved, proud. The audience has no intention of letting us go and we continue the compliment with an arrangement of Grand Valse by Chopin. The audience wants more. Everywhere we go, we include encores by our home-grown composer, Grieg. The announcement is always greeted with an appreciative sigh. Tonight’s audience is no different. The string sections melt into a melody from Peer Gynt.

As the final applause subsides, we thank each other for another great tour and good work together. Instruments and equipment are packed carefully for the journey back to Norway. Teams of drivers will get our instruments home overland within two days. Clothes stowed into the wardrobe cases, we trickle out of the building and down the road to the reception, where drinks and celebratory speeches await us. The celebrating continues well into the night back at our hotel. It feels fantastic to have achieved so much over just a few hectic days. We clink glasses and appreciate the experience. The bar staff are immensely patient – no mean feat in the face of a euphoric, thirsty orchestra.

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It is a quieter orchestra come morning, gingerly stepping onto the buses, blinking in the strong sunlight. Our plane awaits, like an obedient pet – albeit at the furthest end of the airfield. Its bright colours look like the result of an enthusiastic child armed with school paint pots. By this time, everyone is eager to get home and catch up on some rest and regular meals. And I’m looking forward to being reunited with my faithful cat, Max. Serious tuna compensation will be expected from me.

The transition from 29 degrees and sun to 10 degrees and a downpour is brutal but not unexpected. And does nothing to dampen our enthusiasm as we touch down onto Bergen tarmac in the pilot’s best effort of the whole trip. Duly applauded. I’m happy to be safely on terra firma once again. Ahead of us lies our opening concert season of 2018/19 and millions of notes. But first …..a little bit of what Norwegians intriguingly call “slapping off.” Relaxation with a capital R.

From London to Hamburg….

 

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We are Proms concert 52 this year. Inspiring to be back here – another venerable and world famous hall. I came to hear concerts at the Royal Albert Hall long before I played onstage myself. The highlighted purple and orange lighting enhances the vast circular space. And lo and behold, there’s a fly here too. There is a unique atmosphere at the Proms and we are greeted with notable enthusiasm by the packed audience. For trumpeter Martin Winter, this is, incredibly, his fiftieth Proms – three of which have been with us. What an impressive achievement!

20180821_214953The circular backstage area takes some getting used to every time. We have to locate dressing rooms and instruments – and then the correct entrance to the stage. It is buzzing with activity. Wind players warming up with a series of rude noises, cellists perched on packing cases working on a tricky phrase. A piccolo plays brilliant scales in the dressing room. And the harp needs another new string. The charged atmosphere goes up a gear. Each musician has their own individual routine or list of “flights checks” that they run through before a performance. And we all have to fit in some food – not so much as to induce the need for a nap, but just enough to sustain the huge amounts of energy we will use up.

We are all different, with varying requirements and habits. Some find a quiet corner with a book or for some yoga moves. Others practise feverishly in corridors. And for some of us, the mission includes finding a good cup of coffee. Many of my colleagues are clicking away with their knitting as I emerge owl-like into the glowing afternoon to cast an eye over the handsome red and ornately decorated Royal Albert Hall. From the open windows of the Royal College of Music behind me warbles an ambitious soprano. I pop into the shop and buy this year’s Proms tote bag – eco friendly and a useful momento from yet another visit.

Travelling with us is our eminently capable stage crew. They are making super human efforts setting up the stage for nearly 100 musicians, whilst simultaneously carrying out often bizarre rescue missions. This time, the humidity had affected my cello endpin, which stubbornly refused to move. Sverre had the solution with a careful application of oil. They are on hand for every eventuality along with our administration staff, currently ensuring there’s a healthy selection of fruit available for breaks.

Immediately following on from the Proms, the tour proceeded onwards to Hamburg. The new Elbphilharmonie is the talk of the musical world and an invitation to perform here is prestigious. Towering next to the water’s edge, the concert hall itself is actually on the 12th floor. With excellent acoustics and audience seating designed for optimal viewing, the interior resembles a somewhat Gaudi-esque spaceship, with corresponding textured design throughout.

Our stage crew, together with conductor Ed Gardner, had taken a scheduled flight ahead of the main group. An emergency landing back at Heathrow ten minutes after take-off created the drama of the day. Smoke in the cabin ensured an escort of fire trucks on return, and the knock-on effect meant that they missed the whole stage set-up. Fortunately, Andreas, who drives the instrument truck, saved the day and did such a brilliant job that we noticed no difference. On any tour, a host of incidents like this may pop up – passports mislaid in instrument cases or items forgotten on buses. Creative solutions are usually found.

A new concert, a new audience. Will tonight’s programme touch a chord with them? Or will they be a little reserved? These thoughts run through my head as I tune up and register the adrenaline building once again. A hush falls and the magic begins. The brilliant Leif Ove  Andsnes joins us at this stage of the tour and he has as usual captivated the audience with his vision of the Britten piano concerto. They are totally on board. In fact, by the end of Sibelius’ 2nd symphony, the cheers are rewarded with not one but two encores. We are finally released from the stage in a thirsty euphoria. Early reviews in from the London performance are glowing and encouraging. Backstage bristles with instrument packing, clothes changing, remembering belongings and returning keycards. The temperature is perfect for an al fresco drink. We sit back on that happy feeling of a job well done. My colleague slaps at a cheeky mosquito. For once, they haven’t noticed me.

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BFO on tour…..Amsterdam

20180819_163326     Our outdoor concerts maintained the umbrella tradition.  But what a welcome, multi-coloured sea of umbrellas it was – a brave sea!  The truly biblical rainfall continued right up until two hours before our departure for Amsterdam. Noah would do well here. I’m pretty sure IKEA supplies flat-packed Arks….

        A slightly soggy orchestra met up at Bergen Airport. The majority of our instruments had already begun their journey overland the previous evening in our rather handsome truck. I do enjoy the camaraderie that is particular to a tour, the chance to visit new places and check out some incredible concert halls across Europe. We are taking what we do best out into the world, as ambassadors for BFO, for Bergen and Norway. And we are proud to do so. In these financially challenged days where the arts can be considered by some to be a luxury, our efforts and success are more vital than ever. We have to show that what we do matters. And so far, judging by the response from our previous tours, we have done so.

It is hard to adequately convey that feeling of stepping out on stage, the prep and highly-charged atmosphere backstage – and the absolute electricity when it all meshes and a piece of magic is created. Being a musician means a constant striving to stay at the top of your game. It isn’t just there at the touch of a button – there are hours of individual practising, involving frustration, disillusionment, blisters, tired lips or aching shoulders – plus endless supplies of patience and quite a few pencils. But I cannot imagine not playing the cello.

That moment onstage, one person in the midst of many, with one common goal. You actually hear the intensity of audience concentration and participation like a force field. I focus on individual faces as we await the conductor. The lights then dim out the audience and we are literally in the spotlight, everything in sharp relief – luckily also the notes on the music. Pulse rate notches up a little. This is now. The moment you are mentally reviewing your prep and hoping you have solved every musical problem the composer may have thrown at you. Especially the one on page 15. When adrenaline kicks in things can happen. The sensible part of Jane’s brain steps in here to announce in yoga tones that yes, I do know what I’m doing, I can do this – let go and enjoy! Back home in the orchestra canteen, our much-loved Kari tells us we are like athletes, and that it is her responsibility to nurture us as we prepare for concerts, supplying endless vats of delicious and fortifying soups. She literally keeps our engines running.

It is always a pleasure to visit Amsterdam and perform at the Concertgebouw. Built in 1886, it is one of the greatest concert halls of the world. This time, our guest soloist was the amazing James Ehnes, whose fingers flew across the violin strings faster even than the resident fly. Said fly was clearly having its big “moment” and got very excited during the first half on stage. It even hitched a ride on a cellists hand for a few bars. Was it actually attracted by the music? Or rather by nearly a hundred musicians, gently sweating under the hot lights…. ?

Every concert hall has its own particular acoustic. And each variation has to be adjusted to. As a musician, your ears are literally almost flapping to catch the nuances. You may be sitting next to section colleagues but can actually hear someone behind you more clearly. We rehearse in an empty hall. And, come evening, it is packed with audience – rows of sound-absorbing bodies. But we must, by definition, be flexible. That’s a huge element of our work, not often fully understood by others.

Our symphony on the Amsterdam programme was the 5th by Sibelius. His imagery is deeply evocative – in this case one theme was inspired by seeing a flock of swans take flight over the lake at his Finnish home. And at this point, it always gets me. No matter how many times I have played it. The music becomes triumphant and a vast landscape as the horns soar like the swans. And I get goosebumps. Even writing about it. I can’t stop my smile breaking out. It is a supreme moment of composition…….that moment where once again I find myself thinking YES. Yes, THIS is what I’m meant to do.

The “high” is addictive. I look around at our orchestra spread out across this venerable  stage. And hear the roar of applause like a rainstorm. I am so proud of what we are achieving. I am happy. And I have the best job in the world.

The resident fly meanwhile has buzzed off to await us backstage. We pack away the instruments and settle into celebratory post-concert downtime. Onwards. To London. And the Proms.

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There’s no such thing as bad weather…

I may have mentioned that it rains in Bergen. A lot. An average of 239 days per year, according to some sources. Rain is practically an art form here. It takes itself seriously. Illustrated perfectly by the many umbrella corpses sticking out of waste bins around the city. The ones that didn’t make it. Few umbrellas survive intact for long. Neither is it worth spending too much energy hunting for the perfect rain gear. This rain is going to find a way in. Up a sleeve, down a neck or – when it appears to rain horizontally – straight into your face. In winter this counts as a free dermabrasion.

There’s a saying: there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. To get wet is a part of life here – so why not embrace it? Invite it into your life.  Show a little love. Celebrate with bright spotted wellies. Time to get in touch with your inner amphibian. Umbrellas become part of the decor here, hung en masse to provide a colourful canopy above a local restaurant in summer, or used as a kind of street art. The expression “it’s raining buckets” is used, but also, intriguingly, “det regner trollkjerringer” (it rains troll hags). Faintly disturbing. Then there’s the onomatopaeic rain that splashes down – “det plasker ned.” The landlady of a B and B where I was staying in Scotland was telling me of her day spent gardening in the rain – ” Oh but it wasn’t WET rain,” she charmingly protested. Bergen rain, on the contrary, is definitely the wet kind.

As this soggy climate has become my home, I have worked on finding the positive side to it. Bergensers (including this honorary one) are adept at making things “koselig” or cosy. Like the “hygge” made famous by the Danes. Norwegians just kept quiet about it. Simple candles transform an overcast or stormy breakfast, before splashing off to work and school. And we have an endless selection of cafés in which to take shelter and gently steam. Each with their own character and speciality. Unlike that speedy espresso consumed standing up that is so typical in Italy, I prefer the measured calm in my favourite haunts. There’s a reverence in the way my order is processed. The cup handled with precision, the frothy cappuccino delivered with pride. I occupy a window seat and savour. I also notice that the tourists are a particularly hardy bunch. Despite a particularly vehement deluge, a long group glides past on a Segway tour, apparently all enveloped in bin liners. I salute their determination from the depths of my coffee heaven.

Music can be enjoyed in any weather. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, or BFO, presents free outdoor concerts every August. Come rain or shine. Generally, it rains. It’s a kind of tradition. And then there’s the wind. For which we are issued clothes pegs, valiantly trying to control flapping music pages. At least usually the stage roof doesn’t leak. I once played open air opera in Trinidad. Bats swooped in at awkward moments, and a unique problem was caused by the oversized insects which decided our music was the perfect place to bask under the hot stand lights. There was much comical slashing with bows between notes to move them off that tricky section at bar 125. During a sudden torrent of rain, the timpani made an unscheduled entrance. An umbrella was hastily provided.

We will not be fighting off moths the size of dinner plates in Bergen – I hope. But we will be providing two rousing performances, hopefully to a sea of umbrellas. Every year, I’m impressed by the enthusiasm of our audiences out there, filling the plaza with a rainbow of wet weather gear. Musicians feed on such enthusiasm. It’s a two-way thing between us and the audience. And it’s addictive.

I’ve included in my Menu links to both BFO and our regular livestreams, Bergen Phil Live – which means we can be enjoyed even if you can’t visit us here in Bergen. We are currently preparing for another tour, including an appearance at the Proms. Meanwhile, for anyone in Bergen – come along to hear us this week on Thursday and Friday. Better bring that umbrella too!

Off the rails…..

20171009_090232.jpgSeeing as we finally got some rain back in Norway, I hunted out my rainproof bag. You have to be a resident of Bergen to fully appreciate the irony of the first part of that sentence. But I digress…

Red Bag and I took an inaugural trip together last October. Predominantly intended as an indirect  journey by rail from Copenhagen to Budapest. Trains tend to be writer friendly and, for someone like me, less stressful than flying. Besides, you get to see more than just clouds.

As I boarded the first of the three trains, I heard a distinct sigh. It could have been me. But Red Bag looked deflated. Easy enough to look like that when only half full. Into my head appeared the name Brian. Brian then took on a personality all of his own. (I had been working pretty full on up until then. Bear with me.) He seemed less than impressed by First Class.

“You can’t put me down here under the seat. I’ll suffo-CATE! And it’s thirty.”

It’s what?

“Thirty!”

Oh. Dirty. For some reason, Brian had acquired an Irish accent. In the end, he slumped on the table, looking as smug as a bag could manage.

The highlight of the Danish leg of my journey was the Vogelfluglinie or “bird flight line”, the crossing from Rødby to Puttgarden on the German mainland. As the name implies, this is also an important bird migration route between Central Europe and the far North. Yes, I remained on the train. And the train, amazingly, drove straight onto the ferry. With not much more than an inch to spare. That was certainly a first….crossing water in a train which is also on a boat. Even Brian had stopped muttering.

The ICE connection between Hamburg and Munich appeared overbooked, which provided entertainment in the form of increasingly hysterical announcements from the train conductor. It was an impressive display of verbal hand-wringing. My ear was clearly getting used to German again. Brian was reduced to sulking in a corner of the luggage rack. A certain territorial air hung over the limited table space, so I balanced my notebook on one knee.

The next morning, I was ready for one of the highlights of my trip. The Austrian Railjet service from Munich to Budapest. I had been assured that this was one of the finest rail experiences in Europe. It did not disappoint. I upgraded to Business and was instantly coccooned in a hushed, plush interior. A reclining leather seat with legrests, one of only three such seats in this compartment. No complaints from Brian either.  And waitress service straight to my seat! This was Something Else.

Predictably, the train oozed out of the station precisely on time, smooth and practically silent. As we passed into Austria, I celebrated the fact with a piece of Linzertorte. When in Rome…. Austrian countryside charmed me with its onion-domed churches and rich farmland. The cows looked faintly smug. As we shifted tracks, the train gasped out a hoarse sigh, sounding exactly like “whyyyYYYYYY???” This occupied the amusement centre of my brain for longer than it should.

Hungarian is a language that eludes me, but I didn’t need to read the signs to realise we were crossing the border. The landscape changed …. a curious mix of monotonous wasteland and a vast forest of wind turbines, more than I have seen even in Denmark or the Netherlands. The tracks became less smooth. More sighing from the train and a grunt from Brian. A glass of Hungarian wine went down well at this point. Research purposes.

From arrival at the impressive Keleti station, Budapest is definitely somewhere worth several visits. I found the atmosphere intriguing, a heady contrast of pitiless soviet-type structures and a glorious abundance of grand old buildings, decorated with unusual patterns and rich hues. The mild temperatures and vivid autumn leaves made a perfect frame for the cityscape.

Of course my visit had to include some serious coffeeing,  as I call it – visits to soak up the atmosphere, savour the beans and observe the locals. I picked out the Centrál Kávéház, a traditional café much frequented through the years by most of the Hungarian writers of note. Quite a history. My favourite kind of place. I hoped to absorb inspiration by osmosis. Well…..I absorbed plenty of caffeine. But there definitely was a special something about the place. Needless to say, I made several café explorations during my few days in Budapest. It was, literally, a taster. I will be back.

Having made such a leisurely journey by train, I had to opt to fly home. Brian, whose Budapest experience had been largely limited to a hotel room, perked up. He was clearly raring to face the rain we had been promised was awaiting us back home. To be labelled “rainproof” is probably the pinnacle of success for a bag in Bergen, where the rain makes it a mission to get through all defences. I was still thinking about the smooth Railjet as we lurched down through the rainclouds. From down beside my feet came another sigh and a plaintive voice.

“Are we there yet??”

Of notebooks…

20180628_202006.jpgInspiration really is everywhere if you learn to be open to it. Through my subscription to Writers’ Forum, I came across the Ideas Store feature written by Paula Williams, and later, her blog. Check out https://www.paulawilliamswriter.wordpress.com

Hopefully this will appear in my links below. This inspired me to strengthen my observation technique and to see ideas in the smallest and most unlikely detail. Apropos detail, I never go anywhere without a notebook, however tiny. Of course I initially went into overdrive and spent precious writing time admiring and coveting notebooks. Thankfully, sense prevailed and I settled for three for two bargains. It is healthy to train yourself to observe in detail. Kind of daily brain workout. As if mine doesn’t get enough, chasing elusive fast notes in orchestra!

It took effort at first to pull my brain away from the customary post rehearsal fog, but after a while, I noticed that I became aware of everything around me in stereo. Snippets of conversation…in a variety of languages. The different styles of walking. Habits. Sensations. Of course, the caffeine also helped.

On my travels this summer, I had ample opportunity to indulge this habit further.  And I came across one description amongst the pages which took me right back to the glorious hills South of Naples, and a villa perched high above the sea.

“Evening, high up on a Neapolitan hillside, watching the sun subside over the sea and a distant Vesuvius.  I’m glad of the cool moisture running down the side of my glass. The heat is intense for a resident of the Scandinavian North. I’m also aware that the local mosquitos have provided a welcoming committee and are already feasting away on my ankles. This terrace is perfect for relaxing, and I take my cue from the resident cats who are decoratively sprawled under tables or in plant pots.  They’ve seen it all before. But I haven’t. The views, coupled with the nearby scent of jasmine, are almost too perfect to photograph. I could stare at that sea all evening. The dedication of the bugs sends me eventually to the shelter of my room.

After sampling as much of the homemade breakfast as I can fit in, I’m off to explore. The track from the back gate rambles ruggedly upwards and along towards a crumbly church, its bell sternly summoning the faithful to mass. On my way, I startle several basking lizards…..all of whom I christen Larry….and an elderly woman, expertly picking plums and peaches. We greet each other. Trees reveal heavy loads of pears, lemons and mandarins. From the road far below comes the waspish buzz of vespas, nearby a dog is barking its territorial warning….and all around me is a glorious chorus of clearly operatic Italian birds. Two young men on bikes hurtle past me on the narrow path, teeth flashing as one shouts the warning of my presence to the other behind. A tiny three-wheeled car rattles determinedly into view. I round the side doors of the church, which has shrubs growing out of the walls. Onwards past Italian grandmothers, adopting the sensible plod of hot countries, under the weight of early morning groceries. More greetings. I read the notices posted up on the wall, thanks given for sympathy shown at a recent bereavement. I find it best to keep close in to the buildings as I round the street bends. The fact that nearly every car proudly possesses several dents bears witness to the no holds barred style of driving. My nose tells me I’m approaching the fishmonger’s shop…..a vivid array of startled looking and often grotesque fishy heads. Now my nose is searching, once again, for my second delicious coffee of the day.”

An excerpt of what I wrote that day, in 35 degrees of heat! And so I have not only the photographs to remind me of the place, but also words. Maybe they will find themselves included in a short story one of these days…….