Life can be really strange. When I was a Londoner, and even when I moved away but within commuting distance of the Barbican, even though I was a regular at their concerts and got the Barbicancard discounts and everything, I never got as close or felt as close to the players as I did when they came visiting to India.
Perhaps it was the work schedule on the NHS (National Health Service) either as a hospital doctor in secondary care, or in GP-land in primary care, that would just about allow me to make it to the concerts on time, and then have to hurry back to catch the last train home,so it gave me little leeway for much else.
But here in Mumbai, I was able to watch the LSO up close, in rehearsal, for which I am really ever so grateful.
I got there a little early, and eventually found one of the violists in an aisle of the auditorium, playing through a segment of what was clearly the first movement of Dvořák’s ‘American’ string quartet. I struck up a quick conversation wit him, and he turned out to be the Sub-Principal, Malcolm Johnston.
The next thing I knew, a whole gaggle of school-children, aged perhaps 10-15 or so, and apparently not from the more well-off schools, had occupied the central aisle. I had been privy to a special concert by the Symphony Orchestra of India for a whole auditorium full (well, at least about 800 of them) of school-children, but then they had been from posher schools, so I was quite happy to see these kids for the LSO rehearsal. I watched them as they watched and listened to the rehearsal. It seemed quite obvious that this was the first time they were hearing any orchestra, let alone one as fine as the LSO, live.
The rehearsal began with more or less a run-through of all three movements of the Elgar cello concerto, with only a few halts to fine-tune details that I couldn’t really hear, even though I was seated fairly close.
I love everything about the Elgar: the beginning from nothing, the gradual build-up, the ‘rocking’ undulating them in the lower strings, the cello singing with more and more eloquence and the impassioned climb two whole octaves into the stratosphere before the tutti bursts forth. It transfixed me the first time I heard it, and it still has the same effect on me.
I also love in the third movement what I describe as the melodic ‘waves’ exchanged between the cello and the orchestra, somewhere about 2/3rds into the movement. I wish I could describe it better. Interestingly, the ending of the concerto needed some work, and the kids applauded every time they heard the end!
Harding seemed to have a difference of opinion with the timpanist, I think in the last movement. “Is that the latest research—playing semi-quavers instead of demisemiquavers?”, he asked. “I’ve always been told to play semiquavers”, replied the timpanist. I couldn’t catch the rest of the discussion after that.
The orchestral seating plan is interesting: the double basses are to the left of the audience on stage, behind the first violins; the cellos are dead centre, and the second violins are to the right , opposite the firsts.
It was interesting to watch the kids during the rehearsal. There was a rich kids with a cameraphone filming a portion of the rehearsal, and the other kids were quite distracted by her; whether it was her phone or her clothes, I’m not sure.
THE LSO then had a ‘surprise’ for the kids: the Star Wars theme. THE LSO have played the soundtrack of every single film in the Star Wars series, since it began in 1976. And Richard Holttum in the viola section is the only player in the current band who played the first soundtrack and every one since. And he’s retiring in 10 days, so this seemed an appropriate goodbye to him as well. It was also being rehearsed as an encore after the LSO’s second Mumbai concert.
The kids however didn’t bat an eyelid when Star Wars was mentioned. It was obvious that it didn’t ring a bell to most of them. Once the music began, though, they enjoyed it very much.
The kids left soon afterward, and the LSO then rehearsed Mahler 1 the Titan. The opening of the symphony resembles the opening of Beethoven’s Fourth very much, but only in the first few measures. It was interesting to watch how the cues to the off-stage trumpet were rehearsed. I’d always wondered about that. Today there’s CCTV, but how did they do it ‘in the old days’?
There was a farewell (if I heard right) to the Principal Second Violin Evgeny Grach, who’s been in the LSO for 17 years. There were speeches, with some hilarious recollections of Grach’s experiences in the orchestra, on tour, his witty rejoinders. We couldn’t catch all of it.
The concert of course went beautifully. I didn’t carry my notebook, and am writing this a few days later. The encore played was Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.