Bach - Weihnachtsoratorium - San Sebastián & Luxembourg

Spain is a country I have visited only twice before. The more recent trip was to Úbeda with the Academy of Ancient Music in 2013. I performed as a soloist playing Handel’s Diana cacciatrice [HWV 79] with the soprano soloist Lucy Crowe. Before that I visited Spain for the first time with Le Concert Lorrain. We finished an extensive European tour in Burgos on the 21st of December 2010 with a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (Parts I - III and VI). On each of those occasions I spent fewer than 24 hours there, which is a real shame.

I was glad to be able to return to Spain with Le Concert Lorrain, eight years after I first went there (with them) again to play Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (Parts I - III and VI). It was to be another lamentably short visit to Spain, exacerbated by the fact that San Sebastián is so close to France that the rehearsals took place in Bordeaux (only 236km, or around three hours, away). I was happy to be able to return to play Christmas Oratorios with Le Concert Lorrain, we unfortunately missed the opportunity to join them last December because we were busy for one of the rehearsal days and the travel didn’t quite fit in with another project - so it was good to be back. (We last played with them in December 2016 in Luxembourg and Metz). This year, between Saturday 15th December 2018 and Monday 17th December 2018 we would be performing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in San Sebastián and again at the Philharmonie Luxembourg.

The trumpet section of Russell Gilmour, William Russell and Gareth Hoddinott flew from London Luton airport to Bordeaux airport on Saturday 15th December 2018. Upon arrival we took a taxi to Martillac on the outskirts and to the South of Bordeaux and ‘La Solitude’, a spiritual centre situated among vineyards, where would meet the rest of the ensemble who had already been rehearsing and residing there since the day before.

La Solitude, as the name suggests, was secluded and peaceful. It had a large garden with follies, religious focal points and water features, including a freshwater spring. Inside, despite the dated décor, there was good hospitality, it was warm, and there was a copious supply of wine from the surrounding vineyards. We joined the rehearsal in a small room that was already quite crowded and we played each of the Christmas Oratorio’s trumpet and choir numbers in order, with VIII, Großer Herr just before in the break. It was enjoyable and the music was clearly being well-played and sung - but it was a relentlessly difficult space in which to play. However, the group made the best of it before retiring for lunch; after which we left La Solitude in the direction of the Spanish border. We stayed in an out-of-town hotel to the West of Irun, a town near the border on the Spanish side of the dotted line. The whole group of us enjoyed a meal at the hotel and we spent time socialising with the orchestra, soloists, choir and conductor.

edge


After a leisurely morning we left Irun for San Sebastián, just 23km away. Having been confined to a plane, a taxi, the coach and a hotel and a rehearsal venue (both of which were very much off the beaten track), it was a relief to be in a city again - especially a coastal one. We arrived at the venue, the 1806-seat hall at the Kursaal Congress Centre and Auditorium which was designed by the Spanish architect Rafael Moneo and completed in 1999. The Kursaal is situated on the seafront, practically on the Gros beach, and it is at the mouth of the Urumea river which flows into the Cantabrian Sea of the Atlantic Ocean. I wondered how they got planning permission to build such a large building in such a prime location on that side of the main promenade and I later found out that it had replaced an older building, the Kurasaal Casino of 1921.

edge

San Sebastián was clearly a characterful place and we had some time to briefly explore the narrow streets and historic squares of the old town before the rehearsal began - we had a bite to eat in the main square, standing outside a place with small readymade open sandwiches adorning the bar, and miniature measures of beer. It reminded me of that famous sandwich bar called Trzesniewski in Vienna, where people drink pfiffs (literally 'whistles', usually 0.2 litres) of beer.

edge


The rehearsal in the Kursaal felt liberating and the acoustic felt perhaps overly-generous after the confined space of the rehearsal the previous day. It was great to be able to play in this large concert hall and the orchestra sounded as good from nearby as it did from far away. It was possible to ascend such a distance through the auditorium that you could hardly make out individuals from there. The final rehearsal felt good and we left in search of tapas… and tapas, we found! We had a convivial dinner of fresh, unpretentious and flavoursome food; being near the sea there was also plenty of seafood on offer. We stayed at the tapas place for so long that we witnessed at least one staff shift change and we casually grazed on excellent morsels of quintessentially Spanish fare. The billing and ordering was simple and we all really felt relaxed there. We had been looking forward to this since we arrived.

edge
Eventually we managed to drag ourselves away from the tapas bar and we walked back around the historic town centre and along the waterfront on the opposite side of the mouth of the river Urumea. Powerful waves were crashing into the huge granite stabits along the otherwise exposed shoreline and a considerable wind blew. Now well after sunset, looking across the river we could see the illuminated Kursaal but we were still a little too early to return and we still had some tapas to walk off. We crossed the river and walked along the beach, with the wind behind us. Every thirty seconds or so there would be a huge gust of wind, sending a temporary sandstorm around us - gladly we were walking away from it. The sand battered around our profiles - I felt smoother by the second. It wasn’t too unpleasant walking this way and the grains of sand formed a pattern ahead almost like the grain in wood during these short-lived sandstorm gusts. We walked back in the shelter of the formidable Kursaal building, now on the other side to the beach and we got changed ready for the performance, wondering whether Bach would have ever walked along a windswept Spanish beach before one of his performances. Probably not.

edge


The performance sounded fantastic in this voluminous hall. It felt more like hard work when it was full compared to when it had been empty of an audience, though it was wonderful to have so many in attendance. I really enjoyed listening to Joanne Lunn (soprano), Martha McLorinan (alto), James Gilchrist (tenor) and Peter Harvey (bass) perform their roles so fantastically. The conductor, Andrew Parrott, had rearranged the Dresdner Kammerchor, comprising 16 singers, into 4 sets of soprano, alto, tenor and bass (SATB), which blended the sound uniquely. He used the soloists as key choir members and reduced several of the B sections of the chorus movements to have just one voice per part (OVPP). This was very effective, and it made an already outstanding choir sound even better.

edge




Photograph © Dresdner Kammerchor


Andrew Parrott also had several excellent ideas with the trumpet numbers and I was very pleased that we both envisaged No.9 ‘Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein’ (at the end of the first cantata) as having a solid foundation in the third trumpet and timpani (played by Simon Stierle) with soft, heavenly, clarino sounds from the upper two trumpets. This works very well and I was glad I didn’t have to try to win anybody around to play it in this way.

edge





Photograph © Dresdner Kammerchor


By and large I was pleased with my performance but I felt a little underpowered and I felt underwhelmed with myself afterwards. I played all the notes and managed all the stylistic things; Großer Herr with Peter Harvey had been enjoyable too - it was all there, I just didn’t feel satisfied with my performance to my own esoteric (and I must admit, perfectionist) ideals. I was ready for a long sleep after two long travel days in the middle of a hectic month. As we took the coach back to Bordeaux I wasn’t in my usual post-concert celebratory mood, though hopefully I wasn’t curmudgeonly either, and I fell asleep on the bus for a short while (something I can hardly ever manage). We arrived at a hotel near Bordeaux airport and I basically collapsed into bed.

The flight to Luxembourg the next day was at a luxuriously civilised time (14:35) and so I had a good opportunity to catch up on sleep both overnight and again with a snooze after breakfast. From Luxembourg airport we took a coach to the Luxembourg Philharmonic hall (or to use its official name: the Grande-Duchesse Joséphine-Charlotte Concert Hall) on the Kirchberg plateau in Luxembourg City. The building was designed by architect Christian de Portzamparc and completed in 2005. This 1500-seat auditorium is a brilliant venue and boasts an excellent acoustic. I had fond memories of playing there two years ago with the same trumpet section, Le Concert Lorrain and the Dresdner Kammerchor.

edge


Luxembourg was much colder than San Sebastián; snow was piled up by the roadside but there hadn’t been fresh snow for a few days. After a short walk, I returned to the backstage area at the Philharmonie for a welcome soup and sandwich. It was spacious backstage and so I decided to find my own dressing room so that I could properly warm up by a radiator and so that I could play a few notes on the trumpet before starting the concert - without deafening everyone else in a small shared dressing room. I absolutely wanted to play a personal best after the feeling of letting myself down yesterday - not that I had really - I think I was just mentally tired.

The concert in Luxembourg was also very well attended and it felt (to me at least) so much more comfortable than yesterday’s performance. I felt like I was firing on all cylinders again and I think I played one of the best Christmas Oratorios I have ever done. I was particularly pleased with No.64 ‘Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen’ - I felt like I played with more nuance than ever before. I played the quiet sections more intimately than ever and I took risks I don’t normally take within the flashier sections, which came off well too. I was really enjoying it. The performance ended and Andrew Parrott gestured to the various featured players (several of whom had been playing with us in Vox Luminis recently - Jasu Moisio, oboe and Patrick Beuckels, flute) to take a bow, myself and the trumpet section included. He took a step backward to gesture to the singers of the fabulous Dresdner Kammerchor, in doing so he unexpectedly fell onto a slightly lower platform - only a foot or so lower - but enough for him to nearly lose his balance and for the applause to skip a beat. Thankfully he was unhurt and he stayed on his feet. Andrew and I got talking afterwards (we have known each other since c.2012) and he told a number of other anecdotes from earlier in his career.

edge

Photograph © Le Concert Lorrain

The three trumpet players, four soloists and conductor stayed in a hotel near Luxembourg airport that night and we had an enjoyable time socialising in the bar there - with lots of laughs. Will, Gareth and I stayed up until about 3am chatting about musicology with Andrew Parrott, who seemed legitimately very interested to speak to us and he made lots of thought-provoking points. I gave a talk in his Taverner Consort series of lectures ‘Taverner at 40’ in April 2013, and I attended the more recent one in April 2017. I urged him to consider hosting another as they had both been very enjoyable. As chance would have it, we ended up sitting next to one another on the plane home and we discussed, just before landing at Heathrow, the possibility of another symposium.

Le Concert Lorrain were to continue their work in December with a performance and recording sessions in Metz with the German baritone soloist Dietrich Henschel. I unfortunately had to turn down this engagement as I had a pre-existing engagement in the United Kingdom, but I wish them well with their next project and thank them for these wonderful concerts in Spain and Luxembourg.
Archive...