Orchestra of the 18th Century - Tour 123

I made my debut with the Orchestra of the 18th Century on 'Tour 123'. The tour began on the 23rd of November 2014 and finished on the 3rd of December 2014. It included performances in Rotterdam (Holland), Roeselare (Belgium), Dublin (Ireland), Belfast (Northern Ireland), Amsterdam (Holland) and The Hague (Holland).

It was a huge privilege to be asked to play with the Orchestra of the 18th Century for this tour.

Programme:

Kenneth Montgomery conductor
Finghin Collins piano
Rosanne van Sandwijk mezzo-soprano

Haydn Symphony No.99
Field Piano Concerto No.1
Mozart Aria Ch'io mi scordi di te K505
~ Interval ~
Händel Aria Scherza Infida
Händel Music for the Royal Fireworks

At first glance, the programme appears to be varied and perhaps, dare I say, slightly random. However, when experienced in situ - it makes complete sense. Of course, the first two pieces follow the well-known formula of a Symphony followed by a Concerto, and these two works additionally share a Celtic-influence (Scottish influences in the Haydn, and Irish influences from the Irish composer, John Field). Finghin Collins played John Field's Piano Concerto No.1 flawlessly and with excellent musicality. It was a lively piece with several catchy tunes and it was a pleasure to listen to.

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So far, so good. Heading towards the interval, the next piece - in an ingenious piece of programming - killed two birds with one stone. It provided the audience the chance to hear the pianist again - in a sort of end-of-first-half encore - while simultaneously introducing the soprano soloist, Rosanne van Sandwijk, of whom we would hear more in the second half. 

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Moving back half a century and down a quarter-tone to 415Hz, the remainder of the programme continued with a soprano aria. It was Händel's 'Aria Scherza Infida' from 'Ariodante' and it was incredibly moving. The music gives a sense of desolation and Rosanne van Sandwijk artfully portrayed the despair of the character, Ariodante. Her musical gestures were incredibly controlled and the interpretation was exceptionally refined. The accompaniment from the Orchestra of the 18th Century was subtle and sensitive. They played, as ever, with staggering control of rhetoric. The bassoons featured in the movement, contributing flowing and intense sustained sounds.

The immaculate timing and control of the soloist and the sympathetic accompaniment of the Orchestra - along with the quality of Handel's writing - seemed to make the audience struggle to be able to breathe normally, in every performance. There seemed to be a collective sigh every night after this piece, such was its gripping intensity.

I think it would be fair to say that Handel used and reused a formula (of his own creation) in many of his works. Many of his great oratorios and operas draw to a close with a deeply austere and reflective aria as the penultimate number. These would often be followed by a rousing and triumphant grand finale, often with the catchiest tunes and also likely to involve trumpets! The Orchestra of the 18th Century's decision to follow this formula in this programme was another ingenious idea. This imaginative programming gave a wonderful sense of coherence to the concert. The programme drew on an impressive range of the skills of the orchestra. It's not easy changing between 430Hz and 415Hz fluently. Some have to retune the same instrument and others have to pick up different ones - the Orchestra of the 18th Century did this seamlessly every time. They're accustomed to doing this. I've always found it takes me a few minutes to get used to playing in 430Hz after playing in 415Hz (and vice versa) - but as you might expect the Orchestra of the 18th Century have a few tactics for dealing with this, involving the placement of the breaks and a golden rule of only playing during breaks if it is in the pitch of what will follow the break.

They also, cunningly, rehearse in reverse concert order. That means that the stage and the instruments are all ready to go for the first piece of the concert at the end of the rehearsal. The music is on the stand, the instrument is at the right pitch and the chairs (if used) and stands are already in the right place. It's a simple idea - but it really pays dividends. They end rehearsals where they want to begin concerts. Often you're playing at your best by the end of a rehearsal. It makes the concert feel more like a continuation of the rehearsal to have as little change as possible between the two.

The finale was a rousing performance of Händel's Music for the Royal Fireworks. This is where my participation in the concert began. I was the 'bumper' trumpet player. I think the idea of 'bumping' only really exists in the brass playing world. It's when an additional player (there can sometimes be several players in a section) assists the other players by playing some sections - thereby giving the main players some time off, as necessary. 

In this programme, both the first and second trumpet players had a taxing programme as they were involved in the Haydn and the Field in the first half as well as the Fireworks Music in the second. Bearing in mind that the Fireworks Music was originally intended for three trumpet players per part (nine in total) - the workload is substantial for just three players. Covering a few corners can really help the other players in the section, especially on days where there might have been a full rehearsal before a concert.

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Being a bumper is a specialised skill - and a very different skill to the usual job of playing first trumpet. The task of bumping really depends on who you are bumping. I was fortunate enough to be playing with a fantastic trumpet section: David Staff, Jonathan Impett and Graham Nicholson - with Peppie Wiersma on Timpani. It was easy playing with these fantastic players and it was a real thrill for me to be involved.

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It is also quite something to play in a section with two trumpet makers: David Staff and Graham Nicholson. Graham was playing his (as yet undecorated) copy of a William Bull trumpet - fresh from the workshop, along with a copy of a mouthpiece from the same instrument. He played third trumpet without holes, and sounded fantastic. Jonathan Impett and David Staff were playing on instruments made by David Staff: copies of one of the J L Ehe III natural trumpets from Nürnberg. They also sounded incredible. Musically, they are a superb trumpet section and they have a wealth of knowledge and experience. Socially they are all great company - and there is never a dull moment!

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The horn section of Teunis van der Zwart, Stefan Blonk and Gijs Laceulle were fantastic too. They played really well together and I enjoyed listening to them.

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When I first heard the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century live, in August 2013, I wrote this:

"There is an amazing feeling about the ethos and the people in this orchestra. The family spirit of the group is admirable and the performers combine obvious skill and expertise with eccentricity, genius and charisma.” 

I have to say, that was my exact experience again. It’s a really friendly and warm orchestra to work with. The family feel was even more closely felt, as David Staff and I stayed with Graham Nicholson, at his spacious house in The Hague, while we were working in Holland. This was cheaper for the orchestra (and as they are a co-operative organisation, saving the orchestra money saves everybody money) and I preferred staying there to any hotel. Graham is a real character, and his cooking skills are fantastic. We had some really memorable meals, with Graham, Staffy and myself at work in the kitchen. Those two have considerable culinary skill and it is great to be around as they cook.

edgeOf course, staying in a hotel was a necessity while we were in Dublin. We stayed in The Camden Court Hotel - which was close to the National Concert Hall. The orchestra were a little unsure of what Ireland would be like - as they had never been on tour there. After the first bit of free time, the members of the orchestra went in their separate ways to explore the city. Everyone came back with positivity and remarked upon how fun they thought the city was! Also, people were pleased with the standard of the food they could find and I think they found the place to be rather charming. Of course, we all imbibed in the Guinness and that was a good topic of conversation. It was also the first time on this tour that everyone in the orchestra was in 'tour mode'. Because several members of the orchestra live in Holland - or are very accustomed to being there - they can go about their daily business and incorporate the orchestra into their day. Being in Ireland was a different matter to being in Holland. It was exciting - and now everyone was 'on tour'.

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On the 29th of November, Graham and I visited the National Museum of Ireland. We wanted to see their collections of ancient gold work and the old celtic brass instruments housed there. Staffy joined us later, after a masterclass with students from the Royal Irish Academy of Music. Visiting a museum full of metalwork with two craftsman who specialise in metalworking is a real insight. I took photographs of some of the objects and I attempted to photograph the details that they were discussing. They both have a great amount of respect for these craftwork traditions and it was a really peaceful and inspiring way to spend a morning. Several of the metal artefacts in the museum were over 2000 years old - some even older.

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The concert was excellent in Dublin. During the concert there was an amazing moment - the two soloists took a bow at the end of the first half, and they went to give each other a kiss on the cheek. In a moment of cross-cultural confusion (as to which side to kiss), they seemed to meet in the middle! At that moment, the audience skipped a beat in the applause - for a very short time - maybe just one beat - there was a silent moment! I have never heard anything like that dip in applause, it was an amazing sound!

The orchestra had formed a fantastic impression of Dublin on our brief visit. Next, we travelled to Belfast on Sunday 30th of November to perform in the Ulster Hall.  We arrived in Belfast later that day and checked into the hotel. The orchestra had time to explore a little before the rehearsal. Graham, Staffy and myself wandered around looking for somewhere to eat. Most places were closed, except for the Christmas Market - near the town hall.

We rehearsed in the Ulster Hall - it has a fantastic acoustic. There was a very high stage, the room was a shoe box shape with a balcony running around three sides of the auditorium. The wooden floor and sparse soft furnishings helped to make the acoustic excellent. There was a magnificent organ behind the orchestra. The orchestra sounded fantastic in the Ulster Hall. Sadly, the concert was not very well attended but the orchestra still put on a fantastic show, with just as much energy as ever. The Orchestra of the 18th Century had put up a prominent banner to show support for the Ulster Orchestra - which has recently been in the news due to the threat of its closure - due to funding issues.

Su 23 Rehearsal
Mo 24 Rehearsal
Tu 25 Rehearsal
We 26 Rotterdam De Doelen
Th 27 Roeselare Cultuurcentrum De Spil
Fr 28 Traveling 
Sa 29 Dublin National Concerthall
Su 30 Belfast Ulster Hall
Mo 01 Traveling 
Tu 02 Amsterdam Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ
We 03 Den Haag Dr. Anton Philipszaal

I had enjoyed rehearsing and performing in Amsterdam. It is a fantastic city. It is a vibrant and international place and the architecture, in particular, is stunning. Staffy passed on a great piece of advice that Frans Brüggen had given him. "Don't forget to look up." They were right. There were so many photographic opportunities. I also have a number of friends who live in or near Amsterdam, so I enjoyed having a reason to be there, and of course - the famous 'appeltaart' - apple pie. This had been another of Frans' recommendations, again passed on via Staffy. We went to a Café called 'Winkel 43' near the Noordemarkt in Amsterdam. The pie was excellent. I've never had such a well-made apple pie - the pastry was biscuity and the apples were not too sweet. It was an excellent recommendation - and it felt typically Dutch (which can sometimes be hard to find in Amsterdam). We also went to a couple of nice bars in Amsterdam. There was one called the Stork, near the Central Station and another called 'De Wildemann' - which had a wide-ranging specialist beer menu.

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I had been carrying a tripod with me on this tour, and I wanted to do some photography of the canals in Amsterdam at night and at sunset. I had never before experimented with using a tripod for longer exposure shots, so I learnt a lot in a short space of time. It is a very photogenic city.

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By the way, the Orchestra of the 18th Century must surely be one of the most self-documenting orchestras in existence. There are so many photographers in the orchestra! Sadly, I only have my photos of the tour, so I don't feature in many of the photos. I am looking forward to seeing the video of that tour that Albert Brüggen was making.

The final concert was on the 3rd of December in Den Haag - which felt very local to us. It was well attended and there were lots of students from the Conservatoire listening. Graham had invited several of his friends and we congregated afterwards to raise a glass. It was a great night - and it was lovely to end the tour in what felt like my second home city! (It's amazing how quickly you feel at home when you are on tour!)

edgeI woke early the next morning to leave Den Haag - At about 8:30 that morning, I left Graham Nicholson's house. I was heading towards Den Haag HS station, on my way to Schipol Airport. As I got towards the end of Graham's road (past the Green Parrots), a crazy old man started shouting to me from the front door of his house. I couldn't really tell what he was saying as he was on the other side of the street. I looked slightly puzzled. Seeing that I had basically been ignoring him, he left his front door wide open and started following me. I subtly quickened my pace. In a quintessentially Dutch move, he unchained and mounted his bicycle to try to catch up with me - he was still saying something I couldn't decipher. As he got closer I realised he had actually been saying 'Congratulations on the fantastic concert last night with the Orchestra of the 18th Century!'. He was delighted when my face lit up - when I realised that he wasn't a lunatic - in fact he made my day! It has been such a thrill to play with this world-class orchestra, and it is an honour and a privilege to work with such warm, friendly and amazing musicians.

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