Monday, June 29, 2009

Rain Stops Play


It was another steamy day in Garsington. I was looking after our conductor’s children for the afternoon and, along with the rest of the nation, we were waiting for the third game on Wimbledon’s centre court. Would we get to see the dour Scotsman under the new roof? we wondered as we watered the wilting flowerbeds of my B and B. I thought, with some sadness, that these two kids would never get to see Cliff Richard spontaneously entertaining the crowd, or hours of BBC footage of improvised head-gear when rain stopped play. It would be typical, just typical, wouldn’t it, we agreed, if he walked on court just as we had to walk in to the opera pit.

Murray, of course, walked on to a tennis court in South London at six; at exactly the moment I, in Oxfordshire, wove through the men’s chorus warming up (with the conductor's son) with a ball game and picnicking penguins squatting on blankets, and hauled my cello under the folded tarpaulin to add the squawk of my to the popping of champagne corks and the song of the blackbird in the gardens in preparation for Maestro Beethoven.


Our sixth performance was going well and I managed to forget my frustration at not seeing the match as we held the sublime sub-dominant chord for Leonora (the girl dressed as a boy employed as the prison turnkey in the hope of releasing her beloved Florestan) who sang like an angel about a rainbow.

In the break we rushed to the green room to see the score and witnessed Murray serving out the match. We shared leftover salads from tupperware containers, chatted for a bit about holidays, roses, children, motorways, and made coffee. And it was then that the rain came in fast moving sheets. Picnics were scooped up leaving flaked salmon and glasses littering the lawn, and out came the infamous English improvised headgear as we all rushed to the relative shelter of the opera tent. Florestan lay curled in his cell. We played our first pianissimo chord forte and the second fortissimo chord fortississimo to try and combat the sound of the rain. Fingers were damp, horsehair was limp, feet wet and bottoms cold. Peter Wedd belted his song noiselessly out into the sodden void: ‘Oh Gott…..’. Someone leaned over in to the pit and shouted. ‘You might as well stop playing we can’t hear a bloody thing.’ We continued, unwilling to cut the thread of this masterpiece and lost in our own submarine world of unheard mega decibels, until raindrops started plopping on seventeenth century varnish and putting our instruments at risk. There were hoots and cries from the punters above. There were gasps from the children. A clap of thunder sent a violinists’s son rushing for the safety of her knee and we had to stop. Then, just as we had fled to the only dry spot in the pit, the tarpaulin collapsed under the weight of the rain and a waterfall descended on the electrics at exactly the point where my colleagues and I had been sitting only moments before.

We waited. The audience waited. I think there may have been more improvised headgear and there were certainly some entertainers in the crowd. Eventually the cut-throat signal came from the manager. It was too dangerous to continue, he shouted above the sound of the pelting. We packed up and made our way to the Mole for an early pint leaving the debris of a half finished opera in the pit and an audience who had never even heard the hero sing.


Rain may no longer stop play at Wimbledon, but it can, and it did, stop play at Garsington, and that night two children were there to witness the thrill and the poetry of it.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ah, England...


Garsington days are spent walking through fields barley


Lying in fields, looking at the clouds


Chatting with and then eating Gloucester Old Spot pigs, and drowning the frustrations of Mr Martinu with a pint of 'hookie' in the best English pub I have found....


And yesterday a perfect dessert from a perfect English garden: Gooseberry and elderflower jelly with wild strawberries.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Smelling the Roses at Garsington


From the first note of the first rehearsal of Martinu's Mirandolina I knew this was a work in which there would be no time to stop and smell the roses that cascade over the Jacobean walls and around the lighting rigs at Garsington. It consists, for us in the pit at least, of zillions of breathless fragments strung together like a busy necklace. There are no arias, very few places of rest, and there is perhaps only half a tune. Which comes once. In every bar there is the chance to play a forte note in a piannissimo rest, misread a clef or an accidental, misinterpret a dot or a slur....Not one to be played with a hangover, D and I agreed, or without a nap and a warm up. This was one to be played in the zone.

The zone for me is a place where I am totally present in the current bar yet always reading at least six bars ahead; I am comfortably in the phrase we are playing and yet on my way to the next; I am without anxiety yet with an edge of anticipation, I have an empty mind, I can feel each whole gesture in my body before I make it, and I am counting each quaver whilst being calmly guided by the changing pulse. And, as if that is not enough: As number two cello I must be decisive and confident without in any way undermining or preempting my number one.

Aaaah....I wish. Last night's dress rehearsal, despite an early and relatively (one pint of hookie) sober night, a nap and an hour of sixths and thirds and slow practice, was the opposite. A mini nightmare of notes having run away from me before I could get a finger on them, eyes skimming the bar before rather than the ones ahead (was that a sharp or a natural?), escalating questions and judgements (damd this feeble light on the yellowing pages - am I going blind? can't count, can't shift, can't concentrate, letting C down every step of the way), still being in waltz mode when we are already in saltorello, missing entries and thus giving my leader absolutely zero confidence in me which doubles the pressure on her, putting zingy pizzicati where there should be silence.....aaaargh.

That's what dress rehearsals are for, right?


And then it's over. We exit into the fragrant dusk of poppy lights and illuminated alium heads and people champagned and picnicked and entertained who didn't notice a thing, who loved it....

garsington 5

...And it is then that I stop and smell a rose.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Four cherries in Garsington


Our Garsington cello section has, from the first day of rehearsal, been described as an orchestral version of Sex in the City – albeit a middle-aged one. We four women have played together for many years and share an enjoyment and appreciation not only of our similarities but also our differences. I love these girls. In fact I cherish them so much that Julian and I spent my two days at home picking cherries in an abandoned orchard and making cherry jam so I could show my appreciation on my return.


Oxford, June 2009.

A singer maps out the trajectory of a difficult scene on stage, operatic flourishes ride on the breeze from the Jacobean manor house, over the gardens and in under the flap of the tarpaulin that protects this opera house from the English June, and a blackbird practices for his imminent solo. It is an hour before the performance is due to start and Samantha is the only musician seated in the pit. Her antique watch is laid perilously at the back of her chair, a screen is in place to protect her ears from the screaming piccolo, and her iphone, switched to vibrate, touches her left buttock. She goes through the score slowly, breaking phrases down into exercises, playing with different finger groupings on the bow to retrain her lazy digits, trying to figure out why she is shortening and pulling up in her right hip, feeling her big toe alive in her right shoe, making her knuckles as supple as possible. She has failed (or has she refused?) to pack thermal underwear. She has no stockings and is décolletée. She is never going to get warm. And she is never going to learn. Charlotte arrives at the half hour call, wearing silk undergarments and black boots. She wraps a cashmere blanket around her waist, shares a thermos of tea with her lover in the violin section and warms her hands on the pink hot water bottle in her lap before commencing her elegant scales. At the quarter hour Miranda makes her way almost imperceptibly in to the pit, dodging tubas, cables and bows with her slim frame. She places a handkerchief sized bag under the chair, smoothes back her hair, plants her feet in their flat shoes firmly on the floor and starts to play very slowly on the C string. Her sound is rich and deep, full of tannin. All is calm. The orchestra pit fills up. The conductor arrives and tells us a cute story about his six year old son’s reaction to the dress rehearsal (‘Daddy does that mean Fidelio is gay? Daddy can I be gay? Daddy I want to be gay because when I grow up I want to marry a footballer’). We are about to tune. The red light is on. The conductor touches his baton. There is a rustle and a flurry and Carrie arrives. She is wearing a selection of furry items of clothing over her thermals and her insulated sports slacks, has a cello in a soft case flung over one arm and is carrying a pair of satin winkle picker shoes with diamantes across them. She sits down, kicks off her platformed sandals, shoves the dainty shoes on to her feet, hauls the cello out of its case, drops the case on to the floor, gives the instrument a quick tune, checks her blackberry for any mails that may have come in whilst she was crossing the formal gardens, turns it on to silent, and we are off. And we are one.

The cherry jam never made it past the Ryanair check in but when we get to the cello solo in the quartet our colours blend, our gestures are stilled into a single gesture and the vibrations we create rise up from the pit and make many weep. The sound is as sweet and plump and tasty as any confiture.


Meanwhile, in France, Julian has been practicing his clafoutis recipe. Here is is:

JULIAN'S CLAFOUTIS with Chauvet's Cherries.

Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Take a pound of un-stoned ripe black cherries (preferably straight from the tree:-)) and fill the base of a 12 inch non-stick flan tin in one layer . Whisk together (or put in a food processor) three eggs and three tablespoons of castor sugar (2oz) until smooth. Add a pinch of a salt and a drop of vanilla extract and a half pint of milk. Optionally a dob (tablespoon) of cream (creme fraiche) can be added at this point if you feel you need the calories. Whisk again and then incorporate 2oz/three tbs of flour and half tsp of baking powder. Whisk for 30 seconds. Pour enough batter into the flan tin so the cherries are still on the bottom and the tops are visible. Place in oven for 45 minutes. When colored and slightly risen, remove and dust with icing sugar. Ideally serve warm and it will keep for a day (not in our house).