Keeping time


I’ve been quietly excited about going to watch three days of orchestral rehearsals at the Royal Northern College of Music. Every year RCNM invites trainee conductors from all over the world to join a three day masterclass. And, non-musicians can apply to observe… so I did.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect and no one tells you – I could have asked but I was too excited. One Friday afternoon, I headed to RNCM on the 86 bus after spending the morning in the allotment planting out lettuce. The bus veered off its usual route because of a race through the city – fortunately I realised in time and jumped off at the next stop.

I spent the next six hours in silence, watching rehearsals, firstly, of a small ensemble in a studio as ten conductors (nine men and one female) took turns to conduct Stravinsky’s ‘a Soldier’s tale’ under the instruction of Mark Heron. Followed the next day by an orchestral session, rehearsing Brahms, Symphony no. 2 and Beethoven’s Symphony no. 4.

On arrival, we huddled together and were each handed out a card to get into the studio and rehearsal spaces and of course, straying from the easy route out, at any opportunity, i wandered along corridors, past rehearsal room after rehearsal room, stopping and listening in occassionally.

I have been fascinated with orchestras for some time, in particular the relationship between the first violin and the conductor. I wrote a short script about it maybe four years ago. But it’s only now, with my fellowship, I have had the time to come back to this interest, to get an inside look and to pick up how people speak to one another, note down snippets of conversation, notice gestures and habits. My favourite moments are hearing the tuning of the orchestra right at the beginning.

I got to this point quite serendipitously, having developed the story, concept and public engagement for a musical memory game, Hookedonmusic. I am interested in mass collaboration – or I should say perplexed – at why humans don’t collaborate more, or why we get stuck in silos. But of course, we have practices through which we do collaborate – science, sports, orchestras. It dawned on me as I watched the orchestra that scientific teams don’t have a public audience observing them as they go about their business of rehearsing and doing science. It’s always behind closed doors, unless the artists find their way in. Maybe science and scientists would be differently attuned to public concerns if they were observed?

I’m at mum’s right now, in Copenhagen and I remembered to tell her about these conductor master classes. Of course she had her own story to tell – in 1965 she was working for a musical publisher in Copenhagen and went to watch the Royal Danish Orchestra rehearse Carl Nielsen’s 3rd Symphony ‘simphonia expansiva’, conducted by none other than Leonard Bernstein. After the rehearsal my mum went up and introduced herself and a friend, a cellist. She also told me about the time the London Symphony Orchestra, who engaged the Danish composer and conductor to conduct all Carl Nielsen’s symphonies in London. In the church of St. Giles in Cripplegate, Barbican, with the wooden ceiling – excellent as far as sound is concerned – but it just happened that a miners’ strike was on. So very often all electricity disappeared in the middle of rehearsals. This was during December 1973 and January 1974. Dr. Robert Simpson was musical advisor and Ingolf Gabold produced the recording. Incidentally Ingolf Gabold later on went on to work for Danish Radio’s drama department and he was the man behind “The Killing”.

After these breakfast stories, we listened to a recording of Expansiva before returning to Miles Davis. Off to visit my aunt now, to tell her all about my farming adventures.


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