Final Recitals

I have an enormous back-log of posts to write about recent gigs.  Safe to say I have been insanely busy!  But I think it is worth mentioning that this year’s 4th Year Undergraduate harpists – Alice Kirwan and Sarah Paterson – had their Final Recitals last week.  The harp department at RNCM is a lot like a little family, whose members support and encourage each other.  Even though I left last year I still enjoy socialising with the department – especially during ‘post-harp-class-drinks’.

I was – unfortunately – away playing for a wedding on the day of the actual Finals, although I was able to watch the dress rehearsals.  Both Sarah and Alice had to endure a string snapping either before or during the run-through – better it happens then than on the day… It is so refreshing to hear repertoire that I have either not heard for a while, or not heard at all!  I love hearing a Recital, because I feel like I can hear the hours of work that have gone into it.  It’s an expression of determination, hard work, and passion for the music and it’s the same with every Final Recital I watch.  Four years’ work lead up to one Recital.  It’s pretty daunting.  But we are so lucky as musicians that we can have our friends and family there at what is essentially an exam.  You don’t get maths or french students doing an exam with mum and dad cheering and clapping every time they finish a tricky essay question…

After the real Finals, we were all invited out for a meal at Pizza Express.  We had the whole basement floor of the restaurant – for the family and friends of two fourth years.  How brilliant is that?  Apart from being an amazing excuse for a party, it’s overwhelming when so many people turn up on the day to wish you well and to just be there in the audience.  

It pained me greatly to do, but I had to say no to the night out that followed the meal… I had to be in Liverpool the following day for another gig.  But that’s a tale for another post… 

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Scarborough Symphony Orchestra

Last Saturday I drove up to Scarborough to play with Scarborough Symphony Orchestra.  My dad was free that day and so was able to accompany me and make a day of it, which was lovely.

Upon arrival I found the gates of the car park were padlocked – I guess that’s the reward for arriving early and in plenty of time.  I managed to find the caretaker and asked him to unlock the gates for me.  Once inside I then had the task of finding some guys to help heave my harp up the stairs into the main part of the church (Methodist Hall, Queen Street).

I saw several other freelancers that I know from other Yorkshire gigs, not surprisingly they all knew my dad who has done a lot of conducting in and around York over the past 40 years.

The concert began with Brigg Fair by Delius – the same piece that I played the week before in Lincolnshire – coincidence??? yea, probably.  Although this year would have been his 150th birthday if my maths is correct.  It’s a lovely piece.

This was followed by Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Bass Tuba, played by Shaun Matthew – the conductor of the rest of the concert.  I’d never heard it before and tuba concertos (concerti?) are very rare.  It was as virtuosic as I’ve ever heard a tuba played and obviously showed great skill – what else would you expect from an ex-RNCM student?

After the interval was William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 2 entitled ‘Song of a New Race’.  It is believed that this concert was in fact the UK premier of this work, despite the fact that it was first performed in America all the way back in 1937.  I’d never even heard of the composer and yet it is argued by some that, while Gershwin was studying under Still, he allegedly pinched the melody of ‘I Got Rhythm’ from one of Still’s compositions.  Now that’s good gossip.

The Symphony itself was really enjoyable, well written in terms of the harp, and also fun to listen to.  Especially the upbeat third movement.

I can’t really describe the composer better than in the concert programme, so here I am quoting Frank James:

“He was a remarkable man, who achieved a whole series of ‘firsts’.  He was the first Afro-American to have a symphony performed by a major symphony orchestra, the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the States … as well as the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the ‘Deep South’ and the first to conduct an all-white radio orchestra in New York.  He was the first Afro-American to have an opera produced by a major company in the US, and the first to have an opera televised over a national network.  All this was back in the 40s and 50s, at a time when strict segregation was still the rule in the States…”

So I feel honoured to have played in the first UK performance of this piece, and I hope it will be the first of many.  There are recordings available on Naxos and it’s well worth a listen.  Trust me.

Market Rasen

Last weekend was unusual.  My gig was with Market Rasen Choral Society, over in Lincolnshire.  I had practised the music and was really comfortable with it, I knew parking would be no issue, I was staying overnight with a member of the choir who has a B&B and had already invited me out for an indian meal after the concert.  So there was really nothing to worry about.

This of course made me worry that something truly dreadful would happen.

But no, smooth sailing all the way, there wasn’t so much as a single step to move the harp up or down – perfect!  I also got paid on the night, hurray!!

The repertoire was Delius’ Brigg Fair (I actually drove through the village of Brigg to get to Market Rasen, such a beautiful part of the country) and Rowland Lee’s Requiem.  Rowland was present at the rehearsal and the concert, it’s always a bit nerve-racking when the composer is actually sitting there, score in hand, ready to point out what he’d like doing differently.  But actually, he was lovely and received a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of what turned out to be an unusually long concert.

But it was ok, there was curry to look forward to.  I sat opposite a very interesting man and we spent the evening chatting about where we went to school and things like that.  I didn’t realise it was Ian Hogg – a quick glance at his IMDb page shows that he has been in lots of TV and Shakespeare plays http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0389707/

After dinner it was time to go back to the B&B, which was about seven miles away.  It’s in the middle of the countryside and when you breathe in you can just tell immediately that you’re not in a big city any more.  And you can see the stars!  What a treat.  It was midnight when we got back and, as I was leaving first thing in the morning I decided my harp could sleep in the car.  Midge very kindly provided a nice thick duvet to tuck it in.  I found out later that Midge (Thomas) is a published author.  She wrote a recipe book of jams and preserves for the WI that has sold over 100,000 copies!

So that was that, lovely trip, lovely part of the country that I hadn’t been to before, met some great people, and got paid to do it!  Brilliant.

May is literally jam-packed with gigs (excuse the pun) so lots and lots of posts to come I’m sure!  Watch this space.

Escape

I’ve been thinking recently about the idea of escape.

Practice is, for me, often an escape.  I go running three times a week in the mornings to clear my head and yes, escape.  People do many different things, some may dance or draw, some go walking in the countryside, some do yoga, but a lot of the time they feel like it is an escape.  Obviously there are ways of escaping some people use that are not good for them, excessive drinking, drug abuse, or other destructive habits.  But maybe their reasoning is the same?  Maybe they want to escape to a place where current problems are no longer at the forefront of their minds.

If I’m upset about something, practice is a chance to – as my teacher says – leave all those little niggling things in your mind in a box by the door.  You can’t practice effectively while worrying about your bank balance, nor can you practice well while wondering what he or she meant when they said whatever they said.  It is a chance to focus the mind and it is a retreat from that voice in your head that tells you you’re inadequate (we all have that, right?)

Practising is like putting yourself in an entirely different mental state, a more creative state – whilst also being on the lookout for what can be improved, enhanced or changed for the better.  I never feel like I should be doing anything else while I’m practising, it’s when I’m doing other things that I feel I should be practising.  It’s nice to tell that voice to quiet down a bit, too.

Surroundings can matter a lot during practice – I’m not sure why – I cannot practice in a messy room, I just can’t, sorry.  The act of tidying the space around me somehow clears my head and makes me ready to sit down and work.  If I’m at the harp and all I can see is mess, it plays on my mind til I tidy it away anyway.  De-cluttering the space around me de-clutters my mind in a lot of ways.  Maybe that’s another escape?

I’m about to embark on week six of a fourteen week running plan with the aim of being able to run for an hour at the end of the plan.  I have an amazing app on my phone that tells me exactly when to run and when to walk, and I can listen to my music at the same time (usually cheesy upbeat dance music circa 2003).  It’s called 10K runner: couch to 10K in 14 weeks or something like that.  Definitely worth buying if you’re into that sort of thing, or indeed, you are looking to get into it.  I’ve been using it for five weeks and I love it, running three mornings a week is becoming a habit and one I intend to keep for a long time.

Anyway, I digress, running for me is a complete escape from normal life, at school I was fair to rubbish at sports, and was always near last at the dreaded cross-country races we had to do.  But now that I can set the pace and I’m not against anybody, I can just see it as a chance to stretch my legs and get out in the fresh air, I can feel myself getting fitter already and with each run it gets a bit easier to go just that little bit further.  It is a complete change in my routine – not that my usual days have much routine to them…

Maybe it’s not escape I’m after, I’m perfectly happy where I am right now, why would I want to escape?  I’m doing what I love for a living, I have my health and a lovely family and great friends.  Believe me I count my blessings every day.  Maybe it’s a change.  A change is as good as a rest, or so they say.  Changing what we’re doing refreshes the mind and invigorates us with new energy.  The last thing any of us need is to sink into indifference, lethargy and mediocrity.  Maybe the way to stay on top of things is to keep moving, keep doing new things and pushing ourselves to be the absolute best we can be, and to use our little escapes as stepping stones along the way…