Monday, 2 April 2012

A tour I will never forget

I did promise at the end of my last blog post that the next post I would write would be about pianists. I’m afraid that will have to wait as the last ten days have been so exciting and different and therefore worthy of an extra blog post! Settle down for a very long yet hopefully, riveting read..........

On March 10th the CBSO left Birmingham to embark on one of its longest tours for years. Seventeen days with 13 concerts all over Europe, with our Music Director, Andris Nelsons. For me, this tour would involve conducting off-stage in a performance of Tristan & Isolde in Paris and then playing violin for the remaining 12 shows.

Whilst on tour with the CBSO I am often asked to go out into a hall and check the balance of the orchestra for Andris. We also often swap these roles with me conducting and Andris going out into the hall and hearing things for himself. It is a role that I am comfortable with and thoroughly enjoy. It means I need to be familiar with all of the scores but not necessarily “note perfect”. For instance, Andris asked me in advance to conduct two specific bits of Tristan in the rehearsal so that he could go out into the stalls of the Theatre Champs Elysees and hear how the opera sounded. It gave me time to quickly study those passages before I helped out.

The performance went very well indeed. I ended conducting quite a long way away from the stage in a stair well out near the artists entrance!

The next time I was asked to help was in the famous Musikverein in Vienna. I listened in one rehearsal and then conducted bits of Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe in another rehearsal. I do at least have evidence that I have conducted, if only briefly, in the world’s most celebrated concert hall!

And so, as we neared the end of the tour, all seemed well. The audiences had received us well, concerts had been very well attended and the orchestra were in fine form, on and off the platform! And with three concerts to go we had reached Dortmund.

Having arrived, I went for lunch with my good friends of the lower brass. I then got a phone call from Andris asking me where we were all eating and I guided him to the restaurant. We chatted and all seemed fine - he had just bought some new clothes for his baby daughter, Adriana and seemed in fine spirits. I returned to the hotel to have a shower before the 18.45 - 19.15 rehearsal.

I left the hotel at 18.05 and my phone rang. The call was from Stephen Maddock, CEO of the CBSO. The thrust of the conversation was that little Adriana had been rushed to hospital and that Andris was going to fly home as soon as possible but probably tomorrow. Would I mind conducting the last two concerts of the tour? After mentally working out the repertoire and how much time I had to learn some of it, I agreed and then asked what was happening that night. At that stage Andris was still conducting that night in Dortmund!

By the time I had got to the hall, it had changed! Andris was now not going to conduct that night as he had to go immediately to Frankfurt in order to catch the earliest available flight home. I had 20 minutes to get my head around conducting the concert that night. As it happens, I had conducted two thirds of that nights programme before - both Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 and Sibelius Symphony No.2 were pieces I had conducted fairly recently. The only problem was the opener I had rehearsed Britten's Four Sea Interludes with the CBSO YO a few years before but never conducted them in concert.

Two minutes before the short seating rehearsal, I met with the soloist for the Beethoven, Rudolf Buchbinder. We had worked together before and in 30 seconds we discussed two places in the concerto and then he said that it would "all be fine"! I then rehearsed the CBSO for 30 minutes, mainly on the Britten but also in a couple of corners of the Sibelius. Then 45 minutes to relax and then it was concert time!

The problem was that I had so little time to get my head around the change of role! Firstly flicking through the scores and making a few discreet notes for yourself. Then trying to get as much water inside me as possible - I find I need much more water to cope with the added activity that conducting demands than when I am playing. Then just trying to keep focused while all around you people are flying about making sure that everyone knows what is going on. Both the CBSO management and the Dortmund concert staff couldn't have been more helpful and I thank them for keeping everything seemingly low-key and stress-free for me.

That night I experienced a level of support and collective will from the CBSO that I have never experienced with any other orchestra ever! They played superbly and with real panache, swagger and power. Rudolf Buchbinder was incredible and so supportive - always glancing up at me and smiling and coupled, as ever, with the most beautiful of touches at the piano you will ever wish to hear. The audience seemed to like it - a standing ovation! To top it all off, free beer for the orchestra afterwards from the Konzerthaus.

The following day was a 4 hour coach trip to Heidelberg. Often the conductor on a tour will travel between concerts in a limo but I have to say I was happier on the coach on this particular occasion, and here is the reason why.
The previous night had been a whirlwind that had happened so quickly that I had not got time to be nervous. Now I had 4 hours to sit and digest four scores I had never conducted before and some nerves were starting to appear! I wanted to be somewhere familiar, somewhere I could relax and divert my attention should I need to. The back of the bus was the ideal spot, with my friends around for company and not just sitting in a car on my own worrying myself stupid!

So what did I need to learn in those 4 hours? I didn't need to "learn" anything - I needed to see the scores for the following pieces, which I was due to conduct over the next two nights,

Wagner - Prelude & Liebestod from 'Tristan & Isolde'
Debussy - La Mer
Mahler - Kindertotenlieder
R.Strauss - 6 songs for Jonas Kaufmann and orchestra

I had played all of these pieces earlier in the tour and most of them many times over the last 20 years in the CBSO. The music was clear in my head. What can put you off however is never having seen them on paper and, more importantly, seeing someone else's markings on a score.

Andris, like myself, is a voracious marker of scores but his style differs from mine in so many ways. Conductors have many different ways of marking things in scores, almost to the point where you have your own "code"! This is the place where a conductor writes down his thoughts on balance, tempi, historical references etc. - and his scores are no different. The biggest difference was that they were all in Latvian! Conductors also have their own language of lines, squiggles and geometric shapes all of their own - what I had to do was try to decipher Andris's code whilst keeping my own thoughts on the music as clear as possible!

We had an hours rehearsal in the lovely hall in Heidelberg but this time I had to squeeze in two pieces I had never conducted before at all - the Wagner and Debussy. We also had to give the radio company a little of both the Britten and Beethoven for their balance engineer and, in such a tight hall, this was a necessity!

The orchestra again played superbly and Rudolf was the dictionary definition of cool again! Having listened to the broadcast (sadly I cannot find a link to it) the highlight was probably the Storm from the Sea Interludes which prompted a "Whoop" from one lady in the audience!

And finally, Baden-Baden. The same symphony (Sibelius 2) but the whole first half was taken up with Mahler and Strauss, sung by superstar tenor, Jonas Kaufmann. Frankly I was nervous about meeting him but he was such a lovely man and so helpful, singing during the one hour rehearsal and happy to help explain corners and tempi with me as much as I wanted. He arrived with messages of support from both Simon Halsey and Simon Rattle, who he had been working with the day before.

That concert will live with me forever. The CBSO played the Sibelius with extra zeal and vigour and again accompanied like stars. The concert however will be remembered for the actions of one particularly excitable member of the audience! After the first song of the Mahler, this particular music lover shouted to Kaufmann asking him to step forward so that the whole audience could see him. He was standing like this, (picture of the actual concert, courtesy of Badisches Tagblatt)

Jonas seemed visibly and rightly disturbed by this but chose to address the person concerned. The gist of what he said was, "Sorry you cannot see me but we need to stand like this so that the conductor and myself can see each other and the conductor can see the leader". This drew a justified round of applause from audience, orchestra and myself! How he then managed to sing the rest of the first half so beautifully after being disturbed like this is beyond me? It was sublime singing of the highest calibre.
I shall cherish his hug at the end of that half - it meant a lot to me as someone who had been quite nervous earlier in the day but by the concert had just decided it was better just to have a ball and make music with this great tenor as best I could.

Two more concerts back home followed, one in Manchester and one at home in Brum. I am still overwhelmed by the personal votes of confidence and best wishes from my colleagues during these concerts and also amazed at the level at which they played over these 5 concerts - just staggeringly good! But of course all of this pales into insignificance compared to the feelings we all have towards Andris, Kristine and little Adriana. All of us at the CBSO, as well as our loyal supporters, wish them all the best for a speedy recovery and look forward to seeing all three of you in Birmingham as soon as we can.

Next time, pianists!! It will be shorter next time, promise..........

Mike Seal


  1. I live in Australia and tried to get Spotify as advised on Intermezzo, however, it is not available in this country. Again, I was disappointed when trying to hear the concert via OE 1 last Sunday, as the line kept dropping out but I heard enough to want to hear the complete concert. Any chance of another broadcast or c.d.? I have followed the career of Jonas Kaufmann since his first c.d. and many c.d.s and d.v.ds later my esteem has only grown. To his many talents, one must also add his obvious personal charm, his gentlemanly behaviour and his attitude to life generally. Congrats to you and best wishes to Andris Nelsons & family.

    1. Dear Lossie,

      It seems that it is impossible to get a copy of the Kaufmann concert! Shame as I would love to have heard it again myself!
      I shall definitely pass on your regards to Andris when I see him again.
      Thanks for your lovely comments

      Mike Seal

  2. Fantastic, Michael. And some big programs to cope with on a few hours' notice. You're so blessed to have been playing them for donkeys years. I'm sure the band was behind you all the way and you came up trumps. Bravo! Such a reputation will definitely lead to bigger and bigger things - soon you'll have your own orchestra!