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Relaxing in Orkney

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Anthony Sayer Anthony Sayer | 22:24 UK time, Tuesday, 22 June 2010

"....must be nice for you to relax now that your main season has finished!" Don't believe it. 'Listen Here', our open weekend of four concerts, launched our 75th birthday season. Straight on to five programmes on the trot up here in Orkney, giving us nine completely different programmes back to back. More for some players: sundry extras like the Big Noise birthday concert in Stirling, the Merchant Sinfonia summer concert, chamber concerts and master classes in outlying islands, playing with the Hebrides Ensemble for their composer forum - some very busy players. Probably more music in a given time span than the orchestra has seen since the early sixties, when a six day week and three session days were the norm, all 'dry' studio work. But, not every player is in every piece at every concert - except Iain Crawford, he's squeezing in performances with Alastair Savage's trio for the West End Festival and the St Magnus Festival club - he should get the endurance medal. Don't ask about what's coming up for Edinburgh and the Proms after the hols. I'll be looking forward to a bit of peace and quiet when our main season starts up again......with Act 1 of Walkyrie. Mind you, some of us will have a chance to relax and wind down in the Glasgow half marathon the day after Mahler 8, the last gig of the summer silly season.

As the SSO's resident dinosaur I get interviewed about the orchestra, how it's changed, and my life in it (....dial-a-codger). What's it like to be still at it after so many years? Got me thinking. Radio interviewers want tiny sound-bites - one or two sentences max - I didn't manage to explain what really gives me a buzz, what keeps me fired up. I'll give some examples. 1) Our singalong Mozart Requiem got me going. A bunch of singers sign up, turn up, spend an hour and a half rehearsing, are joined by us for a bit more rehearsal, and then perform a sizeable chunk of the Mozart. The standard was amazing, given that there are no auditions or 'previous experience' requirements. Where's the buzz? The singers get to grips with the music, progress is immediately palpable - there's a group interdependency thing going on here - everybody's in it together, everybody matters, you're as important as the person beside you. Musical and human satisfaction. From my cello seat I feel that excitement sparking, fanned by the luxury of doing this with top class instrumentalists - this is live, visceral music making - the heart of the biz. And Mozart should take a wee bit of credit for his contribution.... 2) There are moments when the orchestra tosses its mane, pounds the ground, and bounds away. At several points in the Miraculous Mandarin some of the magic happened. Extremely difficult dramatic music, a profound and mysterious story - the whole group of us are hammering into it. What's happening here? How is it that we humans do this sort of thing? The individual skills, the group skills, the unanimity of it all, the shared emotion - it's so much more than the sum of the parts. There is something phenomenal here - stretching deep muscles of our humanity. I felt the same during the modern music concert on Saturday - a difficult programme of new compositions none of us had played before. In one piece we grappled with brain busting complex rhythms - the music felt like a ballet for pneumatic drills - we were hanging on for life, jumping back on track after the inevitable miss-hits, eyes popping out in the bad lighting, blaming the composer...... With a new piece it doesn't matter what you feel about the music, player or audience - the adventure is in the process - and the scintillation of being part of a team that can do this stuff. There was a taster of this adventure in our recent 'Play it Again' sessions. The motto for these was, 'If you can hold it, bring it' - and people did, some hardly knowing which end to hold. The aim was to create a musical 'event' based on a well known orchestral piece, and the warm up exercise was: choose any note (literally) then, all together as directed by the conductor, play stabbing chords, slow sustained chords, very loud, very soft, long crescendo, long diminuendo, etc etc. Suddenly something of this mysterious unanimity manifests itself - seeding inspiration. Is this the crystal spring of musical experience? It's addictive - and I'm addicted.

What's the DNA behind this addiction? Lord Martin Rees put his finger on it the other day, in one of his current Reith Lectures looking at the frontiers of science: "Problem solving motivates us all." There is something in the way that music presents problems for the body, mind, and the group. The process of building a performance, the process of discovering how to do things on my cello, opening awareness to problems, solving them, realising the power of the group to help (or hinder) - all this becomes more fascinating as I get older. It's powerfully addictive - it'll make a teenager practise for countless hours (and countless more), or make another teenager persist with the endlessly repetitive research needed to underpin discovery and advance. To get addicted to the real stuff you have to start taking it young - to experience those highs and lows, to experience the real emotions, and so be able to recognise the true thing later in life. The emotional and spiritual spin off from the mere music sometimes seems to be only the icing on the cake. But what nice icing!

Orkney is my favourite gig - I've done every SSO trip since the festival started. There's an unfussy culture here - relaxing - even if you're busy. The unique local weather system gathers you in to itself. From my digs in town I hear cattle, curlews, oystercatchers, even a skylark..... when the trumpeter stops practising Firebird. Stand still anywhere and the sea soaks into your consciousness - through views, smells, and glistening refracted light. Stand still anywhere and the deep past murmurs in your ear - summoning a strange numinous feeling in me........real people, long lost in oblivion, call from the ancient and beautiful archaeological sites, putting my miniscule life in perspective, beckoning me to return gratefully into their embrace when my time comes. Our jaunt here started with a 'Side by Side' concert - about eighty school kids playing alongside us. I wish we'd had something like that when I was at school. Next concert was with the Festival Chorus. They will have rehearsed hard and long for this - the sense of culmination and achievement is mixed into the addict's brew. This is a musical field trip - out where music grows. What's happening here? See what Abreu says. What struck me was how he identified the cardinal ill as the "feeling of being no-one" - not the lack of food or roof. I was struck by that - I'd just heard John Humphrys on 'Today' live from Athens interviewing musicians from the threatened symphony orchestra there, and he'd described an orchestra as a luxury. Is it? If it is, then why is it? If it is, then maybe it's lost its plot! What niggled me was how that casual phrase, used provocatively to trigger discussion, reinforced a widespread misconception about the importance of music for community. If it is only elite entertainment, then it has lost its way, and is a luxury. What part in this is played by the dickie-bowed elite?

Anyway, getting back to Orkney: day four, and couple of groups go off to the islands, leaving the rest us of behind in the hands of aspiring conductors - centre piece of an arduous conductors' course. Music at any level, from kindergarten, through school years, to local groups, and on into the profession, needs proficient and inspirational conductors - or it'll be dead in the water. How important is that? We should note: El Sistema in Venezuela is breeding herds of inspirational conductors, along with all its new orchestras. Oh, of course, I forgot to mention: we've two regular symphony concerts, including Nicola Benedetti playing Szymanovski no. 1 - that's worth the trip for itself.

Coming back to the Side by Side event, it highlighted one of the most interesting observations from auditions in Venezuela for its new National Youth Orchestra. Players came from all over the country to audition - some too young and inexperienced to be able to play the orchestral extracts solo at audition - but they were put in the section actually playing Mahler, and they quickly began to play those very passages that they could hardly read or play solo. In the end, many of these kids wouldn't be offered a place, but they'd take something invaluable back to their 'nucleos' in remote towns - new skills.....a bit more frustration, a bit more determination.... How did we learn before we had tick boxes?

You'll have realised that this is all getting me rather excited. So much more than providing musical wall paper, more than handing out cultural largesse from an ivory tower - all from some city down south - we're out getting our hands dirty in the growing fields of culture. This reminds me, my allotment will need urgent remedial action when I get back.

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