It’s been a couple of weeks for really seeing how the other half live. I am currently sitting in the guest conductor’s suite at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. Normally, I’d only get in a room like this if we were on a job and it’s where the production company had decided to put the curly Tesco’s sandwiches. In this case, I am in the Guest Conductor’s suite, which by the way is like a very posh flat, only with more pianos, because I am the Guest Conductor, and I get it all to myself. In this calm atmosphere, I can see how it would be extremely easy to fall into the trap of taking myself way way too seriously. I have my own sofa, TV, shower and bog, and a little printed sign on the door with my name on it, so I must therefore be better than everyone else. Beware the inner Diva! Being a modern complex, the Bridgewater Hall is full of well appointed backstage facilities- each soloist has a room like mine, and there are two dedicated warm-up rooms. Not only this, but no-one’s had to come in through the kitchens! Next door is the Resident Conductor’s suite, which I’d assume is the same as this, only with more washing and back numbers of “Conductor Monthly”. I mention this because “Guest Conductor” pretty much describes how I’ve felt about my employment over the last ten days. In fact “Gatecrashing Conductor” might be a little nearer the mark as I feel that I’ve had an incursion into a world in which the 14-year old lad who wanted to play Glenn Miller tunes in the school band had never intended to stray.
It’s been the Irving Berlin tour, folks. All up and down and around Britain surfing on a tsunami of inevitable curry and interrupted sleep playing the load of music which I’ve been tirelessly channelling from the raw artistic ether, or, churning out in the Shed since last October. Since Saturday, it’s really been a proper tour, with a bus and hotels and everything. It will all stop tomorrow, and I have a very real fear that I won’t know what to do with myself now that the Big Job is done. Once I’m back in The Gables, the only thing which will remain will be an enjoyable morning on the Barclays Bank website doing the payroll, and then the huge part of my brain which has been occupied with All Things Irving will be all empty and a bit strange, like a Sainsbury’s car park at 6pm on Christmas eve when all the frantic shoppers have finally driven off home, leaving the baleful solitary trolley to stand alone in the drizzle.
In the course of this batch of work, I experienced fear of an intensity comparable with that of standing in the queue at Downsway Infants in 1971 waiting for my measles jabs. Two weeks ago last Tuesday, we had the first performance of this work in the Festival Hall, and the powers that be had hired in a 33 piece string section to really launch things. This was therefore a really proper orchestra in a really proper venue. I’m used to getting through an evening queening around in front of a big band and considering myself to have done a good job if I’ve managed to get the bulk of the tempos right and not at any point said “Bum” or something down the microphone. Although on this job I had no announcing to do, and so I was immune from the threat of accidental rudery, I now had to direct every beat of the whole show, to a load of violinists who I didn’t know. There was absolutely no room for flannel. By ten minutes into the bandcall, I was sweating so hard that water was dripping from the insides of my glasses. By forty minutes into the bandcall, the sweating had abated a bit and I’d found that as long as I just concentrated on the score in front of me, I could just about get through it. A sort of tunnel vision had developed where it was just me and the score, and with that came a kind of tunnel hearing, which consisted of just the singers and the drums. As long as I waved my stick around in such a way so that Little Ed on drums played at the same speed as the turns were singing, we’d all survive.
The first half went fairly well. The Festival Hall was full of around 1400 of Stanmore’s finest, and the stick waving had gone efficiently well enough to keep Little Ed rhythmically attached to the turns. Knowing that any attack of smuggery would lead in some way or another to disaster, I fought the urge in the interval to say out loud that things were going well. I lost, and predictably halfway through a bloody great medley in the second half, I was so caught up in how beautiful the strings sounded that I dropped concentration on the Little Ed/Turns thing and within a matter of nanoseconds I’d waved the stick in such a way that the entire orchestra was confused and an outbreak of terminal disrhythmia was taking hold. As I was whirling in my personal hell, trying to regain control of the beat, I was saved by my lead violinist Charles who brought the string section in and saved the day. I’d very nearly left a famous West End lady singer on stage at the Festival Hall with no cue chord and no orchestra. I’m told one day I’ll be able to stop screaming in my sleep.
There’s nothing like a near-death experience to galvanise the will to live, and since then I’ve found it much easier to channel the concentration down the drums and voice audio-visual tunnel. I know I cannot take my eye of the ball at any point, and that a nourishing pint of pre-show Thruxton’s Old Flangehandler is right out of the question, but I think I’ve found a way to relax under the tension. It’s curious, but I actually find the act of waving a stick around under these circumstances brings on a nice state of relaxation post-gig. I really have to focus right on the moment, and it is quite unlike any other bandleading situation I have experienced, when a chap has to focus on the Bride, her Mum, what time the lad’s food is going to happen, whether the bridge of Dream A Little Dream is going to be in A or A-Flat, and virtually everything else apart from the now. With this, the now is everything and that concentration of mental energy brings a state of peace. Either that or it’s last night’s hangover wearing off. Touring can get a bit beery, you know. Especially when the canny hotel barman stays open all night.
However, I’m sure that arty-farty confessionals are not what you lot want to know about. What you want is buzzing showbiz gossip. Well, how about this for starters- Saturday night’s gig was at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, one of Scotland’s premier concert venues. I was sharing a large dressing room with the two boy singers, Matt Ford and Tom Langham. The concert had gone extremely well, and we’d received a standing ovation. Bouyed by all this glittering showbiz energy, I found Matt and Tom in there after the show having a discussion about coat hangers, and which were the best ones to nick off the clothes rail. As all good chaps, they settled on the one with the wooden frame and revolving metal hook. If that’s not rock and roll, I don’t know what is.
Manchester today, and tomorrow’s Birmingham, so that must be Tuesday. Another benefit of this production is that it’s all over and done with by 9.45, which has led to some quite protracted outbursts of beer. Tonight’s will be augmented by a trip to the local Jazz club, and maybe me and some of the chaps will join in the Jam session they’re having. After that, it’s off to Chinatown for a good old creaking Lazy Susan and sake in the small hours. I’ll let you know how we got on when the headache abates, probably on Friday.