19 December 2014
A day in the life
It’s raining. And dark. I’m on a distressingly crowded bus commuting into Vauxhall from a friend’s in Wandsworth. Less appreciated amongst the implications of reduced arts funding – understandably over-shadowed by general dismay at the reduction of total output – is the increasing reliance of arts organisations on drastic cost-cutting measures. This morning I’m travelling with AAM to Ghent in Brussels. We’ll board a Eurostar shortly after 8am to begin a day of travel, rehearsal and performance which won’t finish until nearly midnight, all to save the cost of one night in a hotel. Ah, the glamour of show-biz life!
Stepping off the bus at Vauxhall directly into a puddle (thoroughly soaking the sock on my left foot) I wonder why I asked to tag along on this jaunt in the first place…
The Eurostar departures area at St Pancras always has a certain bustle to it, even at odd hours of the day. Amongst the hub-bub however it’s still easy to spot the contingent from AAM. Our Chief Executive Ed Hossack and Concerts and Tours Manager Chloë Wennersten have been here since shortly before 7am handling special check-in for our larger instruments (double bass, timpani), handing out tickets and per diems and generally ensuring our complete touring cohort of over 50 makes the train. By 8am we’ve accounted for all but one (who, in the end, would miss the train and have to meet us later in Ghent) and it’s time to go through ourselves. After security there’s just time to grab coffee and a croissant before boarding. By quarter-to-nine we’re travelling at more than 100 miles an hour, the sock on my left foot is nearly dry and the allure of the road begins to set in.
We get caught in a downpour in transit between the Eurostar terminal and our awaiting coach in Brussels. By the time we arrive in the beautiful medieval city of Ghent the vast majority of our group is in the mood for little more than rest and a change of clothes. After a brisk refresh, I decide to go in search of local fare with Michael Soloman Williams, a tenor in the Choir of the AAM. Armed with a recommendation from the Guardian we set off, intrepid down a canal adjacent to our hotel. The restaurant is indeed a find: deserted, but warm, featuring a modest menu of uninspiring-sounding options (“chicken stew” and “stew” seem the best of the lot) which nevertheless prove rather enticing. With stomachs full (and socks well and truly dry) we head back to the hotel to rally the troops for rehearsal.
Chloë has gone ahead to set-up the stage and Ed has disappeared into meetings with some of the orchestra’s European agents, so it falls to me to manage the coach journey into de Bijloke. As we approach the site, the driver leans over and asks me where the Muziekcentrum is. I have been to de Bijloke once before but only vaguely remember it: a melancholy melange of crumbling, ancient buildings interspersed with modern art, steel-and-glass facades and artful reflecting pools doubling as drainage into the nearby canal. I panic. The bus stops. Musicians grumble and disembark. After some embarrassingly open flapping, the stage door to the hall is found and all is well again.
The main performance space at de Bijloke is a converted hospital ward which dates back some 800 years. It has been joined with a modern front of house comprising lobby, bar, restaurant and an extensive (and quite comfortable) suite of dressing rooms for artists. My logistical failure forgotten, I brew a swift cup of tea backstage before settling down with my camera to observe rehearsal.
The mood in the room is professional, but relaxed. Tonight will be the final performance of Messiah after opening at London’s Barbican Hall more than a week ago and subsequently touring Spain. Music Director Richard Egarr is mainly concerned with warming up the choir and giving all our soloists the opportunity to test the acoustics of the room (disturbingly dry onstage, but satisfyingly clear in the audience). As ever with Messiah, coordinating off-stage trumpet effects proves difficult, but once the right balance is achieved the choir and soloists are released and Richard and AAM leader Pavlo Beznosiuk attend to the overture. This is real hair-splitting stuff, but with a sold-out house for the evening’s concert it behoves all involved to pay close attention to this opening movement; after all, it will set the tone for the evening’s success or failure. Come 6.30pm the rehearsal has finished and the group scatters. Musicians all have pre-concert routines which vary wildly. Some leave de Bijloke in search of food, others stay in with provisions they’ve brought with them. Some sleep, others walk in the brisk night air along the canal. The full group won’t reassemble until moments before entering the stage for the evening’s entertainment.
The rest you know already. The orchestra excels, our soloists dazzle, and the choir offers a perfect balance of tenderness and power. The audience reaction at nearly 11.30pm speaks for itself – a standing ovation of nearly five minutes. By the time everything and everyone is collected from the venue and we’ve returned to our hotel it is already well past midnight. At 7am we will begin the journey back to London.
I pray it won’t be raining.