…So, after a nice, comfortable, though largely sleepless night’s journey from Dubai to Washington, Jen and I transferred, not entirely seamlessly (it took two hours to get from one plane, through security, find our luggage and re-check it, then go through further security) to Raleigh, North Carolina arriving, luggage-less at around lunch-time.
Not knowing whether our luggage would turn up in time for the concert I had a quick shower, a spot of lunch, and went off in search of an emergency replacement dress. I was directed by the hotel’s concierge to a boutique a couple of blocks away entitled Fine Feathers – I highly recommend that, if you ever find yourself in this neck of the woods, you pop in and meet the very friendly and knowledgable staff there. I must admit I was hesitant at first, as for a minute or two all I could see looked as if it had come direct from Alexis Colby’s wardrobe. Within moments, though, I explained my situation to the assistant, and she rushed off to find me a stunning black two-piece gown. I almost hoped that my luggage WOULDN’T arrive, so that I could buy it anyway.
Long story short: the luggage arrived in time. I bought the dress.
The following day (I believe it was a Wednesday, but don’t hold me to it), the choir, orchestra and soloists gathered in the Memorial Hall to rehearse our one concert there, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. It was a good-sized room; I was told many artists perform here as a warm-up to performing at Carnegie Hall (where, indeed, we were performing next). The acoustics were friendly, if slightly judgemental, as if meeting one’s prospective in-laws for the first time. They decided we were worthy, however, and allowed us to perform a thrilling first concert, grabbing the audience to its feet the instant the last bar was played out. John Eliot had expertly wrung every last drop of music from the score, adhering to every marking and gently asserting his own here and there. It was a performance like I’d never heard before. As the soprano soloist, I had less music to perform than anybody else on the stage, and so I had the privilege of one of the best seats in the house: right in the centre of it all, sandwiched between choir and orchestra, where I could hear every part, every instrument striking, plucking, blowing and singing what Beethoven himself could only imagine in his tinnitus-filled head.
The post-concert celebrations ranged from moderate to outrageous (I can only assume the latter happened, being in the former category), though all seemed well as we checked out of the hotel the following morning to fly to JFK.
I should mention that it is a tremendous feat of organisation to get over 100 musicians and instruments shepherded across the US – we were split into at least five different groups and with only a couple of people in charge of ferrying us around I must take my hat off to Sophie and Jan for organising us so well while actually appearing to be doing very little. If you’ve ever been in a pub with a group of musicians and they decide to go for a curry, the organisation required to get them all into the same place can be like trying to staple jelly to the ceiling.
And so to Carnegie Hall.
What an experience that was – I’d never set foot inside this iconic place before and had no idea what to expect. It was summed up in one word by bass soloist Matthew Rose who, after singing his opening words in the 9th Symphony, “O Freunde…” stopped to listen to the acoustic and uttered an incredulous, “Wow!”. If North Carolina was the inquisitive in-law, Carnegie was the Bloomingdale’s assistant, showing how radiant you looked in your new Ralph Lauren, before offering you a glass of Champagne.
The concert that evening was even better than Memorial Hall – often, when giving repeat performances, the second night can be tricky; it’s hard to re-establish the electricity of excitement, the nerves and the thrill of the opening night. But John Eliot had planned this well: he knew that we would rise to the occasion because, for goodness’ sake, it was Carnegie Hall! It felt like Memorial Hall had been our dress rehearsal. Once again, the choir and orchestra rocked and rolled, and filled the hall with incredible precision and bite. I even let out an involuntary giggle of joy as the tenor soloist, American Michael Spyres, sang his aria with all the gusto of a young Nemorino – we loved him.
Our second concert, the following evening was, for me, the climax of the tour. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. The choir and orchestra, along with two of our soloists (Jen and Matthew) had spent the previous weeks touring round Europe performing this piece. I had only encountered it once before, in fact, at the beginning of their tour, when I’d stepped in at a couple of days’ notice to replace an ailing Lucy Crowe (she would have been doing this tour too were it not for the fact she was singing up the road at the Met). Although I had initially felt less well acquainted with the piece than the others, John Eliot’s thorough rehearsals meant that I was practically off-book for most of the performance. This helped greatly, considering the concert was being broadcast live on WQXR (there’s a link at the bottom if you’d like to listen-again).
Once again, John Eliot was on fine perform, wrestling every nuance out of Beethoven’s difficult score. The visceral nature of the period instruments gave an extra thrill to the sound, the battle-calls of the drums and trumpets in the Agnus Dei, the soaring beauty of the solo violin in the Benedictus, were matched superbly with the relatively sparse forces of the choir (just 26 voices, though each one immensely well-trained, and most of whom are soloists in their own right). There were many wonderful moments in this concert, far too many to mention here – have a listen for yourself.
The following day, we packed up once more and headed right the way across the US to California. The weather was stunning, a cheerful 23-24C. The one piece of information that we were given here was that our hotel stood not just next to the hall in which we would be performing, but across the street from the world’s largest shopping mall. And there was a sale on. Oh dear.
A number of dresses and lots of jewellery later, we turned up at Segerstrom Hall to see where our brief tour was to end. To echo Matthew’s sentiment a few days earlier, “Wow!” The hall was even larger than Carnegie, with an enticing acoustic to match – this was the one that took you to lunch and gazed flirtatiously into your eyes, making you wonder what might happen next. Something about the hall looked rather familiar to me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it, till the artistic administrator, Jeff Mistri, pointed out that it was designed by the same feller who designed Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. A-ha.
In a reverse of programming, our first concert here was our second, and last, Missa Solemnis followed the next night by our third and final 9th Symphony. The once-tricky score felt completely easy now, and the music flew off our pages into the auditorium, causing one lone audience member to cry out, “Oh, THANK you!” a nano-second or two before the rest of the audience burst forth with cries of “Bravo”.
It was this “Oh, THANK you!” that resonated with us all afterwards – we laughed about it at first, but I think many of us took away with us that sense that what we had achieved here was something really very special. The hundred or so of us on that platform are pretty experienced performers, and I’m sure many will agree with me that we’ve given countless concerts in the past that perhaps haven’t meant quite so much to us as these past few. Often, and especially in the UK where there isn’t enough funding to rehearse anything much more than perfunctorily, and usually only on the day of the concert. Here, we had been able to get right inside the music and explore its secrets – this was a long-term relationship, not just a quick fumble in a night-club. It’s one I hope I will never forget. I, for one, am grateful to every single person responsible for making this tour happen. To my soloist colleagues Jen, Michael and Matt, to the choir and orchestra, to John Eliot, to the tour managers and all those in the theatres and halls, I say a heartfelt, “Oh, THANK you!”.
You can listen to the live broadcast from Carnegie Hall here: