Tuesday, 30 August 2011

France Day 11: Reims to Papworth Everard via Calais and Islington

The gloomy weather had passed and when I peered out of the window early this morning I was delighted to see the sun shining brightly over our corner of Reims. As I looked around I'm sure I could hear the music of Morning from Peer Gynt in my head and this was the view:
Sunrise over Reims
Early impressions do tend to stick with you so I feel I ought to come back and visit the more attractive areas of the city sooner rather than later.

We set off straight after breakfast and made good progress to Calais. If there had been a problem with the Sat Nav or map we could have just followed the steady stream of GB cars heading up the motorway. Some way into the journey Katy noticed the cloud appear as if it were a shelf. (The photo will follow soon). We soon disappeared underneath it, silently aware of the fact that becasue we were heading back to Blighty we may not see blue sky again until May. 2 1/2 hours after leaving Reims we arrived at the Eurotunnel terminal. We went through the check in procedure and got something to eat in the waiting area. There were announcements and apologies for delays due to a technical issue and only one train an hour was operating rather than the usual two or three. At the information desk I was able to discover that the delays were due to a strike by The French and staff were waiting for Some English to arrive from across the channel so they could restore normal service as soon as possible. In the end our departure was only 40 minutes later than the scheduled time. After a clear run on the M20 and A2 we hit traffic through Hackney and Highbury but I dropped my wonderful travel buddy Katy off at around 4pm. She had received a text from a friend inviting her out to dinner this evening so had the bonus of not having to cook for herself. A great end to the final day of her trip away! After I was out of London I had a good drive up the A1 and made it home, tired but happy to see my plants were still alive and the house was tidy. I showed Chris his presents and bored him with my photos and after he ordered a take away pizza I got one final picture.

Home at last!
It has been a fabulous adventure and I have enjoyed the time spent with old friends as well as making some great new ones. I have seen and explored a new part of the world, played some great music and improved my skills on the harp. All I need to decide now is where to go next...

Monday, 29 August 2011

France Day 10: Lumieres to Reims

Katy and I said a few good byes at breakfst and set off right on 10am. I had broken the journey into three chunks which were Lumieres to Lyon, Lyon to Dijon and Dijon to Reims, each just over two hours long. We stopped for fuel early on but didn't quite follow the schedule as there were tail backs from a few kilometres before Lyon right until the very long tunnel that runs under the city. 4 hours after setting off we were only onto the second stage. Lots of changes then happened. The roads gradually got clearer, the clear blue sky became dotted with pretty fluffy white clouds, which got bigger and darker, and the temparature got noticably colder at each service station stop we did. We also had a small panic just a few miles from the hotel as the Sat Nav lost control and thought we were heading across country fields. Reims has had a new autoroute built it seems so Mum will have to fork out for a new update next time I want to borrow her Sat Nav!

Reims is a beautiful city with a well known cathedral but from the Etap window it resembled the area of Northampton known as Sixfields. The view from the window included numerous chain restaurants (including a KFC), a bowling alley and some large superstores, each an island surrounded by a sea of car parking places. Instead of the expected football stadium there was a large IKEA. We had a look first at the restaurant featuring food from the Alsace region but failing to find anything on the menu I liked we opted for the Belgian place next door. They served mostly mussel dishes but the one meal that did catch my eye was the one I went for - Goat's cheese salad and chips! It went down really well (anything and chips tends to be the best overall) and I am now refreshed and ready for bed. The orchestra members who travelled by train will be home by now but we still have a fair chunk of the journey to do. Another 2 and a half hours to Calais then a quick hop through Kent, rush through London to drop Katy off and back home to Papworth in time for tea. I wonder what culinery delight Chris will create for my honorary arrival home!

A demain!

Sunday, 28 August 2011

France Day 9: The concert

After working intensely hard a day off is very welcome but the return to work affects different people in different ways. Some were looking forward to playing again while others had lost a bit of motivation so this morning's rehearsal did not begin as well as it could have. However things quickly picked up and we got through most of the programme for this evening finishing in time for Mass. In the end players worshipped the open air either in the pool or in the courtyard. There was a request for Sergio and I to play some jazz again so we set up and after the suggestion that When the Saints would be appropriate we kicked off with that. As the sun was shining there was a much better atmosphere than the previous evening so we enjoyed ourselves even more. We did Autumn Leaves and finished off with Lady Be Good.

We were given a lunch at the hotel as we were to be away from the hotel that evening. I sat with David so finally got to chat to him about his experiences and musical life. He was a flautist and played with the Halle Orchestra as well as many of the northern ensembles working under many distinguished names. It was very interesting to hear his views as his preferred conductors were often the less well known ones while the household names were not always admired by the orchestral players. I may take my own rehearsals differently to David but he is a fine musician who really knows his stuff. The musical organisation of this week really can't be faulted.

After lunch we had an hour to fill so I went on a short walk through the woods and saw a red squirrel. It was definitely a squirrel and they are more likely to be red around here. I also found Harvey, one of the flutes, doing some last minute practise.
Practise room

It was then time to head up to the church at Goult. Most walked while instruments went in cars or the van. I took the harp, some clarinets, a flute and had the pleasure of Philip the flautist and his wife Julia. We were among the first to arrive and helped set up. I played through a few of my grade 2 and 3 pieces while it was still relatively peaceful and really enjoyed playing in the church. Gradually others arrived and we had a short rehearsal running some pieces but mostly just tackling the tricky bits. As there were still a few more ropey moments, including an awkward repeat sign, I helped the wind section devise some hand gestures to signal when we were at a certain point in the music. I was to do a big swish with my hand just as the flutes and oboes were to jump to the coda of a piece. During the break most players went to look around Goult or sat around in the sunshine chatting. A few ran through last minute corners checking fingerings or notes.
Setting up for rehearsal
There was a good audience, better than last year apparently, although how many of them would stay until the end we didn't dare think about. The Hunt by Vivaldi was first and this went pretty well. Ranelagh Gardens Suite by Hook had a few dodgy moments in but was fine as was the Schubert symphony movements. Alan played the oboe solo in the Minuet particularly well. Angela played the Haydn Trumpet Concerto very well, possibly the best performance of the week. The Elgar pieces, theme to Dr Finlay and Delibes suite also held together well and the rapturous applause at the end was encouraging and sincere.
In concert
Close up of harp and winds
There were many Bravos and kind words. It was suggested that the orchestra this year played better than last year so that was encouraging for those who were on their second or third visit. After the concert we were all invited back to the house of a relative of Anthony Greville-Bell whose vision of the summer course in Provence was finally realised only shortly after his death.
Drinks and nibbles in Goult
After drinks, nibbles, more kind words and a team photo we headed off to several restaurants across the village.
Learning Orchestra Summer Course 2011
One of the last views of Provence
The food at our restaurant, La Carillon, was fantastic, the best meal of the week and it was a fitting end to a great week. Most of us will meet up at breakfast tomorrow some heading back to Britain by train or car, others staying on in France for a few days more. A few email address have been exchanged while others will no doubt be sought tomorrow. The course may be over but I still have two days of driving ahead so will say Bonne nuit and sign off.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

France Day 8: A day of sightseeing and a spot of jazz

There were no plans for rehearsals today so David the conductor had arranged a coach trip to three towns in the area. The coach left at 9:30 and our first stop was Apt. Saturday is market day and the place was teeming with visitors and tourists. The market was based around two main areas but had tentacles spreading down the side streets.
The bell tower in one of the many side streets
I suppose the market stalls were as expected - food stalls covering all the produce from the region including honey, jams, meats and sausages, and herbs, clothing stalls selling hats, light summery gear and leather shoes, stalls with crafts and ceramics, and the stalls with traditional things from the east. I bought some lovely ceramic dishes with Provence style designs. One is long and thin, probably for olives, and the other is for garlic where rather than crush the garlic you rub it on a serated base. There were many musicians playing in the narrow streets and these two were spotted playing music from South America:
The harp had red and blue/black strings alongside clear strings very similar to mine but she played in a much more energetic way than me. It was great to listen to.

After getting back on the bus we headed to Bonnieux. This was a lovely village on the hillside. A small group of us climbed right to the top of the hill to a 12th century church. The views were again spectacular:
Looking down over Bonnieux

Despite getting lost we got back to the coach on time and via a quick stop at a Roman bridge Le pont Julien headed to the village of Roussillon, famous for it ochre hills which were quarried for a long time. The earth comes in many shades of red, yellow and orange and the quarrying has left behind some impressive landscapes:

The village also has many buildings in the colours found in the hills. There are some footpaths around the quarry, now a conservation area, and most of us walked around the track rewarding ourselves with ice creams before getting the bus.

Back at the hotel Sergio the bassist and I get together just before dinner to play a bit of jazz in the courtyard. We had busked together informally after one of the reheasals and someone had suggested we ought to play in front of everyone. I was a bit reluctant but was encouraged by Sergio who is a wonderful jazz bassist. He is somewhere in his retirement now and only took up reading music and classical bass a few years ago. He just about gets by in the Learning Orchestra but he is a different player when playing jazz. He even played with Chet Baker once in 1957 in Rome. I felt honoured to busk my way through Lady Be Good and I Got Rhythm with him. We got a round of applause from those that had gathered and were requested to play again tomorrow as a few people missed it. Photos will appear as soon as I get them off of one of the many papparazzi watching!

Dinner was suprisingly good. Meat was steak chunks and sausages from the barbecue with a melon starter and tiramasu for desert. We now have instructions for tomorrow and will be rehearsing from 9:30 to 10:30 finishing just before Mass starts. We should then all go to Mass to seek forgiveness for any mistakes that we might happen to make in the concert.

Dormez bien!

Friday, 26 August 2011

France Day 7: Il pleut, and a mistral

The mistral is a strong wind that blows down the Rhone valley, sometimes at up to 90 km per hour. There was quite a blustery wind this morning when I went down to breakfast although someone suggested that it would need to be stronger than today's to be classed as a mistral. It certainly was fierce but remained sunny with some cloud appearing in the afternoon. The morning rehearsal covered most of our pieces again, stopping much less frequently now to sort things out. Tiredness was creeping in and there are some sillier mistakes as players lose concentration because they feel they know the music. However concentration levels still need to be high.

After a swim I explored another of the footpaths and headed to the Chapelle Saint-Michel, a tiny chapel up the hill.
Chapell Saint-Michel
There was a shrine opposite the chapel which had offerings and prayers written on stones. I'm not one for following any sort of faith but am always intrigued by, and interested in, how faiths and traditions have set in over time. The prayers were all in French and were quite general but one had caught Anita's eye the previous day as it was asking for a new knee. I too saw it and while we did hope that whoever it was had a successful operation we also wondered how they had managed to get up there in the first place to leave the note as it was quite a steep climb. Since I've been here I've wondered if I might want a new knee or two by the time I get back. The knees of a mountain goat would be extremely useful for this area. The views from here were again stunning and photos don't really do it justice. Here are a couple anyway:
Looking towards Goult

View over the hotel
On the way back I saw another footpath leading down. It wasn't the one I had planned to take but as it went in the way I wanted (downwards) I started clambering down. Some way down it got particularly steep and I wondered if I had done the right thing. It would have been even harder to go back upwards but as I paused to get my breath I caught the strains of a flute drifting up the hillside. I thought if I followed the sounds I would come across Pan in his hillside retreat playing to his flock of sheep and guiding poor lost souls down from the rocky paths. As I got closer I thought it odd that Pan would be familiar with the music of Elgar but then realised it was Philip practising Chanson de Nuit in the open. I followed the music although as I got closer I could hear the beep beep of the metronome which reduced the mysticism but at least Philip was practising in a useful way! I got a sneaky photo then sat down on the bench for a rest and a chat. This is the first time he has played a part on his own within an ensemble. Usually there are several on a part and so he is hoping to become more confident in his playing. This is a huge challenge for him but I think he is noticing the improvements in his playing.
Is it Pan? No, it's Phil practising some Elgar!
At 5 we had a short rehearsal and polished off Vivaldi's The Hunt, Schubert's 3rd symphony movements, Haydn Trumpet Concerto and the Delibes suite. We set up under the arches in the dining area and our concert began at 7. It began well but the wind suddenly picked up and the heavens opened along with some lightening and some thunder. Music got blown about and the leader stopped playing at one point because he was distracted by the weather! He assumed we'd all just stop and was politely encouraged to join in again with the rest of us. We were under shelter and people did stay to listen by joining us where we were or by sheltering in the doorway.

Capacity crowd just before the rain came
 After the success we all feel our day off tomorrow is well deserved. A few people are getting the bus to Avignon but I have opted to go on the organised coach tour around some local villages. Hope the weather is a little brighter in the morning!


Thursday, 25 August 2011

Happy Birthday to my Mum

I'm up early this morning to say happy birthday to Mum. I bought a card from the limited selection in the local shop then went for a stamp but the local post office didn't have stamps for the UK. The hotel only did pre-paid envelopes which held a post card but were too small for my card. So here it is, available for the whole world to see (if they choose to):
She is in the Midlands but really loves the climate where I am right now. I have just looked out of the window and the clear blue sky and rising temperature suggests it is going to be another glorious day here. I am sure she will be delighted to know that I am enjoying her favourite weather!

Have a great day! xx

France Day 6: The programme comes together

The first part of today's rehearsal was spent running through each piece to get an idea of timings and to see how ready each piece was. We have decided to drop 'Ma Tante Aurore' by Boldlieu as it is too long (it would be short but we can't play it fast enough) but the regular Learning Orchestra players will do that next term in their weekly sessions. The wood wind were then allowed to leave as the strings had their own rehearsal. I went straight down to the pool and claimed one of the few remaining sun loungers. Only one or two of the other loungers had people on but the rest were all covered with towels. This has been a sore point for some as we have sat for an hour or two in the afternoon where people just haven't used their reserved loungers. The biggest suprise is that it is not the Germans doing this as there are no Germans in the hotel. We think it is probably the Belgians. After my swim I had lunch with some of the others then had a walk up to Goult with Radica, a viola player and lawyer. She really wanted an ice cream so we looked around the village and went in a few lovely shops. We saw the poster for our concert on doorways, noticeboards and in shops.
One of many posters around the village
Buildings in Goult
We stopped at the cafe I went to on Tuesday evening and ordered an ice cream. My white chocolate and caramel flavours were lovely and Radica had lemon sorbet and strawberry. We then looked inside the church where we will do the concert. It was quite small so it will probably be a bit of a squeeze on stage but it did have some impressive paintings and the shrines were lovely to view.
Church in Goult, The venue for Sunday's gig.
We made it back for a quick nap before the evening rehearsal. We worked through Ranelagh Gardens Suite by Hook which will open the concert then the strings were allowed to go while the woodwinds concentrated on Le Roi s'amuse by Delibes.

Highlight of the day had to be the evening meal which is in the running for the 'dinner of the week' prize. We're still not sure what the starter was (many things packed tightly together) but the main course was meat (beef, hopefully), a slab of polenta, a tomato with some sort of cream stuffing, and a poached pear. The vegetarians had the meat removed and an extra slab of polenta added. We are getting used to the odd combinations but this was one of the most bizarre meals I have eaten! I thought the French were highly regarded when it came to cuisine but not in this region. I then went with a large group for a herbal tea at the local cafe in Lumieres and we chatted until quite late. Gradually players are speaking more and more freely about how they think the course is going and all the little niggles that they have with some aspects. Generally though the atmosphere is extremely jovial and there is plenty of laughter. Tomorrow we give our first performance, an informal run through under the terrace in the dining area. A sure fire way to clear the dinner guests!

À tout à l'heure!

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

France Day 5: Much of the same really...

I got up slightly earlier today to get breakfast, sort my lunch and do a spot of practise. I went through a few sections of the orchestra music that I have not quite mastered and wrote in a few fingerings that may help. I can play it slowly and could tell you what the notes are without looking at the music but can't manage all of it at speed. It is getting a little better. The first rehearsal started at 9:30 and we did two movements from Schubert's 3rd symphony. There is no harp in this and as Anita can play the first clarinet part well I've opted to play the second oboe part on the clarinet. The main oboe is Alan, Palace Band member and one of my GOAT sponsors. He is a regular member of the Learning Orchestra and is on the committee so played a big part in the organisation of the course. There are some lovely oboe duo moments so it's good to have the second part filled in. Alan is delighted, especially when, er, I mean IF he gets lost then I point out where we are! We are all good friends on the back row and as well as working hard we do share the occasional joke or comment. As the rehearsal space is big and boomy it means every small sound gets heard so we do get told off for talking as it disrupts other players. The end of the evening rehearsal today felt like it was dragging on as we were doing something quite technical (Ma Tante Auurore by Boldlieu) and some of us were flagging a little. However the orchestra has made good progress and much of it is coming together.

After lunch I went for a swim then sat in the shade and read my book. I've got Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat) which I brought because it was the only book on my bookcase yet to be read with a French connection. I am enjoying it so far. The story teller is a bottle of wine, a Fleurie, 1962, so that lends a different perspective. Each of the bottles in the cellar have a different personality, not necessarily the sort that the wine buffs go on about but more human traits. I got through a few chapters of that then went for a long walk. The hotel provides a map of walks and I set off to find the windmill. As you can see from the photo I found it:
Jerusalem Windmill
It was built to commemmorate some people who went to Jerusalem. I forget the basic facts but there is a huge amount of history in the area. All along my walk, which began with a trek up a huge hill in the woods, I saw ruins of stone buildings, old stone terraces (long since overgrown), caves and wells. Other than at the windmill I hardly saw a single person, which was lovely and added to the abandoned feel of the whole place. On another path to get back down the hill I did pass a small vinyard, an orchard and a field full of melons, probably honeydew as they looked quite yellow. Wildlife included the usual crickets, an occasional lizard and lots of butterflies. The views across the valley were quite special. I got a few photos but at times like this I get the urge to put a high-spec camera on my wish list.

View across Goult and beyond. The church in the centre is where we play on Sunday.
Orchard and old farm house

The evening meals have been an odd mix. The vegetarian option is identical to the carnivores, just with the meat taken out and if you're lucky a vegetable or fruit put there in it's place. Usually the starter and dessert have been great but the main course has been met with suspicion. I realised this was like a performance. Audiences tend to remember the beginnings and ends of pieces so it doesn't really matter what happens in the middle. It seems the French chef is working on the same prinicpal here! Meals are all eaten outside.
The dining courtyard

I did ask if it ever rains here. Alan said he remembered a very brief shower two years ago but otherwise not since they could remember. Just lots of warm sunshine. Will I get bored of it all?

Et maintenant je vais au lit et dit au revoir!

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

France Day 4: Getting into a routine

We are now well into the swing of rehearsals which are 9:30am to 12:30pm then 5pm to 7pm. The focus today has been on Delibes (Le Roi s'amuse), Elgar (Chanson de nuit), Hook (a suite) and Dr Finlay's Casebook theme tune, also known as March by Trevor Duncan. David's rehearsing is very particular and he singles out players or sections quite quickly getting them to play difficult bits over and over until it is right. My favourite sentence from him today was "Some of it was a right" directed to the flutes which was praise indeed compared to other comments he has produced on the first two days. I still continue to bluff my way through and ought to have five minutes to myself sorting out a few bars in some of the pieces but I use my free time as time to do other things.
In rehearsal

We get 12:30 to 5 completely to ourselves and most people make their own lunch buying bread, cheese, fruit and other bits and pieces from the local shop. We eat under a shady canopy in the gardens near the swimming pool. After lunch I had a swim and then went for a walk exploring the local foot paths. I made it as far as the Vins Haut, which is the high vinyards, then came back. There are some lovely views and I saw no one else around. I was quite keen to see what wildlife was around. There were loads of crickets all different colours and sizes, plenty of butterflys, and several times I saw the tail of a lizard just disappearing under some leaves or a tree root.
Self portrait


After dinner I was going to practise but Ann, one of the violinists wanted to go for a walk and so I said I'd go to keep her company. In the end four of us went and we had a lovely walk up the hill to Goult, the next village and where we will do our 'performance' on Sunday. It was a fascinating place, so typical of Provence. Beautiful stone buildings, shutters on the window, little balconys and alleyways, tiny wooden doors. It was getting dark so I couldn't take any photos but will go up there in the daytime before the end of the week. We had a tea in the bar in the village then came down in the dark using our torches when the street lights stopped. There were a few bats flying around too. It was a lovely evening but I might have to get up a little earlier to practise tomorrow morning before breakfast. It's a hard life.

I also hear it's been raining in London and I contemplated where I might otherwise have been in Blighty as I relaxed back sipping a glass of Côtes du Rhône and allowing the sun to warm my face.


Monday, 22 August 2011

France Day 3: First rehearsal

My eventful day started with a suprise but not one I was expecting. While tidying up a few things I spotted a bit of fluff on the duvet that looked like a very tiny scorpion. I blew on it and rather than moving as fluff does it curled itself up! I picked it up on a bit of paper and put it on the window sill for a clearer look. It opened up like a scorpion and started looking around. I got a blurry photo and, not one for killing things no matter how small or annoying, I threw it out of the window. I asked a few people if you got scorpions in southern France and there was mixed opinion. Someone thought it was an insect that happens to look like a scorpion but I'm not so sure.

After breakfast we all made our way to the rehearsal room which is the chapel. As the building and grounds originally belonged to a convent the chapel is very big and quite grand.
Part of the chapel where we rehearse
I set myself up behind the second violins, not too far from the flutes, both of whom I know very well. While age doesn't matter too much on courses like this I was quite pleased to see a few players who are a little nearer my age group. Two are also pros, one is the strings coach to the learning orchestra and the other was just here for a spot of playing and a holiday. The morning rehearsal was a play through of all the pieces to be looked at during the week. There is a good mixture of older baroque tunes, a few classical, romantic and slightly more recent works. I am half on clarinet and half on harp which suits me fine. The harp parts are straight forward enough as I can follow them without getting lost and as the orchestra was louder than me today I played a lot of wrong notes and just had fun finding my way around. First rehearsals on courses like this always sound appalling but very quickly players learn to listen and understand how their part fits in with everyone else and the music usually comes together to create a satisfactory second play through. By the last day there is some fine ensemble playing and hopefully this will be the case on Sunday when we give a performance.
View from my seat. Everyone has gone because I take the longest to pack up.
 At events like this there are often unforseen problems and we had one with the clarinets. Most players get by with a 'clarinet in B flat' but as you do more and more playing, particularly orchestral, you need a slightly bigger 'clarinet in A'. If not you need to re-write the music - a skill known as transposing - to be able to play it in tune with the others. I have one but didn't bring it as it wasn't specified. I can transpose at sight so it's not a problem for me. Of the other clarinets Anita had hers but Katy and Melvyn do not have their own. We didn't have time to re-write the three parts for clarinets in A before we ran through them but there is a neat trick where you use a piece of string the length of the clarinet. You attach one end by wedging it between the mouthpiece and barrel and by some great feat of science it makes your clarinet a semi-tone lower. Not great for tone quality but very useful as an emergency quick fix and Tricia the trombonist had brought some string in her emergency travel pack! It worked for the second half of the rehearsal and we were able to rewrite the music for the evening practise. Lunch was at a little cafe just in the village and I read a bit of my book in the courtyard before going in for the 5pm rehearsal. We focussed on a piece by Boldlieu and the Chanson de Nuit. David the conductor works the players hard and his dry wit and almost impatient style means he is very different to how myself and Caroline work with our groups. However it gets results and he has respect from the players. At dinner I sat with some other players I'd not yet met properly and I think I now know everyone's names. Not bad for the first 24 hours here. I am hoping to get up early tomorrow to go for a walk while it is still cool enough. But first I need to check my bed linen for small creatures!

Á la prochaine!

Sunday, 21 August 2011

France Day 2: Dijon to Avignon

That should read Dijon to Lumieres rather than Avignon although Avignon is the nearest big town and more people have heard of it. We realised we only had 4 hours of driving to do today so set off after breakfast at a leisurely pace. The motorways were perhaps a little busier than yesterday but still fairly clear and easy to drive along. We stopped twice, first just after Lyon for a drink, a stretch of legs and a photo opportunity, then for a final stretch very near a nuclear power station just 60 miles north of Avignon. Highlights of this part of the journey included seeing the landscape change to more mountainous scenery, crossing the river Rhone, and seeing tourist signs to a place called Ars. The smallest things tend to amuse me the most!
Steph and Katy at a service stop somewhere near Lyon

We arrived at the Hotel de Notre-Dame de Lumieres just before 3pm and just after my only near miss of the journey where I did a left turn into the village and looked left instead of right for oncoming traffic. Fortunately I just got over the road before the Mercedes went past but it was a reminder just how much we rely on our regular way of doing things and shouldn’t lose concentration until we’ve stopped.
A former convent, now a hotel
We were early arriving and after checking in sat in the shade until our rooms were ready. We saw Sergio the bassist and his wife (a groupie) who had arrived on Friday and got the gossip from them. They then went for a swim and after unpacking and freshening up I went back down and the rest of the group arrived a little later. Most are players from the Learning Orchestra I do not yet know but there are a few from the Palace Band, my Sunday morning ensemble. During dinner we met a few more of the players, shared our travelling experiences, discovered who played what, found out about the course from those that had been before and discussed topics as diverse as pets and poetry. Those that had come by train were noticeably more weary than Katy and I, having been in a cold London at 8 this morning, so most people disappeared to their rooms around 10pm. Breakfast is from 7:30 then our first rehearsal is at 9:30. I’m quite excited but a bit nervous in case my playing is not quite up to expectation. Hopefully my wrong notes will sound as good as they do in my room at home!

Bonne nuit!

Saturday, 20 August 2011

France Day 1: Islington to Dijon

Set off from north London at 7:30 this morning. Had a good channel crossing on the train then spent most of the day driving along the French motorways. It has been so much easier than I expected. I knew the roads would be emptier but there has hardly been anything. No roadworks, no clogging up of traffic behind slow moving vehicles, just a continuous drive at whatever speed I liked. We have had the Sat-nav on but more for time and distance to go as the hotel, an Etap just outside of Dijon, was very easy to find. My other navigator Katy has been following the map just to make sure Sat-nav is sending us the right way (it has been known to be wrong in the past) and is great fun. We are gradually exchanging our life stories and will probably be able to write a book on each other by the time we get back. We stopped for lunch near St Quentin then a stretch about 100 miles later followed by diesel and an ice cream another 100 miles down the road. The scenery has only changed a little from vast open farmland to green forests and the occasional lake or river. It has all been very pleasant.
View from the hotel window. No mustard in sight!
We are now in the hotel and Katy has kindly opted to take the upper bunk. Secretley I'm disappointed but I'll make do with the double bed underneath. We're about to pop out and find a restaurant somewhere but it will be an early night for us both as we still have a long way to go.

A bientot!

Friday, 19 August 2011

Final preparations for France

Tomorrow morning I will be setting off for France to take part in the Learning Orchestra's 3rd Summer Course in Lumieres, Provence. I will join 22 others hopefully all arriving sometime on Sunday evening. Most of the others are travelling by Eurostar and I would have done that but myself and the double bassist will not be risking the train with our oversized instruments so are driving. I am travelling with Katy, one of my grade-1-a-thon sponsors, herself a clarinettist and it will be good to have some company on the journey. Katy has also lived in France so is probably a little more competent at the language than I am. I already know the French for harp - 'harpe' (but don't pronounce the first 'h') and would like to improve my A level French a little while I am out there. My musical preparations have included practising Elgar's Chanson de Nuit, then re-writing it then practising it again. The original part is just a little too complicated for lever harp so I rearranged some of the chords and missed a large chunk out. It should work though.

I have had to read up on driving in France and have kitted my car out with all the necessary emergency equipment. I will also have to adjust my driving style, not just shifting the the right hand side but also to try not to use the gestures usually required on the A14 or M25. Unless something goes seriously wrong with the Sat-nav we should avoid Paris and get to Dijon tomorrow evening and Avignon by tea time on Sunday.

I'm taking the laptop and am hoping to update regularly if I can find any wireless connections in the area. If not I'll just have to do a mammoth write up when I get back.


Harp ensemble

Inspired by Danielle's concert I did some practise that evening as the following morning was another trip to Anne's with Robyn to play some more trios. We are improving and concentrated on the three South American Dances by Ortiz and Dancing Lambs by Grandjany. Last time we were playing the pieces quite slowly just to find the notes but we have realised that the pieces should go a lot faster to get the right spirit and feel. However when we speed up we don't get all the notes right, which is highly off putting. the thing to remember is that the pieces sound better up to speed with wrong ntoes than they do at a slower speed with the right notes. I find this with my own teaching and regulary try to pull pupils out of the way of thinking where they go back and correct notes that are wrong, or slow down just so they can get a right note. I have an experiment where I play all the notes of a well known nursery rhyme, firstly with all the right notes but wrong rhythm and secondly with mostly wrong notes and right rhythm. Few of them get it from the first playing but do realise what it is on the second time. But it requires a lot of determination to accept the wrong notes in a rehearsal.

We enjoyed our morning and recorded Cumbia Deliciosa. It didn't sound too bad! Our next plan is to practise our parts individually and hopefully get Rohan in to hear us at some point. As if Rohan doesn't have enough to worry about already having to teach us all individually!

Harp trio

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Danielle Perret Recital - Long Melford

A few weeks ago I went to see Rebecca, friend and cellist, in a recital with her ensemble Kaleidescope at Long Melford church. Each year the church puts on a series of Wednesday lunchtime concerts from May to September and Rebecca's came right at the end of the summer term so some of us teachers were able to go. The whole series was on a leaflet and I spotted a harp recital to be given by Danielle Perret in August. I knew Danielle when I worked for Trinity exam board running their London Centre. Danielle lived in London at the time and would often come and examine at the centre so I met her several times. Since then she has moved up to Suffolk and continues as a performer, arranger, composer and examiner. I took fellow harpist Robyn and we met up with my groupies Jess, Margaret and Mark. Rebecca also went and as she knows Danielle very well I was hoping she would introduce us at the end. (More proof that in the music world it's not just what you know but who you know as well!)
Long Melford Church (photo taken by Robyn)

Danielle performed a wide range of pieces starting with some Albeniz (not the famous one), then Glinka, a transcription of a Chopin Mazurka, Danielle's own arrangement of Grieg's Morning from Peer Gynt Suite, a piece by Rossini finishing with Spanish Dance No. 1 by de Falla arranged by Marcel Grandjany. Robyn and I have both played pieces by Grandjany so we shot each other knowing looks when Danielle announced the piece. The original of this is for full orchestra so reducing it to a single instrument meant using all of the harps potential. Singing melodies, big chords, exciting glissandos all featured here. The encore was a lovely little piece also by de Falla. Despite having heard harpists in orchestral and concerto performances neither myself nor Robyn had heard a harp recital before. The dynamic and tonal contrasts that Danielle produced were quite amazing. The fortes (loud playing) were full and strong and the pianos (soft) were barely audible at times. There was a lot of flexibility in tempo, something that Rohan told me after I played Mountain Stream to her. Many chords were spaced out with the top note, usually the melody, left until much later, something I probably wouldn't get away with on the clarinet. This was more noticable in the Peer Gynt as I know it well. It was a great arrangement and well played and Danielle explained she had first played it on board a ship druising around Norway. While pracitising in her cabin she positioned the harp so that she could see out of the cabin window. She felt that the landscape and the music she was playing blended beautifully and it was a special time for her.
Danielle's beautiful harp (photo by Robyn)

As the concert ended Robyn and myself ran to the front like excited school children. Robyn took a few pictures of the harp, by a Swiss maker, and we waited patiently to say hello. When Rebecca was able to introduce us Danielle did recognise me and we chatted briefly about the harp and what we were both doing now. Danielle also told us about a day course taking place in September so we both hope to go on that. She thanked us for coming and the six of us headed for a cream tea in Melford Hall. We then entertained ourselves (and the National Trust volunteers) around the house and came home full of new ambition. I managed some practise this evening, starting with my new Marcel Grandjany pieces which arrived in the post while I was on holiday. I also practised some trios as I am meeting with Robyn and Anne again tomorrow.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Harp trios

Fellow grade-1-a-thon harpist Robyn has also continued with her harp playing and took and passed her grade 3 when I did grade 2. She had expressed an interest in playing with others and at short notice we met up yesterday afternoon for a couple of hours chat and playing round at Anne's. It was a lovely scene, one pedal harp and two lever harps in Anne's conservatory and after Anne had let both of us play her pedal harp we had a look at some trios that Rohan, teacher to all three, lent us.
 First up was a lovely Grandjany piece called  Les Agneaux Dansent or Dancing Lambs. We sight-read it through fairly well then had another go and Robyn suggested recording it. She set her little video recorder up and we gave our performance. I had to request a restart as I played more wrong notes than right in the first 4 bars and on the second attempt we got through it. Well, I say got through. I missed a reapeat, Anne went to the Coda too soon and there were many unusual notes throughout but we were quite pleased with it. When I watched the uploaded video later that evening it sounded lovely. But then that's the advantage of the harp, when you play badly or with many wrong notes it sounds nowhere near as bad as the equivalent standard on say the violin or saxophone.

We then tried some trios by Alfredo Ortiz, a south American composer. A quick internet search led me to discover a little more about him. As well as estabilshing a performing career as a harpist he graduated from medical school (several other composers started out on the medical path) then switched to full time performing. My favourite bit of trivia though is that he says his "most important concert" was when he played the harp in the delivery room for the birth of his second daughter. I chuckled at first but then thought if we have music for weddings and funerals why not at the start of life too? Could this be something to develop? There is a growing bundle of research that suggests music can be good for healing and well being. Many hospitals and care homes have visiting musicians playing to the patients or residents but each maternity unit with it's own harpist...?

Anyway we didn't know this at the time and played several of his Latin style pieces. Cumbia Deliciosa, Danza de Luzma and Llano with the second two having some particularly tricky rhythms. We just about kept going, stopping for one or other of us to catch up every so often. We had enough fun to want to do it all again and maybe even aim towards an informal concert at some stage. Anne regularly organises pupil concerts often adding an extra item herself to show children what you can do if you keep up your practise! Speaking of which I am now off to do a little more practise of my own.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Drum roll please.....

I've just had a text from Anne letting me know that exam results are available on line. I had a look and am delighted to report that I got a distinction, with 140 marks out of 150. I'm only able to see the breakdown as the comments will come on the report form with certificate. I know I got 27/30 for When Bagpipes Play, and 28 each for Goblin Rustle and Mountain Stream, 18/21 for scales and full marks of 21 for sight-reading and 18 for aural.

I'm really pleased and will be even more so if Mum continues the old agreement and sends me the usual bonus! Then it's full steam ahead for grade 3!