Injury in the workplace. Click image to admire needlework.
If the world wide internet is to be believed, pretty much every conductor in the world is the most acclaimed conductor of his or her generation. Recent concerts divide audiences fairly evenly into those rendered speechless by the majesty of their performance and those who dribble in wonder. Any orchestra, concert hall or opera house worth any amount of salt devotes entire departments solely to the act of stoving in their front doors with massive cabers in the pursuit of their engagement.
My personal experience suggests that this may not be the whole story.
Rather than dismantle a sample selection of some of these claims, I thought I would illustrate the obverse side of the coin by outlining what turned out to be, in the midst of an otherwise acclaimed and illustrious trajectory, the worst f*&!^#g concert of my life.
The Wrong Website
It all started with my website. An earlier incarnation of my site began with the words “Mikel Toms is one of the most acclaimed conductors of…etc etc“. This, I now concede, was a lie. Shortly after it was launched, and as a result of my acclaimed copywriting skills, I received an email from a certain lady (we shall call her Ivana (not because I want to preserve her anonymity but, rather, because I have forgotten her real name)) who represented a certain national symphony orchestra of a certain unstable European republic which I shall, for the sake of an easy life, call Borodnia.
She asked for a couple of references and my friends David and Ian duly supplied these confirming that I was indeed as acclaimed as my publicity suggested I was. A concert was duly awarded and much self-congratulation ensued.
The Wrong Airline
Changing planes in Frankfurt on my way to Borodnia, I was comforted to see my suitcase (containing all my music as well as my concert clothes) sitting on the tarmac about to be loaded into the baggage hold. All was going to plan.
The plane took a beautiful, albeit slightly circuitous route skirting the Northern border of Italy.
“Ah, yes”, said Ivana later by way of explanation. ”That airline failed its safety certificate and Italy won’t allow them to fly over its airspace in case engines and bits of anatomy get strewn accidentally across Umbria.”
“Oh. I see.”
“Are you flying back with them too?”
“Yes. I am”
I was met at the airport by an extremely happy man on whom I never clapped eyes again.
“Greetings Maestro! Welcome to Borodnia!”
“Thank you. It’s lovely to be here. Thank you for coming to meet me.”
It is always reassuring to be met by a friendly face in an unfamiliar country.
“I’ll just collect my luggage.”
“That’s what I’ve come to tell you. Ha Ha! Your luggage is on the runway in Frankfurt.”
The Wrong Accommodation
“This is the flat where you’ll be staying”, said Ivana.
“Thank you. It’s very nice”, I lied.
“There’s only one thing you need to remember”, she said.
“Oh yes? What’s that?”
“Never leave it on your own. It’s too dangerous outside. Lots of people getting killed recently.”
“Oh. I see. OK.”
“Right, I’ll leave you alone now.”
“Erm…just one question. There doesn’t appear to be any food in the flat. What do you think I should do about that?”
“Oh, that’s easy! There are some shops a couple of streets away. Just go out and buy whatever you need.”
The Wrong Repertoire
That evening I received the first indication of the nature of the orchestra with whom I was to grapple for the following five days. The orchestra were giving a staged production of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and, to give credit where it’s due, they didn’t do at all badly, especially in view of the fact that they were clearly sightreading.
I congratulated the conductor afterwards.
“Thank you!”, he said. ”Amazing, considering they only had twelve rehearsals!”
“But you say that as though that were a small number.”
“Yes! An extraordinary achievement!”
“Yes”, I agreed. ”Extraordinary.”
I was then introduced to the General Director of the orchestra and I thanked him for affording me the great honour of inviting me to conduct the national orchestra of his country.
“You are welcome!”, he said. ”We shall see you bright and early for the first rehearsal.”
“Have a good sleep!”
“I shall do! See you in the morning!”
“Yes. Good night!”
“Oh…just one thing.”
“We’ve changed the concerto.”
I had learned Mendelssohn’s G minor Piano Concerto for no other reason than that they had asked me to. Frankly, I should probably have known it already but I didn’t and so had spent the previous two weeks getting to grips with it. A lovely piece it is too.
“Oh. To what?”
“The Khachaturian Violin Concerto.”
Frankly I should have known that concerto too. But (and a pattern was beginning to emerge) I didn’t.
“It’s OK. It goes like this: dadada-daa-daa dadada-daa-daa dadada-daa-daa. We’ll give you a score and you can learn it tonight.”
“But it’s midnight.”
“Yes. Night night. See you in the morning.”
The next time I slept was in Norway.
The Wrong Orchestra
Inexplicably, the orchestra’s rehearsals and concerts took place inside an army barracks. My best guess is that the orchestra serves as a powerful deterrent to anyone toying with the idea of invasion and therefore comes under the country’s Defence budget.
We bashed through the opening movement of Dvóřak’s New World Symphony after which I made what I thought was a number of rather perceptive and judicious comments about our interpretation during which the orchestra talked animatedly among themselves for around fifteen minutes. We then bashed through the opening movement of Dvóřak’s New World Symphony again in precisely the same way as before although, this time, with added resentment on the part of the orchestra. Con risentimento.
We then played through a piece by a contemporary Borodnian composer and, again, the rehearsal consisted of playing through the piece three times identically regardless of any suggestions I made.
We laboured on in the same way for a couple of days before the orchestra’s union representative got to his feet and sternly called for silence.
“Thank you”, I said, relieved that some consideration for my efforts was finally being shown.
“Maestro”, he said not without irony. ”You seem to want us to work.”
“Erm…yes. That would be quite nice.”
“The thing is, we don’t want to.”
“No. You see, we want the money. But we don’t want to work. We’ll be here for the rehearsals but that’s as much as we can promise.”
And he sat down again. The orchestra shuffled their feet loudly and tapped their stands with their bows by way of applause. Then they talked among themselves for a further five minutes.
The Wrong Tea
“Never mind,” said the General Director as I sat in his office holding my head in my hands. ”How about a nice cup of tea.”
“Yes!” I thought. A taste of home. A glimpse of sanity in the bedlam that was enfolding me.
“Can I have it with some cold milk, please?”
It is rare that people abroad take milk in their tea and I find it’s a good idea to specify the temperature. Possibly pedantically.
“It’s sheep’s milk. Is that OK?”
Hot. Cold. Ovine. Bovine. I don’t recommend milk of any temperature or animal in mint tea. Interestingly, though, it didn’t curdle, as I would have expected it to had you asked me to guess.
The Wrong Kleptomaniac
I returned to the barracks both refreshed and nauseous.
I decided it was time to review progress thus far by recording a run-through of Smetana’s magisterial tone poem Vltava from his orchestral cycle Má Vlast. To effect this, I placed a stereo microphone attached to a small hand-held digital audio recorder that I had acquired at a cost of around £100 expressly for this purpose in the seating area of the auditorium. I explained to the orchestra what I was planning to do and that the recording wouldn’t be used for any commercial or archive purpose. They kindly consented to allow the recording to proceed.
As it happened, we turned in a pretty passable rendition of Vltava, I thanked the orchestra and returned to switch off the recording device. Which had gone. As had the stereo microphone.
The orchestra showed upturned palms and all 80 players said they hadn’t seen anything, which I found odd as I was fairly certain they hadn’t been looking at me.
The Wrong Injury in the Workplace
We soldiered on with Dvóřak’s New World Symphony.
The more animated the music became, the more the players appeared to spiral down into their own struggles with their personal demons until the orchestra resembled some sort of Czech-themed branch of Torture-U-Like. I say this objectively now but at the time it was really quite infectious and I found myself flailing about pretty wildly, I can tell you, in sympathy with the whole foaming rave thing that was going on under the podium. I had been in a fairly shirty frame of mind to begin with in any case.
Let me take a moment to explain that when I buy conducting batons I very often snap off the tips of them to make them the exact length I like. They’re sold in a size that is slightly too short and a size that is slightly too long so I buy the longer ones and snap off about an inch. This works well although the end can sometimes be left as quite a sharp splinter. This became especially apparent to me in the fourth movement of the New World Symphony during one of my more livid flails.
I felt a small sting in my left forefinger and stopped conducting. There was a small puncture wound which seemed out of proportion to the throbbing pain that was now welling up inside it. A closer inspection of a long hard lump that had appeared under the surface of the skin and my now-much-shorter baton led me to conclude that the last inch or so of baton had pierced the surface of my finger, snapped off and now lay embedded across one of my proximal phalanges.
I beckoned the orchestra manager.
“I need a doctor.”
He had a look for himself.
“It’s fine. Nothing to worry about.”
“No, I really do.”
The Wrong Hospital.
We left the rehearsal in search of Borodnian healthcare. The orchestra seemed quite relieved.
First stop was the St Borod hospital where in Accident and Emergency they were mixing concrete in pyjamas.
“I want to go private!”, I demanded. ”I have insurance! Columbus! Gold Plan!”
We drove to a private clinic on the outskirts of the capital.
The Wrong X-Ray
“I’ll have to take an X-Ray”, said the doctor on examining my finger.
“It’s a conducting baton. It’s inside my finger,” I said.
“I mean you can see it there,” and I wobbled the lump about a bit.
“I think we should do an X-Ray.”
I was sent to the X-Ray unit and returned to the doctor’s office an hour later.
“Hmm…it didn’t show up. ”
“It’s a conducting baton. It’s made of wood.”
I was put on a trolley and we went into surgery.
“Aha!”, the doctor shouted triumphantly after slicing my finger open and showing me the bloodied tip of my baton. ”It’s a piece of wood!”
I was sewn up, allowed to dress and my hand was swaddled in a big ball of bandage.
“I should pay you now. How much do I owe you? I have insurance.”
“Hmm…I’m going to have to include the cost of the X-Ray too”, he said.
“It’s Columbus. Gold Plan.”
“An X-Ray and an operation costs fifteen pounds?”
“It’s the best I can do.”
This was the best bit of the entire trip. We left the clinic.
“What now?”, I asked the orchestra manager.
In the space of three hours I had started a rehearsal, stabbed myself, visited two Borodnian hospitals, been pointlessly X-Rayed, then sedated, operated upon and sewn up before being returned to finish the same rehearsal I had begun earlier.
I don’t think the orchestra noticed.
The Wrong War
“War has broken out”, said the General Director after the final rehearsal.
“I’m not surprised. The orchestra seem pretty unhappy with me.”
“No, really. War.”
“What…with guns and death and stuff?”
“Yes. That kind of war.”
“I see. Should we be at all worried that we’re doing a concert in an army barracks?”
“No, I don’t think so. We should be fine.”
“I have to be frank with you. I’ll be relieved when this concert is over. Is there anything else you feel I should know?”
“The airports are all closed.”
“The ones with the planes to England?”
The Wrong Concert
The day of the concert arrived and I demanded that the General Director give me my fee before I went onstage. He made me feel as though I had shot a spaniel.
I conducted the concert with one hand and with no baton and if ever a conductor has been grateful for an orchestra not watching him it was that evening. Fortunately, as I had long since discovered, they had never had any intention of doing so in the first place.
The concert went well, by which I mean we didn’t stop once. Throughout the performance I slowly became aware that my presence in Borodnia for the previous five days had registered precisely no impact whatsoever on the orchestra.
The RIGHT Concert, Orchestra, Repertoire & Medical Facilities
The airports opened for a brief window of forty minutes early the next morning and three consecutive flights later, I was in Oslo ready to start work with the astonishing Oslo Sinfonietta. Everything was wonderful about this trip. The hotel, the repertoire, the orchestra, the venue, the city. Everything.
In particular, the husband of one of the composers was a doctor who did two great things for me. He removed the stitches from my forefinger and he taught me the Norwegian word for “hungry” (“sulten”), the latter especially useful in a country where sandwiches appear to be index-linked to the price of gold.
The concert was a tremendous success, the audience was ecstatic, the reviews uniformly glowing and as a result I became hugely acclaimed in Norway.