From a performance of The Slutcracker to having a baton cut out of his hand, conductor Mikel Toms is turning years of musical mishaps into a comedy show. Here’s a preview…
1. Furiously waving a sharpened stick is your job. Making the stick pointier than it absolutely has to be may not be the cleverest idea you’ve ever had.
The wrong prescription glasses will give you a headache. The wrong size bra will give you backache. The wrong size shoes will give you bunions. Big deal. The wrong size conducting baton will land you on an operating table somewhere in the Balkans with a surgeon hacking away at your hand with glee and a knife.
The batons I like are sold in two sizes: too long and too short. I buy the former and snap off an inch so that they’re the perfect length. While this instils in one a feeling of great conducting élan , it can leave a razor-sharp splinter and it’s important to take care, while, say, in the sweaty throes of Romanticism, not to stab yourself with it and snap off the end leaving an inch or so of wooden pole rammed up against your phalanges, requiring surgical intervention and a fortnight course of Cyrillic antibiotics.
2. Success may not always be identified by a Deutsche Grammophon logo
“It’s such an honour to be recording The Nutcracker for the Boston Ballet.”
“Yes, well, the thing is, you see…we’re not really THE Boston Ballet. We’re more like A Boston ballet.”
“Oh. I see. But this is still The Nutcracker, right?”
“Yes, yes! Absolutely. Kind of.”
“We’re The Slutcracker.”
The Nutcracker was the work that first kindled my love of orchestral music and so when the opportunity arose to record the complete ballet for a sell-out Christmas production in Boston, I leapt at the chance. The fact that it was an erotic, burlesque production starring pole dancers, strippers, dominatrices, gimps and a gang of dry-humping clowns only added to the enjoyment.
3. Throw away your money on tawdry lasciviousness, not on conducting competitions.
I once spent nearly a week and around five hundred pounds travelling to and from the South of France to participate in a highly-regarded international orchestral conducting competition. I was eliminated after three minutes conducting an upright piano.
In these competitions, hundreds of largely work-free conductors hand over hundreds of pounds in order to be given the chance to win a big, fat prize. If you happen to have received an email from Nigeria recently, you’re perhaps already familiar with the principle. Hundreds of unemployed conductors hand over money they don’t really have without any realistic chance of a return on their deposit in order for a tiny handful of people unknown to them to benefit vastly. If you happen to have studied the ouevre of Bernie Madoff recently, you’re perhaps already be familiar with etc etc.
4. Operas don’t always happen where you expect them to happen
The Death Row/Guantánamo Bay lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith summoned me last year to conduct an opera he’d written as a campaigning tool against that notorious nettlebed of human rights abuse, West Dorset District Council.
The opera dramatised the proceedings of a recent Council meeting and was followed by a public debate about the planned redevelopment of a small business area in Bridport. On the one hand, it was a thoroughly radical concept that I daresay more established opera houses would be reluctant to tackle. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but notice that the music bore more than a passing resemblance to the huge swathes of “Greatest Hits of the ’80s” with which the great campaigning advocate had jammed full his iPod.
5. Your duty to the composer extends far beyond the music.
I arranged to meet up with a composer a couple of weeks ago to discuss a score of his that we were due to record the following day. On the way to our meeting, he put his back out so I bundled him into a taxi to a Czech hospital and arranged for a colourless, unidentified fluid to be injected into his lumbar region. We never did find out what the liquid was and neither did we ever get round to discussing his music. The recording went quite well, though, and he seemed pretty sprightly afterwards.
6. Check out the width of massive insects before renting them.
However vast the numbers may initially lead you to believe they are, getting record-breaking stick insects to look utterly massive in HD widescreen is trickier than you might at first suspect. I once had the idea to draw a (cynics might say spurious) link between Ravel’s orchestral masterpiece La Valse and Kafka’s acme of Vermin Lit Metamorphosis so I made my way with a film-maker to the Natural History Museum, home to a certain Phobaeticus chani, a Bornean bug of uncertain gender measuring in at a handsome 56.7 cm (legs notwithstanding).
“I have to say, I think we were expecting something a bit…well…meatier”, I said to the museum attendant who had welcomed us with a stopwatch.
“Oh, I’m sorry. My understanding was you wanted to film it. Were you hoping to eat it as well?”
In the end, catastrophic audio equipment failure and the consequent binning of all our footage were overshadowed by the discovery of a much larger and broader-round-the-hips insect, some sort of fat cricket from New Zealand primarily distinguished by its proclivity to wolf down whole carrots.
7. Learn to count to five hundred in every language in the world.
It is a myth that conductors need to be able to play every instrument in the orchestra. To what purpose your hard-won Grade 8 ophicleide when the orchestra spread out before you comprises largely uncomprehending Uzbeks? Better by far to invest your time learning to count bar numbers in every conceivable language so they at least know which end of the piece you’d like them to play next. The goodwill thus generated will give you the moral wiggle room to address them unashamedly as every good British conductor abroad is wont: by shouting at them loudly and slowly in Italian.
8. Don’t grow too attached to your fee.
An otherwise charming border official in an otherwise charming former Soviet Socialist Republic raised an eyebrow at the ragged edge of the photo page of my passport. I say “raised an eyebrow”. I took it to mean “extended a palm” and normally I would have been delighted to have been vindicated in the whole matter of body language interpretation were it not for the fact that he relieved me of half my conducting fee. Having thus gained access to his country and having then conducted the concert for which said access was required, I was relieved of the balance of my conducting fee on the way out, not having noticed that my visa had expired four hours before my plane was due to depart.
9. Czech local councils are more supportive of the arts than British councils.
When we make orchestral recordings in Brno, the local council dispatches a man with a flag to stand a hundred yards up the road and slow down the trams so that they don’t disturb our recording as they trundle past. I’m pretty sure they can recycle milk bottles too.
10. Don’t ask an orchestra to compare itself to an animal.
“What kind of animal would you compare yourself to?”, asked Simon, the UK branding consultant I had flown out to Brno.
The orchestra members found themselves unable to reach agreement over whether they were feline, canine, leonine, ursine, bovine or porcine but, after a lengthy probe into the very fibrous core of their orchestral being, they agreed unanimously on one thing: the orchestra was a fretka.
“Aha! A fretka!” and we consulted a Czech-English dictionary. “Oh. A fretka” and Simon jotted it down in his notebook:
“Brno Philharmonic Orchestra: Black-Footed Ferret of Classical Music.”