Steven Mead Travelogue
...as published in Tuba News
Sometimes I feel the months and seasons blur into one but September always feels like a new beginning, with the kids going back to school, getting ready for the start of a new session at the RNCM and the weather beginning to remind you that summer has finished. With the bizarre contrasts that we are all experiencing at the moment with the weather it seems we need to gauge our year by what’s in the calendar rather than what’s in the sky.
At the beginning of September, a project long in the planning stages came to fruition with a three day recording session in Austria for the ‘Brassin’ Mozart’ CD with the guys from Sound-Inn-Brass. Going to record Mozart in Austria, on a euphonium even, felt a little daunting, a bit like turning up in Liverpool to play some Beatles songs, or going to New Orleans to play jazz. But it was Mozart with a twist and without upsetting the purists too much, one hopes.
Hubert Gurtner, the boss of this professional 12 piece symphonic brass ensemble talked to me a year ago about a CD to celebrate the 250 year Anniversary of Mozart’s birth. Mozart didn’t write a lot for solo euphonium and brass ensemble (!!) but thankfully he did compose wonderful music that is ripe for adaptation, and with the help of some talented arrangers the Bassoon Concerto, the Adagio from the Clarinet Concerto, the finale of the Symphonie Concertante and several others came to life. It was also the first time I have recorded with a soprano singer. Charlotte Pistor is an American, now living and working in Salzburg and she was a pleasure to work with. I have yet to find one of the famously temperamental sopranos we hear about in the opera, although I’m sure they are out there and Charlotte was certainly good company and possesses the most pure and beautiful voice. We dueted in one aria and she sang two further solo arias. Guest conductor Howard Evans from the UK knocked the group into shape quickly as we tuned our natural styles to that of Mozart. It was quite a musical ‘detox’ - I recommend it!
The highlight for me was recording the slow movement of the Clarinet Concerto, what a gorgeous work and to record it ‘senza vibrato’ and imitating the softest clarinet attacks possible was a fun challenge. We also recorded two new works based on Mozart themes from the young and talented composer from the UK, Peter Meechan. His ‘Requiem Paraphrases’ will probably turn out to be regarded as perhaps the most important work for euph and brass ensemble ever composed… simply magnificent and if Mozart were alive today he would have enjoyed the funky middle section I’m sure. The recording took place in a music school recital hall about an hour from Salzburg and the Austrian countryside and late summer weather was perfect.
From Linz I took the train north and east to Bavaria for four days, in a castle, with the ladies and gentlemen of the North Bavarian Symphonic Youth Orchestra. Arriving around 10pm, I was looking forward to a long nights sleep after the tiring recording sessions only to be told the band party (the first of several as it turned out) was beginning! Oh my, do the Bavarians know how to party?! As I watched hilarious company sketches, Monty Pythonesque and mock debates (in German, of course), I was forced to guess the content and success only by the volume of the laughter and applause. Hard to believe these same people would sit down and make great music the next day at 9am. It got harder to believe it at 2am, and I was one of the first to quit, admit defeat, old age etc. and go to my bed. The next days were wonderful, the band would work hard all day under the direction of Johann Mosenbichler in a serious programme of original band music, accompany me very well and then party ALL NIGHT. Whatever is in the German beer there must be some energy-giving nutrients that I recommend to you all as this band never quit, right till the end of the final Sunday afternoon concert. I played Gypsy Airs (Sarasate) and Sparke’s popular ‘Pantomime’ during these days. A bizarre contrast to report though; the whole event culminated in a concert at the castle on the Sunday afternoon which was part of an Open Day celebration for the castle itself, set in gardens the old place looked wonderful. There was a marquee for food and drink (Bavarian style), lots of traditional costumes too. High culture was alive and well or so I thought until a local 80s style sci-fi rock group played their lunchtime concert in the marquee!
It was Absolutely Hideous from start to finish; loud, out of tune, with characters straight from a horror movie, screaming at the bemused sausage-eaters in the audience, who gradually moved further away out of the tent as the aural onslaught continued. Really, it was quite a disturbing image to take away from a wonderful four days with talented and funny young Bavarians.
I returned back to the UK and drive straight to the middle of the Black Mountains in Wales, the picturesque location for Mike Moor’s recording studio. Long days and nights again followed, editing the CD I recorded with the Eikanger-Bjorsvik Brass Band in Norway in late August. I love working with Mike, the man is a genial genius and had Bavarian stamina too, but of a musical rather than alcoholic nature you understand. The brass band sounded great and the arrangements of Howard Snell featured on the disc sounded marvellous. You appreciate them even more once you’ve had the chance to listen to everything over and over again. "20 Supreme Years" will be released in late January (BOCC106). I then made it home, and started preparations for what promised to be an interesting 8 days in Switzerland. Over a year ago I got an email from an organisation from Cannobio, near Lugano (the Italian speaking area of Switzerland) asking whether I’d like to do a concert with their band. They seemed so enthusiastic I couldn’t say no and so after months of planning and programme building and a new piece, I arrived in the picturesque town of Cannobio and met the charismatic local music enthusiasts. They were so friendly and generous. I discovered, because I noticed it, that a Bavarian marquee-style construction was being built in the middle of the town and discovered they were building it for my concert! It was great and terrible at the same time. Nice that they’d go to so much trouble but the acoustics in these places are just as bad as you can imagine, and they were going to make a DVD and CD of the concert too! If it wasn’t for the generosity of my hosts I could have felt a little uneasy, but the atmosphere was so amazing, I found out the entire town was waiting for this concert. The rehearsal the night before the gig, in a local band room went fine, the conductor had good control and the players were all local pros and semi pros. They recorded the rehearsal too to safeguard any ‘nasties’ in the live concert recording. Lugano is a most incredible town to visit. It seems as if the cares of the world that affect most people simply do not exist there. The town is set on the shores of the lake, the climate is warm and the people all seem to have tons of money. You get good service in all the restaurants, they eat and drink great Italian food and especially coffee and everything is organised with Swiss efficiency too. What a place.
There was a buzz at the tent when I arrived, the choir were trying to rehearse, the band were on stage, Mirto (my excellent host) was shaking hands with everyone, the food and drink waiters and waitresses were already doing a brisk trade, the recording company were doing their stuff, and outside, it was beginning to rain!! It wasn’t forecast either so I was hoping the tent would survive. It turned out to be one of the most remarkable evenings I can remember. The tent was packed, with about 700 locals including the front left side lined with important people/sponsors/ politicians/bankers whom I had the pleasure to meet afterwards at a lavish banquet (not in the marquee). The band did exactly as we rehearsed (quite unusual!!) and the conductors tempi was again, exactly as rehearsed! Sorry if I sound surprised but it’s not always the case. Adrenalin, coffee, beta blockers, nerves, panic, self awareness all go to make conductors a little venerable to climatic change in a concert but my man came through well. The audience was generous and enthusiastic, and I had to dig deep to find enough extra pieces to play for them! The main sponsor of the event was a remarkable lady by the name of Roberta di Camerino a famous lady in the fashion world. Now 82 years old and still hugely impressive she spoke to the audience at the end of the concert and it was clear the rapport between her and her town was amazing. She is a Venetian, as she told me afterwards and she has a large house in the centre of Venice as well as a 50 metre boat in which she still design her clothes, bags and accessories. I sat with her at the reception and she introduced me to the Ambassador from the Italian part of Switzerland and many of her friends, lawyers, bankers et al. She also invited me to coffee at her magnificent villa the next morning, which I gratefully accepted. As the meal finished my good friend Francesco Tamiati (principal trumpet from La Scala, Milan) made a surprise appearance. He is a wonderful trumpeter and human being and so passionate about playing. He came back to the hotel and we talked until about 3am. He lives in Lugano so didn’t have far to travel. Coffee with Roberta was at 11am (check out her website www.robertadicamerino.com) and after photos and exchange of gifts it was time to go north by car to the German part of Switzerland, to a town called Volketswil, (not so far from Zurich). Arriving there mid-afternoon I was greeted my good friend Hanspeter Adank, or Hampi as he is known. He is a funny and wonderful man whom I knew years back when he worked for the deHaske company.
Now he’s going it alone in business and he’d organised a culture week in his area, the focal point of which was my workshops with local bands and a concert by a specially formed band called the Wallberg Brass Band which were also going to take part in the Swiss Open Brass Band Championships on the following Saturday. The hotel was good, the town pleasant but unremarkable but it turned out to be a great five days. Average attendance at my workshops was 70, not bad for a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday in Switzerland and they all come with their instruments. Normally it’s low brass only, but for the first two days I had also clarinets, flutes, saxes, you name it, they were carrying it. I was armed only with some daily exercises, some breathing exercises and the band hymn books and I had to draw on all my reserves to keep them entertained and informed each night. By day the Wallborg Band were been knocked into shape by Russell Gray, a great cornet player and conductor from the UK. Evidently their scepticism, even derision in Switzerland going around internet rooms that it wasn’t possible for a band who only met for the first time on a Monday to compete the following Saturday at the Swiss Open. But playing with them some solo pieces and hearing them rehearse I sensed the Swiss band world were in for a surprise, which was how it turned out. We did a great concert together on the Thursday night to a big audience at the hotel, I went home Friday morning and they went to Lucerne and WON the contest on the Saturday.
Having spent four days with them I can only begin to imagine the celebrations that followed and the big smile across of my friend Hampi. Not surprisingly the other bands and the internet chat room people didn’t like it! In years to come the Wallborg Band may or may not be in existence but their name will be on the trophy forever.
It was time to get back to the UK and meet all my students at the RNCM. It’s a particularly good group this year and you can meet them all on my website www.euphonium.net with photos and brief profiles of all of them, as you can my students from Trento. The mix of UK and international students is excellent and with the well known and charismatic baritone soloist Katrina Marzella joining us for a one year Masters degree it has raised the level of expectation for all of them. Another great character and player is Gary Curtin from Ireland whose natural ability has already landed him the principal euphonium position at the famous brass band The Fairey Band, who are based about 8 miles from Manchester in Stockport. Please feel free to make contact with my students, most of them have their email addresses on their profile listing on my website.
Then it was down to the Besson factory in Watford, north London for a day testing the latest batch of Prestige euphoniums and then on to Luton airport, taking an evening flight to Venice Treviso. This trip was to play with the Italian Police Band in a live television concert for the RAI Television. This band does one such event every year, on 29th September and the conductor Maestro Billi had been in discussion with me for some months over the programme. I was met at passport control by a plain clothed policeman who said he was to drive me to Padova. I was expecting a lift to Padova (about 30 miles away) but was not expecting a flashing blue light all the way!!! I do recommend this mode of transport, even on the autostrada other cars just got out of the way, and we were allowed to dodge in and out of stationary traffic at road works. I have to get a blue light for my car back home. When we got on the outskirts of Padova we were escorted by another police car with flashing lights into the city centre. We went through red traffic lights, it was getting better by the second, I was texting friends to tell them what was happening. It was 11.15 at night, I was in no hurry, the first rehearsal was 5pm the next day! Still, it felt good and they made me feel very important. As we pulled up at the hotel a small group of people stopped to look at the reason for this light show and police escort and ‘littl ‘ol me’ got out, in jeans and a baseball cap with a euphonium over my shoulder. You could almost hear the curious onlookers say…‘ah its nobody!’ (or in Italian...niente niente) Well, this nobody was tired and I slept right through til 10am which is almost unheard of for me.
Padova is a town well worth the visit. I’m not very good at the tourist thing any more, and normally when travelling I prefer to stay around the hotel, but as the weather was warm with hazy late summer sunshine I walked to the centre and enjoyed a lazy long lunch alone. The band arrived late afternoon from Rome and I was shown my dressing room at the Teatro Verdi. This is a most impressive traditional Italian theatre with a huge dome-shaped ceiling. The place was bustling with TV crew, seemingly hundreds of them all desperately trying to justify their existence. People talking into headsets, peering at monitors, reading clipboards, looking at watches and everyone else, as usual, on their mobile telephones... "ciao bella, gracie, come va, ah, buona serra..etc.etc" - incessant noise. I had to escape to my changing room and heard the dulcet tones of the guest soprano singer Roberta Canzion in the room next to mine. She sounded very fine indeed and I went to listen to her rehearsal with the Band. She was largely drowned out by the Band, as it was deemed not necessary for her to use a microphone as there was a TV sound microphone to pick up everything for the broadcast. This seemed a bit unfair as she would also be singing for 800 invited guests in the theatre. She didn’t throw a prima donna fit though and dealt with things very professionally. She listened to my rehearsal too and then came and found me afterwards and we talked. She was amazed by the sound of the euphonium, having never heard it before, said it sounded just like a voice. I was tempted to give her Roger Bobo’s email address for some more comments on the euphonium.
Incidentally I want to say thanks to all those who have taken the trouble to write to me on this subject. It has been an interesting time and it certainly did provoke debate and made us look at ourselves. For those who profess to be ‘waiting for more evidence’ to decide on this debate, I say, ‘Get a life! Pull yourself away from your computer and go and make music’. It’s sad to think that those with most time on their hands to pen message on websites are often not in the best position to contribute positively to the debate. There, in true ‘Bobo-esque’ style, I have will have sparked some debate!
Anyway Roberta and I talked about breathing and how singers and brass players do it. We were almost totally at one on the subject. She showed me some a great book I hadn’t seen on breathing before which I am now getting translated into English. I will share these thoughts with you soon. She was fun company the next day too as we did the tourist thing again during the day.
The actual concert was very fine. Everyone was totally stressed before the concert, live TV and radio stuff is always a bit of an extra adrenalin rush particularly playing and singing from memory but I think we all got away with it ok. I’ve played with the band twice before and this time they really excelled themselves. I do love Italians (not Alitalia, you understand!) they are great social people and now that my spoken Italian is ok I can communicate more and more. We had a reception in the threatre after the concert and the Italian cheeses and red wine tasted so good. Then it was on to a restaurant with Maestro Billi and the good people from the TV company. The Mayor of Padova paid the entire bill. Thank you Sir, you are a good man.
Next day it was time to head for the train station and headed north to Trento for the first in this season’s ISEB courses. The venue for the course changed this year, now we are in a converted villa in the hills outside the city, with a steep footpath that means you can be in the centre of town in 10 minutes. Its view over the valley is inspiring and all the new students seemed inspired too. Another good group, with participants coming from as far as Bari, southern Italy (10 hour by train), France and Spain…all good plane rides away. This is for 5 weekends from now till March. Their enthusiasm is remarkable and although the Saturday session finished officially at 5.30pm, after dinner we were back in the recital hall at 9pm playing duets, quartets together. I am encouraged that these young ambassadors for the euphonium are so motivated. I had a bad journey home though. After a 3.5 hour journey from Trento to Venice the 10.45pm flight to Luton left at 11.50 pm arrived to Luton at 1.10am, waited 40 minutes for a car park bus and then got diverted on the road home due to maintenance and then drove 85 miles, getting into bed at 4.15am. Sometimes travelling isn’t so romantic.
After some good days in Manchester it was off to Belgium and Holland for a CD recording with Brass Band Buizingen, one of the top brass bands in Belgium, with their brilliant conductor and arranger Luc Vertommen and then four days on tour in Holland.
The literature for the new solo CD is exciting. I know you’d expect me to say this, and after so many recordings in the last few years, but I say this sincerely. Luc Vertommen found some of the music including The Playful Pachyderm (originally bassoon and orchestra, Gilbert Vinter) and I discovered the Introduction and Tarantella (for violin) by Sarasate. The new Philip Sparke showpiece Harlequin and Prof. Henry Howey’s revised brass band version of The Ponchielli Concerto per Flicorno Basso are also on the disc as well as the Horovitz Concerto. The concert hall of the Lemmens Institute, Leuven was the venue and its natural acoustics really added to the enjoyment of the recording. The addition of rhythm guitar in the Gulda Concerto was a treat too and this is going to be a piece all euphonium players will want to play.
I took the train up to Holland on the Sunday evening and taught all day Monday in Holland. For the next three evenings I did lecture/recital/workshops around Holland, again with numbers averaging around 70, all enthusiastic, and all brought instruments with them. It made for good week but it was tiring. Big thanks to my friend and colleague Jan Jansen for putting the whole programme together.
However, disaster was around the corner!
I flew home on the Friday morning, taking an early flight from Amsterdam to East Midlands airport in the UK.
I was tired but in a hurry to get the Besson factory to play a concert in the afternoon for their international visitors, as it was the day before the National Brass Band Championships in London. My flight arrived a bit late and my wife met me at the airport. She was parked in the short stay car park and we went out to the car and drove the 30 minutes back to the house. It was only on arriving there I discovered I had carelessly left my wallet in the top compartment of the baggage trolley, AT THE AIRPORT, and …it was still there. My heart skipped several beats as I searched the bags in vain. I drove back to the airport, phoned the airport en route and hoped for the best. This time, however, my luck had run out. It had gone and with it, my credit cards, driving license and all the proceeds in cash of 8 days on the road. You may remember from my first travelogue something similar happening at a motorway service station some months ago and on that occasion a kind person handed it in. This time someone not quite as benevolent was the first to find it. In the hours that followed I tried to make sense of it, and was happy that nothing musical had changed; that couldn’t be misplaced or taken away so easily. It put things into perspective again for me and made me appreciate the loved ones around me. What would you do? Would you have handed in a wallet that wasn’t yours? I would, and I suspect you would too.
I tired to forget it all the next day as I went as a spectator and guest of the Besson company to the brass band competition and enjoyed a spectacular evening concert from my favourite brass ensemble Mnozil Brass who once again wowed the Royal Albert Hall audience. Congratulations also to Russell Gray for his second stunning contest triumph inside a month, winning the title with the Leyland Band after a clean, musical and thoroughly convincing early performance. I miss some elements band contesting as being ‘on the road’ curtails that dedication to bands I had in the 80’s, but it sure feels good to sit and watch others take the ‘heat’ once in a while.
The next days were not so hectic, going back to Mike Moor’s studio for Mozart editing followed by long days in Manchester and off once more to Austria for two concerts with the Low Brass Ensemble of Upper Austria, a group I formed about 4 years ago. It’s a 12 piece group of pro players and teachers, performing classical and jazz pieces. The main concert was at Linz castle on the national holiday, 26th October. Hundreds flocked to the castle and museum for a days ‘culture’ with percussion groups, a tango ensemble, choir, guitar,string quartet and…us! The high-ceilinged room made for a huge sonic experience for everyone and I was delighted with the response, young and old alike.
I had to fly home for a special family celebration. The next day was to be my Dad’s 75th birthday and it was to be a surprise party. That night I stayed with my family at my wife’s parents (also in Bournemouth) and next morning I was to be the first surprise with a 9am appearance. My plan was to make it to the back garden of my parent’s house without Dad seeing me and begin to play Happy Birthday. When I got to the house the car wasn’t there. So I phoned…no answer. I guessed Dad had popped out so I went to the back of the house and took out my euphonium. As I put the mouthpiece in the instrument I notice Dad emerging from the shed in which we keeps his model trains and I began immediately to play Happy Birthday. I’m not sure whether I was more startled than him but it was a magical moment for my great Dad and me. Many other happy surprises followed and it was about the hottest October 27 on record. We walked along the beach as swimmers emerged from the sea! Totally mad.
This brings us up to date now sitting in a car with my good friend Lito Fontano, founder member of Trombonisti Italiani in between concerts with this trombone quartet with our final concert in Kemeten, near Innsbruck tonight. The next three weeks include Wisconsin, (USA), Italy, Switzerland and Luxembourg, and have to find time for my great students in Manchester and my long suffering family and... practice. Thanks for reading all this drivel, maybe it’ll motivate you to do as much as you can in this short life we are given.
Steve Mead 30 October, somewhere in Austria.