The Phenomenon that is Johan de Meij

For my many sins, I am a musician and not just a depressive dude with a camera.  I play the French horn.  Some might even say that I’m a French French horn player, without being corrected by my autocorrect.  So this music thing…  I play the horn in a Wind Band, in Cholet, in the Anjou region of France, with good food and wine.  I wonder what decided me to join them…  There are a series of concerts every year with each concert having a given theme.  This next concert’s theme is about the planets.  The programme will be The Planets, by Gustav Holst, and the third Symphony by Johan de Meij, Planet Earth.

If you want to read Wikipedia to tell you about the Planets by Holst, then you can click here.  I will now give you my version of events.  Gustav Holst, a man with Swedish, German, and Latvian origins but born in England, wrote a series of pieces that made up the Planets Suite.  His ancestors must have settled before Brexit!  This was ground-breaking stuff, akin to Stravinsky and his Rites of Spring.  However, this program is about the planets, so we’ll leave Spring to Igor, the composer and not Frankenstein’s whacky assistant.  As any trailblazer will tell, they just weren’t ready for it man, and that it was ahead of its time, which to be fair, it was.  He started writing the suite in 1914, and the first movement was “Mars, the bringer of War.”  Quite eerie when you think about what happened in 1914.  Composing finished in 1917 and the première took place at Queen’s Hall, on the 29th of September, in 1918.  There were seven movements, and when I was a child, I always wondered why the planet Pluto wasn’t included.  What did they have against Mickey Mouse’s dog???  Then I learnt Pluto was only discovered in 1930.  The poor planet was demoted in 2006 and is no longer considered a planet but is still a heavenly body…  Just like Yours Truly!

This music that first disturbed people, has, over time, and thanks to John Williams, become the music of space and the stars, wars or no wars.  Some have accused John Williams of nicking everything in the first movement, Mars the bringer of War, and using it to compose the music to Star Wars.  I’m not saying he nicked it, but… A nice American gentleman, Charles Cornell, has exposed his point of view in a YouTube video 

When you look at it like that you can get where those people are coming from.  But in a completely nonpartial way, I couldn’t give a flying fart.  Both composers’ music is wonderful, and I think one could call it more homage than pilfering. Mind you, there are certain similarities.

When you look at the Planets Suite, you notice the Earth isn’t mentioned.  One person that noticed this and who could do something about it, is a certain Johan de Meij, whose name is engraved on a plaque on our rehearsal room in the Cholet Conservatoire.  A Dutch trombonist, he moved into composition, arranging, and conducting.  In the Wind Band world, he is very well known and respected.  Nearly all of us will have played some of his music at one stage in our careers.

The third Symphony takes us from the beginning of our Lonely Planet, Planet Earth, ending with Mother Earth.  It isn’t as much a narrative, but a more auditory exposition of ideas in an abstract form.  A soundtrack with electronic sounds helps the symphony become one musical experience as opposed to the classical three separate movements.  Planet Earth really is a continuation of Holst’s Planets.

It’s a whopping significant piece and a joy to play despite a few difficulties to challenge the horn player.  We were very fortunate to have Johan come and visit us, not just to say Hallo, but to explain the piece to us, conduct us and rehearse us.  The poor lad was full of cold, but shared his wisdom and experience with us, which I’m sure will prove itself invaluable for our performance on the 14th of November in the Théâtre Saint Louis in Cholet.  We worked on aural skills listening to the chords and listening to them to adjust the tuning and seeing where we fit into those chords. It might be an insignificant detail to you, but the seats are very comfortable and the acoustics are pretty damned good too!.  Holst couldn’t make it. Must have had something else in his diary for that weekend! 

CYSO City Youth Symphony Orchestra (Hull)

Right, this post might be a little introspective and even border on the nostalgic.  Mother, you have been warned, read on at your own peril. 

This week has been a good one.  In fact, it’s been a really good one.  Last weekend I was on holiday and it seems to have been nothing less than a Godsend!  For those of you who know nothing of me outside photography, you will now learn that I work in a factory in France that makes doors.  Yes, I work in a French Doors factory, even if that corny gag might get me shot at dawn.  Every Summer we would get four weeks holiday during August.  The whole factory just shut down for the month.  For those of you who have just got over the initial shock from that statement I will continue.  We’ll pick the others up later on.  We shut down for the month of August as do our clients, and the majority of country. Now we only get three weeks. Ah well… August is probably one of the best times to visit Paris.  They’re all on holiday and visiting their families in the provinces or following the latest holiday trend darling! 

That was the status quo and we all know it and it was good.  But, little did we know, Covid was just around the corner getting ready to bitch slap us all.  As a result of the first lockdown, the management thought, well, we need to work the first week of August “to be there for our clients” and the remaining week would be taken at a later date.  That later date was last week, for the week of the Ascension.  For those of you who aren’t Catholic or even Christian, the Ascension is when Jesus went back to heaven and said “I’ll be back,” but not “Hasta la vista Baby.”  That was somebody else.

Anyway, back to the subject in hand.  I have had my week’s holiday and it was very lovely.  Just what I needed.  This last week has been just as good.  The time at work has flown by, and yes I’m up to date on everything.  What has changed?  I have started walking my son’s dog.  1, because I can.  2.  Because I think she enjoys it, and seeing her getting all excited when she sees me putting on my shoes is a real ego boost.  We get into the car and I drive off to our local forest where we walk and take in Mother Nature.  Well kind of, because it’s a managed forest and the trees were planted mostly by man, but who cares, it gets me outside.  The dog is called Molly, and she’s a cross between a Spaniel and a Teckel, which means she loves sniffing everything and following trails. 

I used to identify uniquely as a “cat person” and today I am deciding to do my “coming out” as bi-petual.  I like both cats and dogs.  Yes another horrifying shock for my poor parents.  I’m really getting into this dog walking thing.  We have a few circuits that we enjoy.  The Forêt de Grasla, the Mare aux Canards, which, when I first heard my daughter talking about going first sounded like to my deaf ears Maracena, which I always thought was in Brazil, and behind the village in the vines.

The number of paces that I do a day has gone up from 7000 to a peak of 16000 yesterday.  Could this be a sneaky way of that dog telling me that I’m fat, that I shouldn’t eat as much, that I should give her some of my food instead, and move my booty?  Who cares?  It seems to be doing me good!

Where was I?  Ah yes.  Those of you who have eagle eyes, and who read the titles of my articles will be wondering what do France, dogs, holidays, and fat people have to do with a Youth Orchestra, or Hull even?  And you’d be right.  You might argue that the title was nothing more than pure click bait, and you will want to assassinate me on Twitter.  I’m not on Twitter, so unlucky you! 

So music…  Some of you who only know me with a camera in my hand and do not read all my posts, might not know that I lead a double life.  I dabble a bit in music.  Another contender for Understatement of the Year 2021.  I’ll try and go through as quickly as I can prepare the terrain for the main bit of this article and not the waffle at the beginning and my mind wandering and wondering.

When I was 6 years old I saw the guards parading on Horseguards Parade in London, and declared that one day I would do that.  I was in awe of the music, and I was hooked.  I started learning the horn at boarding school, and when boarding school was no longer the best place for me, I came home to Hull (the last word in the title).  You see, I’m getting there…

Well just a couple of days ago I was added to a Facebook Group by an old teacher of mine.  The Group is called “City of Hull Youth Symphony Orchestra (CYSO) Memories” which is for those of us fortunate enough to have played in the orchestra or one the City Youth Ensembles, and who went through the musical education system in Hull.  You end up seeing some familiar names spring up as do the flowers in the hedgerows on the way to work.  Recollections of concerts, and above all the hard work that went into them.  The work that non-musicians don’t get too see.  People talking about the well known character, GHS.  Geoffrey Heald Smith who managed to achieve legend status in many ways, not all good, but for music he was amazing.  He had this passion for music that he was able to “distil” in us.  The individual instrument teachers would come into your school and give you lesson whilst you were at school.   I have heard him described as a bully, an amazing musician, a legend, a source of fear, a drunk, a teacher, a conductor, an inspiration, a man of his time.  Take your pick, he was all of the above and more, and had a great impact on a whole generation of musicians in my home city.  He made an orchestra out of the teachers and would visit the schools to play for the pupils and try and get us interested in music.  These were like a breath of fresh air for me, but depending on his sobriety of lack thereof, things could be “difficult”.

When I was 11 I was in a new school in Hull after three years of boarding school.  My main preoccupations were, avoiding getting my head kicked in, avoiding being bullied, being accepted, and living through the general shitstorm that was going on around me.  1984.  Crap year for the miners, but not just the miners.  I was fed up of everything and let’s say that my early tutorage from my new horn teacher wasn’t going the way I wanted it to go.  Luckily, that changed.  I was about to give up, and my mother was distraught.  She called in GHS to speak some sense into me and to convince me to carry on.  He came to the school and we sat down and talked.  I seem to remember him telling me that sure, I could give up, and another child would take my instrument and my place, or I could continue and be part of something bigger than myself. Those 15 minutes changed my life, and I will be forever grateful to the man.

I would continue with my teacher, and I would like to thank Mr Oglesby for his patience, and his dedication to turning me into a horn player.  I joined the system and as I learnt my craft, I moved from training orchestra, to junior orchestra, and the junior wind band.   I passed my Grade V and became eligible to try and audition for the City Youth Orchestra.  It was a very good school for me as a musician and helped install a discipline that I carry with me to this day.  Practice, practice, practice.  No passengers allowed, somebody can always take your place.  Of course, egos were made and broken.  I remember one concert where the principal trumpet was replaced by a pro, as he hadn’t turned up for enough rehearsals.  It was no nonsense, and you learned not to talk or fidget during rehearsals.  The City youth Concerts took place in the City Hall, which was one of those Concert halls from the beginning of the century, built in 1909, and as a child was very awe-inspiring.  It was massive to me, and I remember being told to sell tickets for each concert, as we had to fill the place. It has a capacity of 1200 seats!

During my days in the orchestra, symphony orchestra, which became the concert orchestra, the symphonic wind band, and the Swing band, in the late 80’s I would be in the music centre about 5 days a week, be it for Aural and music theory training, orchestra or ensemble rehearsals.  There was so much talent in those orchestras that as an unsure and awkward teenager trying to deal with my childhood, I felt so inadequate.  There were people that would go on to become professional teachers, musicians, orchestrators, who all just seemed to ooze talent.  I was probably that weird kid who played the horn, that meant well, but was on the periphery.  Sure, I had mates that I would talk with but was by no means as talented as some. They are, however, whom I think of when I think about my musical youth.

I remember concerts, tours, getting up to no good in Switzerland but managing to be OK despite my turbulent youth.  There were rites of passage, which contributed to make me the musician I am today.  I no longer live in Hull, as all the French photography may indicate, and I now live over here in France and have done since 1994.  That’ll teach me!  I remember my first rehearsals in the local orchestra in Noisy Le Sec, and the professional horn players who would teach us and guide us, said they knew that I was English in the way that I approached music.  I did it without an ego, and knew my role in the section and was a section member and not and frustrated soloist.  I knew that I was there to serve the music, and not for the music to serve me.  I was also a lot more disciplined that my French counterparts, who are always talking, fidgeting etc, but are not as bad as the Italians are.  Even my present musical director seems to see me as the pillar on which the horn section can rely on.  I’m still not a fan of being principal horn and generally play second horn.  My favourite position will always be 4th horn which is the bass of the section, the motor, and gives a base on which to carry the other three.

So…. Off to Paris tomorrow with my son for an epic Ian and Killian day. I might even take a camera along and get some photos.

Marianne en Concert

I have a friend who sings, and who really sings well. She plays the guitar too. She also happens to be Australian but we won’t hold that against her! Tonight is her first concert in the pub where she works.

She’s a nervous as heck, but the first song went off really well, and she’ll be fine.

As a musician myself I know what she’s going through. But the thing about being a musician is that you are in your concerts, but you don’t go to many as a spectator. I really should go more often.

Song three, and she’s getting into it. She even smiled. The strange thing isn’t the music, but seeing her going through what I go through every time I gone on stage. Each piece being like a musical journey that I go through.

People applaud and they’re really into her. Friends are watching her and egging her on. Her workmates are there too. She’s surrounded by friendly faces.

Beers are flowing and my pint is slowing evaporating. She’s finished her fast half and is looking relieved. She rocked it. As she works here she knows everyone and everyone knows her. I’m well impressed anyway.

People are coming and going but I’m just happy to see her giving it her all. People are coming up to her, giving her the bise, and saying how wonderful she is. Which is of course an understatement. I’m definitely a fan!

I actually got to the end of this article without talking about cake. Could this be a sign?

Shhhh, the second half is about to start!

Farman

Yesterday, I was out with my daughter in Nantes. Nothing new about that, but those who know me, know that already. What was new was that I had just bought a Canon 85mm F1.8 lens and wanted to try it out. Kate had decided that we would not go to the pub but go the Anneaux de Buren instead. And to be more exact, go to the Altercafé in the Hangar à Bananes!

So, we did. I usually get green tea flavoured with ginger and lemon, and Kate has Orangina, and we get to eat a nice chocoloate brownie together. Shock and Horror (which always were a class double act)! No more brownies. Oh woe is me! And her! Luckily they still had Orangina, but I had to make do with a beer. I know, I know. The lengths I will go to to stop that child being traumatised by lack of rather tasty chocolate brownie! I give, give, give, and give some more. We even had to slum it and have a cheese and charcuterie board with toast. Totally yummy, but missing that chocolatey taste that we were after. Mind you, if you do get French cheese and charcuterie that tastes of chocolate, you might want to send it back and choose something else…

Whilst we were offering up our misfortune for the Holy Souls, a band started setting up. Yes, we were going to get live music! The guy from the band came up the mezzanine where Kate and I were to take some photos on his phone. I asked would he mind if I took a couple of photos. He asked are you on Instagram. I was and immediately followed him. I said I’d send him a link to the photos once they had been edited, and these are the photos that you’ll be seeing in this article.

The proceeded to set up and do their sound check. We weren’t able to stay for the concert, but I thought what the heck, I’ll get some good photos and as I’ve never photographed a band before, I thought it would be a good environment in which to learn. No hoards of screaming fans to wade through…

So here is the photo reportage of the Farman sound check, and here’s their Instagram account. Tools of the trade were the Canon 6D Mark II, with the 50mm F1.8 lens, and its big brother, the 85mm F1.8 lens.