December

As a musician, even one as not as implicated as me, December can be a busy time and has proven itself to live up to its reputation of loads of concerts to finish the year, and carolling. For the moment, I have 3 out of 5 weekends taken up with playing the horn in one form or another. 

At the end of the Season in the summer of 2022, I decided not to follow the new direction taken by the Orchestre d’Harmonie de Cholet.  Not just out of loyalty to the outgoing conductor who, since 2009, become a close friend, but sometimes you just need a change of scene.  I first thought of just having a complete break from music, which is a rash decision but one I have taken in the past.  Friends were worried that I would stop music altogether, which would not only be a shame but also a waste of talent or work that I have put into learning the horn over the years.  I had lost the love of performing, and rehearsals had become more a way of spending time on something I knew how to do but with less and less pleasure.

I was therefore on the lookout for a new ensemble that needed a horn player.  When I was in the Cholet Conservatoire Symphony orchestra, I made friends who talked about this relatively new orchestra based just South of Nantes.  You go to Facebook and see their page and try to make a choice.  I made a choice.  I am now the fourth horn in the Symphonique des Bords de Loire. 

So what does this have to do with being busy in December?  I’ll tell you.  With concerts and rehearsals, I have been playing every weekend since the 26th of November.  I am now 50, have taken up napping in a big way, and sleeping, or at least trying to sleep as a secondary calling.  All this music is creating an enormous conflict of interest between music and my new vocation, napping.  I have tried automatic pilot, but people seem to cotton on and even dare come up to me and try to talk to me when my body is still on, but the brain is experiencing a temporary outage.  The sheer audacity of it all!   

Last weekend, I did a paid gig for the Brass Quintet Arabesque, replacing my old horn teacher, the Grand, the mother Great, and all-around good egg, Jerome Percher who teaches the horn in the Conservatoire In Angers!  He is also a massive football fan and maybe the evening match between our two splendid countries was just too much for him.  Little did we know that Harry Kane would be less fortunate than us. 

The idea was to have a brass band style quintet with two cornets, one tenor horn, one euphonium, and one tuba.  Similar to what you might see the Salvation Army playing when they’re out around this time.  We would play three sets of Christmas carols to add some ambience to the Christmas Market in La Roche Sur Yon, which is the administrative capital of the Vendée.  It was a beautifully sunny day, but a tad cold.  Yes, brass monkey weather!

Now I don’t technically play the tenor horn, but had studied the fingerings to know how to approach the instrument and not look too silly.  It’s also much lighter than the more common, yet beautiful instrument, which is the French Horn.

Everything that morning seemed to go wrong.  I was already nervous as I didn’t want to let the lads down and my heart was going like the clappers.  Then slightly late getting out of the house, having to get the windscreen de-iced, as it was -5°C, which is chilly.  Then the car pretended to not want to start.  Ha ha ha, it was the car just trying to play a trick on me.  The roads had been salted so fine, and I was headed down to La Roche. I had misread the text message with the meeting times and thought I was late.  As it turned out, I wasn’t, and our lady answered my prayer for a parking space not too far from the meeting point.  I, of course, couldn’t find my colleagues when I arrived in the square and then suddenly I saw Hervé and felt a lot less anxious!

We played our three sets, and the only upset was whilst playing I saw three ships.  I think we all managed to sink them! 

The organisers had prepared us some hot pretzels and some mulled wine, which just hit the spot and told us where the restaurant was, where we were to have lunch.  The five of us needed feeding!  Starters and main, or main and dessert, with drinks.  I could get used to this.  We ate, joked, finished our beer, and said see you later at Hervé’s house for the Soirée to celebrate Jean Michel’s birthday in a French and very fitting way!

I just had to get to Nantes, for confession, to get a little something for my evening’s host, wife, and daughter.  Just enough time left over to pick up my wife, and get ourselves to our evening.

Jean Michel has a bit of a reputation as an epicurean, and not only a lover of fine cuisine, but a very accomplished chef!  Upon arrival, we went to say hello to everyone, and were told to leave the kitchen, which is exactly what we did!  The aforementioned legend that is Monsieur Percher was there with his lovely wife, and it was such a pleasure introducing each other to our respective spouses.  The pre-meal beers were served and then out of nowhere appeared a magnum of very nice champagne, which was the first of quite a few exquisite bottles, which complemented Jean Michel’s cooking so well.  We’re now in happy as a pig in shit territory. 

It was a lovely evening and with the wine, I was beginning to feel a little tired, which is better than being a little tiring.  It was time for little Ian to go beddy byes…  My new vocation in life.  Fortunately, my wife is a professional driver, stone-cold sober, and able to drive us home. 

The next day was spent gently getting out of bed, and trying not to let on that I might be a little tired.  By Sunday evening I was ready to go to mass, and who would I see, but Hervé and his family.  It’s nice not being at mass on your own and was just the surprise I need to finish the evening off on a high point.  That and going to the pub afterwards.

Next Saturday, I will play the tenor horn with the Tuba Class with Hervé as their teacher.  The weekend after will be a lot quieter.  Then three days in the factory before breaking up for two weeks holiday for Christmas, which, Dear Reader, will be a completely different story. 

Until then, I wish each and every one of you a very happy, peaceful, and above all drama-free Christmas!

La Générale

La Générale refers to a French dress rehearsal before a show or concert but with no senior military officer in sight.  But why am I talking about a rehearsal?  Well, as some of you Dear Readers might know that for my many sins, I am a horn player and musician.  Both can happen simultaneously, despite our reputation! From February 2009 until July 2022, I played the horn for the Orchestre d’Harmonie de Cholet in France.  Some people had cottoned onto the fact that I dabble in this photography lark, and since they had just changed musical direction, they would like me to take some photos of the new director in front of the band.  I of course said yes, and following the lessons learnt during the American Concert, I was feeling quietly confident.

The musicians were asked to attend the Générale in concert dress, all looking very smart.  This would allow me to wander around the stage freely, not annoy the audience, and have complete freedom to try to take a couple of photos.  What a good idea!  It also meant that I had two hours to get the job done in a satisfactory manner.

I had the Canon 6D Mark II with the 85mm F1.8 Canon lens, and the trusty and also favourite, almost to the point of it being a fetish, Fuji Film X100F, with the telephoto adapter which transforms the lens into a 50mm F 2.0 lens.  I could take off that adapter and have 35mm equivalent lens.  To the uninitiated, you will think I have just spouted out a huge amount of gobbledy gook, but I it actually means something to me.  It was out of the question that I would miss 60 photos like last time.  A lesson most definitely learnt!

Sooooo…  I wandered around taking photos and trying to make sure I didn’t just photograph the horn section.  Nobody couldn’t accuse me of favouritism;  except that I had treated some images first for friends and had posted them on Facebook.  Two of those friends were, of course, in the Horn Section.  Ooooops a daisy.  Ah well.  I did, however, tell everyone that these were merely a foretaste of things to come, and I realised I had actually been quite democratic and represented most of the musicians.  Out of the 400 odd photos taken, 124 were presented to the musicians in a private Google Gallery.  Not bad for two hours of shooting.    You will see a small selection of those photos at the end of this article.

As a thank you, I was invited to the concert the next day.  After a Barber appointment to tame my overgrown beard and a visit to the pub just to say hello to the staff and friends, I headed off to Cholet for my Rendez Vous with music listening.  Keep music live etc!! 

Naturally, with the change of conductor, there will be a change of musical direction.  Each person had to get used to the novelty, and the new conductor has to make his mark on the orchestra, which is perfectly normal.  I had heard all kinds of things and wanted to make up my own mind.  The concert theme was “Heart of the Forest.”  I was determined to take it all in with no preconceived ideas.  Just enjoy the bloody music, you fool.  So I sat down and did just that.  The sound at the back of the auditorium differed completely from what I had heard the night before.  As a musician, we hear the concert from where we are on the stage.  The audience really hears that difference.  I was blown away and just sat there enjoying watching my friends create music.

With time, the orchestra and the new musical director will get to know each other, and I look forward to seeing their next concert and seeing the outcome of this new relationship in future concerts, and it goes without saying that I wish them the very best of success for the future! 

Now for the photos, and not just the horn section…

The American Concert

“Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast.”  I, like most people, used to think that this was pure Shakespeare.  Well, it is not; it is actually from the play “The Mourning Bride” by William Cosgrove, which was first performed in 1697.  No, I cannot be having you say that you learn nothing from this blog, right?

So you get a free fact of the day.  First, I don’t have breasts, but man boobs, and second, they’re not savage either!  Trust me! As suggested in the title, this article is about a concert, and surprisingly the music was American, hence the name of the American Concert.  Mind-blowing I know, right?

Now I can hear you saying this blog is about this man’s depression and photography, and possibly tea and cake.  Give me some time and I’ll get there.  My mental health is on the melancholic side due to rain, and teenagers at home, but it will get better. 

My friend Hervé, who has already starred twice on my blog, is part of a Brass Quintet called Arabesque who have only been mentioned once on my blog.  This lovely chap asked if I wanted to take some photos of their American Concert and I, of course, said yes, that would be great fun! They are revamping their website and wanted some photographs for it and after the success of the last shoot I did for them, they asked me to come back. 

This would be the first concert I would photograph with stage lights.  And when you photograph a concert, you have to get it right and not mess it up.  I, of course, messed quite a few photos up, but it’s all a learning process, isn’t it?  “They” said to use your fastest lenses, which is photographer lingo saying that you need the lens to have the widest opening possible to let in the most light and still have a relatively quick shutter speed.  “They” seem to give out some good advice so I took my very fastest lens, an f1.2 35mm lens for my XT2 and because it has focus peaking, you can’t go wrong.  That’s what “they” said.  I proved “them” wrong and wasted about 60 photos.  That’ll teach me to listen to “them!”  

Fortunately, I had my Plan B (Canon 6D MarkII) with me, which worked a treat.  What did I learn from this precarious situation?  First, I was the only one who knew that I had messed up.  Second, the importance of having a Plan B.  Thirdly, using both cameras and thus still getting the shot, and fourthly that using a manual lens usually provides no worries during the day, but autofocus can be quite a good friend, especially for a concert.  No need to be a purist.  You can save that for later.  What you need is to get the job done.  So leave your pride at home and get some decent photos. 

The entire show was splendid, and the music was first class too!  If you have time to see Arabesque in concert you’ll definitely enjoy yourself, and you’ll be supporting live music and a great bunch of guys too!  I would also like to thank them for the restaurant meal after the concert.  What a delightful way to spend an evening!

First Concert in over Twenty Years

Dear Reader, I may have mentioned before in previous articles that for my many sins, and to curb my pride, I am a musician, and some might even go further still, and remind me I am a horn player.  As a musician, we can have a tendency to “do” concerts and play in them, rather than going along as a listener.  I mean, of course, that we listen to our fellow musicians, especially when playing that music together.  It is a team effort, after all.  But not as a spectator.

Little did I know that when I went to taste some homemade beer at my friend Hervé’s house, he would invite me to take some photos of a concert he was playing in, on the 18th of June.  I, of course, jumped at the opportunity.  An evening of taking photos and getting to listen to live music at the same time?  What a way to spend the hottest day of the year so far!

We were rehearsing together the following Friday, and he said to be at his house at such-and-such a time, and that I should just park up in the driveway.  There would also be my old and very much revered horn teacher, as in my previous horn teacher, and not my old new horn teacher, nor a teacher that is old despite his great wisdom.  But that is a story for another day.  Hervé was going to drive us to the concert.  Jérôme, my very much revered horn teacher, plays in the same ensemble as Hervé.  They are members of the Brass Quintet Arabesque, made up of instrument teachers from across my particular region of France. 

So, I got into the car, turned on the ignition, saw the temperature, and promptly melted. 44°C! For those who only work in Fahrenheit, body temperature is 37°C, and 44°C is 111°F. My point exactly. By the time I reached Hervé’s house, it was a mere 40°C. A tad warm, even for me!

I drove up, parked, saw my horn teacher in very summery attire, but always with a hat, saunter up, and Smaug, the family Labrador, who you remember from my last article, who does not know what sauntering is about, just ran around the car three times and jumped up to say hello, being as friendly as ever. Bless him! We quickly went inside into the shade and cool. I do like a bit of cool from time to time.

We eventually got all the kit together in the car, thanks again Hervé for doing all the driving, and set off. The way to Guérande isn’t very complicated, and it’s pretty plain sailing. We talked about everything and nothing, about my presence at the Wind Band next year, and what alternatives I could think of, about the photoshoot from the previous week, about the various instruments and would we change instrument, how much it might cost to change, and what newer instruments could bring to the table, or should I say rehearsal room…

Parking in Guérande was a doddle, and we headed to the Collégiale, or church inside the medieval walls. We dropped everything off in the church, and things suddenly became very serious. Where would we eat? The first place we tried, a creperie, was no longer serving food, so we headed to Plan B. Plan B was fully booked, but was able to fit us in. Five brass musicians, one organist, and yours truly. Luckily I don’t seem to take up much space. Simon said he had to go and shave and came back with blood on his face. Michel, the organist that would be playing with the quintet, told us that the organ in that building needed a makeover and was basically shite. Out of tune, and half of it didn’t work. That’s something you don’t really want to hear when you don’t have a huge amount of time to have the pre-concert setup and run through. Another thing you don’t want to hear is that you’re all going to have to tune your instruments up to 444hz. This basically means you’re all fecked because your instruments have been in slightly warm cars. After all, it’s boiling outside and you’ll just never make it. The brass expands in the heat and therefore will sound flatter, and at 444hz you really need to be on the sharper side. It’s a bit like me trying to walk past a slice of cake and a nice cup of tea; it’s just not going to happen… Luckily the food arrived, as did the beers, and the puds. We were happy. I had all my camera gear, and most importantly plenty of batteries in case the batteries inside the cameras gave up the will to live. Some lovely shots were begging to be taken outside the church.

What I didn’t have, especially inside the church, was a whole lot of light. For photography, light is quite important. Understatement of the year contender again… This was going to be interesting. I had been fed by Arabesque, and now there was bugger all light inside, so photography was going to be a tad tricky.

Luckily, somebody turned on the lights and I was saved. Who said miracles never happen in the Catholic Church? They did this evening. The only photos I could take were before the concert actually began because afterwards the church would fall into darkness as there was going to be drone footage shown on a screen behind the Quintet as they played, showing the church in which they were playing. This was the main idea behind the concert. Through music and film, show people the church they were in from a slightly different viewpoint. It was great just to sit and take in the music. And take in the music I did. I was always told the importance of concert-going to musicians and how it helps us develop musically in so many ways. I only had to make an effort to sit there, make no noise, and just listen and be captivated. And captivated I was! I thought the tuning was fine and not at all the catastrophe announced by the organist. But I was just here to listen to some quality sounds and not to be a critic from the Times

The first half finished with the Toccata by Charles Marie Widor from his Organ symphony number 5. Any pedal notes that were missing from the organ were amply covered by the bass notes of the tuba that seem to just go right through you. It’s also a piece of music that has, amongst others, the ability to make my eye become all watery with emotion. I’ll leave it here for you to listen to.

The interval arrived. I say that but it didn’t really make an entrance. It just happened. The public was invited to walk around the church and rediscover images from the film in real life. They could also purchase CDs of the Quintet. 10€ each, or 20€ for three. They could also subscribe and have a CD of the programme, as well as make a contribution to the Association Résonnance, who gave their name to the entire project. It also meant that I could take more ambience photos and not be in anybody’s way.

Up until then, I had been using the Canon 6D Mark II which makes a tremendous noise when the mirror moves up to expose the sensor. I was worried that I would disturb everyone and switched to the comparatively silent Fuji XT2 with the 18-55mm zoom lens, which is a 24-70mm full-frame equivalent, so a good all-rounder for reportage. During the second half, I could be seen trying to move silently the way Corporal McCune taught me to so as not to disturb my fellow concertgoers.

The second half started with the horn and trombone playing a one thousand-year-old tune for the Easter celebration. Unfortunately, the audience hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that the second half had just started and some were still talking! As soon as the other musicians appear and Hervé started introducing the next piece, they seemed to get the message and promptly shut up! They lead us through time through the Baroque, the Classical, and the Romantic periods. They ended up with Aaron Copland, and music from Grover’s Corner, whoever Grover was. I suspect it wasn’t the same Grover that lives on Sesame Street…

After the concert, we did the official group photo, and eventually said good night and see back at Hervé’s house. It was midnight, much cooler, windy, and felt as if a storm was on the way. Jérôme fell asleep in the back, and Hervé and I just chilled, talking about this very blog and photography, especially the differences between being a good amateur photographer, and a professional photographer and how the two are completely different, in the same way, that I quickly realised when doing my music studies here in France. You have to produce consistently good results, and the pressure is on. They were already doing the concert debrief about everything that went wrong. I tried to reassure them that it wasn’t a competition and that as an audience member, I had a great time. Basically, the same things that I had been taught by Jérôme. If the audience is happy, then the audience is happy.

On the way home, we saw the sky fill up with lightning and thunder. It felt magical, and also the temperature had halved. It was a mere 22°C. It felt wonderful. We got home first and had a beer whilst waiting for the others to arrive. The others arrived and there was still some English beer for them, and some homemade beer too. It received the seal of approval from everyone present. We ended saying what went wrong with the concert and how it was a learning experience. I still thought it was brilliant. So there!!

All I have to do is the photo editing…

Le Concert

As I said a couple of articles ago, for my many sins, I am a musician.  In 15 minutes I will be on stage playing in a concert.   It’s almost an other-worldly experience.  Random thoughts wondering through my mind.  I know I turned off the iron, because I did my ironing yesterday.  But on the 45 drive minute drive to the theatre I was just taking in the landscape and the colours of Autumn, telling myself that “that” would make a nice photo. Capturing the autmnal colours of the trees, seeing those that were in all their warm coloured glory.  Wondering if I should use a 50 or the 16-35mm zoom.  Well in that very instant the answer wasn’t a problem.  I was driving and not taking photos.  Michael Ball was on Radio 2 talking about Children in Need and giving praise to those fund raisers that keep the UK going.  I was there and yet so far away in my mind. 

I was sat down on stage at the correct time, secretly hating all those who were there before me making me seem late. 8 minutes to show time.  Thoughts in my mind telling not to screw up such amd such a passage.  And thinking that in Mars I start the concert with a bass horn solo.  So no pressure then.  Once it’s  over I’ll be in the action and not thinking anymore.  Looking forward to the horn section solo in Jupiter.  No need to play too loud, but on the contrary, just be present with a large sound and enjoy the shit out of it!

Time to go and I’ll  finish after the concert or maybe at half time.  I don’t  know yet…  You’ll just have to see.  It’ll be a surprise. 

Well that could have been worse.    I mean it wasn’t disastrous, but little details could have made it better.  Lack of concentration maybe.  It’s  a long hard slog after all. 

I’m not saying that I feel like death, but….  I tried to die quietly which is all anyone can ask of you.  The cold seems to have to descended onto my chest, so thankfully no sneezes but quite a few coughs.  Each one on a down beat of course…

Next up is the de Meij Symphony.  Let’s  hope we give proper tribute to the composer that introduced us to the inner workings of his composition.  After that home time, and if I have the energy I might develop some film.   I have a backlog of films to get through. Just arrived in the car and the choise seems to be pub, or home…. Decisions, decisions

It ended up being home. See you next time for an other enthralling episode…..

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!