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…

My friend Hervé

I was at Mass, in Nantes, on a Sunday evening, and being appropriately prayerful, knees bent praying to prepare my mind for the sacrifice of the mass wondering if I was going to be able to stand up again. Despite my gammy knee, it wasn’t a problem. Mass started, and they were off.  During the entrance hymn, my director of music at my Wind band, but most importantly, my friend, Hervé, accompanied by his wife, and daughter, walk in and sit just in front of me.  We gestured hello, but you don’t interrupt the Word of God, and we saved niceties for after Mass.

It was a genuine pleasure to see him there and not just because we share the same faith, but just nice to see a frightfully nice chap, but also an all-around good egg!  We exchanged conversation and I said how wouldn’t it be nice if we could go to the pub for a pint.  They’d had a long day, but to his utter disbelief, Veronica, acquiesced and we were given her blessing.  I suggested they park in the same place as I usually did and that we meet up.  We both knew where the pub (John Mc Byrne) was and headed off to claim our reward for obvious good behaviour.

They were already at the pub by the time I parked and so I walked up to join them.  Strangely my nose just seems to lead the way!  I saw him standing outside waiting for me and I showed him the best seats in the house, or for me, nearly a home (it’s where I see my friends).  I introduced him to Simon who knows nearly everything about sport, whiskey, and good places to eat in the vicinity, the Rob, whose jokes are almost as cringe-worthy as my own, and lastly to Gavin who is half and half…  Half Scottish and half French.  His parents are obviously to blame.

We commented on how the establishment wasn’t a bar but was a proper pub, and how nice his pint of Irish IPA was.  I persuaded him to taste a pint of O Hara’s Nitro, which is the nearest thing that I found to Yorkshire bitter over here.  We both seem to have similar tastes in beer, which helps in a friendship.  It’s unbearable when one likes lager and the other friend, beer….  It tuned out that he had some homemade Bitter that he wanted my opinion on.  Ah well, there goes a perfect reason to meet up again!  Fortunately, I was going to be on holiday during that week, so we set the date and time said goodnight to each other and headed home.

I asked if I could bring along my portable photography studio to take his portrait and he very kindly agreed.  At the appointed time, on the appointed day, I turned up with my studio and dog.  Molly wasn’t very sure about hanging out with a big very friendly, almost too friendly for her, beautiful chocolate Labrador, who was coming out of puppyhood and entering doggyhood.

I said she could stay in the car and left the windows slightly open so she would be fine and said that I would come back and check on her now and again.  Smaug, the Labrador, was put on one side of the house, and Molly decided she could stay by my side and still be OK.  We tasted the beer and were unanimous in our praise of this wonderful concoction.  Then the photoshoot.  Hervé already knew that I dabble in photography, as do you Dear Reader, and was most impressed when I set up the studio.  I was quite impressed by it too because it was only that afternoon that I had back to revise how to operate my speedlights and trigger.  The first shots were more to break the ice, not just for Hervé but also for me, and already we were getting some good shots.  He played me a recording of a new project launched by the Brass Quintet with whom he plays and has my old horn teacher as the horn player.  It was amazing.  They were playing in church with a massive organ played by the organist from the Nantes Cathedral.  Wow, that is all…

We then go the instruments out.  First the E flat tuba.  I thought, let’s just break him in gently.  Then I went back out to the car to get my horn and make him look like a proper musician with the most beautiful instrument from the orchestra in his hands.  We would suggest to the horn teacher that Hervé had finally seen the light and wanted to convert.  Then we messed it up by getting out his conductor’s baton.  All in all, we were having a laugh, talking, just as friends will be want to do.

I ate with them and by the time I left that evening the two dogs had even sniffed each other and were even respecting their own private space.  That Smaug is one lovely dog and not at all dragonlike as his name suggests.  He’s a big softy.  A bit like myself Dear Reader…

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…..

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.