Elegy on a Large Muddy Field and a Small Union Flag

Musicians call them muddy field gigs and believe me, it’s not a term of affection. Outdoor prom concerts. Most of us would rather chew our arms off than play in one. And that’s before you even get to the bloody fireworks.

One invariably has to turn up ridiculously early for the rehearsal and sit about onstage without playing a note. This is to allow time for a less-than-fragrant sound engineer to crawl about under your chair and find the most inconvenient place to put his microphone.

After several hours of fiddling around, said microphone usually ends up precisely where your instrument needs to be, in order for you to actually play it. Pointing this out to the sound engineer is a waste of time. You are a mere musician getting in the way of his ultimate ambition, which is to work at Wembley with Coldplay.

At this point the Star Turn pitches up. If it’s a soprano she’ll usually arrive with several changes of costume and her own arrangements of well-known arias – pitched several keys lower than the composer wrote them. The sound engineer, who is becoming less fragrant by the minute, makes a beeline to check that her microphone is positioned just so. This is in the hope that she’ll put in a good word at Wembley.

Sometimes the Star Turn is a tenor. The sound engineer doesn’t really care, just so long as they know Chris Martin.

The rehearsal proceeds in a ponderous fashion. It usually ends at least half an hour late.

The muddy field gig reaches its nadir, however, when it comes to green room arrangements. The Star Turn is given a charabanc large enough to accommodate most of the audience. The orchestra gets a small tent. It usually leaks.

And so, eventually, to the performance. The conductor raises his baton. We play. It’s a programme of what is politely called “light music”. I (less than politely) call it crap music.  It’s the type of stuff that audiences like to clap along to. Rousing tunes that fill them with sufficient patriotic fervour to wave a small flag. Or sing…

…which is unfortunate, because after an afternoon spent downing vats of Pimms their version of “Nessun Dorma” is not as tuneful as they may imagine.

Just occasionally, I’ve done prom concerts where we’ve tried to play proper music. This is a mistake. Take the 1812 overture, for example. Proms audiences just want you to get to the bit with the fireworks. Playing the whole thing runs the risk of heckling.

I’ll never forget the look on the conductor’s face when, during the beautiful opening cello quartet, a particularly loud and lagered-up audience member shouted “Spice it up, slaphead”. Unfortunately, he was close enough to a microphone for this to be broadcast across the local countryside. I suspect our folically-challenged maestro may have had a few thoughts about where to stick the fireworks.

Being upstaged by a lorryload of pyrotechnics is bad enough, but the real nightmare begins when the concert finally ends. It’s not unusual to spend two hours getting out of the car park. You can always spot the muddy field veteran. They’ll be off the stage, in the car and on the way home before the applause has finished.  Actually, scrub that. They won’t be there at all. They’ll have found some schmuck to do the gig for them.

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Variations on a Jaegerbomb for 4 trombones and contra bassoon

Youth orchestra tours. Honestly,if parents had any idea of the bacchanalian debauchery that goes on, they’d be banned. I’m not joking. And, having spent the last couple of Augusts at Dartington, it occurs to me that international summer schools are really just youth orchestras for grown ups.

The fact is, when classical musicians get together you’d be amazed at the number of alcoholic units we can put away before falling over. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we all spend our spare time downing Jaegerbombs and singing “Get yer tits out for the lads” in perfect 4-part harmony to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. Really, I’m not.

However, some of us do. And this is the thing…

It depends on which instrument you play.

After an extremely unscientific study carried out in the White Hart at Dartington, I came up with an Instrumental Chart of Heroic Alcohol Abuse. I lost it on the way home but in descending order it went something like this:

  • Trombones
  • Brass
  • More brass (especially French horn)
  • Woodwind (and French horn)
  • Violas (yes, I know)
  • Conductor
  • Violins – both 1st and 2nd but 1st violins buy more rounds
  • Contra bassoon

Cellists pop in for one or two but won’t usually join in the 4-part harmony thing (unless they’re Scottish – see below). The contra bassoonist occasionally moves up the list, but may lose his trousers during the course of the evening and try to get off with a soprano.

Now, I’m not going to reveal the details of Dartington misbehaviour because I may lose friends. Instead, I asked my mates for their youth orchestra stories… and ended up with 26 tales of unspeakable behaviour.

So it was, frankly, difficult to choose. But take, as a typical example, the well brought-up young lady horn player who, not wanting to be rude to her generous Italian hosts, drank an unfeasible quantity of red wine during a pre-concert dinner. It was unfortunate that she threw up on stage during the 1st movement of Brahms 4th symphony but at least she was sensible about it and upchucked into the bell of her French horn.

Unlike the pair of cellists from the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland who may still be larging it up on the Orkney islands after an incident involving alcohol poisoning, Nigel Kennedy and a ferry.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from this, it’s that parents should be more careful about which instrument they allow their offspring to learn. If you’re waving little Tommy off on his first European tour and Tommy has reached Grade 6 or above on the trombone, well don’t blame me if you get a phone call at 3am telling you that Thomas has somehow wedged himself in the ornamental fountain after over-indulging in the local aperitif.

Actually, you can blame me. That particular incident was, actually, my fault. But bassoonists are sensible and don’t get stuck in fountains. We just point and laugh when trombonists do.

Anyway, I’m off to the pub. Cheers.