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.