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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On orchestras, cellists and the late John Martin,
with classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,

I was at the Bromley Symphony Orchestra's amazing performance of Mahler 3 last week -- well done leading the cellos, by the way -- and I couldn't help wondering how the offstage flugelhorn bit worked. It was perfectly together, and yet the sound came from the back of the (huge) hall!!!! How did Adrian Brown do it? With mirrors?

A fan

PS Your horns were absolutely incredible.

Dear fan,

Couldn't agree more about the horns, who excelled themselves.
As for the off-stage soloist, well, it was ALMOST done with mirrors.

It was by no means easy, and at the rehearsals (in a school) it was almost a nightmare. John Parker (playing offstage, on an instrument he'd had to send to Germany for) was always so far away as to be way behind the horn accompaniment and the rest of us -- not his fault; as you heard he was perfect on the day. So Adrian decided to have a video link, with a TV where John could watch as if he was in his normal trumpet place. As you say, it came out really well, as the CD testifies, though I must admit he wasn't QUITE at the back of the hall, more like 3/4s of the way down, in the next corridor.

Glad you liked the concert, and do come again. We had 400 in the audience, but it holds 500!!!!!!!!! -- and what other semi-professional orchestra in the country could pull off Mahler 3???

Yours evangelistically,

Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

I lead the cellos in my youth orchestra and would like to get in the national youth orchestra. I've tried for two years and last time played the Dvorák but (even though I got a nice letter saying they really liked my playing) no luck! What should I do for next year?


Dear fellow cello,

I do feel for you here. I have a very good friend's kid who was IN the national youth orchestra one year, and not the next!!! -- and got the same letter as you did ... It is hugely competitive, and I know it often comes down to the subjective opinion of one or two people and what their particular bug-bears are (bow-hold, interpretation, tone colouring etc). Please don't give up on it!!!! -- Very few people are sent the letter you were about being close to being selected. I know it's almost harder to come so close and then miss out, but next year will probably be your lucky year: hope it is!!!!

My only other suggestion, as you are already a youth orchestra principal, is that you look at whether you're not going in (with the Dvorák, no less) aiming for too soloistic a sound for a section. Maybe you've got your cello set up very brightly? And remember the excerpts are just as important as the piece.

Let me know how you get on,

Ask Alice

Very sorry to have to report the death of my early inspiration, National Symphony Orchestra's long-time principal John Martin last week, at 82. As the Washington Post said in its obituary, 'Mr Martin was known for his acerbic asides'. To his peers he advised, 'Never give up the opportunity to control the tempo!' (It should have mentioned the famous occasion when he held up the orchestra's prized Stradivarious cello when falling off a stage and broke his arm). Or the way he led the cellos: from the front, with total commitment, eloquent sound and glorious panache. The obituary was clearly written by a non-musician, because it is entitled 'Longtime NSO cellist John Martin' -- which is like saying that Roger Federer plays tennis a bit, or that Ashkenazy is able to play the piano. John Martin was a principal of principals -- and, for those of us who remember, he will live forever.


Copyright © 25 November 2005 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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