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Tricky Dicky and the ushers,
with Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice -- Having been an usher for more than 25 years now for a MAJOR American Orchestra, I am compelled to respond to the poor soul who wrote to you this week. (Note: most ushers do NOT get paid, and most of them do it for life, believe me! It certainly beats buying tickets all the time!) At our concert hall, the musicians have their own exit, away from patrons and ushers and such, in order to better protect their instruments, so I find it very strange that these poor people are told they must share an exit with the musicians. Strange management, I must say!

Before concerts, most musicians are very friendly and cordial, and during intermission as well, but afterwards, they'd really rather just get away. I've never observed rudeness in this way, but unawareness, certainly! Most of them are just simply oblivious to the fact that anyone else is even on the same planet as they are!

I know, too, that there are sometimes unscrupulous people who try to strike up a conversation in order to finagle bits of gossip to relay to others. (hint = media!) So it's possible that some of the musicians encountered by your correspondent have, in the past, been put in awkward positions by this sort of thing and are now twice shy.

Just some random thoughts!

Another Maggie in the Midwest!
(USA, that is)

Dear Maggie,

Thanks so much for writing, and I do take on some of your points (though, in the UK, ushers are paid, though not handsomely). The management of the orchestra in question is clearly very strange indeed.

And musicians are always in a rush to get home after a concert, except of course for those who are simply in a rush to get to the bar. (I really don't think there's a place that's deader than a concert hall backstage around five minutes after the last player has exited the stage!!!!)

Anyway, they are all certainly in a rush, one way or another, and not best pleased even by some person's stopping them to congratulate them, which I think is a shame. (I'll never forget how embarrassed I was, during the 'Troubles' in 1980s Belfast, when two old women stopped me as I was leaving a concert with tears in their eyes, saying that the Ulster Orchestra -- of which I was not actually a full-time member -- was the only thing that still made their lives worth living. I was divided about whether I should break it to them that self and cello were only over from London for a week, but decided not to. I did tell some of the 'real players' though.)

I'm also really impressed that the media are even interested in orchestral gossip in the States. Here, even in the most glamorous London orchestras, the media couldn't care less -- the last time music gossip made the papers was Evelyn Glennie and Leonard Slatkin, and even that didn't make more than a couple of lines in a couple of the least-often-read papers!!!! When my first novel (about the backstage life of a symphony orchestra) came out in the mid-1990s, my publisher urged me to try to get Rostropovich or Vladimir Ashkenazy to write a few kind words to shove on the back cover of the paperback. When I suggested Sir Andrew Davis, then BBC Symphony Orchestra conductor, she pointed out that it would be useless, as 'nobody' had ever heard of him!!!!

And, of course, the media can't be trusted not to make it all up anyway. Keithie baby (sorry, my sterling sub-editor K Bramich) was having lunch with my ex-teacher Bill Pleeth's brother. Apparently, when Bill started to become known, he was given a cello by a benefactor in Sutton. It cost 400 pounds, which was a lot in those days, and the donation attracted some press interest. A journalist saw that the cello had two small holes in the back, and Bill had to explain that cellos used not to have spikes, and that these holes were probably fixing holes to attach a string or some other device to help keep the cello steady whilst being played. The reporter (or his editor?) must have decided this wasn't thrilling enough, because when the newspaper article came out, it was reported that the cello had bullet holes in it, from the war!

All best,

Ask Alice

I like John Adams's music a lot. The English National Opera production of Nixon in China has been favourably reviewed. But I shan't go to see it because an evening sitting in a theatre watching the dramatisation of an incident in the life of the dreadful Richard Milhous Nixon has about as much potential appeal as Third XV rugby on a wet afternoon in February.

Am I missing something here?

Frank Cranmer

Dear Frank,

Well, yes, if you like John Adams you probably are, though the ENO has been on slightly ropey form recently due to management issues and low morale. And I'm not a supporter of Richard Nixon. But (though I've only heard it once) I do think it's got real musical quality, and would have even had it been about the lifecycle of a fruitfly, or the inner thought world of two deaf house-decorators. Who goes to opera for character and plot, anyway?? It's usually either stupid (here comes 'Night' singing in a baroque opera) or unbelievable (see The Ride of the Valkyries etc). I think you should forget 'Tricky Dicky' and give it a go for the music. (Also, ENO needs all the support it can get!!!!!)


Copyright © 14 July 2006 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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