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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On orchestral horn solos and funding cuts,
with classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

? 'Dear Alice,

I know it seems unlikely, but I happened to be at the under-twelves National Children's Orchestra course, and I couldn't help wondering if one of the horn-players (Rachel McVeigh) was a relation of yours? It's not a common name.
D Felty,

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Alice Dear David

Yes!!!!!!!!! Your trained senses have not let you astray!!!!!!!!! The little snurge in question (though she looks nothing at all like me) is in fact my only child, and I was also in that throng at the concert in Yorkshire last week.

The previous week we had dumped her at the school for the week and walked the dogs in the Yorkshire Dales until it was the end of her course. That day we got up early and walked the dogs by a canal. We had planned on getting to the hall in time for a good seat (maybe 10.30am) but we had reckoned without the enthusiasm of the other parents of the 112 children, the 24 instrumental coaches, and all the junior (and some senior) siblings. All told, there were about three-hundred-plus there ahead of us, and about fifty-plus after us, and we wound up upstairs where we could only see (a) the violins (b) the five harps and (c) the horns, along with some percussion. (We didn't get to see Rachel beforehand at all: nor did we know what they were playing, except that a list of possible choices was in the programme, along with alphabetized lists of players in various sections. The works were announced by the conductor.)

In they came, all the girls with neat white shirts and matching long red skirts, the boys in white shirts and black trousers with red ties. Some of the girls looked fifteen. (R looks thirteen.) Some of the boys looked as young as eight. (However, they were all actually between ten and twelve.) The head of the Nat Children's orchestra made a speech, and handed over to the conductor. We were rather disappointed to see that Rachel was playing bumper (meaning helping out the first horn, without her very own part) for the Kodály pieces. However, we had known that one of her fellow horns had been awarded a Leverhulme Fellowship, meaning that she didn't have to pay anything.

Then all the horns moved around: Rachel was in second for the Grieg.

Then all the horns moved for the Tchaikovsky's fifth (slow movement only: big horn solo, very well played by the Leverhulme winner.) Rachel was still second, and congratulated the petite, pretty girl who played the solo warmly afterwards. I was proud that she was such a good sport about not getting the solo.

Then they played a newly commissioned work for the orchestra, with the only boy in the section ably playing first horn. And then the conductor turned to the audience and said, 'And for our final work, Stravinsky's Firebird, from the Berceuse, which features one of the hardest solos in the French horn repertoire,' and the horns were shuffling places again. And Rachel was going to be third, no second, no probably bumper again; no, Rachel was about to play principal horn, with a full orchestra, in Stravinsky's Firebird, and my heart just started hammering at me. I couldn't listen while a member of the board got up and urged us to gift-aid support for the orchestra, so that they could run more courses and do more concerts. Rachel wasn't listening either; she was keeping her horn warm, blowing off and on into her mouthpiece, her eyes with that faraway look that always means she is really concentrating: whether it's on music or writing or whatever.

But I was still nervous. They were all playing away, and then only the strings, and then only the strings tremolo, on the very edge of pianissimo. And then the conductor looked at Rachel and nodded. And then the most beautiful French horn sound came out and I burst into tears. I couldn't not cry: Rachel was projecting over an entire symphony orchestra in one of the most important solos in the horn repertoire, and it sounded so beautiful. The applause at the end of Firebird was the loudest of all, and the conductor gave Rachel a solo bow. I didn't see her take it through all my stupid tears. But I did get a chance to hear her play it again because the conductor, with sublime confidence in my kid, started the encore from her solo -- and it was even more serenely eloquent than the first time, if that was possible.

So yes, Rachel was the French horn with pigtails, dark blonde hair, tall for eleven.

(And I was so proud.)

Your friend,

Ask Alice

? 'Hi Alice,

Are you aware that the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony will be working in the 2009-2010 season for over twelve percent less than previously?

There was an article in the paper by Anne Midgette, observing that morale was high despite this, however. Can this be humanly possible?
J J in Maryland

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Alice Hi J J,

Actually, I think I can understand it. In my youth, the Baltimore Symphony was the poor relation of the National Symphony (where my hero, John Martin, led the cellos) but now they have Marin Alsop (a terrific talent) and a spanking new hall ... so the players have hope. If they stick with it, and tough out the recession, things should get better, and great music-making salves many wounds. In short, when an orchestra has a lousy conductor and feels awful no one can lift them up and when an orchestra (like the Baltimore) is really 'on the up' not even a mega-recession can get them down. Anyway, I wish them and you all every possible luck.


Copyright © 14 August 2009 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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