After a successful first recording day with maestro Vladimir Ashkenazy and the
Philharmonia Orchestra of London, the second and last day would contain quite
a bit of a drama.
I actually slept better than usual the night before day 2 of the recording sessions.
Sleep and me are normally two extremes that do not melt so well together.
Perhaps the adrenalin kick and a mix of shock and euphoria from the evening
before made my body want to "collapse" in order to somehow be able to take
responsibility the next day? The sessions on the first day, recording flute-based
material with flautist Emily Beynon and her sister, harpist Catherine Beynon, as
soloists, had been executed unproblematically. The fact that conductor Vladimir
Ashkenazy had fallen ill with fever just after this was naturally very sad and
emotionally challenging for me.
However, we had to try to proceed and finish the project in some kind of style.
Vladimir Ashkenazy had personally named me as his stand-in. The Royal
Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London
have been my two favourite orchestras since childhood, much because of their
distinctive sound and lengthy collaborations with highly treasured artists like
Bernard Haitink and Vladimir Ashkenazy. As I have mentioned earlier, my contact
with Ashkenazy goes back to my youth, so it was quite a special moment for me
when the Flute Mystery album project was going to be realised with the
Philharmonia Orchestra and Ashkenazy himself as conductor, and, on top of this,
with Emily Beynon, the principal flute of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, as
soloist in «Flute Mystery» Op.66b and in «Flute Concerto No.1» Op.70 which is, in
fact, dedicated to her.
On the second day, producer Morten Lindberg and I arrived early in the morning at
Watford Colosseum, north of London, a historical venue renowned for its unique
acoustics and some very celebrated soundtrack recordings, e.g. the Sound of Music
album from the 60s. We had a stroll through the hall in order to get a feeling of the
upcoming tasks. One hour later we would have to jump into a completely surreal
situation. A couple of musicians had already arrived at the venue, but none of
them knew at that time that Ashkenazy had fallen ill and that they were about to
have a substitute who had never conducted any symphony orchestra before — not
at any level whatsoever.
As a test, I stood on the conductor’s podium and pretended that producer Lindberg
was the orchestra to see if I would manage to get used to the role of conductor. I
quickly understood that I possessed elementary communication problems: I was
constantly hiding my head with my arms. Lindberg told me to stretch my arms
straight out to make my eyes and face visible. Then it struck me how it must feel
to sit in the orchestra, and how important it is to have a clear view of both the
arms and the face of a conductor. This crash course and support from producer
Lindberg would become crucial for the rest of the day.
The programme to be recorded consisted of three symphonic poems:
Op.32 No.1, «Vicino alla Montagna» Op.58b and
«Warning Zero» Op.54b, all of
them written for a large gamut of instrumentation, and all of them demanding
pieces, with their difficult rhythm-changes and virtuoso passages throughout.
Actually, in the planning I had saved these advanced works for the last day in order
for the orchestra and conductor to "warm up" for them on day 1. Instead, I had
ended up in a situation were I had to take responsibility for this choice personally
— from the podium — face to face with around 100 ultra-professional musicians.
When all the musicians were gathered and ready to start the day's first session, the
orchestra's stage manager informed them about Ashkenazy's sudden illness and
absence, and then handed the attention over to me. Those steps from the
background onto the podium were extremely surreal. When I told the Philharmonia
Orchestra about my total lack of experience as a symphony orchestra conductor, a
gasp went through the hall. Luckily, this uncertainty soon changed and developed
into a very constructive atmosphere: the orchestra was going to help me try to
finish the last works to be recorded. However, we only had a few hours. The
fantastic attitude of the musicians and their musical professionalism were
definitely a critical factor in achieving our task.
Without going too much into detail, we indeed managed to record all the works —
it was a result of a finely tuned collaboration between producer Morten Lindberg,
the orchestra and myself as stand-in conductor. There was even some unused time
left at the end of the day. Sure, I made many awkward and unusual physical
moves, but the orchestra was very cooperative and the players often asked me to
explain details or to change the way I used my arms to show more clearly what was
the first, second and third beat and so on. The perfectionist in me and my
knowledge of the works were naturally very useful, but I had never actually heard
these works performed live before; they had only existed as tones in my head and
as notes on paper until this very moment.
Afterwards, looking back on the day, I felt almost cheerful about what had
happened. I have to say it was extremely euphoric for me to be able to work with
music in this way — on this level. I even played with the thought of starting a new,
additional career as conductor. However, as per today, I have not conducted
anything after this day in Watford.
The TV documentary team News on Request, which was present as flies on the
wall, really got an unexpected drama on tape. When they later released their
movie Exhaling Music, it actually became an international award-winning
production, I guess much because of what happened that second day in Watford.
Dramas like this make for good TV.
I am very grateful for everyone who contributed to make this production possible:
Vladimir Ashkenazy, Emily Beynon, Catherine Beynon, the Philharmonia Orchestra,
producer Morten Lindberg, Lindberg Lyd AS (2L), Symbiophonic AS, Erling, Randi, as
well as other friends and assistants who were present in the planning and recording
Some time later, when I got the message that the
Flute Mystery album had been
nominated for a Grammy, I thought to myself that we must have done something
right those two winter days back in 2008.