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  • Writer's pictureHolly Mathieson

“Alle Menschen werden Brüder” – an adventure in collaborative music-making for others

I have only ever done one conducting competition: I learnt an enormous amount in those three days about the tricks of time-pressured rehearsing, dirty diplomacy and the oft-forgotten skill of not taking oneself too seriously. As a dear friend who’d done the same competition two years previously quipped, “it’s basically like being at a giant nerd conference”. He wasn’t wrong. Certainly, it comes as somewhat of a surprise to discover that from the swathes of prematurely middle-aged arm-wavers, reeking of anxiety and ambition, and almost invariably clad in slightly-too-short trousers and inappropriately formal shoes, you will find some of your greatest friends and allies.

I was reminded of this while having a full English in one of my local cafés with fellow SE Londoners, and serial London music-scene mavericks, Sam Burstin and Adrián Varela. We’d met five years earlier at the Philharmonia Orchestra – both of them playing in the string section, and me as the orchestra librarian, doing their photocopying at all hours of the night, taping parts back together in various international departure lounges, and learning a great deal of what little I can say I now have to offer as a conductor from that incredible band.

The lads and I had kept in touch after I left the Phil to set up as a freelancer, supporting each other in our respective endeavours as baby conductors and in life in general, and they were keen to make every effort to continue this spirit of collaboration and friendship onto the concert platform. For full disclosure, it’s not the first time I’ve been part of a 3-member conducting “band”: the first was the Reuleaux Ensemble with two other Philharmonia string regulars, Nick Bootiman and Jeremy Watt. Even we didn’t really know how to pronounce our name, but it felt cool as hell to be a member of a gang – the musical equivalent of having a private clubhouse and secret handshake – and we dearly loved working with each other. In fact, I felt a little adulterous for entering into another three-way musical liaison with two different men. What Sam and Adrian proposed that morning, however, was musically and ethically irresistible.

The game was this: all nine Beethoven Symphonies in one day to raise money for a major charity. Each symphony would have 15 minutes rehearsal before the whistle is blown, at which point the entire symphony is played. After a short tea and pee break, the next symphony would run by the same rules. Utter folly. Comparing diaries, there were only about 3 possible dates in the next year on which we could all commit to being available, so that decision was easily made, and dividing the repertoire was a truly joyous expression of communality. I being the one who works in the opera world would take on the 9th with all of its vocal requirements. The boys could then choose one “favourite” symphony each, and we’d divvy up the remainders, taking care to never have any of us conducting two consecutively. All of this was achieved with pure good will and generosity of spirit, and with a genuine desire that everyone else around the table would be truly satisfied with their symphonic starter, main and dessert.

Finally, we needed to choose a charity to whom we would send any funds raised. We looked up the “auspicious events in history” for the most likely date on offer and, having discovered nothing more exciting than the anniversary of the German Beer Purity Law, we decided to just go with our consciences. Not long before our bacon and egg meeting, we’d all heard the dreadful news of October 3rd, 2015, that the Médecins Sans Frontières [Doctors without Borders] trauma centre in Kunduz had been bombed repeatedly by Western coalition forces, in a blatant breach of International Humanitarian Law. At least 42 died; and countless patients in the area lost a vitally important medical resource. We were in utter agreement that were we to take the text of the 9th Symphony seriously, there could be no more fitting charity to support than one which unifies, protects and advocates for those whose lives are torn apart by global [read: politically and/or financially motivated] conflict. The moment we made that decision, the enormity of what we were undertaking registered. This was no longer three mates having a lark; this was an artistic act of political protest, musical advocacy of the staff of MSF and all whom they serve.

We simply could not have begun to piece the plans for the day together without the help of our fixer, Andrea Broughton (who helped us out, despite having committed to doing some other marathon in London that weekend…) and general miracle-worker Imogen Burman, who thought of everything which we had failed to. Goldsmiths, University of London, were our hosts for the day, providing the stunning Great Hall for the day without charge, and lending invaluable aid with regard to publicity and media. Even the campus café let us grab free hot water for our tea, and promised to keep the sandwich rack well stocked. I had countless sleepless nights, anticipating a meagre orchestra of 4 (including the three conductors and Imogen, who had also promised to play cello for all 9 symphonies). But what unfolded that day was truly humbling – a constant stream of players from all over South East England, of every level of ability and time of life, from aging community players with battery-less hearing aids to some of London’s top professional players and most promising conservatoire students. They all sat side by side, shared the tricky passages when needed, and no one said a word about the inevitable wrong notes. Several shyly arrived in the morning, with the warning that they’d be going home after number 2 – almost all of them were still with us for the final notes of number 9. If we were missing a wind or brass instrument, the missing harmony notes were sung in lustily by those without a reed in their mouth, or transcribed at sight by a bored trombonist or one of the myriad flautists who came along. Our four exceptional soloists, Joanne Roughton-Arnold, Vanessa Heine, Ed Choo and Steve Kennedy (who also played viola for the entire day, including the first 4 mvts of the 9th) graciously accepted the offer of “no pay, no rehearsal and possibly no audience, but we’ll buy you a pint and give you a hug afterwards”. There were tears, embraces, copious servings of gin, and one fainter at the pub afterwards, and in all, over £2300 was raised for MSF. But, after conceding it was the craziest, most exhausting musical adventure of our lives to date, we agreed we’d better start planning another… Watch this space!

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