Interview with Double Bassist Chi Chi Nwanoku & The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s French Impressionist Concert

I enjoy working with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The successful production team behind the orchestra are warm, genuine and personable as well as being risk-takers.

It was their Night Shift Series (late night, mid-week concerts with commentary, beer and chatter) which first brought them to my attention when I interview the production team about their work for the BBC Proms website. Soon after, I was asked to do a few filmed interviews with them. A few months after that, they plunged into a very deep (and cold) pool and asked me to present their Night Shift in a Pub series. Such was its success that there’s a date coming up in Lewisham (my home turf) in August. Nice work.

This video is an extended interview with principal bassist Chi-Chi Nwanoku.

Player Profiles No.1: Chi-chi Nwanoku MBE from OAE on Vimeo.

Our conversation wasn’t scripted. Indeed, it didn’t really follow any pre-planned structure. But what I think emerges is an undeniable enthusiasm for the work Chi-Chi does with the orchestra. Not only that, the relative simple production values – producer Zen Grisedale filmed this with an SLR and a flip cam – is another reason why I think it’s a really lovely thing. Transparency, openness and accessibility. All of it present to a greater or lesser extent in this interview. The fact I’m in it, is neither here nor there.

Similarly, the OAE have recently released exciting details about their next Night Shift concert – 10 June, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Quite apart from the fact that the Night Shift have an irresistible vibe about them, Rattle’s involvement in this gig makes it a real date. Tickets are the usual price with the option to help fund the shortfall of what is clearly an expensive collaboration through charitable donations.

Carry On Healing Me, Schubert

Picture used in accordance with the Creative Commons License published by Flickr User Piano Piano

I don’t know much music by Schubert.

I really ought to know more. As someone who read music at university, Schubert’s music seems to me now as ‘standard repertoire’. All I’m familiar with is his Unfinished Symphony and a little piece called ‘Standchen‘, both from my childhood. That’s it.

I suspect the reason I’m not familiar with Schubert’s output is that his music has pretty much fallen off my orchestra-centric radar. ‘If it’s voice and piano,’ for example, ‘it’s not for me.’ An amazingly ignorant perception. Sure, the man wrote a seemingly endless number of songs, but there’s a considerable collection of instrumental works too, I overlook.

Instrumental music to one side, things might be about to change. In fact, they may have changed already.

A couple of weeks ago I ended up attending a press event launching the coming ‘Spirit of Schubert’ season. Hosted in a private home close to Broadcasting House in London, this was as near to my perception of an ‘authentic’ performance as I’ve ever come. A singer, a pianist and a select few in the audience.

A moment of calm close to a noisy Oxford Street.

The effect was breathtaking. I went along with a colleague to shoot a brief interview with Roger Wright (and Brian Newbould, a Schubert scholar who’s completed another of the composer’s many unfinished works). The interview with Roger is below. Brian’s comes in the next few days.

Once the relatively stressful process of interviewing was over (interviewing is work, no matter how much I enjoy doing it), the chance to sit and listen to something so different from what’s on my playlists in such an intimate setting was a near-overwhelming experience.

Salon music. Music written by Schubert, originally to entertain a small gathering of the great and the good. Think of the all the emoting I’ve done about the Proms (or if you’ve not read, watched or been subjected to it then just imagine a sell-out audience inside the Royal Albert Hall) and the thrill associated with the sheer scale of similar big concerts. Think about how we are conditioned to think that scale equates to brilliance. Then think about the complete opposite. Not thousands of people in an audience. Just fourteen.

Intense beauty is to be found in the chemistry between soloist and accompanist and the precision both exert in interpreting Schubert’s lavish yet efficient writing. An incredible energy emanates from the performance area. Attention is focussed solely on what’s going on just a few feet away. And that is the perfect tonic to excess. It is – forgive the fairly crude present-day backdrop – somehow appropriate for a point in time when I find it difficult not to look on my own actions with a more prudent eye in pursuit of self-preserving goals.

The press event promoted BBC’s Radio 3 eight and a half day broadcast all of the composer’s worksm, starting at 4.30pm on Friday 23 March. I’m pleased to see there’ll be a good deal of  live performances too.

Not everyone will buy into Schubert at the end of the season . And that’s OK. Those who love him already won’t need convincing.

Those who don’t know his work will need to be in the right mindset. I can’t say what that mindset is or isn’t. What it should be or won’t be.

All I know is that since the press event a couple of weeks ago, I’ve started listening to more Schubert. It’s a soundtrack to a period in my life in which my personal outlook on life has changed considerably. And before the season has even begun, I’ve already been persuaded. Makes me wonder why I superficially dismissed the man’s work because I was left wanting so by the first piece I played at County Youth Orchestra twenty five years ago – his Unfinished.

The joy is – of course – that I have a composer’s works at my finger tips, me eager to discover for the first time. Not for the first time in the past twelve months, I’m reminded about the many different ways classical music continues to bring me great pleasure.

The Spirit of Schubert season kicks off with a live broadcast of In Tune on Friday 23 March at 4.30pm I’m hoping to get along to at King’s Place in London. Stick with me via Twitter over the next nine days for a parallel commentary of the music broadcast on the radio.

Playing the triangle

From Percussion

Think of me.

In a few hours I’ll be standing at the back of the Bromley Symphony Orchestra (not much different from the view in this picture above) as a member of the percussion section, contributing to a performance of Borodin’s Polotsvian Dances. I’ll be playing the triangle part.

I had mixed feelings about the impending concert when I made my way to the final rehearsal this afternoon.

Was the triangle really that significant? Yes, it was scored – a requirement – but would anyone really miss it if it wasn’t there. Would my contribution really be noticed by the audience at Ravens Wood School in Bromley?

Of course it wouldn’t. It’s not a prominent part. But because it is scored, it is required. I may not be centre stage but I was still needed.

The triangle has an image problem.  Everyone assumes that it’s size compared to other orchestral instruments means is an illustration of its insignificance. We could never do without the timpani, for example. But there’s so little to a triangle and so little demanded to make a sound on it that any fool can play it and that any fool is all that’s needed.

Not only that, the way in which it embellishes highly articulated passages or big loud conclusions means its often mistaken as nothing more than musical frippery. A nice to have but not imperative. Consequently, anyone who takes up position to play it is the same. They’re not having many demands placed upon them.

The Triangle

In amateur music-making world, such opinions are a little simplistic and don’t reflect the true experience.

The rehearsal for the Borodin is scheduled for 2.15pm and runs until 2.50pm. I arrive at 2.10pm. I shake hands firmly with the chap who was at the last concert I played in (who also plays in the band for One Man Two Guv’nor’s as it happens) and a couple of other members of the percussion section who are adjusting music stands and shifting music around on them. Another lady arrives. I say hello to her. The conductor raises his baton.

Ten minutes or so later and the orchestra has finished rehearsing the overture and we’re on to the dances the percussion section are required to play in.

All six of us have to count our way through sections in which we don’t play. For the most part we’re not playing all together, but have – in effect – solo lines. That means we’re all reliant on ourselves, not each other. And we only met for the first fifteen minutes ago. And as I discover to my horror 15 minutes later when we’ve finished the rehearsal, we’re only going through this once before the concert. And this is the first time I’ve played this piece of music.

And here’s the thing about the triangle – in fact, to a certain extent percussion as a whole – unlike the rest of the orchestra, the percussionists are really exposed.

When you’re not playing, you’re sat down. Shortly before you start to play you invariably have to stand up and when you do, you’re normally on a raised platform. When you play everyone in the audience sees you in a way the rest of the orchestra doesn’t experience.

Nightmare scenarios I have been through on previous occasions include: standing up and playing at the wrong time; standing up to clash cymbals and them not making a sound because I’ve missed; standing up, miscounting, missing my cue and then sitting down again without having played anything; or if I’m lucky, standing up, playing correctly and sitting down again.

Percussion sections generally don’t join amateur sections for all of the regular rehearsals. There would be a great deal of standing around for all of ten minutes of playing. A boring experience. Not very productive.

Consequently, percussionists come together on the day. Those final rehearsals have one play-through, which in turn means the percussionists have to get it right first time. Something as close to a professional experience as one is likely to get.

Then there’s the pressure around getting the sound right.

Triangles aren’t easy. I’ve always hated them because of that very reason. A triangle sound should be a pure sound. Strike the triangle in the wrong place and there’ll be countless extra sounds emanating form the thing. A tinny, grating sound will result. Strike it in the right place on the triangle but using the wrong part of the beater and the same problem will occur.

The perfect sound can only be achieved by striking the triangle in the right place with the beater in the right place. Every time. Oh, and you haven’t forgotten that there’s no time to practice, only time for one play through. And you need to get these high exposed embellishments in the right part of the music, at the right volume, taking into account any changes in speed required by a conductor you’ve not had any experience of.

Don’t feel sorry. That’s not the point of this. Percussion section work is difficult. It’s made worse when you know you’re surrounded by professionals and really accomplished students. The pressure is on. There’s nothing to hide behind. Getting it right is vital. Not for the audience, nor the conductor. But more for those in the section playing with you who know the music or know how to play the instrument you’re playing better than you.

It’s a strange experience. Not a bad one. Just a rather odd one. We’re often overlooked. So, if there is one in a concert, always give the triangle player an especially warm round of applause. He or she will invariably need it.