Tuesday, October 31, 2006



leaving a spectacular dawn behind us, we are off to southern Italy for a week to see my Mum in her trulli.

Friday, October 27, 2006

someone or no-one


From a champagne-swilling continuo goddess to a dust-busting wife in twelve hours, this time I am having some difficulty coming back off the high; the drunkenness of imagining myself pure being serving the common good and realising that I am just another ego bumping around in a building site; of thinking that I was someone because of the very fact that I could disappear in to the music and become no-one to realising I am nothing but a body full of emotions and thoughts. Just another clumsy someone.

For a few days my state of openness was deliciously raw. We sat together paying bills, packing paintings and ordering Beatles albums off the net. Outside someone had poured maple syrup into the earth, and orchards and vine rows had become amber rivers and golden ponds. Our new toy grinned at us from the verge. Nothing could have been lovelier than these simple things. Then a door slammed. I heard a glass break. The lights went off inside. I curled up into a ball with a grey cat and was lost. Somewhere in that silent place I felt one urge - to wrap a phrase from the previous week in golden thread and offer it up: The wordless essence of me - of no-one - now clouded again by daily grind and conflict.

If this day were an aria, and I the continuo line, what would I do, I wondered? I would hold my note. I would listen and I would keep in mind where I was going. I would absorb the melancholy colours of the drama raging above me and I would not forget that spring would return like it always did.


she's here..

mini and me

...and it beats jogging.

Monday, October 23, 2006

rossignols amoureux


On the way to Brussels station, in the leather seats of the sexy BMW, my lutanist colleague and friend described to me how his experience playing continuo had primed his concentration to such a degree that he had been able to steer himself and his family over a motorway crash barrier, in to and out of a ditch and over a concrete something-or-other at ninety miles an hour to safety, and this week it was not hard to understand why.

In the fourth hour of the semi-finals of the Concours de Chimay I entered a marathon of Handel cello obligati including the musical expression of Lucrezia’s fury over her rape, and the rolling waves from Trionfo del Tempo. I was on a high. Thus far all the candidates had triumphed and we had supported them in doing so. In a selection of dress, voice and gesture from flamboyant to monastic each of them had come on stage and, despite bones rattling with nerves, they had each socked it to the jury. Their austere litanies were rendered poignant by the heart-rending finger picking of Maestro Lindberg, and outpourings of love toned just so by the restraint of Maestro Vinikour Meanwhile, accompanying a lullaby, my bow arm became heavy as a sleeping child’s eyelids.

The wait for the results, thoough tense, was made easier by buckets of champagne, and at last the finalists were lined up on stage. They were not those whom we, the continuo team, had expected and there had clearly been much disagreement amongst the jury. However, there they were, beaming, and you had to love them. And there were the ‘losers’ fighting back the tears in the Gods - and you had to love them too.

To recover from the shock that the floorboard-quivering bass did not get through, I drank even more champagne, which appeared to be on tap all week, and we all retired to little ornate theatre where the Prince had put up a large screen on to which he projected his favourite DVD - a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert.

So far we had learned, rehearsed, cut and pasted, transposed, figured and performed forty six arias. Now these scores were consigned to the bin and a new sheaf of songs were handed out, which we had all of Saturday to learn, rehearse, cut and paste etc for the final. Amongst them was one of the most beautiful Handel cello obligato arias, so I clearly had some work to do.

On Sunday, the finals started in the church, live on radio, and immediately things started to go wrong. One of the first candidates, shocked, I suspect, by seeing my music beneath him and possibly not knowing whether to look at it or to trust his memory, ended up at sea in his obscure French cantata, and we were forced to restart. The next candidate came in a bar late but we were able to cover that one pretty seamlessly. The next disaster included the text ‘Fac me’ (still beats me how one can sing that without causing a titter, especially in Church) reeling in circles above the theorbo’s ground bass. Despite the error, my favourite soprano was singing like an angel so, once we had flipped pages back and forth a few times to relocate her, we got an extra five minutes’ sublime music out of it.

For the second part of the finals we returned to the little theatre in which I had come to feel so comfortable, and things started to flow again. Even the candidate who had so embarrassingly had to restart in the church had pulled himself together when others of us might well have taken a royal dagger to our chest.

Whilst an austere mezzo sang about wanting to kill herself to yet another delicious theorbo accompaniment it was my turn to collect myself for the next number in which I had a beautiful but possibly terrifying solo part. As I sat listening, I watched the words ‘Live on Radio’ march through my head, along with ‘Really want to impress the lovely Jill in the jury, my colleagues, The Prince and Princess, my Mum, God, ….’ and ‘That’s the director of baroque music at the Hague in the back row’. I breathed, I watched the words, and as I did so I recognised them just as thoughts that were taking me out of the present, and above all out of ‘service’ – to the candidate and to the music. The medieval song of suicide came to a close and off the soprano and I went. As our lines entwined, pushing, pulling, imitating and commenting, our hands quivered gently with the excitement and I realised I was never happier than this: Supporting a singer with just a glimmer of glory of my own to resist and filled up with love.

The wrung out continuo team then collapsed off the stage for the orchestral showdown where each candidate performed an operatic aria. Crouching on the steps we listened. Everyone sang beautifully but the soprano with whom I had just played, dressed all in gold, sang Rameau’s ‘Rossignols Amoureux’ like a Goddess of the Forest. Her entire being full of wonder, she echoed the flutes and violin standing in for the nightingales in love, and transported me instantly out of a singing competition and into a magical clearing. There I too was turning my head towards the tops of the sunlit branches in child-like appreciation of the birdsong.

Suddenly it ended and we were back in the theatre, the jury standing on the stage, not all of them looking entirely happy.

“And the winner is….”

Not the Godess of the Forest.

“And the second prize goes to…”

Not the Godess of the Forest.

Nor the third, nor fourth, nor the audience prize. No, out of the six finalists she was one of only two to go away with nothing.

After all the swanning around of the winners on stage and the photo-op congratulations, I sat with her in the plush red velvet chairs of the Prince’s living room and described the place where she had taken me during her Rameau. She had tears in her eyes as I assured her that, however her voice developed, if she continued to sing as purely from her heart as she had today she would transport many more of us to magical places, and that, as far as I was concerend was what music was about. I hope I gave her something to take away, even if it was only the knowledge that, prize or no prize, she had a very special gift.

Once everyone had dispersed, the champagne corks popped yet again and the jury, the Royal Family and friends, and the continuo team started to ease up. The dance music came on and I did a mad disco jig with the Prince in front of the fireplace. I’m not sure what came over me.

On the long train journey home I listened to my collague's lute cd three times over as I tried to make the bridge between château and building site, champagne and côtes du Rhone. Julian, meanwhile, was revving up the mini for his contented Prima Donna’s return.

On the phone he told me that, if we could fit the cello in, I got to drive the pepper-white château on wheels home from the station. After the training in quick response and concentration at Chimay, and even on only three hours sleep, I thought I could just about make that.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006



I haven’t seen much of the Château of Chimay. For ten hours a day, instead of wandering in the russet grounds and admiring the bulbous slate towers, I have been lurking in the bijoux theatre that crouches off the hall, just about where you would expect to find a kitchen.

My esteemed colleagues in the continuo ‘équipe’ are awe-inspiring so I am eating some very nutritious humble pie as I place my bass line carefully in the midst of Jacob and Jory’s magical plucking.

The baroque singing competition candidates come and go in a whirlwind of loose scores that we, when we are not accompanying them, are frantically cutting and pasting. One minute I am down on my knees with the scissors and the Pritt while John Dowland or Monteverdi theorbo chords float in the air, and the next I am back at the instrument, bits of stave taped accidentally to my sleeve and my fingers sticking to the strings. As I carve my way through Purcell and Handel, I try not to hyperventilate with excitement; to keep it simple and let the glorious lines speak for themselves. Just as in life, it is much easier said than done, but it is relief to have the chance to try.

At midday, in between John Blow and Bach, the Princess comes in with a menu from the local brasserie from which we are to speedily make our choice.

In the afternoon, to keep ourselves from overwhelm, we crack the usual jokes about the text – ‘Ego Flos Campi’ morphing in to gay ego flossing, and the body parts mentioned in ‘If Music be the Food of Love’ becoming more and more lewd. We also guess that Horace’s beloved Lute is actually not a lute at all but a pretty hot chick. The candidates keep coming: A nasal soprano, a fiery contralto, three camp counter-tenors and a bass that makes the floorboards quiver underfoot…..On the fourth rendition, in the fourth key, on the fourth cut and paste part of ‘Lord, What Am I?’ I think I am beginning to hallucinate.

In the evening, eyes popping and tonics and dominants crowding our ears, we collapse into the red plush velvet depths of the Prince’s living room for a well-deserved apéro of their home-brewed beer. With the family and amongst the photos of handshakes with other princes, of the Princess beaming on stage with her guitar, of dogs and trees and babies, we inhale the aroma the Prince's big beefy stew and find ourselves laughing.

Meanwhile, further south, Julian, having shovelled the last of the concrete and earth into his bright new blue wheelbarrow and dumped it, having boxed all our food and china, having made the last adjustments to the plumbing before the hemp floor gets laid, is wading with a glass of wine through dust to get to the TV where he will also collapse after a hard days work. No-one is making him a big beefy stew, nor running a bath scented with ‘Blenheim Bouquet’. No-one is there to clink glasses with him on a job well done. When I phone, he tells me the mini has arrived in the garage. He is picking it up on Saturday and heading North for a weekend od music, food and love.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Top marks


I walk up the wide stone staircase of the ‘Maison Bourgoise’ which houses the music conservatory. In a gilded room drowning in autumnal light from the tall French windows, I sit on a bleached chair, my cheeks conscious of its ailing padding, and admire the tattered brocade of the heavy curtains.

We, The Jury, are informed that, though officially the score should be between ten and twenty, for the entrance exams it is pro forma to mark between 6 and 14. 10 is a pass. God forbid anyone should sail out of the room with top marks.

We start with baroque cello. The first candidate is not the nubile starlet I expect, but a man of 49 and a computer technician. He takes a deep breath, waggles his fingers above his fingerboard as if to summon the muse and launches into the sarabande of the first Suite by Bach. In some ways his playing is a mess, but in other (to me, more important) ways, it is splendid. He breathes, he moves, his feet are on the ground. His rhythm is perfect and his sound makes the furnishings in the room blush back to their original warmth. Above all, he is absolutely transported by the music and thus, so am I.

My colleague leans over to me and says: “He is mad you know”.
I think: “Better mad playing Bach than mad on the street with a gun”.

The head of the conservatory is not listening. He is marking an orchestral score and checking things on his laptop, shuffling his mouse squeakily across the table in between each phrase. Trying to compensate for his insensitivity, I breathe harder, deeper, doubly present for this man who has learned to play baroque cello when he is not mending a screen for some fund manager git, and who has the guts to come and sit before us. Just as the head did not acknowledge the candidate’s entrance, neither does he look up when the he leaves, or thank him for coming to make music for us, for pouring out his heart. I want to slap him and scream:

"Did you see the 'Tourneuse des Pages'? That's you assole!"

I whop a mega 14 on my sheet of paper and write the words ‘Touchant. Émouvant’ in big letters to balance out the others’ apparent judgement that he is not of a high enough standard to enter their pristine palace.

The second candidate is just what they are looking for and I know my colleague is gunning for her: All prettiness and control, no daring and she leaves me cold. I dutifully give her a high score.

Then we move on to the traverso flute. There is a Julien Sorel look-alike who sways and makes a willowy sound to whom I give top marks for those moody French looks. Next come a heavy breathing bespectacled professor dead from the waist down and a tight-wristed youth efficiently tooting out his Boismortier sonata whilst tapping his dapper shoes out of time. 12, 12.

Then the big guy enters.

I can see immediately that he needs every ounce of our support. His fingers are flapping and he can hardly move his instrument to his quivering mouth. To top it all, there are beads of sweat forming on the portion of hairy belly revealed by two missing shirt buttons. We have all been there, felt that terror of being out of control and on show, of having what we care about most shredded to death by our own unstoppable hands. Am I the only one who remembers? I can see him leaving his body, his eyes desperately searching ours to drop anchor as he spins above the shipwreck of himself. Unfortunately, though my gaze never abandons him in his ordeal, I am not in his line of vision. I am breathing even deeper, and my ears are reforming the phrases for him where he is leaving gaps, but I feel helpless. My colleagues continue to scribble and whisper, to check text messages as our poor candidate lurches towards the finishing line. I want to burst out clapping but it is not my place. The panel don’t change a thing. Tap tap on the mouse, turn a page….whatever. He stands there stunned for a moment and as he turns to walk out, I say a quiet ‘Merci’, hoping he will hear some compassion in my solo voice. 12, Bless him.

The next player is that sexy thing all professors’ wives dread. She breathes in and I know immediately she is not just a sumptuous piece of skirt, but that she is a huge talent. Full of fantasy, her flute another limb loosely connected at her mouth, she breathes out love. A mature musician at the age of nineteen. Another 14. The wives will have to cope.

We drive home through the small roads, drinking in the glorious tangerine, radicchio and lime landscape, and spend the afternoon pulling up terra cotta tiles and digging a hole in the kitchen floor. As I wedge the screwdriver into the plaster and wait for the pop of the tile coming loose, I think about my presence there at the conservatoire and about the fact that if it weren’t for my vote, the computer chappie wouldn’t have got in. I wonder sadly if he is in the right hands.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

mini stop press

Recently I receieved a very nice letter from my favourite UK newspaper saying they had put me up on their new blog page. Julian followed swiftly on. I always knew they were hip! As yet We are still unrated and unreviewed, so please feel free to go on over to me in Guardian Abroad and
him in Guardian Abroad

and change that sorry state of affairs by giving us loads of stars and rave reviews.

Meanwhile, the Mini is 'annoncé'.......

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

mushroom hunting in the ventoux



Yes, I know most of them are poisonous, but aren't they beautiful!


Tomorrow I will take them to the pharmacy. Every pharmacist in France has to do a course in mushroom recognition ! However, I have to admit that, after much studying of Carluccio, we did eat the small wet ceppy ones with our chicken and they were delicious.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

three tasks


Three gentle tasks for an Autumn Sunday.

They had to be gentle because I am suffering a horrible bout of food poisoning and my poor kidneys are as exhausted by it as Julian’s back is from smashing down the kitchen he never finished a year ago in preparation for the more upmarket version we can now contemplate and which involves a washing machine. (Hooray!).

Task Number One:

Was to deal with the big brown packet from the Prince of Chimay.

Next week, while my colleagues are off on a tour of South America, I am off a Belgian castle to play continuo cello for the International Baroque Singing Competition. A little preparation is needed, especially since I am to be the personal guest of the Prince and Princess and I’m sure I’ll want to hang out as much as possible.

I made a start by taking the orange glo-pen to the enormous packet of music submitted by the candidates, highlighting the bass line throughout. (This is so that I do not skip to the wrong stave and lurch immodestly into the melody prepared with such diligence by the singer.) Sitting with the autumn sun warming my calves, I leafed through the paper goodies, getting a sense of them like feeling the shape of presents under a tree:

‘Horace and His Lute’
‘If Music Be The Food of Love’
‘Ego Flos Campis’……………

(I marked a question mark by some of them, like the medieval one with no notes. Not sure how to play that, so I’ll know to ask when I arrive.)

Task (well, hardly a task) Number Two:

Was to go for a run, but jiggling my already unsettled insides around on stony paths was not an option, so I went for a walk instead. To my delight, my husband came with me. Not one to be lured off the path or the pace (got to get that heart rate up), I usually resist Julian’s forays into the woods to look for mushrooms, but today I was feeling meditative. We found ourselves in a dappled fairy glen of lit up oak leaves, russulas and boletes, and strangely curling lichen which read like a Farrow and Ball colour chart:

Borrowed Light
Calke Green
Mouse’s Back
Vert de Terre

Task Number Three

Was to round the house with the sun, set out twelve espresso cups in preparation for sanding the edges and painting gesso on to Julian’s postcard-sized boards. As I applied the delectable substance to smooth surfaces and rounded corners, the sun now beating the back of my neck with it’s three o’clock insistence, I concentrated on making them fit for the finest pomegranate before setting them out to dry on the cups.

A nice autumn Sunday.

Now it’s time to light the fire.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

birthday boy


I wake up late from my nap. I have no idea which city I am in, let alone which side of the bed to get out on. Julian is most definitely not by my side and Manon is not peeping over at us to see if it is time for our morning chat. I switch on the light which illumines too starkly the turquoise fireproof curtain, and realise it’s time to go to work. I scrabble together my concert gear and, seeing it crumpled from the journey from wherever I was last, I hurriedly pass the iron over the floaty fabric on the plastic lung-shaped surface. Bits of the Ibis desk/ shelf/ dressing table start to adhere themselves to the back of my tunic, however, and so I abandon my efforts. Humping my cello onto my back, I stuff the black clothes into a carrier bag and make my way on the tram to the concert hall. As usual, a gaggle of school kids point at my instrument crying “Contrebasse!” and “Violon!”. I'm sure one of them calls me a turtle (how insightful!) but luckily, today at least, there are no jokes about “Don’t you wish you played the flute?” or “What have you got in there? Your mother in law?”. If there had been I would have struck the teller.

Backstage I take 5 minutes to meditate. The percussionist has found a little spot to do the same so I don’t feel like such a weirdo. As I sit I let the sounds of people flexing their concert muscles drift through my awareness: Desk partners playing Mozart concerti in unison, friends discussing beaches in South America where they will soon be on tour, loners concentrating on calm long bows, show offs playing scales faster than light, the silent ones…. As I blink back into the world, the fact that in a few minutes all these various energies will come together and start (and hopefully finish) a Haydn symphony together amazes me.

We do the gig: The clarinets stand up for their boppy solo and the violins let their instruments slip down to ‘chin-off’ position for the folky bit, the violas spread their pizzicato chords luxuriously underneath the melody and the trumpet just manages not to fluff his triplets. The bass, as ever, rocks back and forth between tonic and dominant, and, for the first time in a while, I am enjoying myself. The bewilderment at the unjust accusations that have built up over the summer and the sense of isolation I feel as a result of them disappear for the next 100 minutes and I am lost in the music.

It is the chef’s 45th birthday, the orchestra’s tenth, and we are playing ‘at home’ in Grenoble. In celebration, after the first encore, the manager brings champagne and glasses on to the stage and pours for the seven founder members. That done, the chef launches into the second encore, waving us with one hand and trying not to spill his drink with the other. Then he smashes his glass on the back wall of the stage as we play him a surprise ‘Bonne Anniversaire’. When the Chef sits in the front row of the audience to applaud us bending and sticking our bottoms out for the umpteenth time it occurs to me that we have been on stage quite long enough and that this is getting embarrassing; that all that is missing are the candles for him to blow out, but the public are going ballistic. Now the Chef is back on stage moving around the orchestra shaking hands, bringing individuals up and down like umbrellas in April.

Later, over nine Bouzigue oysters and a carafe of Alsatian wine I discover that the in laws of the clarinettist are goat farmers in the Drôme Provençal, so I book him for a Mozart quintet in a vineyard one day. Then I return to the nasty plastic hotel to sleep the sleep of a gal going back home to her beloved, and one with no more orchestral tours for two months.


Sunday, October 01, 2006



I have always wanted to be cool. Obviously thin and blonde would have helped too, in terms of catching the boys, but I knew that cool was what really knocked ‘em sideways. I realise that it still does. It does it in terms of getting a job, keeping a job, staying in a healthy marriage, dealing with telesales, bank clerks, life in general.

Life is messy. We pay for and are blamed for other people’s cock ups all the time. Most people just swallow. Why can’t I?

Yesterday an email from a powerful source informed me that I was fast becoming a ‘problem’. I know that I have done absolutely nothing wrong….. except not be cool.

So in the wake of the email I meditate. At first I sit with my fury at the injustice and the incompetence and the misunderstanding. Then suddenly I am aware of my tendency towards self-aggrandisement; of self-importance; of believing myself to be on the moral high-ground. (I don’t think six formative years in a specialist music school for forty-two exceedingly gifted children helped much but then not everyone turned out like me – some killed themselves or set fire to buildings). These are not nice things to sit with, so I swap them for self-loathing, disgust. And Shame. Then comes the sadness, the profound loneliness which has been there since I sat picking my face apart to David Cassidy‘s ‘Daydreamer’ in an attic room in South London; the actual physical tenderness in my body. It’s agonising but at least it is real.

Something softens. I go from hot cement tile to cool mozzarella.

It’s a small beginning; realising I have long confused cool with hard.