AAM Newsletter – February 2022

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The Last Saturday Before Christmas

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A day in the life of a touring musician

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Leo Duarte, Principal Oboe, December 2021

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I got to bed late last night – or should that be early this morning? – after our concert at Snape Maltings, and am up with the lark to pack my bag and head to the airport. This used to be the regular rhythm of going on tour – a rhythm disrupted by Covid. Just yesterday we heard that the German government was considering restricting travel from the UK, so the threat of cancelled concerts looms large in our minds. Snape is always a magical place to perform, not least because of the concert hall’s stunning location, nestled amongst Suffolk’s whispering reed-beds – a habitat particularly dear to oboists! Often the simplest spaces have the finest acoustics and Snape’s repurposed malt-barn is simplicity itself, resulting in one of the best acoustics in the UK. But that was last night. Today the AAM are back on tour to Europe, and to a hall which I’ve been longing to visit for years; Hamburg’s state-of-the-art Elbphilharmonie only opened in 2017 and couldn’t be more different in design from Snape’s simplicity.

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After a check-in process made excessively long by the chaos of thousands of people leaving the UK on this, the last weekend before Christmas, I join colleagues airside for poached eggs and nasal swabs. It’s not the ideal way to start the day, but the pre-departure tests reassure us that we won’t be quarantined in a German hotel over Christmas. Happily no one in the orchestra or choir tests positive so we can all continue our journey.

Upon landing at Hamburg, however, it becomes apparent that not all of our party have arrived… Two timpani and a double bass never made it into the plane’s cargo hold and are consequently languishing with lost luggage at Heathrow. You’d think that this would be a disaster, but AAM’s experienced management team have seen this all before, and after a few urgent phone calls, local instruments are miraculously sourced, though the race is on to get them to the concert hall in time for the rehearsal.

We are performing Handel’s Messiah with the superb vocal ensemble Tenebrae and conductor Nigel Short. Messiah is rightly adored as one of the greatest choral works in the canon and I have been fortunate enough to perform it countless times, but when you play or hear a piece so often there is an ever-present danger of failing to appreciate its full majesty. One way I try to combat this is by taking cutting-edge musicological work into the concert hall. With Messiah I have been unusually lucky: over the lockdown I was fortunate to acquire an original eighteenth century oboe of a peculiar sort, all the rage when Messiah was first performed. Not only that, but I also acquired two copies of this instrument – as far as I’m aware the only two copies of this type of instrument which are currently played. Known as English Straight Top Oboes, for obvious reasons (see photo), when you compare them to the more common type of Baroque oboe (in the middle of the photo), the sound of the English oboes is sweeter, lighter, and blends more easily with both vocalists and strings.

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If new oboes weren’t enough, a variant manuscript score of Messiah has recently been published which throws some fascinating new light on what the oboists actually played. Most performances these days rely on a set of parts bequeathed to the Foundling Hospital which were used in performances of the work late in Handel’s lifetime. This variant manuscript, however, is thought to preserve an earlier and radically different conception of the oboe parts. The specifics aren’t all that important in and of themselves, but the combination of new instruments and new music has the effect of brightly re-illuminating this masterwork for me.

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We arrive at the Elbphilharmonie after a quick coffee in the hotel. We are still without a double bass so when we start to rehearse the sound and feel of the hall is uncomfortable – it is amazing just how important a single double bass can be to an ensemble – but when, about an hour into the rehearsal, the instrument arrives, the sound blooms and it’s clear that this hall is really something special. It is sensuously curvaceous and the walls themselves are pitted with 10,000 individually microshaped drywall plates (see the wall behind the oboes in the photo) to disperse sound waves and enhance the acoustic. I’m not sure that I prefer this acoustic over Snape’s, but we certainly have nothing like this in the UK. There was one acoustic effect we weren’t prepared for, however: the same properties by which the hall sent our sound out, channelled and amplified the audience’s rapturous applause directly back to us – an applause delivered with s standing ovation and which lasted as long as some of the shorter arias in Messiah!

After the concert we found a little cocktail bar close by the hotel. We have an early start tomorrow as we’re heading to our next concert at Braunschweig, nevertheless it feels important to celebrate AAM’s return to Europe. I got to bed late that night – or should it be early that morning?

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Watch this concert on Youtube:

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