Insights into touring with AAM

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In August, AAM headed to Spain, completing its first international tour since the pandemic began. The orchestra performed an all-Handel programme including Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks at the Pollença and Santander festivals and in Burgos Cathedral, under the direction of Richard Egarr.

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Fiona McDonnell, AAM’s Head of Concerts and Planning, shares a number of insights into the tour.

“There’s a saying ‘what goes on tour, stays on tour’. Although, given that AAM has recommenced touring again after 18 months, it has served to remind me that there are a lot of curiosities that I now take for granted which others might find plain bizarre! Here are my top 5 insights as to what goes on behind the scenes.

The comfort of seeing a cello case in front of you on an airplane
Cellos are a curious being…to airlines. Too fragile for the hold and too big for an overhead locker, cellos are treated as if they are a passenger. When booking flights for a cellist there are several hoops to jump through to ensure the cello gets on board and even then, there is no guarantee that an overzealous gate agent may still block. Cellos are referred to as Ms Cello or Mr Cello depending on the gender of the owner. They are always seated beside the cellist, have their own boarding pass and have many perks compared to their owner – they don’t have to pay government taxes and they always get the window seat! There were only three cellos on this tour but the fine print in the terms and conditions for Vueling airlines, a Spanish budget airline, were scrutinised on a number of occasions to ensure that the promoter booked all flights correctly and all instruments got on board.

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Inclement weather conditions
As a rule, orchestras generally never play outdoors unless there are stringent mitigations in place such as covered stages. This works well until you have horizontal rain coming at you from Belfast Lough – at the annual Proms in the Park with the Ulster Orchestra for example – so the deeper the covered stage the better! For baroque instruments, high humidity can play havoc with gut strings and then of course in Pollença, we could not rehearse until after 5.00pm to allow the sun to leave the stage and temperatures to cool. What we had not bargained for in an open-air concert in sunny Mallorca, however, were high winds which arrived out of nowhere as the sun began to set. These gust of winds not only blew music off stands but also blew some stands over

too, narrowly missing the harpsichord and Richard Egarr! Consternation all around from the musicians but the promoters remained remarkably non-plussed. “It will stop in 15 minutes…” was the response to our concerns about proceeding and true enough, it did. It transpires that this was a local weather phenomenon called ‘Embat’, summer thermal winds which always die down at sunset. Not entirely trusting of this local knowledge, clothes pegs were requested and duly employed for both rehearsals and performance!

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Regimented schedule
In advance of a tour, every detail is planned to the last minute. Flight check-ins, bus departure times, load-in for rehearsals are all listed in a schedule which is distributed to each musician in advance of the tour. The onus of responsibility is then placed on the musician to present themselves in time for each departure with an unspoken rule that if a musician is late and misses a connection, they must fend for themselves. I have yet to leave a musician behind although there have been some close occasions whereby an early departure can catch out even the most seasoned of travellers!  Another part of the tour management arsenal is the attendance checklist on the trusty clipboard where each musician is ticked off as they arrive on the bus…akin to a teacher on a school tour but in the long run, definitely worthwhile in tracking down any lost strays to keep the schedule on time.

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Russian roulette of hiring instruments locally
Unlike larger orchestras who must travel with a truck to transport their larger instruments and percussion, AAM travels with all small instruments as a carry-on in the cabin and double basses, contrabassoons and percussion in the hold. If baroque timpanis are part of a programme, alongside keyboards, there is an option to source from each promoter, but buyer beware! Thankfully, on this tour, the promoter had access to a range of baroque harpsichords which Richard Egarr was able to select in advance. Not by touch but by image and description so there was always an air of trepidation before the first chord was struck upon arrival at each venue. Other hired instruments have been less successful on previous tours – baroque timps are a rarity for some promoters and results have been mixed but resolvable. When touring in China with another orchestra, the percussionist should have got danger money for trying to tune some timpanis. On the same tour we had to hand across cash to persuade the promoter that it was entirely possible to remove the lid from a Steinway for a chamber orchestra performance without breaking it!

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Touring is not a holiday!
Touring with an orchestra yields a lot of Instagram moments but that is definitely what they are, moments. From a logistical and financial perspective, performances are generally back-to-back with the musicians spending more time on buses, in airports and on planes travelling between venues. The shortest stay since I joined AAM in 2019 was Istanbul in March 2020 whereby we arrived mid-afternoon, got a bus straight to the venue, rehearsed and then performed, a bus to the hotel to check in at 11.00pm before departing early the following morning. In Spain, we had a similar scenario whereby we based ourselves in Bilbao and travelled to and from Santander and Burgos by bus for each performance. This was more to do with the fact that the Spanish equivalent of the Tour de France was taking place at the same time in Burgos and there were no hotel rooms to be had in the vicinity of our performances. Ever resourceful, our post-concert drinks became a mobile affair on the two-hour bus journeys back to base!

On saying that, touring is wonderful, and it is such a delight to be able to bring our music back to live audiences across the world again, sharing our unique heritage, while experiencing their own landscapes and culture. I, for one, have missed it and am looking forward to our next tour in December 2021 with Tenebrae (performing in Snape Maltings, Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Braunschwieg and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam) with the potential for tours to Russia and beyond in 2022 after which, perhaps, more insights can be shared!

Fiona McDonnell

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