On tour with the Brussels Philharmonic

BBC Music Magazine's Oliver Condy on performing Saint-Saën's Organ Symphony No. 3 in eight concerts

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On tour with the Brussels Philharmonic
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It's as much as I can do to stop pacing up and down and sit down to write this blog. Next door to my dressing room (yes, I have a dressing room, with my name on and everything) violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky is putting the finishing touches to his interpretation of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with a technical finesse and intonation that explains why he's one of the world's most sought-after soloists and chamber musicians.

We're both appearing in the same concert in Bradford at St George's Hall as part of a seven-date UK tour (Alexander is one of three soloists playing throughout the week) with the fantastic Brussels Philharmonic under their soon-to-depart principal conductor Michel Tabachnik. Sitkovetsky's got the difficult bit - the concerto slot in the first half.

I, however, am playing the 'solo' organ part in Saint-Saëns's Symphony No. 3, his 'organ' symphony. I say 'solo', as the organ appears in two out of four movements, and only really snatches the limelight in the final maestoso. The organist doesn't get to bow at the start, and doesn't get a bouquet of flowers and sits at the back of the orchestra like a naughty schoolboy. It's a confusing role to play: centre of attention, but not quite star of the show. The organ part isn't that tricky, technically – although you have to count like billy-o – but it does have its corners. And of course it's up to the organist to get the balance with the orchestra right. Too loud and you're accused to sabbotage; too soft and you might as well not be there. And setting up and programming an organ in 20 minutes (which is what I effectively had to do on Friday night) is no mean feat.

So what am I more worried about? The counting? The notes? Knowing how to behave on stage? The balance? My precarious photocopies that might tumble off the music stand at any minute? The organ pistons, which I hope to heaven are programmed safely into the organ's hardware? Yup. All of these and more. This is the first time in over 20 years I've played with an orchestra, and I'm more than a little nervous.

So how did I get to be here? In fact, I keep asking myself that very question… Last year, I met one of the senior chaps from music agent IMG at a reception in Bristol. Somehow (as conversations with me tend to), chat turned to playing the organ, and the fact that I'd never played the instrument with an orchestra. I meant that I'd never corralled a bunch of friends to hack through some Handel concertos - that sort of thing. But then he offered me the chance to play the organ part of Saint-Saëns's Symphony No. 3 ('organ') with the Brussels Philharmonic during their UK tour. I swallowed hard.

I'm now half way through the tour – and it's been one of the most musically rewarding times of my life. We've played in Brussels, London, Bristol and Bradford, with Carlisle, Edinburgh, Middlesbrough and Cambridge to come. Each organ has so far been different, from the hired digital organs in London, Brussels and Bradford to the overwhelming, incredible four-manual Harrison & Harrison pipe organ in Colston Hall in my home city, Bristol (we all agreed after the Bristol concert that it had been one of the most electrifiying concerts we'd played in).

As a member of the music press, I've gained a very valuable insight into life on the road as a musician. No, it's not all glamour and, yes, it's unrelenting, with rehearsals, travelling and a quick snatched sandwich from the local supermarket preventing us from seeing anything of the towns we visit. There are hours of tedium punctuated by periods of intense excitement and anticipation. And the audiences have been effusive in their reactions. Heart-warming, indeed. I even got a standing ovation from a couple in Bradford when I came out to bow. That moment will stay with me for the rest of my life.

So it's on with the tour. Almost there. When the final chord crashes down in Cambridge on 3 December, it'll be the end of a very special week. And hopefully the start of new adventures to come…

 

Oliver Condy will perform Saint-Saëns's Symphony No. 3 with the Brussels Philharmonic at Cambridge Corn Exchange on Wednesday 3 December at 7.30pm. Visit: www.cornex.co.uk/brussels-philharmonic for more information

 

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