Beyond the squeaky gate.

The current BBCSO Trombone Section sprang into being on April 2nd, 2011, when Rob O’Neill joined us to fill our Bass Trombone vacancy.  In those days we were a gang of five, one of the fortunate few orchestras to have two Principals, but Roger Harvey retired from the orchestra in December 2013.  He selfishly left me to be Senior Member, a role I sustain convincingly by being not only the oldest but the roundest, least healthy but most sleepy.  However, I haven’t been in the band the longest.  Helen Vollam, Principal, joined in February 2004, tuba Sam started two years later, shortly after me, and Rob completed the line-up in 2011. 

In the BBCSO, a lot of the focus is on very modern music, ‘squeaky gate’ music, as it’s known, and that brings with it all sorts of techniques and demandsnot always common in standard repertoire.  Acting, singing, even shouting, whacking the mouthpiece and quartertones are all old hat to us, and a lot of new hat is simply impossible.  Section favourite of the impossible things we’re asked to do is known as the ‘octopus’.  This is a situation where you’re asked to play plug notes, move the slide, and operate a wa-wa mute all at the same time, which leads to the sarcastic question to the composer “How many arms do you have? cos I’ve only got two.”  It’s surprising how often the octopus surfaces.

A lot of the new stuff is technically challenging but that and the constant variety of new dots to sight-read are two of the aspects that make working in this orchestra so stimulating.  One week we could be picking out virtually indecipherable rhythms, the next using every mute known to man in a tranquil piece depicting a Japanese garden, and the next pile-driving through power clusters like compressors in a scrapyard.  Unfortunately ‘technically challenging’ can sometimes mean badly written, with unplayable glisses or demisemiquaver passages that look more like a piccolo part.  But however finicky or cacophonous the music appears when we first play it through, there’s almost always something to be gained or enjoyed from it by the time of the show.  And we get to play Mahler and Brahms too, hurray!

Every section has its own vernacular and its own set of in-jokes.  Our previous Principal Conductor Jiri Belohlavek, used in rehearsals to ask for “Celli, bassi”, which in his Czech accent sounded just like Shirley Bassey, and would provoke any of us into playing the gliss at the end of the first phrase of ‘Hey Big Spender’.

Musically we are well connected and listen to each other all the time.  This is fundamental for the cohesion of any section.  Intonation, balance, articulation, general togetherness, all are attended to; it becomes second nature.  We’ll often rehearse a passage long into the break, or sometimes take off into another studio to try out something one of us has written or arranged. 

We eat well, especially on tour, with curry houses in Seoul, Yokohama,Guangzhou and Whitechapel taking particular hammerings over the years.  If we ever go to India I fear for the country’s already dangerously low food shortages.Europe has its own high spots, which many travelling sections will be familiar with.  Spain in particular has been a favourite, with its open-to-the-street tapas bars, and particularly memorable haunts being a fois-gras and red gin bar in Pamplona, and a Flamenco club in central Madrid. 

The BBCSO dresses up well forthemed tour parties; this photo is from Heroes and Villains in Taipei in 2013.  World travel is a massive bonus in any musician’s life, and the way I look at it is this: when I saw the Great Wall of China, I thought ‘My trombone has brought me here.’  I could never have imagined when I first chose the instrument from a brass band cupboard that it would lead me to the Great Wall, one of the sights of the world.  This obviously re-endorses the point Simon Cowen made in the last issue about the value of practice.  It’s so worth it, and can lead literally anywhere!

Most of the year we play at the Barbican Centre, but the central part of our existence is the Proms every summer, culminating in the world-famous Last Night. Trombone repertoire-wise, this year we’ve done Belshazzer’s Feast, Planets, the bombastic Leningrad Symphony, the Firebird (full ballet score) and the Janacek Sinfonietta.  A lot of these require extra players, and let us take this opportunity to thank all our fantastic extras, who help us out so often.

The Last Night of the Proms is of course special – hopefully the Saturday after this issue comes out – and a lifetime experience for the audience in the Albert Hall but also for those watching on TV.  Being, as Helen calls us, “the big shiny things at the back” there are usually plenty of shots of us on the screen.  It’s a big occasion, and it’s strange to think that every note we play that night can be heard by whoever’s watching in a shisha bar in Kyrgyzstan, on breakfast TV in Brisbane, or as a colleague used to say, down the docks in Buenos Aires!

There’s a respite after the Proms, then we’re straight back into the fray with Mahler 3 at the Barbican on September 24th.  Day to day,at Maida Vale studios, the section rather splits down the middle, with Rob and Sam the dynamic duo, into cars and keeping fit, and Helen and I more interested in food and stationery.  This divide was visibly demonstrated one day when Sam and I arrived at pages in our separate magazines, Evo and Good Food respectively, but with virtually identical article titles. ‘Make the most of your tuner this summer’ interested Sam, a piece about various tips a racing mechanic should be especially aware of in hot weather.  At the same moment I found myself absorbed in a helpful page called ‘Make the most of tuna this summer’, featuring recipes for mayonnaise and Salade Nicoise. I hope that somewhere in the world there’s a city we haven’t been to yet, where we’ll stay in a hotel with a gym, a pool and a food court, and where nearby there’s a running track inside a race track, and a street comprised entirely of Rymans.

So it’s very much a mixed bag being a member of the BBCSO and its trombone section.  But it’s those very mixed extremes of repertoire that help to keep all the quartertones and glisses as fresh as the first one you ever played.  And you know what they say: everyone remembers their first gliss.


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