They came again. In their penguin suits and dickie bows. Rolled into Aber in a big lorry and a BBC radio van. For one night only – the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. It never fails to be amazing. If you see them in Cardiff or Swansea, you pay at least a hundred quid. After all, it’s the only professional symphony orchestra in Wales. Its remit means the orchestra has to tour its small but mighty nation.. and here it comes. A three-hour drive from Cardiff brings the tour up to the wilds of Mid-Wales. To us.
The orchestra was back to playing in the Arts Centre’s barely-better-than-a-school-hall venue. Where a large proportion of the audience either forgot or declined to change out of their hiking boots before last night’s performance. What were those poor orchestra players, attired elegantly in black tie, thinking?
‘They’re probably busy thinking about getting back to their day jobs,’ Jack said.
I turned to him. ‘I’m not sure they have day jobs. Other than this one.’
Jack frowned from the front row. Yes, we had front row seats. I bought them as soon as they’d popped up for sale. £18 for all four of us? I’d been waiting. The orchestra were busy tuning their instruments. The musician demographic was well mixed – young, older, female and male.
He was unconvinced. ‘They don’t have other jobs?’
‘What, other than practising Tchaikovsky?’
‘I always thought of them as civil servants.’
‘You think these violinists add points to your driving licence?’
If the touring conductor, Kensho Watanabe, normally the assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, was concerned about any of his musicians being part-timers, he didn’t show it. Not a single thread. Ok, we might have been positioned three feet away from him but I was taken. It took me five minutes to decide to follow him to the ends of the earth. What can I say? Always looking for a hero, me. It’s just the way I am.
I had the instinctive certainty you could put your life in his hands and he’d look after you in a nurturing, if detached way. The way he was guiding his orchestra – smiling at them seriously. There was something about the way he squared his shoulders too. I’ll be your soldier, I thought. You lead the charge.
Yes, his baton could have been a weapon. And he was pretty old-school about the way he waved it around. Robotic up-down – making all those curtailed sweeping motions. It made us wonder if he was really serving a musical purpose or if the orchestra could perform without him. They all had the score in front of them, after all. Was the conductor serving a purpose besides adding to the drama?
When we went to see these guys play before Christmas, the instruments came across as voices. The violins spoke – the bassoons answered. The flutes piped up – the percussion tapped it out. It was an unbelievable conversation. This time though, the orchestra came across differently. This time, their symphonic sound seemed aligned. The conductor; his serious and loving smile, squared shoulders and robot arms. A portal. One sound.