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A stale and slow-moving mind is of no use in a first-class orchestra, and an unfit body cannot cope with the physical strain involved. Those players really worth their salt are frequently expert at other accomplishments.

(Bernard Shore, The Orchestra Speaks)

Every single one of the musicians in any professional orchestra has won an audition over sometimes dozens and dozens of competitors, made it through one or two years of his/her trial period, and is required to play difficult pieces, well, day in and day out. If they can’t play the right notes, they can’t work. If a conductor can’t hear wrong notes, he has no business being a conductor. That is just as much a basic requirement of his job as the musicians being able to play the right notes (at least) on their instruments. There are many, many hollow posers and impostors on the podium. It is much easier to fake being a conductor than being a musician.

I saw Claudio Abbado given a very hard time by the brass players of the London Symphony Orchestra. The off-stage guys went to the pub part way through a rehearsal, there was quite a fuss about that one. Abbado was very angry at how some of the musicians behaved, and he walked off to cool down. The performance however was as exciting and electric as could be imagined. This was the same orchestra that decided to get back at Carreras when he said his fluffs were caused by dropped pencils. Abbado and the singer were then subjected to a barrage of pencil-dropping whenever he opened his mouth. In a way Carreras asked for it, but the players did not have to give it.

What is musically good and bad or emotionally communicative is really a different thing. A technically outstanding conductor who hears everything and knows how to rehearse and direct the orchestra is not a different kind of poser. If he knows his stuff, has good ears, knows the score and has a conception of it that he can bring across in rehearsal, then he is not a poser at all. You or I may not like the interpretation that results from that, but one has to separate that from technical qualities.

But if someone does not have these technical qualities and knowledge, then he also cannot develop a valuable interpretation of a complex orchestral piece and direct 80-100 musicians performing it. Whipping up a little excitement and relying on the orchestra to carry the conductor through the piece so that he looks good is not good conducting – although some good performances sometimes happen despite a bad conductor. But only when the orchestra comes through in spite of him. Which can be really dificult.

Although real messing with the conductor incidents do occur and they make for better stories, that rarely happens in good professional orchestras in the way of “let’s test this guy and give him a hard time”. It does happen sometimes, but not often, I would say. And that’s not even necessary. It is hard to describe, but when a conductor does not know his stuff, it becomes apparent very quickly, and after only a short while longer, it is pretty much clear if he knows what he is doing or not. If yes, it can make a huge difference in the ensemble playing experience. If not, then it can be a very big pain in the arse and immensely frustrating. Musicians most of the time don’t even need to test conductors – it often becomes apparent very quickly if they are any good or not.

One should always try to co-operate with the conductor, but sometimes, it’s just not possible and the problems aren’t a matter of different views about the music or anything like that – that doesn’t really matter anyway, because an important part of the craft of the orchestral musician is to be able to grasp and realize many different concepts, after all, if everybody did what they wanted, there would be no ensemble – it is simply that the man with the stick does not belong in front of an orchestra.

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Four o’clock I got back.
After hours at bars, pubs,
Full of the fun-lovers,
The people I dislike.

Then there was a woman.
Something about her smile.

Hangover? Yes, of course.

That will fade. The smile won’t.

You have a computer. You have the internet. You type this into a search engine …

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Slug & Lettuce, Deansgate

An excellent venue for a liquid lunch.

As usual when I’m completely broke, I decide to wander aimlessly around Manchester.

I get caught in a shower of sharp, cold rain, and head for Waterstone’s, where I find five pence on the floor.

When the sun comes out I head off again.

Later, I am strolling past Chetham’s and the Cathedral when a pretty girl catches my eye and smiles. I smile back. She approaches me. “Drunk,” I thought. I think she was, a bit. She was the kind of girl you’d want to get caught in the rain with, you run for cover, perhaps a shop doorway, art gallery or coffee shop, laughing because she’s wet and you’re wet, your eyes meet, she doesn’t look away …

“Excuse me, I’m not a tramp or anything, I’m from Eastbourne … I’m trying to raise £34 to get back there.”

She holds out her hand to reveal she already has five or six pounds in change, enough for a couple of drinks. Perhaps I could invite her to Sinclair’s Oyster Bar or the Wellington? Does she have to get back to Eastbourne today? What do I say?

I look straight at her.

“I’ve got five pee,” I say bluntly and truthfully. “I don’t suppose that’s any use.”

She wanders off.

Coincidentally, I stayed in Eastbourne one summer a few years ago when I was teaching English. What a hole.

So I don’t blame this girl for coming to Manchester in search of thrills.

Star Inn, Higher Broughton, Salford

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has merely established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

(Friedrich Engels & Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto)

Simon Hattenstone of the Grauniad returns to his childhood home of Salford to uncover the messy truth behind the rhetoric of a “classless society”. Click his name for the full article and comments.

Marx and Engels’ local was the Crescent when they lived in Salford. Mine was the Star Inn, a scruffy, working-class pub with the most miserable landlord in the world – one-armed Wally. But we liked it. Today, it’s just as scruffy but one of the country’s few community pubs owned by the people who drink there.

Margaret Fowler, a university lecturer with silver hair and an easy manner, is one of the shareholders. I ask if there are any Tories in the pub. She shakes her head.

I used to drink in “one-armed Wally’s” when I lived in Higher Broughton. I also spent a great deal of time in the Crescent when it was run by a couple known locally as “The Grims”.

Now that I am middle class, I live in the centre of Manchester of course. Let us not forget that the newspaper Hattenstone writes for used to be called the Manchester Guardian.

Let us also remember that Manchester has, or had, the only public building named after a political and economic concept, i.e. the Free Trade Hall, now, sadly, a hotel where Simon Cowell stays when he is judging British Special Needs Factor, or whatever television show it is that humiliates ordinary people by encouraging them to believe that they can emulate Cowell and make a lot of money by doing nothing in particular.

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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