London Sinfonietta Travels: Florence

The past couple of weeks have had a distinctly Italian flavour about them, with the London Sinfonietta jetting to Milan, Turin and Florence since the beginning of September. Below, trumpeter Alastair Mackie recounts the latest trip, where we performed as part of Florence’s annual FLAME festival.

The Fountain of Neptune on Piazza della Signoria.

Sunday 15 September 7.30am

It’s 7.30am and I’m sat in Huxley’s Bar at Heathrow Terminal 5, waiting for my eggs benedict to arrive. It’s my reward for a horribly early start and a freezing ride on my scooter to the airport. We are booked on a flight to Pisa for a concert in the National Museum of Bargello, Florence, later tonight. It’s a much smaller London Sinfonietta than usual with only four musicians (two trumpets, a trombone and a drummer) and a sound engineer taking part in the concert. It’s less than a week since we were last in Italy – doing two really great concerts with conductor George Benjamin – and it’s good to be going back. For a touring musician Italy is hard to beat: a bit of sun, beautiful towns and great food. It’s also a big bonus that the restaurants don’t think there’s anything odd about ordering a full meal at 11.30pm; it’s difficult to eat properly with a touring schedule and often last thing at night is the only time you can properly relax, switch off and tuck in to anything you want.

From left to right: Alastair Mackie (trumpet), Byron Fulcher (trombone/clown), Owen Gunnell (percussion) and Christian Barraclough (trumpet)


We’re in a minibus travelling from Pisa to Florence. The promoters have booked Fangio to drive us, so Italy is a bit of a blur out the window. The motorway has lanes marked in the normal fashion but he doesn’t seem to have noticed.


Fangio was finally slowed down by the Florence traffic. I managed to resist kissing the ground when getting out of the minibus and have checked in to what is a very nice hotel. Lots of art on the walls and an ingenious piece of design to incorporate a glass lift, surrounded by a spiral staircase, into the courtyard of an old Florentine building. We’ve had some disappointing new about the concert: the amazing outdoor courtyard at the museum has had to be changed as storms are forecast for tonight. We will play instead in a church a short walk away. I tried to explain that my Scottish roots made it entirely normal for me to play in the rain. “The audience are still Italian” came the reply. It’s going to take a little time to relocate the sound gear so there’s time for lunch. Every cloud has a silver lining – these particular clouds are about to be lined with some zucchini and gamberreti tagliatelle.

The courtyard of the National Museum of Bargello


The rehearsal was a bit stressful. It’s always difficult to play music of such complexity but when the scores are in the composers’ handwriting and far too large to sit on a normal music stand, it can become impossible. Much of the rehearsal was therefore spent cutting up cardboard boxes in order to get some stiff material to put behind the parts and stop them sagging at either side, and adjusting the lighting to give us a fighting chance of being able to interpret  the parts come the concert. It opens with a piece of Birtwistle for two trumpets and three drums called Silkhouse Tattoo. It involves moving around to various stage positions, sometimes while playing, and Birtwistle suggests as a “speculative concept” that both the trumpeters wear brightly coloured jumpsuits. I will do almost anything for my art but a bright red jumpsuit? Christian and I decide on coloured silk shirts (I still bear the scars from walking on stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall to perform a solo wearing leather lederhosen – four reviews in national papers, all of which gleefully mentioned what I was wearing and none of which mentioned how I played!). Byron, however, goes the whole way with a full clown suit for his performance of Berio’s Trombone Sequenza. The remainder of the concert is three pieces for single instrument and electronics: I’m playing two stunning pieces by Jonathan Harvey – Ricercare una melodia and Other Presences while Byron is playing K’s Ocean by Dai Fujikura. It’s a shame we won’t hear these extraordinary sounds firing out of some eight speakers into the courtyard of the museum but the church is still a pretty decent plan B. The concert is at 9.15pm so we’ve some time now to catch up on sleep.

What we were up against

Monday 16 September 1pm

I’m sat on the plane home from Pisa. It was a really good night. The rain did come – not proper west coast Scottish type rain, but definitely too much for a load of electronics to go out in. The concert went exceptionally well and we had a fabulous meal with the people from the FLAME festival afterwards. The festival aims to put cutting-edge contemporary music into some of Florence’s ancient spaces. I think it’s a great combination: I love the connection between the past and the present – the fresh sounds dreamt up by today’s composers and brought to life by live computer-assisted musicians, echoing off bricks and mortar that were laid down centuries ago. It’s a powerful symbol of the constancy of human creativity and a great event to have been part of.

Byron’s attire for his performance of Berio’s Trombone Seuqenza. The piece is dedicated to Grock, whom Berio described as the last of the great clowns

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