London Sinfonietta Travels: Russia

Last month the London Sinfonietta performed new Russian and British music under conductor Vladimir Jurowski, at Moscow’s annual contemporary music festival Drugoye Prostranstvo (The Other Space).

This event was part of the UK-Russia Year of Culture 2014, devised by Foreign Secretary William Hague and the Russian Federation’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as the biggest ever exchange between our two countries.

Trumpeter Christian Barraclough, on of our Emerging Artists, gives us a humorous account of his experience whilst on tour with the ensemble:

Wednesday 17 November

Morning all! It’s a beautiful, grey and wet British morning as we all arrive at Heathrow Terminal 5 for our trip to Moscow. After battling with the Monday queues for check-in and filling up on a Pret porridge and a black coffee, we are on the plane bound for the Slavic state. We make ourselves comfortable in the state-of-the-art economy seating which contains some wonderful and stylish features including the ‘slim-fit’ leg room option.

1Some people opt for 1st class but for my taste the extra space can be very unflattering on the thighs, don’t you agree?

Not being that clued up on the Russian lingo, I was fortunate enough to be sat next to a charming, young Belarusian woman who spoke the language fluently. After impressing her with my classic ‘I love elephants’ line (‘Ya lublu slona’ for those of you not in the know), she deemed it necessary that I learnt the essentials for Russian survival: ‘privet’ – hello, ‘paka’ – goodbye, ‘kak dela?’  – how are you? and ‘spasiba’ – thank you. Now speaking like a true native, I was ready for whatever situation the locals presented me with (providing it didn’t go beyond a simple greeting or a short discussion on your favourite animals).

Amongst other things, I was also taught what it was to be Russian. No more would I be allowed to bathe in the luxuries of the reserved, British politeness. You must make your point, and make it directly. Apparently we use the word ‘quite’ too much in Britain and if I wanted to do something, I must do it. So if in three years I haven’t spent a month travelling across America on a Harley Davison then I’ll have to answer to Irina.

Four hours later, we land on the tarmac. The pilot announces a temperature of -4 degrees (that scarf would have come in useful now…). I am then informed by my Belarusian companion that this is relatively warm. You would expect -15 in the colder months!

2Welcome to Moscow…don’t everybody smile at once then!

Upon arrival we were given our key-cards for our rooms and settled in. The hotel certainly did not dissapoint. With free wifi and breakfast served until 11am, you could easily make yourself at home. My only reservation was that the decor reminded me of Danny Torrence riding around the corridors on his tricycle in Stanly Kubrick’s The Shining.

3‘Come play with us Danny…for ever, and ever, and ever…’

After ridding myself of the thought of Mr Orford chasing me around the hotel with a sharpened bassoon crook shouting ‘heeeeeeeeere’s Johnny!’, I joined the brass section (and Ollie) for some comfort food in the form of beef stew, sheep’s cheese and a bit of Russia’s very own ‘little water’ (when in Rome, eh?).

4It’s a hard-knock life, for us! Cheers

Of course it wouldn’t be a tour without a little bit of sight-seeing so after a quick walk to the famous Red Square, we decided to turn in and prepare for the following day.


Thursday 18 November

No matter what happens, you should always adjust to your new time-zone as quickly as possible by going to bed at a sensible time and waking up nice and early. At about 11am I sauntered down to breakfast in a daze. Unfortunately by then it was a bit late for my muesli and so I settled for a black coffee with far too much sugar. A quick warm-up in my room (much to the delight of my neighbours, I’m sure) and we boarded the bus for our rehearsal at the Tchaikovsky Hall. I have always been amazed at the number of percussion instruments required for some of the London Sinfonietta’s repertoire. I often expect to see a table halfway across with bottles of water and a rest-stop as they charge from one side of the stage to the other.

6 London Sinfonietta rehearsing with an army of percussion instruments.

Never perform a concert on an empty stomach. Musicians, as a breed, tend to revolve their days around meal times and anything in between is seen as an inconvenience or at the least, a small hurdle to be overcome before the next feed. We made sure that the grumbling tummies wouldn’t interrupt the proceedings by tucking into a goulash soup before the concert.

7What’s wrong with this picture? That’s right, you know it’s a tough concert when the entire table has ordered unadulterated sparkling water. Rock ‘n roll, lads!

The concert’s program demanded an eclectic mix of electronics, bizarre seating positions and extraordinary technical ability from the players. It was held together by the metronomic beat of Vladimir Jurowski, who kept calm and collected throughout this fiendish collection of pieces. Particular mention has to be made to the players who combated the mind-bending musical geography of Anton Safronov’s CHRONOS…DREAM (which included some heroic Wagner tuba playing from Mike Thompson) and also to Alistair Mackie for his stratospheric jazz piccolo-trumpet playing in Thomas Adès’s Living Toys.

8Alistair Mackie with his barrage of mutes (including an authentic Russian noggin’ warmer)

9Mike Thompson on a Wagner tuba

After a successful concert, it was off to the next meal (you didn’t really think the goulash was enough to fill a brass player’s belly did you?). In a way it is a shame that I left my camera with my concert dress, otherwise you would be confronted now with a visual medley of true Russian cuisine. Sausages, soups, all sorts of fried anatomy and a couple of vodkas to send it on its way. We stepped out into the cold  Russian air and, as if from heaven, a taxi rolled up to greet us and take us back to our hotel where we slumped into our beds, happy that it had been a job well done (both the concert and the nosh!).

Friday 19 November

The next day I awoke and stared over at my half-packed suitcase. Another golden rule of touring is that you pack your case the night before to avoid any unnecessary faffing, should you find yourself a little short of time in the event of a missed alarm. Luckily I had used the ‘put the phone-alarm on the other side of the room’ technique and was coaxed out of bed on time and with enough energy to gather my wits and shovel my remaining items into my case. A very civilised leaving time of midday allowed us to meet in the foyer without any casualties or  late-comers, and after boarding the coach we were whisked off to the airport for our return to Blighty.

10A final bite before the flight. Some look more pleased than others…

Our flight went smoothly and landed us safely back on British soil at about 5.45pm. I’d had my fill of in-flight entertainment (I would heartily recommend The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I believe a few of my companions on this trip can be heard playing on the soundtrack) and couldn’t eat another bite after the lashings of chicken sandwiches. Fit to drop after what turned out to be an enlightening and educational trip, I said my goodbyes and made my way to the Underground in search of that old familiar sound of oyster cards beeping at the barriers and seeing the public’s sheer terror that they may accidentally make eye-contact with a fellow passenger.

And so, dear readers, I say spasiba for reading (if you made it this far) and paka to you all!

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