Dusting off the Strad

When I was a schoolboy in Glasgow I played my viola in the Glasgow Schools Orchestras, starting in the Second Orchestra and moving on to the First.  We would meet up for two weeks in an intensive summer course, followed by a concert.   I still remember vividly the concert we played the year I left school – Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, the Bruch G minor violin concerto, and Brahms 4.  The orchestras also met during term time, on a Saturday morning – a wonderful excuse for getting out of rugby.  (I need to protect my violist’s hands.)  After leaving school, you could continue to play up until Christmas, when you were deemed too old, and sent out into the big wide world.  I remember one Saturday morning when I had just started Uni, I decided on a whim to go along to the Saturday morning orchestra, really just to say hi to my pals.  For the record, we played Malcolm Arnold’s Second Symphony.

That Saturday morning, it just so happened the Assistant Music Adviser for Glasgow Schools was in attendance, and I guess I passed under his gaze.  He asked me if I would like to be the viola tutor for Glasgow Schools Third Orchestra – the junior orchestra.  Well!  Can a duck swim?  I said yes.  I was 18 years old.  I’d gone along on a whim, and I’m sure Mr McAdam asked me on a whim, but it turned out to be a very important chance encounter for me, because I fulfilled the role for the next six years, and forged many friendships, which have mostly survived.

Musical education was very strong in Glasgow at this time, and many of the members of these orchestras went on to forge very distinguished careers in music.  Of course, like me, the majority of those taking part went on to do something else, but I think we all knew that we had been offered a chance to experience something very special.  I am quite sure that the exposure to music, and the chance to learn what one’s relationship to music might be, was far greater, and more democratic then, than it is now.

In addition to the bill of fare of the schools, we also all played in a variety of amateur youth orchestras.  Looking back, the repertoire was quite extraordinary: Tchaikovsky 4 and 6, Sibelius 1, 2, and 5, Shostakovich 1 and 5, Prokofiev 5, all the Brahms, Vaughan Williams 5, Handel’s Messiah, Faure’s Requiem, Haydn’s Creation… the list is endless. We were fearless.

Then something happened.  Well, medicine happened.  I disappeared into the world of Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.  And then, well, I just disappeared.  Brisbane, Portsmouth, Swindon, Auckland…  I went to Auckland for 3 months and stayed for 13 years.  I became totally immersed in the world of emergency medicine. I still played from time to time, with St Matthews in the City in Auckland.  Beethoven 6.  And I remember with fondness a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with, as I recall, a leader of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.  He was wonderful.

But it all began to peter out.  Not doing something is as much of a habit as doing something.  So my viola rested quietly in its case.  Even when I eventually returned to the UK, it remained silent.  Each year, just prior to Christmas, I would take the instrument out, blow the dust off, and take part in a ceremony of Nine Lessons and Carols for some dear friends of mine in Glasgow.

Then, last week, something extraordinary happened.  I got a phone call from a guy who introduced himself as one of the members of the viola section in that first summer course of the Glasgow Schools Third Orchestra, all these years ago.  A local chamber orchestra were on the lookout for a viola player and would I consider coming along?

I said yes.

Why?  Well, sometimes an opportunity comes along that is so bizarre that you cannot but acquiesce.  Of course, I had profound misgivings.  The next day, I berated myself.  How could you possibly be so rash?  Were you drunk?  I got out the Strad (well, to be honest, copy of the Archinto Stradivari, Duncan Sanderson, faciebat Glasgow, 1965 – still quite a nice instrument), blew off the dust, and played a C major scale in 3 octaves.  What a racket.  Then I hacked my way through 3 of the 6 Bach suites for unaccompanied cello.

The viola was as out of practice as I was.  It was just a dead, stone-cold piece of timber.  But I struggled away.  And, d’you know, little by little the varnished wood began to warm up.

I attended the first rehearsal, with some trepidation.  But it was okay.  Very good, sensitive conductor, very friendly atmosphere, and beautiful music.  I soon forgot my anxieties and became absorbed in Beethoven.  The Coriolan Overture, and the First Symphony.  I’ve noticed it before when you rehearse Beethoven: you sense the great man’s living presence in the room.  I forgot all my personal reservations and simply played the music.

I think it went okay.  Early days, but I wonder.  Have I rediscovered a rich seam?

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