A Busker’s Life

I had no idea that Mahler wrote for acoustic guitar. A call came in to check my availability for a concert at The Royal Festival Hall. The gig was Mahler Symphony Number 7. I was probably not their first choice but who was I to refuse such a refined invitation?

I discovered that Mahler wrote this symphony to feature acoustic guitar and mandolin in the fourth of five movements so there was a small degree of ‘guest appearance’ involved.

The rehearsal schedule was announced and I tentatively arrived at The Henry Wood Hall in South East London where the full orchestra was booked to give this work a decent going over. The conductor was Lorin Maazel, a renown and respected American conductor of whom I had never heard but who was none the less much respected in his field. I think had I known I would have been even more nervous. My ally, Hugo D’Alton was on the mandolin so at least there were two relative fishes out of water although Hugo was a proper classical player whereas I saw myself as more of a busker particularly in this heady environment.

One decidedly large obstacle at this celebrious rehearsal room was that there was a fully stocked, easily available basement bar. Hugo liked his beer. As we sat out the first three movements, he decided to get several in and invited me to join him. It was a happy interlude and finally we got the call to join the rest of the orchestra for our big moment. I was too nervous to drink but being a seasoned professional, he’d enjoyed about three pints of the local ale prior to playing his mandolin solo. We sat in our given spaces, just behind the second violins and to the right of the woodwind.

The rehearsals seemed to be going well but at one point during our brief appearance, Mr. Maazel decided that he couldn’t actually hear us. So, he invited us both up to the front of the orchestra, much to the annoyance of the front desk of the violins, to sit literally under his wing. Much clattering and chair moving ensued and we finally positioned ourselves under the draft of his large white conducting stick and attempted to follow his flowerily waving as best we could. Hugo having enjoyed probably far too much started discussing the merits of our specific but brief performance asking questions and stopping midway through to get further clarification. It didn’t help that his giggling and rather unsteady demeanour were giving a little too much away and playing very obviously to the string gallery. I always wondered if Maazel would notice if we’d made any mistakes but I let that thought pass quickly as I know he certainly would.

Difficult to say for everyone else, but I’d rehearsed enough to get through this short romantic interlude and the day of the gig arrived. It was also being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 so absolutely no pressure. The rest of the orchestra sitting around me realised that I was less of a classical player and regaled me with stories of their kids learning guitar at school and could I help? I nodded politely and agreed to take their details, which I didn’t.

The gig was a fine occasion especially for a Sunday afternoon. After we’d played and the usual bows were being taken, the honourable Mr. Maazel pointed at me. Why was he pointing at me? I looked behind me to see if he was asking the French Horns to take a stand, or indeed, the harpist.

He pointed again and I quickly realised along with a sharp sober stab from Hugo that we were being asked to stand to take a bow for our short but important contribution. I could hear from the audience two or three chums actually whistling and cheering as I stood. What a hoot!

I walked away from The Royal Festival Hall that day very happy, proud and exhilarated that I’d been part of such a fun occasion and had the chance to play alongside some fine musicians especially in the context of seeing myself, and those that knew me, as a busker and somewhat of a chancer. But the lesson here is if you don’t try something that scares the pants off you, what indeed is the point?