BANANA CASE AT THE BARBICAN

George Jackson, conductor and previous holder of the Trinity Laban Sir Charles Mackerras Junior Fellowship in Conducting (2015-17), describes what it’s like to get ‘The Call’.

George Jackson portrait B&W © Alexa Wilding

Sunday morning.  It’s 6:30, and for some reason, I am wide awake.

I have just spent a week on tour with the Orchestre de Paris, where I have been Daniel Harding’s assistant: Cologne, Dortmund, Luxembourg, and Brussels.  The week before that, my first Schumann Symphony No.4 with the Transylvanian Philharmonic in Cluj; the week before that, the first leg of the Orchestre de Paris tour, at ‘home’ in Paris, and then in Vienna.

I was grateful for my first full day off in three weeks: Sunday lunch planned with a couple of schoolmates, followed by the new Ricky Gervais show on Netflix.  Bliss!

I manage to doze back off at around 7:30am, but was woken by my phone ringing at 8:21am.  Unusual, I thought, for a Sunday morning…

The previous day, I’d had the pleasure of conducting the premiere of Jasmin Kent Rodgman’s ‘The Letter’ at LSO St Luke’s, as part of the Barbican’s ‘Open Ear’ Festival.  A Jerwood Foundation composer, Jasmin curated an inspiring afternoon featuring performances by the best of London’s spoken word community, culminating in the premiere of her own piece with Salena Godden’s poetry and a quartet of LSO musicians. During the break, I had jokingly quipped to a colleague: ‘Let’s hope Francois-Xavier Roth’s plane takes off tomorrow morning…’.  One of the LSO St. Luke’s plasma screens was advertising Sunday’s Panufnik Composers’ Workshop, where eight brand-new pieces would be publicly workshopped with the orchestra.

As my ringtone echoed into the slumber, I realised how cold it was.  Which means snow.  Which in the UK (and, incidentally, Frankfurt) means travel chaos…

I answered about three octaves lower than usual.  Natalia, the LSO’s artist development associate projects manager, greeted me with her chirpy and friendly tone (she had managed the Jerwood project too).  ‘Morning George!  It’s Natalia at the LSO.  Francois-Xavier’s plane has been temporarily grounded in Frankfurt.  Do you fancy coming in and starting the session this morning?  How far away are you?  Can you get here?’

The slow-motion realisation of what this meant dawned upon me: the chance to spend the morning with one of the world’s finest orchestras, conducting music by the most talented young composers in the UK.  ‘Yes. I’m at home in Hanwell. Can you email me pdfs of the scores? What’s the dress code?’

I scramble around: batons are still in my bag from yesterday; I throw on the only non-creased shirt I can find, some jeans, the nearest shoes.  I make an espresso, but then ignore it, since the adrenaline buzz is already doing the coffee’s work.  An Uber is ordered: ‘Driver completing journey nearby’.  It could take up to 18 minutes…..

I risk it, thinking that if the Uber arrives at 9am, with a 40-minute drive to Old Street, I should have a little bit of time to run through the PDFs at the piano at home, before looking at hard copies in the conductor’s room.

Perfect!

At 8:50am, Uber cancels the order – there are no drivers available.

I call two minicab companies with no luck.  The third one answers and can send a car in 15 minutes.  9:05, so I should get to Old Street at 9:45.  Great.

I attempt to find some last-minute sustenance, and eat all that I can find in the house: a square of Dairy Milk, three Jacobs’ cream crackers and two Trebor mints.  I call Natalia: ‘Please can you leave a banana in the conductor’s room?’  I am incredibly grateful for this later on.

The taxi driver clearly thinks I am mad.  I tell him that it is an emergency, and can he race through London (he agrees, and does a wonderful job).  I spend the next 40 minutes roughly ‘conducting’ my way through the scores, metronome app open in one hand.  Yes, he thinks I am mad.  No time to think about that.

I am now informed that Francois-Xavier’s ETA is 11:15am, which means I will definitely be working on the first two pieces of the day: Grace-Evangeline Mason’s Beneath the Silken Silence and Han Xu’s Buddha Holds the Flower.  I focus on these two, identify a list of questions for each composer, and make sure I can at least work my way through any tempo and metrical changes.  ‘Does “the new minim is the previous crotchet” mean that I should just stay in 2?’  Those sorts of questions.  The things that Simon Rattle likes to call ‘dental hygiene’.

We arrive at the Old Street roundabout.  The friendly driver, for some reason, misses the turn off for St. Luke’s, so we have another go round the roundabout.  Just to keep the adrenaline running.

I race out the car, get to the conductor’s room, and thank Natalia for the banana – which comes in a rather dashing banana-shaped plastic case.  The scores are there, and I race through, underlining, highlighting, making notes.

I have a couple of very welcome visitors to the conductor’s room before we start.  The LSO’s managing director, Kathryn McDowell, says a friendly hello and wishes me luck, and Colin Matthews, who is mentoring the composers, pops in for a quick chat: he gives me a few invaluable bits of advice about the two pieces, and describes how the workshop will run, as a form of public conversation between myself on the podium, principal second violin David Alberman, and the composer in the hot seat.

At 9:59am, the orchestral manager knocks on the door.

Time to go and face the music…

Winner of the 2015 Aspen Conducting Prize, London-born conductor George Jackson will make his Opera Holland Park debut in June conducting a new production of Così Fan Tutte. Other forthcoming highlights include his debut with the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra.

www.georgejackson.net

[First produced on Jessica Duchen’s Classical Music blog. Image credits: Alex Wilding)]

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