My First Year with Lyric Opera Orchestra
So, how was Chicago?” I must have been asked this question at least five hundred times since my return to the UK following the end of the 60th
Anniversary Season at Lyric. “Cold,” is usually my first response. “So cold you dare not blink in case your eyelids freeze.” They think I am joking. Then I talk (moan) about Chicago’s unique climate at length and most people nod and sympathize, but they don’t really know. You had to be there. “But how is the new job? What’s it like?” Well, there is hardly a bigger contrast between sleepy rural Dorset where I have lived for the past ten years and the bustle of downtown Chicago. It was such a buzz to walk to work on day one with my sister Carol, principal viola, staring upwards at the incredible architecture, constantly pinching myself just to make sure it was actually happening. For the past fifteen years I rarely got to see Carol more than twice a year, and now she sits across from me in the pit as I take in the magnificent view of the inside of the Opera House from my new chair. After a short British welcome from a very cheerful Sir Andrew Davis, I find myself playing the sublime string sextet from the opening bars of Strauss' Capriccio
and I hear my colleagues for the first time. Months had passed since the auditions and I had tried to imagine what this day would be like so many times. I still felt like I had been catapulted from my old chair in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra into the stratosphere to somewhere just above cloud nine, which is from where I write to you now.
The 60th Anniversary season was underway and Mozart’s Don Giovanni took up the second half of the day’s rehearsals - the first opera of the season to open and the one that I missed the most after the production ended. There is not a single superficial measure in the score. Every note is crafted with precision, reflecting and enhancing the action on stage with so much humor. Every number was joy to play, not least No.12 “Batti Batti, O Bel Musetto,” which contains one of many cello solos I would get to play throughout the season. Actually there were so many cello solos to come that it became a bit of a standing joke that perhaps my contract dictated that there had to be a cello solo at least every ten minutes! Well, it doesn’t say anything like that as far as I know but I will be interested to see if there are any cello solos left in the opera repertoire for next season. Hold on; Wozzek. Yes, they’ve held a few back.
I also took the opportunity to sit in on one of the piano stage rehearsals for Don Giovanni, a rare chance for the musicians to take in the elaborate and impressive set designs and actually see the singers as well as hear them. It also served as a reminder of just how many people are involved in the production of an opera and how incredibly complex the whole thing is to piece together. Of course the audiences and donors play a huge role in keeping this massive engine turning. Regularly playing to packed 3500+ houses, receiving multiple standing ovations, the warmth and generosity of the Lyric supporters continues to surprise and delight us.
Opera is truly a remarkable art form and I am eagerly looking forward to discovering more of its musical treasures next season. I can honestly say that of all the seasons to join as Principal Cello, this was probably the best one I could imagine. Too many musical highlights to mention them all, but an honor to perform works like Tosca and Capriccio in such a grand setting with the likes of Renée Fleming. Tannhäuser, although longer than anything I have played and therefore physically and mentally tiring, provided some of the most beautifully serene moments, while the score to Weinberg’s Passenger regularly sent shivers down my spine.
At times this season felt like a baptism of fire (I wish I’d worn a heart rate monitor for the beginning of Tosca Act III, where the famous cello quartet solo would’ve plotted a very interesting graph) but I had a truly fantastic first experience at Lyric and it has been an unforgettable year all round. I am looking forward to coming back in September to do it all again without the voyage-into-the-unknown element!
Dorset, England, provides a welcome familiarity and sense of calm during the off-season. Although I have also been performing with my old friends from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra where I worked from 2004 to 2014, the priority has been to catch up on some much-needed time with my three children. Skype and FaceTime calls make a big difference when I am Chicago, but there is no substitute for a real hug from them.