Book Talk: London orchestra misses Titanic, gets stuck on train

Reuters

By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - It is a part of local lore that the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) missed the maiden and only sailing of the Titanic which they were to have taken to make the first American tour of what was billed as the "world's best orchestra".

Though they avoided that fateful voyage, the 85 members of the orchestra still had what was for the time an adventurous trip, spending much of April 1912 living on a train in a whistle-stop tour of America as far west as Milwaukee before they returned to New York to sail back home.

"There was one seven-day period when they did 10 concerts and they traveled overnight," said Gareth Davies, principal flautist with today's LSO and author of the engaging and chatty "The Show Must Go On: On Tour with the LSO in 1912 & 2012".

"They had breakfast on the train, did a matinee concert, got back on the train, did an evening concert and got back on the train and traveled to another place, so they were grumbling quite a lot," Davies, who tours much more today than the orchestra did then, told Reuters in an interview.

Davies, who in addition to playing a wicked flute is the orchestra's blogger-in-chief, has one of the LSO's very own 1912 grumblers to thank for the delightful details he weaves into his narrative.

He wanted to mark the centenary of the trip with a book, but was at a loss for the vital inside scoop until the orchestra's archivist, Libby Rice, out of the blue received the diary of the principal timpanist at the time, Charles Turner.

"The granddaughter of the timpanist had found this pocket diary and Libby had transcribed it all and sent me the file and it was all those gaps - what did they eat, where did they travel, did they miss home, was it fun and all of this stuff was just there," Davies said.

"And as luck would have it two weeks later we were sent a second diary by the grandson of the second flute player and it filled in lots more gaps."

Here's what else he had to say about the accident that delayed the Titanic's maiden voyage and forced the orchestra to take an earlier crossing, how different touring is today and why it is such a kick when the orchestra plays the theme from "Star Wars", which it recorded for the movies' soundtrack:

Q: How much does the Titanic actually figure in all this, given that the orchestra had arrived in New York on April 6, 1912, and the Titanic's date with the iceberg was April 14?

A: The Titanic is a headline-grabbing thing but the book is not really being sold on that at all. What's interesting for me is that it helps set the period, it sets the time. The first day of Charles Turner's diary takes place on the last day of the last entry of (Titanic) Captain Scott's diary. What I wanted this book to be was something not just for people who were LSO freaks...It is much more of a human story, it's about what it's like to do that, for a particular kind of person who plays in an orchestra.

Q: Your book is filled with anecdotes, some of them quite humorous, about what it is like to tour with the LSO today, including one where you find a pub in Vilnius that is filled with drinkers who all seem to be cheering both sides in a televised soccer match. What is it like now versus 1912 and how do you square it with family life?

A: One big change is players were still sharing rooms until 30 to 40 years ago. The makeup of the orchestra back in 1912 had only one woman but there are many more women in the music profession now so that's changed, and the tours for us don't tend to be as long as they were then. When we go to New York we've got a rehearsal the next day because it only takes seven hours to get there. The thing I found the same though (as 1912) is being away from home. I have a family and that's not always easy. Another thing that's the same is the size of the meals that Charles Turner ate in New York. They don't seem to have shrunk.

Q: Being principal flautist of one of the world's top orchestras must be nerve wracking, even without the tours, no?

A: It does feel like you're walking a tightrope some times. There are a few instances, like if you're playing Debussy's "L'Apres Midi d'un Faune" when no one else is playing anything. It's terrifying and it doesn't get any easier. But what I think I love about the LSO in particular is the wood section has a wonderful blend. I like that more than the solos.

Q: The LSO famously recorded the soundtrack for the "Star Wars" movies in the 1970s, and again for the later trilogy, on which you performed. What is it like playing for film?

A: The LSO did all the "Star Wars" films and I got to be in the last three. That was just brilliant. You get given the music on the day, you sight read it, they change a few things and you record it again. That's it.

(Editing by Patrick Lannin)

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