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There are two things that guarantee the cat will make a swift exit: the sight of the vacuum cleaner, or me getting my violin out of its case. For most of the last 20 years or so, the vacuum cleaner has posed by far the biggest threat as the violin has barely seen the light of day. But, early in 2005, all that changed.
I had attended the European Doctors Orchestra (EDO) inaugural concert in November 2004, in Blackheath, London, more out of curiosity than anything else. Involuntary foot-tapping began early on, and it wasn't long before a smile became fixed on my face. It matched the smile on the faces of most of those who were playing. This thing was infectious. The overwhelming impact on me was that I came out determined to find the courage to play my violin again.
Apart from a vague attempt at maintaining my musical interests when starting medical school, my own playing dwindled sharply to nothing once I started clinical training. A few desultory efforts over the course of the next two decades resulted in little else but a vague yearning and a huge dose of anxiety whenever I came close to playing again. I knew I missed the excitement of playing in an orchestra, but I had never quite found the right sort of group. I didn't want to take on a huge commitment or take music making too seriously; I wanted music to be fun.
At first glance, the EDO seemed to have all the ingredients I was looking for. They invite anyone who has reached grade 6 or more to register for an intense 3 days of rehearsal followed by a concert. This happens twice a year, once in London and once ‘somewhere else in Europe’. Not only are there no daunting auditions, but there's also the opportunity to travel. I was hooked by the whole idea.
My violin and bow were overhauled and restrung as a birthday present. Lessons were another present. I found a wonderfully patient teacher who lives within spitting distance of my home, and who welcomes returning adults. I was set. I had committed to playing in the EDO's first continental concert, and as any goal-oriented medic knows, that in itself loomed large as an incentive to arrange lessons, work out which end of the bow to hold, familiarise myself with reading music again and generally get my act together.
Six weeks or so before the concert, each of us who'd registered for the Bucharest extravaganza was sent a CD of the music and a CD ROM of the sheet music. I listened obsessively to von Suppe's Light Cavalry Overture, Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante and Dvorak's Symphony No. 8. until I could sing along to it all in my sleep. And gradually my violin started to come back to life, and slowly, very slowly, I began to play through the parts. It was a bit like studying for exams. Practicing was something I did because I didn't want to make a fool of myself, and because I had promised myself that I would make an effort. Then it became something I started to enjoy as I got to know the music better and I could play along with the CDs. Paradoxically, after many years of playing in orchestras as a teenager and never really preparing for any of the many concerts I had played in, this was the first time I had made such an effort. And, not surprisingly, the work paid off.
From the moment I arrived at Heathrow, and met up with other members of the orchestra, I felt a sense of relief. Almost everyone I spoke to seemed to have been rediscovering their love of making music after many dormant years. Very few had found time to play regularly as junior doctors, and many are now well-established GPs and consultants. I was in good company; the rehearsals were fun, and the sense of humour and inimitable patience of our conductor, Warwick Stengards, brought us neatly into line. We were joined by members of the Bucharest Doctors Orchestra and by a few exceedingly helpful professionals to fill the odd gap. The Romanian hospitality and organisation was second to none. And we enjoyed the thrill and privilege of playing to a packed and thoroughly appreciative audience in the Atheneum Theatre. For an orchestra made up mostly of amateur players who had come together simply for the fun of making music, the concert was the icing on the cake. To receive the warm and spontaneous standing ovation that we did was both a moving and humbling experience.
Early last year, Miklos Pohl, the founder of the Australian Doctors Orchestra, brought that orchestra's history with him on his relocation to London as a consultant plastic surgeon, and brought me into the loop of another ambition — the founding of the European Doctors Orchestra. We agreed that it would work, and a very tight schedule was established with the aim of an inaugural concert in 6 months time. At that first evening meeting, all we had was the idea — but there was no money, no database, no conductor, no venue, no programme, and no soloist. But by the end of the evening we had recruited our soloist and our conductor, both of whom took the whole thing on trust and agreed to help. A few days later we agreed a programme; Rossini's Thieving Magpie Overture, Beethoven's Violin Concerto, and Brahms' Second Symphony. Wonderful. Now all we needed was funding and a venue — and players. We sent out letters; we made phone calls; we sent emails; we lived off our nerves, our fingernails, and the internet for weeks. Very slowly, we established a database of players, many of who agreed enthusiastically to play but, too often, would find reasons to withdraw. We began to despair.
But then our first overseas player, a clarinet-playing internist from Denmark, joined. This opened a floodgate, with registrations pouring in so that, when rehearsals began, we had over 90 players — physicians, surgeons, GPs, pathologists, oncologists, medical students — from eight different countries. And, as the orchestra grew, so did our sponsorship. We rehearsed intensively for a weekend, all day Friday and Saturday, in a church in Greenwich, with the final Sunday morning rehearsal in the Blackheath Hall before the afternoon concert. Everyone had received copies of the music beforehand and, at the first rehearsal, it was clear that the majority of the orchestra had been practising. That rehearsal was interesting; it was a sort of reunion, meeting once again music with which most of us had grown up, and it was the first contact of a truly multinational orchestra with its conductor, Rupert Bond. We began with the Rossini; it was a cheerful amateur shout and, as fingers and embouchures settled down, we began to work in detail before taking our coffee-break in the basement. Audit, management, and facilitation went out of the window, as did the agonies and inconsistencies and idiocies of the new contract; instead, there was this wonderful conversational buzz as musicians from all over Europe talked music with each other, renewing old friendships and making new ones instantly in the excitement of playing in a full-strength symphony orchestra.
Then, we started work on the Brahms, with the orchestra's committee scattered through the orchestra, watching and listening. Something wonderful began to happen with that hushed introduction on cellos and basses; the orchestra was falling in love with Brahms all over again, and the first horn call made us shiver with its beauty and plaintiveness. More detailed and very hard work followed in the sectional rehearsals and next day our soloist, the violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch, came to rehearse the Beethoven concerto — ‘this mighty work, the sovereign lord of all violin concertos’, as Rosa Newmarch called it. The privilege here was that of working with a great artist and being privy to her thinking about a masterpiece that she had played so many times, getting to know her ideas about tempi and phrasing, and gradually learning how the orchestra had to blend with and support her. Then it was over to the Blackheath Halls next day for the final rehearsal and concert, by which time the orchestra was a rock-solid unit with every section united in its discipline. And, as we played music which had been part of our lives for so long, there were those of us almost in tears of gratitude at being part of something so wonderful for, over a period of 2.5 days, we had managed to mould over 90 people into an amateur orchestra to rank with the finest. The concert was a sell-out success, with the audience ecstatic at the blazing brass finale of the Brahms. We left them with an encore, the genial tubthumpery of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance No. 4, and came off exhilarated and exhausted, to sit over a drink as we relived what we had just achieved. The EDO, now a fact of musical life, has played in London and Bucharest; we play in London again this November, (in the Royal Academy of Music) and, next year, we may be going to Budapest. Join us, and watch our website; www.edo.uk.net.