The RPO`s Tim Steiner rehearses the Mardakan orphanage orchestraThe RPO`s Tim Steiner rehearses the Mardakan orphanage orchestra
Pages 78-80

by Fiona Maclachlan

The RPO Reflects on a Summer in Qabala

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra are a busy bunch of folk and it’s already a few months since their “I can’t quite believe this is happening” tri p to Azerbaijan for the 2nd International Music Festival in Qabala. I was more than a little interested to know what they really thought about the visit in hindsight, and who better to ask than their Tour Manager, Graham Midgley?

I met up with Graham during a rare gap in the Orchestra’s touring schedule, in London, in the Royal Philharmonic’s office. Down in the dungeon, over big mugs of hot tea, we had a good down-to-earth chat about what it had really been like for the orchestra to visit Azerbaijan. Not only was it a new venue for the orchestra, it was also the first time Azerbaijan had hosted such a prestigious and well known orchestra.

This, for me, was an opportunity to find out, from the horse’s mouth, just how well Azerbaijan had succeeded in being the perfect host. As in so many areas, Azerbaijan had been amazingly successful, and I am once again reminded that Azerbaijan is Amazing! The Heydar Aliyev Foundation, responsible for inviting performers and covering all their expenses, together with festival directors Farhad Badalbeyli and Dmitry Yablonsky, can certainly give themselves a big pat on the back.

Graham, you’re Tour Manager for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. First off, can you briefly outline your responsibilities?

I’m a full time member of the RPO Management Team and any projects that take place outside the UK are my responsibility. I look after every aspect of the tour from its inception to its execution. Together with the promoters of each project, I arrange the flights, the hotels, ground transportation and all aspects of the concerts themselves (from the programming to the number of music stands and bottles of water required). On tour I am accompanied by the RPO’s Orchestra Manager and Stage Manager and together we ensure the smooth running of the project, ensuring that all musicians (up to 115) and instruments arrive at each venue safely and on time.

Hearing that the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was coming to Azerbaijan’s International Music Festival was very exciting for all of us at Visions. I guess it was exciting for you guys too. Can you remember what that initial feeling was like?

Because the RPO tours so much, it is always a thrill to be invited to a new territory that few, if any, have visited before. I think I am right in saying that none of us had previously visited Azerbaijan so we didn’t quite know what to expect. I know several musicians went out immediately and bought all the guidebooks, so they could do some research in antici pation of our tri p. We were not disappointed.

What were your first impressions on arrival in Qabala?

Because of the flight schedule and the distance from Baku, we didn’t arrive until after 2am so the whole area was pitch black – we couldn’t see anything of the landscape. Therefore our first impression of Qabala was the amazing Riverside hotel which, after a whole day or travelling, was a very welcome sight for the whole party. However, the next morning when we pulled back the curtains to reveal the stunning landscape of Qabala, I defy anybody not to be impressed!

What did you think of Qabala’s Riverside Hotel, where you stayed? Is this typical of the hotels you stay in on tour?
Graham Midgley, RPO Tour Manager, in QabalaGraham Midgley, RPO Tour Manager, in Qabala

It was a wonderful hotel – the rooms were very luxurious. The food was also fantastic and everything was so clean and sparkling; one could really tell that it had only just opened. Our minimum requirement on tour is a 4* hotel and we are used to the Marriotts and Crowne Plazas of the world, so it was great to stay in a hotel that has its own unique style and isn’t simply another corporate replica.

What was the general feedback about your accommodation from the Orchestra members?

The Orchestra loved it – the secret to any Orchestra’s heart is food and there was plenty of that at the Riverside. Nobody could ever go hungry here but more than that the quality was outstanding. I know nearly everybody had a di p in both(!) swimming pools (inside and out) and the weather only promoted the sunbathing between rehearsals and concerts. In fact all the facilities at this stunning new hotel were well and truly tested by the RPO during those ten days.

I gather that your stay in Qabala was a little longer than most of your tours. Even with your busy schedule, I guess you had time to get to know the place a little.

Actually we are often away for two weeks at a time or more and in fact each year we spend a month in the US. However, the key difference in Qabala was that we remained in the same place for the duration of the tour. Normally we travel to a new venue each day, which is extremely exhausting (especially if one is doing it for a month). The luxury of waking up in the same bed each day and the ability to investigate the area certainly did help the musicians to relax, which I think partly contributed to the fantastic concerts.

What did you think of the surrounding area?

Sadly it is the Tour Manager’s prerogative to remain glued to his laptop whilst others go exploring, so I cannot speak from personal experience. That said, the hotel kindly laid on several excursions which the musicians found fascinating – particularly the tri p to Sheki. Several of the musicians went exploring on their own through the wooded valley – I know of at least 5 musicians who ended up having dinner with a local family in their house, such was the hospitality of the local people.

What opportunities did the orchestra members find outside the hotel for leisure, relaxation or sport? What about visiting local eateries? Did anyone try Azerbaijani kebabs, for example?

The musicians of the RPO are surprisingly adventurous and will always try local foods (and drinks) wherever we go. Several people tried Azerbaijan kebabs, and as previously mentioned, some of them ended up eating with local families. Quite a large number of the Orchestra are fitness fanatics (I am not one of them) so they made the most of the swimming pools, fitness centres, tennis courts and quad bikes, all of which were available at the Qafqaz Resort. There was even a rumour of horse riding but I didn’t actually see anybody saddle up!

While in Qabala for the festival, I spoke to viola player Andy Sippings, the Chairman of the Orchestra, and he said the highlight of his trip was a concert of the local Azerbaijani mugham music, performed for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the town of Sheki.

Having already played several Azerbaijani pieces in our first concert, many of the musicians commented how interesting it was to hear local music performed by a local group of musicians. This is a fantastic example of how the RPO not only brought classical music to the mountains of Qabala but how the music of Azerbaijan also enlightened the musical knowledge of our musicians.

At the music festival, I would say it was very apparent that the RPO enjoyed working with the children from Mardakan Orphanage (a British Council-led initiative), and children from the local Qabala music school, as well as with Azerbaijan’s famous musicians, such as Farhad Badalbeyli.

The RPO is rightly proud of its very active Education Department, which works with a variety of people/children both in the UK and abroad. We were extremely grateful to the British Council for facilitating our project with Mardakan Orphanage and Qabala, and I thought their miniconcert on the last night was very inspiring. The fact that the audience received their performance with such warmth and that all the musicians of the RPO came to listen, shows what a worthwhile and important project this was.

What do you think of these collaborations between the RPO and Azerbaijani music performers?
Members of the PPO join the audience to hear the Mardakan orphanage orchestraMembers of the PPO join the audience to hear the Mardakan orphanage orchestra

One word: Fantastic. And long may it continue. Even though the world is becoming a smaller place, it is for exactly this reason that local traditions should be preserved which can enlighten our own interpretation of the familiar repertoire.

And for you, what were your personal highlights of the tour?

For me, the highlight of every tour is the first chord of the first concert. Hearing that sound indicates to me that I have been successful in my job in getting 80 musicians and all their instruments to wherever we are in the world. I think the audience were genuinely delighted with our performances and I take a great deal of pleasure from that, having done my bit ‘backstage’.

I gather you didn’t really get to see Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan. Is this a city you would like to visit in the future?

That’s right, we didn’t get to see any part of Baku, except the airport. However, this is an excuse (if ever we need one) to return to Azerbaijan and sample the delights of what the capital city has to offer.

What would you say to anyone considering a visit to Azerbaijan?

Go! Now! Enjoy!