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Olivia Shields

(Medicine, present; leader of the Imperial College Symphony Orchestra)
Review of Imperial College Symphony Orchestra Tour to Spain and Paris, September 2007

Imperial College Symphony OrchestraImperial College Symphony Orchestra rehearses virtually throughout the three terms of the academic year so the hiatus between the summer concert and starting again in the autumn always seems to last an eternity. Happily we have an established tradition of going on tours abroad every other year, previously visiting the Czech Republic in 2005 and Italy and Paris in 2003. It was with great excitement, therefore, that we regrouped on a Friday afternoon in early September for one and a half days’ rehearsal before setting off on what promised to be another memorable week of music-making and fun. Richard Dickins, director of music at Imperial and our beloved conductor, had selected repertoire sure to get even the rustiest fingers moving again! In addition to reviewing Beethoven’s 5th symphony (part of our summer concert programme) we had three new works to get to grips with: “The land of the mountain and the flood” by Hamish MacCunn (Scotland’s only nationalistic composer?), Alan Ridout’s tuba concertino (soloist Kiran Ganesh, mathematics student) and the Kabalevsky violin concerto (with Michał Ćwiżewicz, recently graduated aeronautical engineer and Ash music scholar). In typical ICSO style, the obligatory post-rehearsal social went well into the small hours, after which we rushed home to pack before reporting to South Kensington at the crack of dawn on Sunday.
Photo above right: Imperial College Symphony Orchestra

Several hours were spent loading the coach and trailer with what seemed like a never-ending stream of music stands, double basses, cellos, timpani and other large percussion. The first of many registers was taken by Hannah Dixon, tour organiser extraordinaire, and we set off for Dover. After the ferry crossing to Calais we settled down for a long night on the road. Stowaways could have been forgiven for mistaking the top deck for a slumber party as we pulled out pyjamas, sleeping bags, pillows and even a few eye-masks. We arrived bleary-eyed in the beautiful old town of Solsona after crossing the Pyrenées the following morning and had the remainder of the day to explore the town and try out the hotel swimming pool, which predictably became the likeliest place to find us for the rest of the week!

The next day heralded our first concert, in La Llacuna, where we squeezed onto a specially built ‘summer stage’ unfortunately not shaded from the scorching sunlight by the surrounding trees. This was probably the first and last time any of us would be permitted to perform in sunglasses, or see Richard conduct in a hat! However we were enthusiastically received by our audience who were keen to know of our next performance and purchase CDs. We were emphatically invited to enjoy the town’s celebrated swimming pool afterwards, although I fear the town officials may have somewhat regretted this gesture of hospitality after our demonstration of our official orchestra sport, ‘water rugby’. It is a little known phenomenon that, in the water, girls are in fact stronger and rougher than boys! After a prolonged display of our dubious diving talent we were dragged back to the coach for the return trip to Solsona, where we found ourselves in the local hangout ‘Sputnik’. It was the general consensus that the owner’s eye for a good cocktail was far superior to his eclectic, not to say bizarre, taste in decorations but we revisited the bar on several occasions throughout the week.

Members of Imperial College Symphony OrchestraOn Wednesday we spent a happy day in Barcelona taking full advantage of the opportunities for sight-seeing, fine dining and shopping (for ‘secret santa’ gifts… in September?!). We returned refreshed and ready for the next day’s concert in the vast, ancient cathedral of Igualada where another very rewarding performance to a large audience followed a warm welcome reception by the mayor in the town hall. Friday saw us make a fond farewell to Solsona where we were urged to fill our water bottles with the local wine at prices probably lower than that of the original mineral water! Off we went to Puigcerda, where we performed to a rather smaller audience than we had come to expect in these generous Catalonian communities. After a brief stretch of the legs we clambered aboard our by now rather ‘homely’-looking coach to start the overnight trip to Paris with yet more films, snacks and book readings to a captive audience with pins and needles.
Photo above: Members of Imperial College Symphony Orchestra.

Access to our hotel in Paris the next day necessitated a series of spectacular manoeuvres by our drivers, prompting cheers and applause as we stumbled out with a sigh of relief. We took a couple of hours to explore the city before our ‘last supper’, held at a pizza restaurant where even the desserts came on a thin dough base. Sunday morning was left free for more sight-seeing before we gathered at the Madeleine for our final concert. Most of us had never seen such an enormous church, never mind performed in one, and we were quite spellbound on entering the beautiful building with its effigies, paintings and hundreds of flickering candles. It was thrilling to play in the stunning church – completely packed to its one thousand person capacity – and a fitting conclusion to a very successful week.

Our late return to London late that night marked the end of a fantastic tour and we said goodbye looking forward to the following week’s reunion and the start of the new term’s rehearsals. Huge thanks and congratulations must go to our two soloists Kiran and Michał for their super performances, and to Hannah and her tour committee who worked tirelessly for a year in advance and throughout the week to make everything run so smoothly. Finally we are immensely grateful to Richard Dickins for his unwavering, infectious enthusiasm and his commitment to ICSO. It is a huge privilege for a group of students, none of whom study music, to work with such a prestigious conductor and testament to the importance of music in Imperial life today.

Photographs by Zoe Little.

  © 2007 Imperial College London

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