Gatwick airport, 9.00am. Hundreds of people, luggage obediently dragging behind them, make their way through the North Terminal building. Some are there on business, others are holidaymakers. Check-in staff scan passports, porters move items from A to B, and an army of baristas serve sleep-starved customers with espressos.
And yet they all stare at the same thing. Towering above everything else, unmissable amidst the frenetic activity of Britain’s second busiest airport, is a white fibreglass monolith. A smidge over two metres tall, peppered with battle scars and remnants of stickers from years of adventures, it glides slowly across the concourse. From every group of onlookers you hear the same conversation begin: “Cor, that’s a big one isn’t it?”. And yet, this is only one relatively small cog in a machine – albeit a very visible one.
For scale, this is Orchestra Assistant Ali hauling stormtrooper look-alike Bertha around the airport.
An orchestra is a big and complex machine that requires lots of parts to keep it going. For Southbank Sinfonia, a typical concert in London will normally include 33+ musicians, a conductor, perhaps a soloist, pads full of music for each player, music stands, chairs of different types to suit instruments and playing styles, and – at the very least – a set of timpani. The players, instruments in hand, rely on the tube or buses to get to a concert, met there by a van full of percussion, bulky items, and the essentials needed for a public performance.
Imagine, then, the scale of transporting the entire orchestra to Italy for a week featuring 16 concerts, 15 venues, 49 pieces, 2 conductors and 10 guest artists. After months of planning and hundreds of phone calls and emails, nearly every eventuality has been thought through.
But despite this, it’s surprising how tense you are when you utter the following words: “Hello there, I’d like to check in to my flight. And this is my double bass.”
This is the story of just one instrument travelling to Anghiari, and its ginormous flight case we’ve affectionately named Bertha. It begins in the Southbank Sinfonia office, buried in the crypt of St John’s Waterloo, where a bass, cocooned in its fabric case, gets placed gently into its new fibreglass and foam home. The first hurdle is getting the beast upstairs to ground level, its 40+ kilos requiring three pairs of hands to inelegantly push and pull it up the stairs.
Next: getting it to the airport. With most of the orchestra having left the day before, the bass was a delayed straggler. Without a van, the only other option was a taxi – and a big one – though it turns out London cabbies are slightly more optimistic than us when it comes to believing what will fit into the back of their car. In something more akin to a game of high-stakes Tetris, with different combinations of seats flipped down and angles of instruments trialled, we watched and heaved with trepidation as the bass was squeezed in. The first car was too small, but the second? Would the boot close? Would we make it to the airport on time? Would we make it to the airport at all?
Bass Tetris round one - and we lose. Bigger cab needed. Cue phone calls.
We got it in. Just. And that’s where we found ourselves at Gatwick, receiving celebrity-worthy staring as we approached the check-in desk.
A flash of panic crossed the check-in assistant’s face as this obviously wasn’t a regular occurrence, but upon typing in our booking number and seeing the instrument was expected, followed by multiple phone calls to baggage handlers, special codes typed into the computer system, and stickers full of airport hieroglyphics pasted on, all was well. BA were happy for the bass to fly.
It obviously wasn’t going to fit on the conveyor belt that whisks bags from check-in to aeroplane hold though, and neither would you want a fragile instrument taking the same labyrinth adventure that our suitcases endure. Bertha was so big that she wouldn’t even fit through oversized luggage, so to get her onto the plane we were taken through the bowels of the airport to a special security screening area.
The bass just squeezes into the biggest car the taxi firm had - phew!
The giant X-ray machine here couldn’t even handle the bass’s bulk, so – after finding floor space big enough – Bertha was ordered to strip (no photos allowed, so you’ll have to use your imagination). Clunk, clunk, clunk went the latches all around as the intrigued security officers peered over with expectation to see what lay within. Apparently they only get something this big a handful of times a year. The staff were genuinely interested in seeing the instrument, asking questions about its role in an orchestra and its history. Flight case opened, swabs were taken and a machine buzzed and beeped in the corner as it searched for traces of anything suspicious. Cleared and security sealed, with multiple signatures confirming what it was and where it was going, a porter arrived to steer the bass straight to the plane.
The lift doors closed as it went airside and, aside from a glimpse through the departure lounge window as it was towed to the plane, that’s the last we would see of her until arrival in Italy.
Fastforward six hours, a long delay and an unexpected change of plane later, and we stood expectantly at Pisa airport watching the baggage carousel whirl round. Suitcase. Suitcase. Suitcase. Suitcase. Then a glimpse of white through the hatch, squeezing through with millimeters to spare, followed by a running commentary as Bertha passed clumsily in front of her audience, at one point inevitably getting stuck on a sharp bend and almost causing a pile-up of bags behind.
A glimpse of Bertha trundling across the airport to our plane.
"Who would take something like that on a plane?” asked one onlooker, and after lugging the bass into yet another taxi, then up and down Anghiari’s steep hills upon arrival at the festival, it didn’t seem like a daft question at all.
But when we heard the first notes of the orchestra performing under the stars in Piazza del Popolo on Saturday night, that question answered itself. Yes, it’s a logistical nightmare transporting an orchestra around the world - yet there’s no doubt that it’s worth the reward.
This blog was written during the Anghiari Festival in Tuscany, an annual week-long residency that sees music abound from every piazza, church and cloister of an ancient Italian hill-town. Find out more about the Anghiari Festival here.