You know you’re in trouble when they restart the whole plane. I’m talking complete shutdown. Engines stop, lights turn off and you sit in semi-darkness wondering if you can make a break for it back to the terminal while dodging 747s. This was the situation the whole orchestra found ourselves in as we (attempted) to begin our relatively short trip to Guernsey to perform at St James’ Concert Hall with our Patron, Vladimir Ashkenazy.
It all had begun so optimistically. We were riding high from a brilliant performance the previous night at Milton Court, Barbican and even though it was an early start we were going well. Everyone had made it through security without any need for intense questioning with rubber gloves, so as we sat contentedly in departures a slight delay for our flight didn’t come as a huge surprise. After all, Guernsey is a small island susceptible to the occasional fog, and before long our flight is called and we’re boarding.
Our performance at Milton Court, Barbican the night previous
Strolling across the tarmac and through the crowd, I can see the heads of four cello cases sticking out like periscopes. If only they could have foreseen the troubles ahead. My first impression of boarding this tiny plane was that of being slowly squeezed down a toothpaste tube. The narrow aisle was flanked by just two seats down either side, and when ducking your head low to look out the window you were greeted by the sight of propellers hanging under each wing.
I’m aware that up till now I haven’t mentioned our special guest conductor who was joining us on our little adventure. Ashkenazy and his wife Thorunn had kept themselves to themselves, understandably, and I hadn’t had much interaction with them other than a friendly smile at check-in. Beyond that, I’d catch glances of his silvery hair peeking out over the top of a fully outstretched broadsheet as we sat waiting for take-off.
How close we were to escaping gravity’s clutches, a teasing view of the runway offered before we veered off to one side and slowed to a stop. It was at this point that the pilot announced we had some ‘technical difficulties’ and would be returning to the terminal. And then the plane restarted.
Cue more waiting (a pattern emerging?), then the real fun began. The captain emerged from his cockpit and revealed a cunning plan to drastically reduce the load on the plane by shifting the majority of its passengers – the musicians - onto a slightly later flight. So salvation was to be had for our players, but not everyone in the party. Some would still continue on the current plane, which at this point had been described as ‘faulty’. Us chosen few – including our conductor - were escorted onto a bus next to the plane while… something happened.
Frantically, through the wonderful medium of the WhatsApp group chat, we began putting together backup plans A to Z. What if the orchestra made it and we didn’t? What if we only had Ashkenazy without the players? Could we roll out a piano for him to play? They’d probably like that. No, this is about the players! All this while the minutes ticked away and all we could do was wait. On the other side of the airport, our poor orchestra had to dash through another terminal, check everything back in and get on the other flight before it departed. At one point - due to a miscommunication – we thought we’d left our Orchestra Manager behind leading to me googling ‘How do you set up an orchestra?’ That was assuming we actually made it to the island on time.
I'd just settle with getting the planes up at this point
As we waited on our bus there was a palatable sense of mutiny growing in the air as patience began to wear thin. We needed a leader, someone to take the conch and guide us through these murky waters of indecision. Naturally, some of us felt that perhaps a man who had spent a considerable amount of his career leading musicians might be perfect. However, an Australian voice prevailed in the form of a fellow stranded passenger with a spikey fringe and smart/casual business attire. He reassured us that he knew and trusted this pilot, and that all would be fine. To this day I question whether he was a plant by the airline used to quash any sort of coup.
After what felt like an eternity, the time had come for us to board our plane: the very same plane we had sat looking at for nearly three-quarters of an hour while absolutely nothing was done to it. My confidence was low, my nervous heart rate high, and the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 rung around my head from the previous night’s performance as we lumbered up the steps once again.
At this point, I do want to commend the pilot and crew of the flight. Throughout they were professional, considerate, and even humoured me as I tried to explain that we needed both flights to make it to Guernsey that day seeing as we had the orchestra on one and the conductor on the other. As a sidebar, I’ve also never paid closer attention to a safety briefing in my life.
Once boarded, we were spread throughout the plane to help with balance. I wonder how offended I should be that I was placed in the middle to avoid tipping. But, once up in the air, my worries melted away and the sight of my colleague’s always brilliantly-striking socks eased me further.
Peter's optimistic socks helping me through
On the island, we were greeted by the ever generous locals and the concert was truly one to remember. What struck me most was the range of ages in attendance. A particular moment warmed my heart when a group of students - probably no older than 15 - started nudging each other during the cello trio in Grieg’s Holberg Suite, with one leaning in whispering “we should do that”. They also weren’t shushed for their bold act of having an immediate reaction to the music they were hearing and wanting to share that with a friend. How modern.
We’re very lucky to have a close connection with Guernsey and always enjoy our trips to perform for our supporters there. In the future, though, here’s hoping the drama is kept safely in the music being performed and less in the journey over.