Walter Bitner

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Three Days in London

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Trafalgar Square (click images to enlarge)

Warning: long, self-indulgent travelogue and photo essay

Not entirely Off Topic

Last week I traveled to the United Kingdom to attend the Association of British Orchestras annual conference, held this year in Cardiff, Wales. I was very fortunate to be able to arrive a few days early so I could spend some time in London.

It was my first visit to the U.K., and I packed as much into it as I could. I logged 46,699 steps in those three days in London, exceeded the fare cap on my Oyster card each day with trips on buses and the Underground, saw places and relics for the first time that have lived in my imagination since I was a child, and was reunited with old friends I haven’t seen for decades. It was thrilling.

 

Paddington Station

 

Sunday

I left Nashville on Saturday afternoon for New York, switching planes at JFK and flying through the night to arrive at Heathrow early Sunday morning. It’s a fifteen minute ride on the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station, and it was a ten minute walk from there to my hotel. I crashed for about three hours and then stumbled out into the weather to change some money, figure out how to use the Tube, and get a bite to eat. It was pouring rain and freezing cold outside, but in The Green Man pub next to Edgware Road Station, I had my first (warmish) pint of real ale, they were blaring music by Queen and The Clash, and it was perfect.

My friends at the ABO had generously arranged for me to get a ticket to hear the London Symphony Orchestra perform on Sunday night at the Barbican, which was a half hour journey by Tube from my hotel. I made the trip a couple of hours early to meet up with a former student and her family there before the concert. Grace was my student at Blue Rock School in New York in the early 1990s.  She was also a member of The Lapis Ensemble: a recorder quintet and the first student ensemble I directed that performed regularly outside of school settings – we even “went on tour” to Boston in 1995. Although all of them were under 13, The Lapis Ensemble performed advanced repertoire like skilled professionals: Bach fugues, a Händel concerto, music from renaissance dance prints, contemporary works… they taught me not to limit my students’ accomplishments by my expectations.

Grace is now married, an architect at a firm in London, a professor at Cardiff University, a mother. I had not seen her for 22 years, we had a wonderful conversation, and I got to meet her husband and son. For me, one of the most valuable treasures from my teaching career are moments like this.

Hearing the LSO perform that evening was riveting, and it felt momentous to be listening to this orchestra perform live for the first time. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was the first orchestra that I was aware of as a child – but the second, through recordings, was the London Symphony Orchestra (the LSO is the world’s most recorded orchestra, with over 2500 recordings to date). Predictably, it was their soundtrack recordings of John Williams‘ scores of the music for the Star Wars films that first caught my attention in the 1970s, and the orchestra’s vibrant personality, brilliant execution, and prolific catalog have held it ever since.

Sunday night the LSO performed music by Wagner, Lalo, Debussy, and Massenet under the direction of François-Xavier Roth. Although I was only familiar with the music on the first half of the concert, it didn’t matter – they played with verve and intensity, and the excitement in the hall was palpable. The climax of the Tannhäuser Overture which opened the concert was particularly thrilling – I was brought to the edge of my seat, and remained there for most of the remainder of the evening.

My impression of the musicians’ casual virtuosity was reinforced at the interval, when I noticed several of them mingling with the audience in the lobby, sharing a pint with friends before returning to the stage to play the second half like a boss. (Yes, true to stereotype they were mostly members of the low brass and bass sections.)

 

Monday

Honey & Co., 25 Warren St, Fitzrovia, London

I got up pretty early on Monday morning and took the Tube to Honey & Co., a wonderful little bakery and restaurant in the Fitzrovia neighborhood. After fortifying myself with an amazing breakfast of shakshuka and Turkish coffee, I hopped on a bus and headed for the British Library. The bus let me off at the Euston Bus Station in Camden and I walked a few blocks to get to the library.

 

 

Euston Bus Station, Camden, London

 

British Library

 

British Library

 

The British Library is one of those places I’ve encountered so often in books throughout my life, but never had the opportunity to visit in person. I might first have become acutely aware of the institution’s amazing collection in the early 1990s when I began both teaching music at Blue Rock School and seriously studying early music performance in metropolitan New York City. When one enters the Treasures of the British Library exhibit, the first item in the case to the left is the manuscript copy of Sumer Is Icumen In, a staple of any English-language singing program for children which I taught to students at all grade levels over the course of my career and have already written about in detail here. But that is only the beginning – the same wall’s display holds manuscripts by Tallis (Spem in Alium), Purcell, Handel….even our friend Sebastian. The Library holds a vast collection of precious items including unique renaissance lute manuscripts that – alas! – it was beyond the time constraints of this visit to even consider trying to make arrangements to consult.

After I had taken in as much of the Library as I could I made my way to the Bloomsbury neighborhood (by bus again) to The British Museum, another bucket list destination. After leaving my things in the cloakroom (coatcheck in U.S. parlance) I walked through the museum’s Great Court in awe and found my way to the antiquities collection.

 

The Great Court at the British Museum

 

 

 

I have to admit that after I found myself in front of The Rosetta Stone I was a bit overcome and walked through the rest of the Egyptian and Greek treasures in a reverie. Again, it felt unbelievable to be there. There were groups of children scattered everywhere throughout the museum – I learned later that evening from my friend Nick that it is common for school groups to have sleep-overs there – children everywhere, most in uniform, sprawled about on the floor sketching or browsing through the exhibits with excitement, chattering as they hunted down objects for a class scavenger hunt or report they had been assigned.

Posing with the philosophers at the British Museum

I found the original Elgin marbles in the Parthenon exhibit and spent some time there, having a local interest in this particular exhibit (Nashville is home to the only full-scale replica of the Parthenon as it was before it became a ruin, replete with 42-foot gold-plated statue of Athena and plaster casts of the original Elgin marbles I saw in the British Museum).

By this time I was becoming saturated but doggedly made my way through the exhibits of Asian art and finally through the fascinating exhibits of artifacts from Roman Britain and the incredible gallery featuring the Sutton Hoo ship burial. There were hoards of treasures in the cases and children everywhere (above). By now it was mid-afternoon and time to head towards Marylebone for the third and last institution on my list for Monday.

 

Treadwell’s Bookshop, 33 Store Street, London

 

After consulting the schedule on my phone I determined that it would take as long or longer to ride buses to my next destination, so I walked through the London neighborhoods instead. When I cut across a side street to get to another thoroughfare that promised more exciting stores and architecture than the road I was currently ambling down, I chanced upon a bookstore, and crossed the street to poke my head inside Treadwell’s, the first book store I had come across. It must be the book store for magic and esotericism in London. I marveled at the authoritative selection in the tiny shop, including a broad array of tarot decks and shelves upon shelves of works by Aleister Crowley and commentary thereupon. The friendly woman being the counter told me “We like to think that we’re the bookstore Harry Potter would shop at when he’s in town.” Well of course he would.

Finally I found myself at the Royal Academy of Music Museum.

 

lutes on display from The Spencer Collection, Royal Academy of Music Museum, London

 

a clavichord by Arnold Dolmetsch on display at the Royal Academy of Music Museum, London

 

viola by Stradavarius in The Royal Academy of Music Museum, London

The Royal Academy of Music Museum is a small museum dedicated mostly to musical instruments housed on three floors of a small building next door to the Royal Academy of Music, which was founded in 1822 and is the oldest conservatoire in the U.K. When I first started planning my trip I learned that the museum would be hosting an exhibition of The Spencer Collection while I was there, and a trip to this small but important collection of musical instruments moved to the top of my bucket list. Early music performer, musicologist, and teacher Robert Spencer (1932-1997) was a professor at RAM for more than two decades, and he was a member of The Julian Bream Consort, whose recordings made a big impression on me when I started studying and performing Elizabethan music some 25 years ago.

 

This brief BBC feature includes footage of Robert Spencer performing alongside the other members of Julian Bream’s famous Consort from as far back as 1964.

 

The Spencer Collection is nothing less than Robert Spencer’s personal collection of musical artifacts: instruments, manuscripts, and other musical items. Spencer was a major figure in the 20th century revival of the lute. On display were several manuscripts that I own in facsimile copies –  I studied these intensely and learned to play from them when I began studying the lute in the early 1990s, including the Margaret Board Lute Book, which contains one of only two known manuscripts thought to be in John Dowland’s own hand. The Spencer Collection includes several of Spencer’s own instruments including some that date back to the 16th century. It is a small exhibit, but for lutenists it is not to be missed if you are in London.

After I finished perusing The Spencer Collection I enjoyed spending time with the rest of the museum’s remarkable collection of string instruments and keyboard instruments by masters including Stradivarius, Amati, Broadwood, and others. By the time I had visited every floor of the museum it was dark outside and I wandered down Marylebone Road in search of a pub.

 

London Pub Detours

at The Euston Flyer, London, January 22, 2018 (click photos to enlarge)

London pubs were definitely on my bucket list in addition to all of the other institutions I am describing here. I’ve enjoyed the British beers that are imported to the U.S. for decades, but I was excited to enjoy real ale for the first time, discover breweries I was unfamiliar with, and taste old favorites fresh on tap.

Sometimes I would pass a pub on my way from one destination to another and just pop my head in to look around, other times I had a pint and sat for a while to soak up the atmosphere.

 

The Greene Man in Euston has stood at the junction of Marylebone Road and Portland Place for over 300 years (I didn’t get the chance to have a pint here unfortunately)

 

Fish & Chips at The Sanctuary House in Westminster

 

The bar at The Nags Head in Covent Garden (see below)

 

After my visit to RAM I eventually found my way into the Marylebone neighborhood where I met my friend Nick at The Prince Regent – another fine pub – for dinner. I met Nick in 1984, in choir. We sang together for a year in the bass section of the Scripps College Chamber Choir at The Claremont Colleges, including a memorable series of madrigal dinners and many concerts of classical masterworks, under the direction of Michael Deane Lamkin.

with Nick Firoozye at The Prince Regent, London, January 22, 2018

We also performed together around the Claremont Colleges campus that year in a barbershop quartet called The Muddytones that was organized by the tenor, a professor at Harvey Mudd College where Nick was a student. (Nick sang bass, I sang baritone.) We were both still in our teens then. Nick and I developed a friendship then that was grounded in music and common intellectual and philosophical interests, and somehow we have managed to stay in touch through the decades, although the last time I saw him was when he was a graduate student at New York University. It had been more than thirty years since then – in the interval, we had both moved many times, married, had children, changed jobs and careers, aged.

We sat across the table from each other at The Prince Regent and talked for five hours.

 

Tuesday

On the morning of my last day in London I grabbed a coffee on my way to the Tube and made my way to Westminster Abbey. Photographs are not allowed inside the abbey so I have none to share of the building’s contents, but I was grateful for the prohibition in fact as there is so to absorb and process from being inside what amounts to the most impressive collection of tombs and memorials I have ever seen concentrated in one place. I was unprepared for how much walking through this church would move me.

 

The West Face of Westminster Abbey, London

 

the north façade

 

Immediately upon beginning the one-way tour through the church one comes upon Purcell’s grave across the North Choir aisle from that of his teacher John Blow – both were organists here. After that walking through the abbey is a litany of more than 700 years of English history told through the final resting places of so many of those who acted it out. Chaucer, Darwin, Dickens, Handel, Kipling, Isaac Newton, Laurence Olivier, Spenser, Tennyson, Vaughan Williams are all buried there, to name only a tiny fraction, and a host of monarchs, nobility, and a panoply of notables. I spent a long time at the tombs of Elizabeth I and Mary I, whose caskets are stacked one on the other in the same monument.

After leaving the abbey I wandered in the park across the street where I noticed a statue of Gandhi among others of celebrated historical figures before grabbing a quick lunch at The Sanctuary House (above) and finding my way to a meeting with Isabella Kernot, Education and Community Director at the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Their offices are across the Thames from Westminster in the South Bank neighborhood. We spent a fruitful afternoon learning about and comparing our orchestras’ respective education programs, and especially the LPO Junior Artists program and the Nashville Symphony Accelerando program.

Isabella pointed out that the LPO offices are in a building right next door to the SIS building, more commonly known as MI6, the headquarters of the British Secret Intelligence Service. I ogled it through the window of the conference room where we met, and when I made my way back across the Thames couldn’t resist snapping a photo or two.

 

MI6 and the Vauxhall Bridge from the North Bank of the Thames

 

It was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and I had a dinner date at 6:30 in Covent Garden. So I decided to walk along the river to Trafalgar Square and The National Gallery.

 

Palace of Westminster

 

the original entrance to Scotland Yard at 4 Whitehall Place

 

The National Gallery from Trafalgar Square

 

Trafalgar Square from The National Gallery

 

I arrived at The National Gallery with about an hour to wander before closing. So I checked my coat in the cloakroom in the basement and took off in search of Renaissance masters.

 

 

 

Angel in red with a lute, which first saw light here on Off The Podium here. I was thrilled to find this painting hidden in an isolated corner of the gallery, undoubtedly because its original attribution to Leonardo da Vinci has been discredited.

 

this amazing room at The National gallery is the home of works by Leonardo, Michaelangelo, and Raphael

 

When the museum began to close I picked up my coat and walked through the West End. It was dark and the streets were full of people on their way to dinner and the theatre. I stopped at a coffee shop to fortify myself with an Americano, charge my phone, and text my family in the States, then made my way to Covent Garden for my dinner date with Chi-chi Nwanoku.

 

a cheese shop in the West End – I stepped inside and was immediately enchanted by the rich odor of all that amazing cheese!

 

Finally I arrived at The Hospital Club in Covent Garden for dinner with Chi-chi Nwanako, OBE. I first met Chi-chi a year ago at SphinxConnect 2017, and we had some conversations later last year at Gateways Music Festival. Chi-chi is the Founder, Artistic and Executive Director of the Chineke! Foundation, which supports, inspires and encourages Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians working in the UK and Europe.

with Chi-chi Nwanoku, The Hospital Club, London, January 23, 2017 ~ photo courtesy of Chi-chi Nwanoku

Chineke! is quickly establishing a major presence for the excellence of their work, and the Chineke! Orchestra performed at The Proms for the first time on August 30, 2017. Their mission is closely aligned with my work of the last three years designing, launching, and developing the Nashville Symphony’s Accelerando program, and Chi-chi and I had much to discuss. The Hospital Club is a funky and delightful multi-faceted social venue in a building that housed St. Paul’s Hospital 1898-1992. We caught up on our respective activities and made hopeful plans for future collaborations.

After dinner I made my way to the Covent Garden Underground Station, intending to head back to my hotel. But I saw The Nags Head across the street from the Tube station, and thought “what the hell, it’s my last night in London” so I went inside for a pint. The place was busy with people of all ages and backgrounds. Small groups of folks who had clearly been there after work began to clear out and it quieted down for a short while, then smartly dressed couples arrived as the theaters let out and the pub filled up again. I finished my (second) pint and finally headed back to the hotel.

 

notice by the stairs in the Covent Garden Underground Station

 

 

A light rain fell as I checked out of my hotel on Wednesday morning and walked to Paddington Station to catch my train. On the way I passed St. Mary’s Hospital – another “chance encounter” I made on the streets of London. Even to a medical novice like me, St. Mary’s is famous: heroin was first made here by C. R. Alder Wright in 1874, and Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin here in 1928. St. Mary’s is also the setting for several climactic scenes in Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis, an enthralling and moving time travel novel that takes place in World War II London during The Blitz. This story has remained vivid in my memory since I read it several years ago, and I had a lot to ponder as I boarded the train for Cardiff and the ABO conference.

 

 

Concluded in:

Collaboration: The Association of British Orchestras Annual Conference 2018


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