Decamot of the month

31 Jan 2021-Playing Under Pressure

A musical prodigy is at the centre of a race against time for her scheduled debut performance at the Royal Albert Hall.

Charles Hazlewood called members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra to order by raising his baton in his right hand. His left hand was held out, palm uppermost, in the direction of the leader of the orchestra on first violin. He cast his eyes around the 20 assembled musicians before alighting briefly on soloist Carol Alderman who nodded that she was ready, her eyes closed in total concentration.

Charles held the ensemble in suspended animation for fully five seconds; then, with a very positive upward followed by downward beat of his baton, he brought the entire orchestra to life together for the opening bars of the allegro first movement of the concerto; to be joined on cue 30 seconds later, by a confident Carol Alderman, playing Mozart’s masterpiece from memory.

The Bassoon Concerto in B-flat major written in 1774 by the 18 year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is the most frequently performed and studied piece in the entire bassoon repertory. With its ability to hit B?1 at the bass of its three octave range, the instrument has a unique ability to mine emotional depths, especially during the sublime andante ma adagio middle movement.

At the conclusion of the final movement, a lively rondo marked tempo di menuetto, Charles led the applause for his seventeen year old protégé.

“Well done everybody” he said “Now remember this has been a rehearsal. As well as you all played, we need to go up one more gear to impress the audience at the Royal Albert Hall next Monday evening. How would you all like to play this concerto without the music?”

“Are you serious?” asked Jim Slater, the leader of the orchestra.” It’s Friday today which only leaves this weekend to brush up”

“Yes indeed” replied Charles “But only if all of you agree, of course. It is only 17 minutes long. It is a superb piece of music and so well-known, but it was written as a commission for one Thaddäus Freiherr von Dürnitz, an aristocratic amateur bassoon player, so it is not as technically demanding as you might normally expect of a concerto written for a single musical instrument.”

There was an immediate buzz around the room which ended in a unanimous vote in favour of surprising the audience at Monday night’s concert.

“See you all at the Royal Albert Hall for an on-set rehearsal at 3.00 pm on Monday” announced Charles, “Jim will let you have your dressing room numbers. And don’t forget to bring all your gear with you in the afternoon. The curtain goes up at 7.30 pm. Well done again Carol”

With that parting shot, Charles Hazlewood dashed out of rehearsal room 12 at Broadcasting House on Portland Place for some press interviews. He knew that ticket sales for Monday were not as brisk as usual. Later that day he appeared as a guest on Sean Rafferty’s Radio 3 programme “In Tune” when he announced to the classical aficionados listening that the orchestra would play the Mozart Bassoon Concerto entirely from memory.

“Is that a first for you, Charles?” asked Sean in his most mellifluous Irish brogue

“It’s a world first!” insisted Charles “We haven’t even rehearsed it yet, but we have the multi-talented young bassoonist Carol Alderman as soloist. At seventeen, she is one of the most gifted musicians I’ve ever worked with, so I have every confidence we can pull it off!”

Sean laughed in his usual obsequiously sycophantic manner before adding a thought of his own …

“Nothing like nervous artistic tension to draw out passionate peak performances” he opined “Mind you, in the hands of the delightful Carol Alderman, I always think of the bassoon as a cool instrument …. a bit like a melodious anti-tank weapon!”

“If you say so Sean!” laughed Charles Hazelwood, never disappointed with Sean’s hyperbole. He waved back at his host as he left the studio indicating that he had to dash to his next appointment.

Alan Alderman picked up his sister’s black carbon BAM 3133XL Hightech Bassoon Case into which he had carefully stowed her dismembered instrument. He gave her the double reed mouthpiece which she always preferred to keep with her in her handbag. She had taken to making her own reeds from selected bamboo canes imported from France, so important were they to the unique sound she achieved with her otherwise cumbersome looking instrument.

The expensive top of the range bassoon case had been a present from her parents when she won the BBC’s young musician of the year contest on television. Their father James was a chiropodist based at Mount Alvernia Hospital in Guildford; their mother June a piano teacher who combined private tutoring from home with working as part of Royal Grammar School Guildford’s music department. They all lived in a five bedroomed detached Tarrant built house in Forest Road Pyrford, mid-way between West Byfleet and Woking in Surrey.

The rehearsal had finished around midday. Carol had been taken by her Uncle Patrick to meet some Naxos executives who were keen to sign her to a recording deal. Patrick McCarthy was her mother’s brother who was acting, pro temps, as her unpaid agent/manager. He was a moderately successful jazz musician turned respected music impresario who had migrated from professional performer to talent management over a 30 year career in the music business.

Carol had arranged to meet up with some of her classmates from the specialist Yehudi Menuhin School in Stoke d’Abernon. They had discovered that they were all due in London for different reasons on the same day, so the plan was to meet at Pizza Express near Waterloo Station at around 6.30 pm for a general chinwag. Then they would all have a choice of three destinations, Cobham or West Byfleet or Woking to suit their individual needs; one of the many advantages of living in commuter land, as Carol’s father James was wont to remind them from time to time.

Alan Alderman, who was three years older than his sister, played violin in the orchestra but he knew he would never match his sister’s precocious talent; she had been recognized as a musical genius from a very early age so he had willingly taken on the role of her unofficial guardian whenever circumstances permitted and this upcoming gig was one of those.

After the rehearsal, he had suggested he take her case home with him so that she could concentrate on other things. She had leapt at the offer, as it was always a worry when she had new people to meet. She found the extra concentration needed very tiring.

For Alan’s part he knew he would need the whole weekend to master Mozart’s concerto. Why ever had he voted to play the piece from memory? He cursed to himself as it would mean missing cricket practice, his only true love. Since the game in its various forms now reached new parts of the globe he harboured ambitions of making a career out of it should his musical talents prove insufficient to earn a decent living. As it was, it was Uncle Patrick who had put in a word for him at the BBC.

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” he had said with a smile. “But you will still have to prove yourself young man!”

As he approached the zebra crossing at Waterloo station clutching his sister’s bassoon case, his own violin case and a battered cricket bag, he found to his surprise that he was already humming the first six bars of the concerto. He even managed to visualise the sheet music as he sat in a crowded carriage at the rear of the train surrounded by luggage.

To lift his spirits even higher he had managed to catch the 3.20 Portsmouth train whose first stop was a 25 minute sprint to Woking, where he treated himself to a taxi back to Pyrford having convinced himself that learning the second violins’ part was not beyond him after all. He might even reinstate the planned session in the cricket nets.

Within 10 minutes of Carol Alderman’s arrival back home, at around 10.30 pm, all their tentative plans for the weekend were shattered.

“Hi sweetie!” called her mother from the kitchen as Carol entered the main hall from the front door

“How did the rehearsal go?”

“Really well Mum … and Charles has persuaded the orchestra to play the whole concerto from memory”

“I thought that is what I heard on In Tune” chipped in her father from the dining room. “That would explain why Alan has been upstairs playing the piece over and over again since 5.00 o’clock!”

‘Upstairs’ was a reference to the third floor loft conversion which was accessed via a fold away ladder on the gallery landing. It was a self-contained unit with its own bathroom, small kitchenette and two generous music rooms, one of which contained a modern keyboard. It was where June Alderman took pupils and where Alan and Carol practised.

Hearing the commotion below, Alan soon appeared on the stairs, pleased to report that he was making real progress with learning his part.

“If you like, I’ll come up and join you in a moment, Alan” replied Carol “Where did you put my bassoon?”

There was an ominous silence as Alan turned a whiter shade of pale as he suddenly realised what he had done.

“Oh shit!” he said, “I’ve been so distracted with learning the Mozart …. I think I have left your case on the train!”

Once the initial panic followed by inevitable histrionics all round was over, Carol, James and June Alderman tried to console Alan who could not believe how stupidly selfish he had been. He kept on apologising and said he would go out and buy her another one first thing in the morning although he knew that it would never match her existing instrument which had been made in 1847. No modern instrument could compare. It was at this point that James Alderman took charge of proceedings.

“Enough Alan enough!” he said firmly but kindly. “We know it was an accident. Now let’s just calm down and consider the options, none of which is actually life threatening!”

With the time approaching 11.30 pm, they all sat round the kitchen table with mugs of coffee as James Alderman continued his explanation of what he thought they should do next.

“Firstly, the case may well end up at Waterloo Station Lost Property office within the week. The entertainment business is well known for leaving unusual objects on trains. Sir John Gielgud once left a retractable dagger on a train, but I have an idea which Alan and I will pursue separately.

Secondly, Mum can take Carol over to the Yehudi Menuhin School tomorrow morning and see what they can offer from their standard stock to borrow as a temporary measure. It will give Carol an opportunity of getting a feel for another instrument over the weekend should we not be able to retrieve her 1847 Bonaccorsi in time. I have absolutely no doubt that it will turn up but whether by Monday lunchtime is in the lap of the gods”

The next morning Alan and his father waved off Carol and June as they set off for Cobham before moving into James’ study determined to track down the Bonaccorsi. They knew the train would have terminated at Portsmouth & Southsea and any valuable property discovered by cleaning staff would have been put aside to return to Waterloo at the first available opportunity. Tracking down the telephone number for the station master’s office was no mean feat but Alan managed at the fifth attempt to speak to someone.

“A bassoon case you say?” said a bored sounding male who had only just started his shift. “You don’t see many of those down here”

“Maybe not” replied Alan “But I left this one in the final carriage on the 3.20 from Waterloo yesterday. Assuming one of your staff found it, where would they have placed it for safe keeping?”

“In the station masters office we have a cupboard for lost property. If you want to call back at midday Lizzie Bond might be able to help you”

“Cant you have a look yourself right now Mr ….. Eh, I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name?” said Alan.

“That’s because I didn’t throw it to you, ha ha ha, but it is Rumpledown, Amos Rumpledown” was the lugubrious response.

“Well Mr Rumpledown ….” Continued Alan before being interrupted …..

“But most people call me Amos!”

“OK Amos. Thanks. Now could you have a look in the store cupboard for me please?”

“I would but Lizzie Bond has the key and she is not on until 12.00 noon. Its Saturday today so she wouldn’t normally come in at all, but I happen to know she is standing in for Freddie Fanshaw because Freddie’s mother was taken ill last night, and we try to cover for each other in these trying times. You are lucky you spoke to me because I don’t normally answer the phone at all. We are on skeleton staff routines” Alan decided not to ask why there were only two skeletons working but asked Amos to repeat the best number to get Lizzie Bond on if he were to call back and also asked him to pass on his own mobile number to Lizzie when he saw her.

James Alderman could see the frustration on his son’s face and heard it in his voice.

“You did well Alan. I didn’t think you would get beyond the cricketing metaphor before exploding so how about this for a suggestion.” He said brightly “My friend Peter Philips has a podiatry practice in Havant. What say I call him and see if he could go down to the station in person right now?”

“I could probably drive down there myself” said Alan.

“Don’t be ridiculous son we don’t even know if the case is there do we? It will be a 15 minute drive for Peter, and he owes me a favour” he said as he dialled up his friend on his mobile.

“Wow! James Alderman! How lovely to hear from you! Long-time, no speak – last time was the COP Golf Day at the Belfry as I recall. How’s that famous daughter of yours?”

“Funny you should mention Carol, she’s part of the reason for calling” replied James before launching into a full explanation of the situation identifying Amos Rumpledown and Lizzie Bond as two characters he needed to try and track down.

“Long time since I had to examine a whole skeleton!” he joked after leaping at the opportunity to help before double checking Alan’s mobile number.

Alan’s face lit up at the change in mood.

“Thanks Dad you’re star! Fingers crossed eh?”


“By the way what’s COP?”

“The College of Podiatry but it’s not what you know it’s who you know as your Uncle would say!”

Alan Alderman took the call from Peter Phillips at around 5.00 pm

“Hi Alan, its Peter Phillips of the BR Lost Property Special Retrieval Unit here! BRLPSRU for short! Mission accomplished!” he announced with obvious glee.

“That’s fantastic!” responded Alan close to tears “Does the instrument look OK?”

“Not sure about the instrument but the case is pristine. There is a security lock on it. If you give me the combination number I can check it for you, but I am certain no one has tampered with it. The case looks as if it is worth more than the bassoon inside, very swanky. Which is more than you can say for the other one”

“What other one?” said Alan puzzled.

“The delightful Lizzie Bond gave me two bassoon cases, so I didn’t argue. A bit like buses, you wait for hours without seeing one then two come along together!”

“I don’t understand Peter, but I can drive down now and pick them both up. As Dad will have told you, we need to practice for the concert on Monday. Just let me know how much I owe you for your trouble. You have no idea what a relief this is for me” he added, again holding back the tears.

“Oh I think I have Alan” said Peter reassuringly “Your Dad had already anticipated the next move should I be successful. He has invited me to dinner with you this evening so relax. I should be in a position to hand them over in person in a couple of hours from now”

Carol fitted her latest double reed to the recovered bassoon and was soon playing scales and snatches of Mozart’s concerto to the delight of Peter Phillips and her family audience. Alan joined in on violin with similar excerpts from the same piece of music whilst June Alderman played along briefly using the keyboard in the role of continuo. By 9.00 pm everybody retired to the dining room ready to tuck in to James Alderman’s chicken chasseur.

The Alderman family raised their glasses of chardonnay in a little family toast to Peter’s Phillips sleuthing abilities. Peter returned the compliment thanking his friend’s family for their exquisite food and musical entertainment.

“Now Peter” said James at the coffee stage “You promised to tell us all about Amos Rumpledown and Lizzie Bond – the floor’s all yours”

“Well now how long have you got?” started Peter “It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Amos turned out to be in his early sixties heavily bearded with curly dark brown hair going grey. From your description I was expecting a country bumpkin, but I think he is probably mid European, might even be Russian. He quickly told me where to find Lizzie Bond. He seemed anxious to pass me on to his colleague as quickly as possible. After all he hadn’t been expecting me at all, but he did remember speaking to Alan”

“What makes you think he was Russian?” asked James

“Its hard to put my finger on it but I just got the feeling that his jokey English persona was a bit of a front. He had something of the Rasputin about him. Lizzie Bond was the opposite in every respect. A really bubbly personality who was anxious to please. She was at pains to explain that she should really stick to standing orders and sent the case back to Waterloo.

She had only recently taken over responsibility for lost property which is when she mentioned the second case. Her predecessor in the role had been very slip shod. She had found it tucked away at the back of the cupboard and realised it might have been there for a couple of years. Catching up with the paperwork was on her ‘to do list” but it would actually help her if I could take both cases with me “no questions asked nudge nudge wink wink see what I mean chief?”

“One less form to fill in” as she put it. She also said Amos had made it very clear to her that she was to be especially helpful if “that nice Englishman called about a bassoon case.

“Frankly, Mr Philips” she said, “I wouldn’t know a bassoon case from a baboon cage!”

On a whim, Carol asked Alan to assemble the second bassoon for her whilst she prepared another double reed mouth piece for it. Soon she was again going up and down the scales to the astonishment of the others.

June Alderman was the first to voice her thoughts

“That’s unbelievable!” she said “The tone is beautiful, the higher register’s crystal clear. What do you think Carol?”

Carol was close to tears as she could hear that this unexpected gift was delivering music of an even greater clarity than her beloved Bonaccorsi. It was on a higher level.

“It’s amazing” she said, “Absolutely amazing I can’t wait to tell Charles in the morning how I plan to go up a gear!”

Alan was delighted for his sister but now felt the extra pressure on himself to match her efforts when he would have much preferred the prospect of facing a 96 mph fast ball from Jofra Archer aimed at his head.

Charles Hazlewood was pleased to see there had been a significant increase in the on line bookings for this special one off BBC Symphony Orchestra Concert. He wondered whether his interview with Sean Rafferty had been responsible. What he couldn’t tell the BEEB, or any news outlet for that matter, was the total surprise item he had lined up with the help of the Alderman family for the second half of the concert.

He was well known for taking chances, but this was the gamble of his life.

The first half of the concert consisted of Maurice Ravel’s ever popular orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky which involved a full complement of 75 musicians including two harps, multiple percussion, an extensive string section, every wind instrument known to man and the famous horn section which starts the whole piece off in such distinctive style.

Pictures at an Exhibition was a suite of vividly drawn tonal sketches inspired by an exhibition of artworks by the composer’s friend Viktor Hartmann. It was originally written for piano but contained many unconventional harmonies which had always appealed to Charles’ anarchic character.

Mozart was to be the featured composer after the interval with Carol Alderman making her RAH debut as part of her prize for winning Young Musician of the Year. During the interval, the stage would be reset for 20 musicians in a tiered arc facing the conductor. Charles had every confidence in Carol Alderman, but his real surprise could easily back fire. For the first time ever he wondered if he had gone too far. He had to admit that he was apprehensive, not to say nervous; a nervousness that went beyond artistic tension, which all top performers experience as the adrenalin builds before a performance.

He had explained to the stage crew beforehand what he wanted them to do so now his fate also rested on their cooperation.

Charles led Carol Alderman out to thunderous applause from the audience. He took his place on the podium, brought the orchestra to its feet and, with Carol Alderton, they all bowed as one. The absence of music stands in front of the musicians added to the visual impact of the unfolding vignette. Alan Alderman’s heart was thumping as Charles held them back for his customary five seconds of suspended animation then, as if released from a firework, he and the entire orchestra hit the first twenty bars as one joyous unit, to be joined smack on cue, by the exquisite soaring solo sound of Carol Alderman’s bassoon.

Carol’s parents, sitting with Peter Philips and Patrick McCarthy, in the rows nearest to the orchestra all looked at each other with a mixture of joy and relief as they settled down with the rest of the audience to enjoy what the critics next day described as the most vibrant unrestrained rendition of Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto ever given.

The standing ovation at the end went on for fully five minutes as the audience begged for an encore. Charles and Carol went off and back twice to continuing applause until Charles was handed a radio mic which finally brought some silence.

“On behalf of the entire orchestra, but especially our brilliant soloist, I would like to thank you the audience for allowing us to experiment this evening. I believe this is the first time this concerto has been played entirely from memory”

Spontaneous applause broke out again as the stage crew quickly put music stands in front of all the musicians before Charles again addressed them.

“Are you ready for one more experiment in place of a traditional encore?”

The response from the audience was immediately enthusiastic if a little curious. Jim Slater had noticed that the sheet music on his stand was not what he had been expecting. They were meant to conclude the concert with a Mozart Symphony written when he was only eight years old. Several members of the orchestra were looking to their leader for guidance as it slowly dawned on them that something was afoot, but he could only shrug his shoulders and smile nervously.

Charles explained to them and the audience what was going to happen next and why, which brought forth gasps of disbelieve from audience and musicians alike.

“The orchestra has just been given copies of the score of the concerto for two bassoons in F Major by Johann Baptist Vanhal ….. Yesterday I had the pleasure of an unexpected reunion with a very dear friend of mine who was until five years ago the principal bassoonist with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra. Here to join Carol Alderman to play the aforementioned concerto for two bassoons, will you please welcome …. Valeri Romanov!”

All eyes went to the artist’s entrance stage left to witness the sight of a confident black bearded Rasputin-esque figure emerging carrying the Bonaccorsi. He waved to the cheering crowds as he joined Carol Alderman in front of the conductor’s podium. He grabbed her left hand in his right and raised it aloft before both bowed to the appreciative but astonished audience in front of them.

Charles had never seen his orchestra concentrate so hard in its life. Every single musician fixed their gaze on him as if their lives depended on it. He held them in suspended animation for five seconds before unleashing them for the opening bars of the first movement, an allegro moderato featuring a nerve racking two minute wait at the beginning before the first soloist makes a contribution.

It was Valeri Romanov who offered a simple sounding sweet six bar phrase to Carol Alderman which she returned in kind followed by the orchestra echoing the same motive in a gentle game of musical tennis. The seamless interweaving of orchestra and soloists had the connoisseurs standing where promenaders stand for the BBC Proms season, in raptures of delight.

The orchestra finishes the last minute of the twelve minute first movement without the soloists at all. It is as if the composer wanted to give them a brief recovery time before the emotional experience of the six minute second movement, an andante grazioso which had the two bassoons so intertwined in intricate harmonies it reminded one critic of a more cerebral musical version of the honeysuckle and the bindweed by Flanders and Swan.

It was impossible to tell which soloist was playing which refrain, but the overall harmonic effect left many in the Royal Albert Hall in tears including Peter Phillips and James Alderman.

By way of contrast, the three and a half minute Finale was all triple tonguing with the orchestra chasing the two soloists in a race to the finishing line which Charles Hazlewood brought to an expertly managed photo finish, the two bassoonists being declared the dead head winners by an explosion of cheering by the entire Royal Albert Hall audience.

Carol Alderman and Valeri Romanov embraced each other, exhausted but exhilarated. They both insisted that Charles join them at the edge of the stage. All three bowed in appreciation before turning to the orchestra and leading the applause to acknowledge their own stupendous performance which had been given under the most extreme of artistic pressures imaginable.

The sensational story behind the event made the front pages of all the newspapers the next day from the broadsheets to the tabloids with headlines like

“Blind child prodigy plays surprise concert with Russian spy” Daily Mail

“Uproar at the RAH as Russian Spy duets with Blind bassoonist” Times

“BBC blind-sided by Charles Hazlewood” Guardian

The most accurate account appeared two days later in the Daily Telegraph, written by Charles Hazlewood himself. He started by explaining his connection to Valeri Romanov. They had first met in Moscow in 2006 when Charles was working on his acclaimed TV documentary on Tchaikovsky called “The Creation of Genius”.

When Romanov came to England in 2015 with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Charles was asked to be guest conductor for a concert at the iconic Royal Albert Hall. It was all part of a high profile cultural exchange organised by the Russian and British governments.

Sadly, Valeri Romanov suffered a mental breakdown when the orchestra arrived at the Royal Albert Hall for the rehearsal. The famous capacious dome can be intimidating when the hall is empty. Valeri later described the experience as akin to rehearsing in the bottom of the Grand Canyon so insignificant did it make him feel as a soloist.

He walked out half way through the rehearsal for the Mozart bassoon concerto complaining of a severe headache. He was actually suffering from an acute crisis of artistic confidence, a text book example of a nervous breakdown.

President Putin was informed and various courses of action to cover up the incident were discussed including one bizarre suggestion that Romanov be flown to the Mediterranean where he could convalesce on Roman Abramovich’s luxury yacht.

In the end the Russians agreed to allow Romanov to stay. They argued that he was an insignificant figure outside the insular world of classical music. It was easier to sweep the whole thing under the diplomatic carpet.

Valeri Romanov was determined to give up music altogether. He ended up taking a job as a railway porter in Portsmouth. Charles Hazlewood was one of only three people who knew of Romanov’s whereabouts, the other two were Lizzie Bond and the cultural attaché to the Russian embassy who had regular meetings with him.

It was unsurprising but disappointing when the British media started digging and came up with a totally fabricated version of Amos Rumpledown’ s true status.

A genuine case of fake news.

Carol Alderman toured internationally for a couple of years with Valeri Romanov and the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra of St Petersburg before switching her musical gifts to composition.

The tours were organised exclusively by Patrick McCarthy Classical Productions.

Alan Alderton became his sister’s full time manager.

This Decamot was inspired by the following items: Grand Canyon, bassoon, chiropodist, zebra, mine, Charles, globe, cricket, dagger, yacht