Wednesday 25 November 2009

Mexico Tour Blog from Stephen Bourne

Britten Sinfonia performed in Mexico earlier this month with pianist Joanna MacGregor. In this blog posting Stephen Bourne, Britten Sinfonia Board Member and CEO of Cambridge University Press (who sponsored the tour) talks about his experiences on tour with an orchestra and the benefits Cambridge University Press receive through sponsoring Britten Sinfonia;

Two years ago, Cambridge University Press was one of Britten Sinfonia’s sponsors on its extraordinarily successful tour of South America. This year, we repeated the venture, wrapping a two-concert tour of Mexico round a business agenda for me and the Press’s Mexican team.

If you've never toured with an orchestra, it's a thrilling experience - particularly when it's a chamber orchestra like Britten Sinfonia. This is a band that consistently manages to bring together first-class musicians and world-renowned soloists, who together put on exciting programmes for audiences at home and abroad.

The short Mexico tour in November 2009 was no exception. Only two of the players had previously visited Mexico, so we began with a tangible anticipation of exotic things to come. Even the otherwise tedious business of a long flight can become an entertainment, with all the buzz generated by a swarm of musicians, marked out by the cellos cases seated amongst them, like a cluster of chubby totems.

It was only a matter of minutes after hotel check-in before the musicians sallied forth into the dusk and onto the streets of Mexico City’s Centro Historico, in search of tacos and mezcal and salsa – and that was the shape of things to come. Although bed came relatively early that night, at only 11.00 pm, it was already 5.00 am back home in England. Small wonder, then, that many of the team were somewhat subdued during the 4-hour coach journey to Morelia the next morning!

Morelia is the state capital of Michoacan, in the west of Mexico. The occasion for our visit was rather more significant than we had at first realised, in three respects: it was a coming-of-age for the Morelia Music Festival, its 21st anniversary; the United Kingdom had been chosen as the special guest country, with our Ambassador participating in the opening ceremonies; and Britten Sinfonia had been selected to perform the inaugural concert with soloist and conductor Joanna MacGregor.

Such venues are never without their hiccups, and there were stressful moments while we waited for piano-tuner to work his wonders, and while the bassists accustomed themselves to their borrowed instruments. But the rehearsals provided me with the kind of education to which so few of us in the business world ever have access: education in leadership, in collegiality, in the pursuit of excellence, and in patience. These are the hidden gifts of participation in tours of this kind. And there are opportunities to do the altogether unexpected, such as ascending into the vaulted roof-space of the concert hall, in my self-appointed role as Tour Photographer, to take photographs from on high of the band in rehearsal!

The Morelians proved to be an audience who appreciated excellent music, but probably did not receive their fair share of the world’s talents. Without doubt, the wide-ranging programme was a huge success with them, showcasing JS Bach, the gentle beauty of Tudor composer John Dowland, Brazilian Egberto Gismonti, Stravinsky and Scotland’s James Macmillan – all rounded off with a thrilling encore from Astor Piazzolla that elicited a standing ovation for Joanna and the orchestra.

Morelia was a lovely place to visit, offering us an instant glimpse of Mexican history, through its gorgeous haciendas, palacios, museos and its cathedral.

Two days later, and after further detailed but fascinating rehearsal, we were back in Mexico City, performing at the Sala Nezahualcoyotl of UNAM, the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. This is a splendid auditorium, where Joanna and the band again delivered another storming performance, the finale this time being three Piazzolla pieces, including Milonga del Angel, a delicate trio played by Joanna MacGregor (piano), Jacqueline Shave (violin) and Roger Linley (double bass), who together were responsible for many a misty eye in the audience. And then the inevitable encore, a movement from Macmillan’s Piano Concerto #2, which ensured that the concert-goers ended the evening on their feet, stomping and whooping.

But for me and my colleagues, as business sponsors, there had to be more than that. The concerts presented us with opportunities to entertain our publishing connections in a manner they had never previously experienced from any other business associate. Booksellers, wholesalers, authors, teachers, printers, typesetters, shippers: such people are the bread and butter of our industry, and we are able to thank them for their loyalty to us by inviting them to a reception and to an unforgettable concert. Afterwards, they were able to meet the players and to share enthusiastically their several experiences. We know that brief interludes of this kind will result in Cambridge University Press remaining in their memories, as generous hosts, as purveyors of quality products, and as constant patrons of the arts, even in difficult economic times such as these. Thereby, we enhance our corporate image. But the appreciation of these people provides us with the real payback on our investment.

Nor should we forget our own staff, in our offices around the world. For them, such moments provide a tremendous thrill, as well as a first-hand insight into the things the Press holds dear and into the effort that goes into striving after perfection. These musical tours provide an opportunity to thank them, too, for their efforts on behalf of our business.

For me, though, as a member of the touring party, the greatest surprise and delight was still to come. Back in the hotel after the final concert, those of us who were too drained to spend another night in the musical bars had a final drink or two together. Then David Butcher, Chief Executive of Britten Sinfonia, dragged me away at 11.00 pm to spy on an impromptu string quartet, formed by Jackie Shave just a few minutes earlier, sight-reading Bartok’s incredibly difficult String Quartet #1. Fortified by the odd swig of tequila from a convenient hip-flask, players were heard to mutter ‘I think I played a wrong note’ (just one?), or ‘That was almost right, wasn’t it?’ (having never seen or heard the piece before). It was a performance to turn any Bartok-sceptic into an instant believer. Close to midnight, I finally retired, utterly inspired by the devotion and brilliant musicianship of these players. There is much to be learned from examples such as theirs.

The next day, I sat down with Cambridge University Press’s Mexican management team for a day’s business discussions in the office. Oddly, perhaps, no-one resented being there, despite it being a public holiday. We were still re-living the treat of the weekend with Britten Sinfonia. And we talked some really good business.

Stephen Bourne, Chief Executive, Cambridge University Press

We hope to have some pictures of the tour online soon - watch this space!

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