Triumph over adversity on QE musicians’ Tuscany tour

Key sheet music went missing and the air-conditioning on a coach gave up the ghost – but nothing could stop a QE tour of Tuscany from proving a resounding musical success.

QE’s tour party of 55 boys and four staff relished their four-day trip to North West Italy, where they delighted audiences in a number of spectacular venues and sampled the local food and culture. [A video showing some of the highlights of the tour can be viewed here.]

The group arrived first in Montecatini: “We were very fortunate to have two rehearsal spaces, one inside and one outside, and as there were no other guests in the hotel, we were free to play as much as we like,” said QE’s Director Music, Kieron Howe. “We had a fabulous lunch at the hotel with pasta as our primo piatto, and pork as our secondo, followed by dessert. The catering couldn't have been better, with all of our dietary requirements, including gluten-free, being taken into account and alternatives offered.”

""In the afternoon the group visited the Grotta del Vento, where all were impressed by the astounding stalactites, stalagmites, pillars and other rock and mud formations, said Mr Howe.

The first concert was in the piazza in Barga. This proved to have a good acoustic for all the ensembles, especially the string orchestra, whose sound was reflected effectively by the town's walls directly behind them. “The audience ebbed and flowed as they came by on their way to or from dinner, but they all stayed for at least a few pieces, which they clearly thoroughly enjoyed,” added Mr Howe.

Day two started with the disappointing discovery that the Symphony Orchestra’s cello music had gone missing during the flight. However, as all the boys were playing in a number of ensembles, they soon overcame the setback and the Bollywood Orchestra took the opportunity to add a new piece to their repertoire.

""The group moved on to Florence where, in hot sunshine, they enjoyed a time of sight-seeing and sampling the local gelati (ice cream). In the evening the boys performed in the gardens of the music conservatory in nearby Pescia. Behind a set of iron gates in the public park, the grassy courtyard of the music conservatory formed an ideal venue for a concert. This had excellent lighting and, with the sound bouncing off the enclosing walls and the facade of the beautiful building, there was an excellent acoustic for all the groups again.

The concert opened with the Symphony Orchestra performing the piece they did have music for, Nimrod from the Enigma Variations. The majority of the performance was given by the String Orchestra whose opening piece, Eleanor Rigby, was a real favourite of the crowd, along with Music teacher Arijit Chakravarty's arrangement of Ravel's famous Bolero. Next came the Saxophone Quartet, who played three numbers before handing on to the Bollywood Orchestra, who were joined in their final piece, Jai Ho, by all on tour, who sang heartily.

“This was the end of our programme; however we were not allowed to leave the stage as our hosts demanded another piece,” said Mr Howe. “Without any further pieces in our folders we called on the Big Band to see what they could come up with. A quick jam ensued which grew into an excellent performance of Brooklyn from memory, again whole-heartedly enjoyed by the audience, some of whom were very keen to talk to the boys afterwards.”

The hosts then treated the group to freshly-made bruschette and gave them a painting of the conservatory to say thank you for the concert.

""The following day, the boys spent a pleasant 90 minutes in the shady medieval streets of Siena tracking down the best gelateria, eating pizza and visiting a couple of churches. Having reconvened on the Piazza del Campo, the site of the famous Palio horse race, they returned to the coach park for the journey to San Gimignano for that day’s concert.

As the String Orchestra and Choir set up for the concert, the Sax Quartet enticed people in with a short performance in the piazza outside. The generous acoustic of the Chiosto Sant Agostino created a wonderful sound for the audience but made it very difficult for the boys to hear each other.

The strings started the concert with Tchaikovsky's Crown of Thorns, which was particularly suited to the acoustic. They were joined by the Choir in the second half for an excellent performance of Vivaldi's Gloria. “The audience numbers were healthy but fluid, with people being drawn in by the music, staying for a number of pieces and then continuing on their tour of the city. All those who popped in certainly enjoyed all the pieces they heard,” said Mr Howe.

After the concert a group of Sixth-Formers had to wait for a replacement coach, as the air-conditioning had broken down. As they waited, they witnessed a spectacular display of lightning over the hills of Tuscany. After returning to Montecatini the party took a ride on the funicular railway up to Montecatini Alto.

""On the final full day of the tour leisurely rehearsals were followed by a trip to Lucca and a visit to Giacomo Puccini’s house at Torre del Lago. At the house the party split into three groups for the tours and saw where Puccini lived and wrote for a large proportion of his life, and the tiny chapel within the house where his body rests within the 1.5-m-thick walls. “At the end of the tour we were fortunate to meet Puccini's granddaughter, Simonetta, who shared a few words with the boys and was very interested to hear about their musical experiences,” said Mr Howe.

After a hot buffet dinner back at the hotel the group left for Borgo a Mozzanno and the Teatro di Verzura, which turned out to be an excellent venue, with a very supportive acoustic, unusual for an outdoor venue. The lighting was also excellent although it did have the annoying bi-product of attracting every biting insect within a half-mile radius!

""The concert began with the newest conductor, Biology teacher Martin Bassett-Jones, making his directorial debut and leading the band in Hawaii 5-O and the theme from The Great Escape. After the Concert Band, the Choir, accompanied by the String Orchestra, performed a number of the movements from Vivaldi's Gloria. “There was then a double-bill of Bollywood before the Big Band performed six pieces which the audience enjoyed, particularly the section of the audience made up of the other performers, who managed to find enough space for a group dance routine to the High School Musical number!” Mr Howe said. The last concert on the tour was rounded off with every member performing Jai Ho, which was again heartily performed.

That performance was the final QE concert for the ten Year 13 boys who accompanied the tour at the very end of their School careers. Mr Howe paid tribute to them: “It has been wonderful to have them with us and they have, as ever, been exemplary in their behaviour and musicianship throughout the trip, also keeping a watchful eye on the younger boys in their registration groups. I hope that they have wonderful memories that will stay with them for many years to come.”