Today, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and I come to the end of a three-week concert tour around Europe.
Making the final stop of our odyssey in Perth tonight, we have blazed our trail through the great concert halls of the continent, leaving them ringing to the sound of our umpteen Pastoral Symphonies.
If you've been following the SCO's blog or Twitter account, you'll be familiar with some of the less musical details of this orchestral tour. The travails of superstar pianist Maria Joao Pires and my hot-water bottle might have kept you riveted, or perhaps the story of the missing concert trousers. You'll know there was sunshine in Toulouse, chocolate in Brussels, goose in Vienna, swans and Swiss mountains, bars, buses, airports and then some more airports.
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And at this point, you might quite justifiably ask me what on earth all this gallivanting about Europe is for. Because, apart from the international gastronomy, for what ultimate good do we put up with the fatigue of constant travel and performance? Why endure the unfamiliar beds, the pillows (oh, you'd be surprised how much talk there is of the pillows) and of course all that time away from home and family? And indeed, what good is all of this to the concert-going public of Scotland if, instead of playing to our home crowd, we are off being wowed by stunning concert halls like Lucerne?
Well, although they might be good questions, we've got good answers.
One of the benefits of touring is that it forces us to adapt. Arriving in a new city and stepping on to the stage of an unfamiliar venue, we might have, at most, an hour of rehearsal before the doors open to the public. In that time we've got to scope it out, collectively, to discover in which ways the acoustic is our friend or our foe. We've got to adjust and refine what we intend to deliver to the audience that night, almost on the spot. Our ears and our performance are sharpened by this practice.
This challenge applies whether we are touring to the Vienna Konzerthaus or the community halls of the Western Isles, as we do in the summer. Both the Austrians in evening dress and the islanders in walking boots and waterproofs get a better orchestra as a result. If, as a musician, you can handle the contrasts between all those different halls, and varied situations, you know you're evolving.
It's important for our international profile, of course, that we are seen in the glitzy foreign halls. Our Beethoven and Mozart needs to be heard in Vienna, so that our colleagues abroad see what we're doing with Robin Ticciati at the helm. And if there's time to hear or meet with the international competition while we are there – to see their level, or even just experience their working environment a little, in order to remind ourselves of the wider context in which we work – so much the better.
Then there's this business of performing the same programme many times; "the beauty of earnest repetition", as violin teacher and guru Dr Suzuki put it. True, some of us might feel a bit faint at the prospect of playing 13 Beethoven Pastoral storm movements in a row. But the imperative of making sure our performance does not stagnate – that actually it doesn't repeat itself at all, but instead endlessly reinvents itself, as all artistic endeavour must – might be the greatest benefit of a tour programme like this one.
As the tour schedule rolls on and you chalk off each concert, you note how small flaws and imperfections have been ironed out by the heat of performance, while you've found new shapes or new flow elsewhere.
It's not a science of course, and there's no point in pretending it's one steady march towards perfection. It's more the feeling that you are always searching. And that in searching you sometimes discover marvellous new things. (And no, I am not talking about the shopping again.)