Life really can be a beach!

Whilst there are no new products finding their way onto this week, rest assured that there is much going on behind the scenes, in preparation for a new, highly dynamic section of the website, which we hope to introduce over the coming weeks. For the time being, I won’t even attempt to tease you further!

However, as has been my wont of late, I have been putting pen to paper, dredging up unusual and interesting moments from my life in music.

Hopefully the following illustrated story might be of interest and even amuse.

Amongst the more curious non-mainstream, but also thoroughly enjoyable occurrences in my twenty years at the London Symphony Orchestra, were the biennial visits to Daytona Beach, as the orchestra in residence of The Florida International Music Festival.

It is easy to imagine a classical music festival taking place in the mountains of Austria, or by a lake in Switzerland. The marriage of natural beauty and culture is a well-established one.

Perhaps the most unlikely venue for such an event though, would be a 23 mile strip of beach along the east coast of the USA, at a time of year where temperatures are soaring and most people are wanting to be close to or in the sea, at the same time wearing as little as possible! 

In the early 1960s, in order to generate more overseas work for the orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra management wrote to numerous arts venues, institutions and others globally, offering the orchestra’s services for summer festivals. Other than the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and the Edinburgh Festival, the months of July and August, with most people being on holiday, are comparatively quiet times for symphony orchestras. At this somewhat lean time of the year at home, it was a logical and prudent move to explore the possibilities of securing engagements further afield (as I have mentioned before, most of the key London orchestras are not salaried, meaning that if there are periods of no playing work in the diary, there can be no income). 

Having written several hundred letters, somewhat bizarrely, the one and only response came from residents of Daytona Beach in Florida, who were thrilled at the prospect of hosting their very own festival. ‘The Daytona Beach News Journal’ and its proprietor Tippen Davidson, who thankfully happened to be a classical music enthusiast, were galvanised into action and became the driving force behind organisation and making sure that everything was in place for the launch.

The festival was inaugurated in 1966. For normally hard working British musicians, a summer residency where constant sunshine was guaranteed (apart from between 4 and 5 in the afternoon, when as though on a time switch the heavens opened), along with a far less hectic schedule, could not really have been more attractive. 

For the first decade or thereabouts, with visits of a month or more, Florida became the summer home of the London Symphony Orchestra. 

Known as the Sunshine State, Florida attracts a wide variety of dwellers and visitors. Due to its near constant sunshine, retiring Americans from generally much cooler states further north, tend to gravitate towards this part of the USA, to pursue all year round golf activities and establish permanent suntans. Plastic surgery is also readily available and highly popular in this part of the world. As a result surgeons, dentists, lawyers and carers for the elderly in general are likewise drawn to the area. Even in the intense heat of summer however, a welcome and cooling source of air-conditioning will never be that far away.

Naturally enough, with so much sunshine on tap, coupled with predominantly cheap accommodation, Florida has also become a highly attractive holiday destination, both for Americans (Spring Break and Daytona 500 weeks) and many European families, who are prepared to make the nine hour direct flight, in order to enjoy the numerous theme parks that are to be found in and around Orlando.  

If you add in the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, there is more than enough on offer to keep even the moodiest of teenagers happy. 

I could never have imagined when I first started my career as a professional musician that simply carrying out the skills that I had been trained for would on several occasions whilst working in Florida, lead me to witnessing the Space Shuttle taking off and making its dramatic climb upwards towards the International Space Station. 

Whilst never short of sunshine, and although peppered with some incredibly high end properties, Daytona Beach is not in general considered to be a premium tourist destination.  

The bright lights of Miami, Palm Beach, Pinecrest and the Keys, further south are where the seriously wealthy playgrounds are to be found on this part of the eastern coastline. Instead of boutique designer shops and Michelin starred restaurants, diners, tattoo parlours, strip clubs and endless T-shirt shops, selling cheap cotton shirts with every sexual innuendo possible emblazoned on the front, appear to be more the general level of Daytona Beach.  

Hardly surprising therefore that it is the venue for the annually held Bike Week, where virtually every Harley Davidson motorcycle ever made can be found and is proudly on display in the streets. As a result, Daytona Beach is considered to be a second home for many of those ‘patched in’ with the Hells Angels. 

Even though Bike Week is normally held in March and the orchestra visited in July and August, there were a substantial number of bikers, who on arriving in Daytona had decided once the event was over that they liked it sufficiently enough there, not to move on. 

We encountered many of these and solid relationships were forged between members of the orchestra and those of the Hells Angels. 

Two factors contributed to this somewhat unusual connection. Firstly, as all the men in the orchestra wore white tuxedos for concerts, the Hells Angels thought that we were quite possibly as weird and off the wall as themselves. Continuing this curious line of reasoning, they were therefore quite interested in us and became increasingly inquisitive to find out more about a large group of people with surprisingly different accents, who had just landed on their doorstep. In many ways, at least as far as they were concerned, we were just as offbeat, strange and quirky as they were! 

Secondly, Dirty Harry’s Pub, one of the best known drinking haunts for Bike Week, just happened to be on the same block as the Peabody Auditorium, where our concerts were taking place. It was therefore a first port of call for a drink, either at the end of the concert, or for those who were only involved in one piece or just the first half of the concert. At any stage of the late morning, afternoon or evening, gatherings of Hells Angels in this establishment were as good as guaranteed. Certain members of the LSO, in particular in the often less engaged sections of brass and percussion, were destined to become their drinking buddies and in the end, long term friends! 

For college students too, Daytona Beach with plenty of cheap alcohol and inexpensive hotels, is also a highly sought after destination for Spring Break, where I am sure most parents would prefer to turn a blind eye to what goes on! 

My first trip to Daytona Beach was in the mid 1980s. 

This particular tour kicked-off in Boston, where we performed on an outdoor tennis court. Hoping to secure work playing on a film score or possibly more, the LSO had offered the movie score composer Bill Conti a run of concerts. He was to be the conductor, with the shows featuring his best known movie themes. Concerts were planned for Boston, New York and Florida. 

For those of you who may not be familiar with the name, Bill Conti reached fame as the composer of the TV series Dynasty and the Sylvester Stallone, Rocky film franchise. Apart from the huge success of these ventures and as the composer on numerous other movies, he now happens to be one of the most successful businessmen in Hollywood. Not only does he write music, but he owns a chain of burger restaurants, a football team, has launched his own brand of vodka, alongside a highly regarded fashion line and a top selling perfume! He is a man with a permanent suntan, who every day appears to wear a pure white, immaculately cut jacket hanging off his shoulders, irrespective of the circumstances or the weather. It always remains spotlessly white. 

After the concert in Boston we flew to New York and it was here that for the first time in my life I picked up a very debilitating chest infection from the air conditioning. We stayed in New York for perhaps five days and during this time I couldn’t shake off the bug that I had picked up. 

Next stop would be two and a half weeks, resident in Daytona Beach, so at least I would have plenty of time in one place to recover. 

However, on arriving in Florida, my health took a further dive. I had already lost my voice, but now I was coughing up blood. The bug wasn’t taking a back seat, I was feeling both worse and now quite worried, so something had to be done. 

As this was my first appearance at the festival in Florida, I had yet to realise that all members of the orchestra were treated as though they were minor members of the Royal Family! I had no idea as to what I would need to do in order to see a doctor and in any case, I had heard horrendous stories of the costs of private health care in general in the USA. 

There was no reason to worry. Such was the organisation that volunteers were on call 24/7 to help with any situation that arose and once I had spoken to one of them in a coffee break during a rehearsal, the next thing I knew was that I was being whisked away to a doctor and at no charge whatsoever for his professional services. 

I hoarsely growled my way through the appointment, at the same time providing a pretty reasonable impersonation of Lee Marvin, when singing ‘I was born under a Wandering Star’, from Paint Your Wagon. I most definitely had an infection and it would require a hefty dose of antibiotics to be sent packing. Sadly, the doctor didn’t have a sufficient supply of the necessary drugs on site, so armed with a prescription, my next stop was the department store in the nearby mall that fortunately also had a drug store.

By this stage, apart from having no voice, I was feeling pretty miserable and in any case had been told to go to bed for at least 24 hours to rest, allowing the drugs time to find their way into my system. 

My prescription was made up and I was instructed to go to the cash tills at the exit of the store, to pay the bill. 

The following sequence of events I am not particularly proud of, but I hope that you will by now have realised that I was not in the best of either physical or mental form at this precise moment. It was one of those occasions we have when we rather dramatically imagine that we might be sailing close to the jaws of death! I was very weak, aching, exhausted and decidedly grumpy. 

As the very charming cashier at the till handed me the receipt and my change for the purchase, she ended our transactions with that well known phrase of the time, ‘and have a nice day!’ 

Of course, the obvious, courteous and polite reply to such a warm gesture, should have been, ‘thank you, and you too!’ 

At that moment, I just wasn’t in the best zone or mood. 

In the absence of thought and without any knowledge as to where these words might be coming from within, I found myself saying,  

‘I am very sorry, but I have made other arrangements!’ 

There was no reaction from the girl on the till, but I can only imagine that I would have been marked down as the weirdo of the day! 

In the early years of my visits to Daytona Beach, the orchestra was garrisoned in a beach front hotel, where the corridors on every floor were external. In other words your door opened to the immediate air outside. It was bliss at night time to hear the waves regularly rolling onto the shoreline and to walk barefooted along the never-ending finely sanded beach. 

In July and August, as Florida is most definitely hot and humid, air conditioning is essential. These were by no means luxurious hotel rooms, but they all had two super king size beds in them (can someone explain this to me or have I just led such a sheltered life?), so were by definition spacious. They also possessed balconies overlooking the ocean, although it was rarely a comfortable experience to sit out on them.  

Naturally, with there being little in the way of anything other than a badly fitting door between the room and the outside world, cockroaches were regular companions. If you awoke in the middle of the night and needed the bathroom or restroom, on turning the light on, one was instantly aware both visually and audibly of anxiously scurrying creatures, as they sought further dark spaces in which to hide. It was an automatic procedure to turn the light on, because the likelihood of squishing one of these creatures on the floor in the dark and ending up with a vile yellow gunk all over the base of your foot was high. 

In the incredible heat at that time of year, unless you wished to be soaked in your own perspiration, walking had to be kept to the minimum. Even in the middle of the night it was still humid and hot.  

As a result, groups from within the orchestra would hire an assortment of cars. For some reason, the bass players opted to travel around in the largest Cadillacs possible, giving onlookers the impression that the inhabitants enjoyed preferable connections with the Mafia.

The woodwinds veered towards convertibles, although of course, the penetrating heat made this a rather curious choice as it was hotter with the roof open than it was with it closed. For any form of comfort when travelling, air conditioning really was essential at all times. 

People in the USA rarely walk between parking lots in Malls. They drive. The British find this curious, as we tend to enjoy the exercise. However, America is such a vast place and there is so much space, that there is no need for shops within malls to be huddled close together. It makes complete sense, in particular when carrying purchased items that are heavy, to park as close to shop entrances as possible. Therefore, you drive around the parking lot from one shop to the next. This becomes even more essential when the outside temperatures are extreme. 

Other good reasons in Florida not to be outside for too long during summertime, include the ‘pods’ of pelicans that patrol the shoreline. When one of them drops from the sky to dive into the sea and scoop up a fish, the movement, agility and precision are wonderful to behold. However, if a passing pelican decides to drop a message from the sky and you just happen to be beneath its flight path, few, if indeed any dry cleaners on the planet, will be able to remove the lurid colour and vile stench of their ‘gift’ from your clothing. You will also need to take a shower…for a few hours! They say that to be ‘dropped on’ by a bird will bring good luck. This maybe the case if a tiny amount of wren or robin poo lands on you. Pelicans however, are an entirely different and infinitely less charming matter, or as some might say, a less attractive ‘kettle of fish’!

After a concert, unless we wanted the simple option of diving into a very local bar, where invariably the food on offer was deep fried, it was necessary to venture further afield in order to search out a decent meal. We would take it in turns to drive, so that there would always be someone sober to get us home at the end of the evening. 

About two miles north up the coast from our hotel, a restaurant named Bennigan’s was to be found, which apart from burgers and fries also served up wonderful salads and had a reasonable selection of wines. This outlet became a very regular haunt for many of the orchestra, to the extent that we renamed it Backagain’s. It wasn’t a particularly upmarket establishment, but it served better food than most of the cheaper diners in the centre of Daytona Beach. 

On our first visit, we became aware that all of the waiters and waitresses would from time to time signal to one another and then quickly disappear behind double swing doors into the kitchen area. A few moments later and in formation, they would march back into the restaurant proudly holding high an extremely large piece of chocolate cake with a sparkler crackling away in the middle of it. Singing that globally well-known song, on arriving at the designated table, they placed the huge piece of artificially flavoured sugar immediately in front of the person whose birthday it happened to be. There was enough cake on one plate to feed four or more. 

This seemed like a good game to play, and from then on at the end of our meal, we elected one of our group to be the one with a birthday that day. The waiters were informed and sure enough, at the appropriate moment, a monster piece of cake arrived at the table, to be shared equally out among us. 

On most evenings when we visited, we played this particular card and on all occasions, ‘free’ cake appeared at the table. We were never rumbled! What we establish from this part of the story is that for better or worse, musicians rarely grow up! 

The people of Daytona Beach could not have been more warm and generous to their London based guests. Nothing was too much of a problem for them. We could go deep sea fishing or yachting, play on the most well looked after golf courses, take a drive around the Daytona 500 racing circuit and participate in many other activities that would be either very expensive or simply not available to normal visitors. Most evenings, after the concerts, parties were put on. Of course, for many of the locals, a part of this was so that they could invite their friends over for the evening, but members of the orchestra were always there as their VIP guests. 

On one night, after the concert, the flute section arrived together at a party. The house was vast and most impressive. Dressed in a black tuxedo, our host greeted us at the entrance to his home, with an extremely beautiful woman, his wife, wearing a highly stylish and perfectly cut Chanel long flowing dress, standing next to him. 

After a few brief introductions, we all had a slight feeling of déjà vu. None of us had been to this house before, but there was something familiar that was catching our eyes. On the walls of the entrance hall to their home a few Magritte paintings were hanging. Not the ones that most of us have possessed as students, rolled up in a tube from Athena, but the originals. 

Waiters immaculately dressed in white from top to toe approached us with trays of champagne. This was no run of the mill champagne, but the most recently released vintage of Dom Perignon. Whilst I tend to prefer my vintage champagne to be at least 20 years away from the year in question before the cork is gently released, I was not going to be snooty on this occasion and turn my back on the glasses of gently rising bubbles which were dancing before my eyes. 

The main part of the party was taking place in the grounds of the property. With a refreshing glass of chilled champagne in hand, it was a wonderful walk through the beautifully kept garden and manicured lawns to the swimming pool and pool house. It really was a house. Most people proudly boast of owning a pool house next to their swimming pools, when in reality it is nothing more than a glorified shed. On this occasion, it transpired that the owners had decided to build an entire house next to the pool, as the guest house for when family and friends visited. It was vast and only marginally smaller than the main house. More Dom Perignon was to be found at the bar at the side of the pool. 

The buffet food was well worthy of a Michelin star. It could not have been a better organised or hosted evening. We were all made to feel so incredibly special, which is a quite rare experience for a large group of classical musicians. 

As the four of us eventually returned to the car to leave after what had been an extraordinarily enjoyable party, we were all speechless. It had just been such an amazing and perfect evening. 

Then Frank, the piccolo player, originally from Liverpool (the home of The Beatles) and still maintaining his strong local accent, despite many years living in London, said: 

‘So, our host is a multi-millionaire, he has been incredibly successful, he has a drop-dead gorgeous wife and the most amazing house that any of us have ever seen, with a fantastic swimming pool and an entire annexe for guests that is nearly as big as the main house. It would appear that he drinks Dom Perignon champagne regularly. On top of all that, he has original paintings by Magritte hanging on his walls.’ 

There was a short silence as we all pondered this seemingly idyllic situation. Frank continued, 

‘But…Is he happy?’