Septura tours to the US are usually non-stop blurs of planes, buses, freeways, hotels, classes, concerts, restaurants, sleep deprivation, malnutrition and weight gain, so it was nice to wake up in St. Louis knowing that we would be spending two whole days here. On top of that, this was the biggest city we would be visiting during the tour, and the weather was forecast to be sunny and warm, so spirits were high as we met our host Scott Kennebeck and headed to the Cathedral Basilica (venue for the following day’s concert) for a rehearsal. Scott is the director of the concert series at the venue, and before taking us to our rehearsal venue in the bowels of the building, he showed us the main space in which we would be performing. Rarely are the opinionated and forthright musicians of Septura lost for words, but a sense of quiet awe descended as we took in the spectacular, immense space. Although the building was completed in 1914, the interior surfaces are covered in intricate mosaics which were only completed in 1988, and give the space a really magical quality.
We were also intrigued by the acoustic, which we were reliably informed features a seven-second delay. This was going to pose its own set of challenges, but for now our focus was on polishing up the second programme that we’d brought on tour, featuring Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a juggernaut of an arrangement that never seems to get any easier. To warm up we read through a new addition to our repertoire, spawned on our initial transatlantic flight by yours truly: Au Sein de la Nature by Leokadiya Kashperova. Originally for piano, this piece features on the programme for our concert at St James’s Piccadilly in London on 11 March (tickets here), and the beautiful melodies and warm harmonies translate especially well for brass, so much so that we’re considering bringing the world premiere forward to later in this trip…
Having re-familiarised ourselves with the Mussorgsky (without overly battering our egos) we headed off to enjoy a free afternoon in St. Louis. I’ve developed something of a gym habit over the last couple of years, so a lot of my touring downtime is spent trying to negotiate my way into local fitness establishments without signing my life away in contracts, joining fees and compulsory introductory sessions with ‘Brad’ (presumably). Planet Fitness seemed a safe bet, given that their sister branch in Provo had let me in for free in exchange for a bit of light data harvesting, but alas, the computer resolutely said ‘no’, and I was forced into a thoroughly demoralised walk back to the hotel. The lack of exercise had left me feeling especially out of shape, so there seemed only one option to cheer myself up: steak frites preceded by a couple of beers, nothing silly (the Septura touring mantra which is almost always adhered to, and almost certainly was on this occasion).
The following morning things were looking up: the sun returned, L.A.B. Gym let me use their facilities for a mere $10, and a few of us congregated at the Gateway Arch, St. Louis’s most famous landmark. Built as a monument to westward American expansion and commonly referred to as ‘The Gateway to the West’, at 630 feet tall it’s the world’s tallest arch, a fact which didn’t fill us with confidence as we ascended to the top in the rickety-sounding tram system.
Sometimes I feel guilty that I don’t do enough sight seeing during these trips, but based on the rule that once you’ve ascended the tallest building in a city you’ve basically seen everything, we headed to our Uber feeling like we’d used our morning to great effect. Morale was barely affected by our first driver refusing to let us sit in his front seat (apparently the boot/trunk of his car is just too far to travel to retrieve his lunch box at break time), and our second driver deposited us in The Hill neighbourhood, home of the local Italian community for some toasted Ravioli, a local delicacy, the perfect preparation for that afternoon’s masterclass.
This would primarily be spent working on an arrangement of When the Saints go Marching In, which was to be performed side-by-side with Septura as that evening’s encore. Matt Knight had volunteered to conduct this, a great surprise to us all given his self-deprecating nature, but first Matt Gee was to lead a warm up session with the students. Although it’s tempting to take a break and leave my colleagues to it in situations like this, it’s always worth staying and listening to what they have to say – we really are so lucky to have such accomplished musicians in the group, and on the basis that you’re a lifelong student in this business, you’re bound to pick up some useful tips.
After the class it was time for our soundcheck, a word that took on especially poignant meaning in the luxuriant acoustic. I usually take a listen from the audience seating to check what tweaks might be needed to our approach, and the sound coming my way was truly remarkable. It reminded me of Paul Horn’s recordings, which use the acoustics of buildings such as the Taj Mahal to turn solo flute music into a fulsome mirage of beguiling dissonant harmonies. With a little more clarity added to our articulation, we were able to convey a decent amount of detail, and although it was a different experience to what we’re used to, the sound and setting created a concert atmosphere unlike anything we’d experienced before.
Next day, we were faced with the only long drive of the trip (5 hours, we’ve seen worse) and our only day in a ‘battle bus’ – an ever-accommodating Ford Transit. I headed off to collect the vehicle from the pick up point close to Busch Stadium (home of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team) and after picking up my colleagues back at the hotel, drove westwards towards our next destination. Dan West was on navigation and finding somewhere for lunch duty, and after three hours we pulled up at his selection in the midst of the Lake of the Ozarks. Setting for the Netflix TV programme Ozark, it was nice to tick another destination off the bucket list, albeit without actually seeing anything to do with the show (as usual).
Back on the road, we were greeted with some unwelcome news: due to an unforeseen serious situation on campus, our hosts for the evening Cottey College had been forced to cancel our performance. Our thoughts were with the college community as we headed to our hotel in Nevada, Missouri in sombre mood.
Normally an unexpected evening off would be greeted with glee, but given the situation we kept things low key, grabbing some food nearby before turning in for the night, and looking forward to getting back on the concert platform in El Paso.