Maxine Kwok, First Violin, on being back at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence

This month the LSO is embarking on its first international engagement in 16 months, since the pandemic began. LSO First Violin Maxine Kwok tells us how it feels to be back at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence to perform Wagner's Tristan and Isolde and the world premiere of Kaaija Saariaho's Innocence.

'If anyone had said in the last few months that I’d wake up this morning and be looking down into a picturesque cobblestone square as I sip my coffee, I’d have scarcely believed it. But, here we are, in the LSO's home-away-from-home Aix-en-Provence, preparing to perform two symphonic concerts, plus opera runs of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde with Sir Simon Rattle and a world premiere, Innocence by Kaaija Saariaho, conducted by Susanna Mälkki.

Maxine at the plane window in a mask

This month in Aix-en-Provence hasn’t come easily. It is with intense gratitude to the French government, DCMS and prefecture of the Festival for fighting our corner, and the tireless work of the LSO admin staff preparing seemingly endless paperwork, that we can be here to fulfil our annual residency – four significant weeks of work for the Orchestra. In previous years, musicians had chosen to book accommodation sometimes twelve months in advance. This year, we only secured places to stay weeks beforehand, all while navigating endless cancelled flights.

I had decided to treat myself to a new large suitcase in November 2019 with the intention of flying to China for touring work and the US twice in late-2019/early-2020 … Finally cutting the tags off last week with a flourish and having the inevitable scramble to find plug adaptors, I found packing took far longer than it ever had before. What was once second nature, with a passport always close by, had become fraught with questions such as, 'what am I forgetting?' and 'what’s the hand luggage limit?'.

Wheeling the case onto the Heathrow Express felt curiously familiar and yet alien. Going through our dedicated check-in at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, British Airways surely noted the manic looks in our eyes as we brandished long forgotten loyalty cards. I’m not sure what I expected on clearing security – masked people were still happily browsing duty free, and there were inevitable queues at Pret and Starbucks – but for us LSO musicians, that's where it just about started to sink in. After 16 months being grounded we were finally headed off on tour to make music in another country.

I fall into the once-vaccinated status, which means that for one week I can go between the rehearsal and my accommodation only, with a brief stop at the supermarket. Those knowing how amazing the restaurants are here in Aix will know that Saturday, or Freedom Day as our Chair David has dubbed it, is being awaited with great anticipation. However I don’t think anyone has minded collapsing at home while we are going through the physical and emotional ringer that is Tristan!

As I sit in the orchestra pit and am enveloped in the rousing gorgeous melodies of Tristan, I often have to pinch myself to believe that we are really here. Making music with a stellar cast including Stuart Skelton, Jamie Barton, Nina Stemme and many more is a huge privilege at the best of times! We may be masked and still sitting with separate music stands for now, but we are all ever so grateful that with the 12,000 masks the LSO has brought, the consistent safety precautions and the many rounds of testing, we can come alive again in another country as we have done in London. We are a fortunate few. I hope the people coming to the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence will really feel the labour of love from those on stage, the LSO in the pit and everyone behind the scenes who has made this happen. There won’t be a dry eye in the house, and nor will there be from the musicians … '

Photo taken from the back of the orchestra pit

Tristan and Isolde will be broadcast live on ARTE on 8 July at 6pm CEST.
Innocence will be broadcast live on ARTE on 10 July at 8pm CEST.

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