I was asked to write a blog post last year by piano teacher, Simon Probert. Simon runs a very successful piano school in Gloucestershire (www.piano-lessons.net). This blog post highlights my life as a guest entertainer: I gave solo classical piano recitals on cruise ships around the world, as well as giving concerts at universities and music societies throughout the UK, a job I did for 12 years. This article is a pot-pourri of my many experiences.
Our plane touched down at midnight. After two flights, we waited several hours at Moscow airport to check visas before being transferred to the Lev Tolstoy; the Russian riverboat that was my first experience as a cruise performer, or ‘guest entertainer’ as it’s known in the business. I’m glad to report that the weariness of travel, the waiting and the red tape all pale into insignificance compared with the rewards of performing to discerning audiences at sea or on inland waterways.
The Lev Tolstoy, a serene vessel, skimmed the Volga as I gave performances both as a soloist and with BBC lecturer John Amis and Opera Interludes. I also played a concert in Tchaikovsky’s house in Klin, just outside Moscow. This fascinating tour called at unusual Russian towns and villages en route to St. Petersburg.
Since this first foray in 1996, I have been fortunate enough to work for many different cruise companies. In 1999 I embarked on a wonderful ten week circumnavigation of Africa. The old cruise line Union Castle chartered the Victoria from P&O for the ‘Union Castle Line Centenary Voyage’, which called at twenty-six ports. I gave a total of seventeen concerts, both solo and chamber music performances. During the daytime, I was able to explore many places one would never see when giving concerts on land. Cape Town over the millennium was an unforgettable experience; four days in scorching temperatures where we were treated to explosive firework displays set against the dramatic backdrop of Table Mountain.
I met so many interesting people on this long cruise. After an all-Liszt recital a passenger asked me to join him for a drink, whereupon he told me that Liszt’s Dante Sonata, was a favourite. This gentleman turned out to be the music critic of a major national newspaper, and he subsequently became a firm friend.
I had one of my most profound ‘musical’ experiences on the ‘Union Castle Line Centenary Voyage’. I had taken a trip to Zululand after docking in Durban. We went to see what village life is like for the Zulus. They had dazzling colourful costumes and their tribal dances were spectacular. At the end, before we left to go back to the ship, a group of about forty Zulus, men, women and children, stood in front of us and sung a four-part version of their national anthem. They did so without any musical prompting or pitch guidance. It was perfection, and moved me to tears.
I have worked on numerous beautiful ships, but probably my favourite was Cunard’s QE2. Although she was a stately old lady, the QE2 offered a unique transatlantic style of cruising and the view leaving New York’s harbour on this ship was unforgettable. The concert hall on the old Cunard liner was opulent, seated over five hundred people and contained probably the best Steinway Model D afloat. You can still visit this marvellous ship, as she is now a hotel in Dubai.
I’ve performed to both British and American audiences, and nothing compares with the latter’s enthusiasm. Americans barely wait for the last notes before rising to their feet with applause, which, of course, is a fantastic experience for a performer. After one such concert, a very elderly gentleman came over to speak to me and said: “I loved the way you played Un Sospiro”. I asked if he knew much about piano playing, to which he replied: “Only a little. I studied composition under Arnold Schoenberg at New York University, and also with George Gershwin.” Such discerning listeners could be frequently found on cruises at this time.
One of the most challenging features of ship life is the perpetual rocking motion. There were many recitals where I worried whether I might actually make it to the end of the piece without rushing off stage and vomiting. Trying to concentrate when the keyboard is constantly moving is very difficult, and takes practice. I have fallen off the stool a couple of times and once, on the QE2, the piano casually slid away from me and off the stage! Luckily no one was hurt, and it is now a prerequisite on ships that pianos are clamped down. However, I only cancelled a handful of performances due to sea sickness in almost thirteen years of cruising.
Programming for a cruise ship audience is different from that of a traditional concert hall recital. In years gone by, it was possible to play obscure works. I used to juxtapose a Beethoven Sonata and Bartók’s Allegro Barbaro with works by Arthur Bliss and Oliver Knussen. In keeping with changing trends, more recently, a classical pianist working on the high seas must include only very famous and generally short pieces in order to keep the audience’s attention. Favourites such as Chopin’s Waltzes or Polonaises are interspersed with some George Gershwin and Scott Joplin.
Chatting to your audience with a microphone is not something a classical pianist is necessarily accustomed to doing. Unlike the traditional classical concert, where speaking is not encouraged, guest entertainers need to establish a rapport with their listeners. The ‘patter’, as it is known, is essential, and will make or break a performance. A light-hearted mixture of stories and anecdotes, combined with the odd joke, usually sufficed.
A particularly memorable experience was when I performed on the ship Asuka II, a five-star cruise line for Japanese speaking guests only. I flew to Cairns in Australia to join the ship. Only the cruise director spoke English. The piano was tuned to perfection, the audience was totally absorbed in the music and after I had introduced each piece a small Japanese man in a white military suit appeared onstage and translated everything. At the end of the contract I was handed a DVD of my performances along with a box of chocolates as a thank you, as I had apparently achieved the highest rating of any western act that had ever performed on the ship. That is another difficult aspect of a guest entertainer’s life. All acts are constantly scored by passengers and cruise directors. Get a low score, and you will not be rebooked.
Audience participation, while appreciated, could be a hazard. Snoring was heard on occasions, as well as a Captain’s announcements. Once, a passenger asked his wife the obvious question: “What did you think of that Haydn sonata?” She replied, for all to hear: “Well it was pretty inoffensive, dear.” Living with your audience is something that a guest entertainer comes to terms with quickly, along with the inevitable jibes and barbed comments.
A guest entertainer’s life can be hard work. Some cruise lines demand six different forty-five minute recitals per two-week cruise. Most concerts will be performed twice, to accommodate two dinner sittings, therefore totalling twelve recitals, all of which should ideally be played from memory. If a contract is short then only a couple of concerts will be required. Practising is not easy. Occasionally a keyboard will be provided in the cabin, but usually the only time to practice will be in the theatre at seven o’clock in the morning when nobody else is around.
There is no doubt that a guest entertainer’s job is a glamorous one. I owned at least fifteen concert gowns and many pairs of sparkly shoes. However, my dresses had to be squeezed into a small suitcase complying with the twenty-three kilogram allowance on aeroplanes, no easy feat! There is something worse than having crumpled gowns though; having nothing to wear at all. This is what happens when an airline loses your luggage, the then you have to perform in dresses that don’t fit and belong to someone else.
Spending many hours on a plane was definitely one of the less attractive aspects of working on a ship. Ships dock in Southampton and other parts of the UK, but usually a flight was involved. One flight is fine but often there were two or three in a row. I have flown to Australia and back for a three-day cruise so jet lag is inevitable. Many a time I have missed a connection, only to spend an extra night in a hotel and continue flying the following day.
Throughout my career on the high seas there have been so many highlights, which makes it difficult to choose the ultimate memory. I have enjoyed glaciers in Alaska, the Pyramids in Cairo, golden beaches in the Seychelles, transits through the Panama Canal and visiting Alcatraz in San Francisco. I have loved hearing Norwegian pianists play Grieg at the composer’s house in Bergen on a Norwegian fjord cruise, my favourite cruise of all because the scenery is so breathtaking, and waking up at five o’clock in the morning to enjoy Hong Kong’s sensational harbour.
My most treasured memory happened on one of the most iconic and largest ships, Cunard’s QM2. The theatre on this ship is huge, it seats well over a thousand people, and it is a fabulous place to work. I had spent five weeks on the QE2 and then the QM2, as part of their world cruise tours. One very early morning, I remember both ships were due to dock at the same time in Sydney harbour. Sydney had never experienced the two ‘Queens’ docked together, and as the liners pulled simultaneously, in the whole harbour seemed to explode. From my position high up on deck fifteen, all I could see were thousands of people lining the shores. I counted at least thirty helicopters overhead, hundreds of small boats with streamers all around us and television crews filming this historic occasion. We were on Australian television all day, it can only be described as fantastic and I felt so privileged to be part of this celebration.
As a young student at the Royal College of Music, I could never have guessed I would have this stunning opportunity to travel the world.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
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