Kathryn Harries - Soprano

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A snooze, a sing and a rant

A no walking day so I could get on with the programme and rehearse for the evening concert during the afternoon.
I was down for breakfast by nine and walked into a hive of industry in the kitchen. Joan was already preparing the meal for the evening with the help of Murray and her wonder-woman Rose. It was perfectly clear that this was not the first time they had entertained a very large number of people to dinner as the preparations were as smoothly oiled as a military machine. Actually, probably rather better…
Lorna joined us and after breakfast she and I accompanied Murray to the greenhouses where we picked tiny runner beans that would serve as a garnish on each dinner plate.
The garden was glorious in the summer sunshine and the long views in every direction were staggeringly beautiful. Serge Hill springs from the ground as if Nature had planted it there and it perfectly compliments and enhances the surrounding landscape. Many alterations have been made over the centuries but there is no disharmony in the whole. With tranquillity and grace it sits benignly regarding the world around it.
I returned to my room and typed out the programme that had been agreed on at breakfast; as usual I had too much music for the allotted time, so I asked Joan and Murray for their opinions and they made the final decision on what would be performed. As well as being extremely well-educated musically, as instrumentalists themselves they knew precisely what would go down well with their audience of invited guests.
The first of the artists to arrive was our brilliant accompanist, Gill Ford. She’d come straight to Serge Hill from Eton, where she teaches piano a day each week and she joined us for lunch outside. The table was tucked into a shady corner out of the stiff breeze and Kate and her husband, entrepreneur David Docherty were at the table as were Ibby, daughter of Elizabeth, the youngest of Joan and Murray’s six children, and Polly and Flora, Kate and David’s young daughters. The girls were all to be waitresses serving canapés to the guests as they arrived between 7.00 and 7.30pm.
After lunch, while Lorna put donation forms into concert shells, I rehearsed with Gill in the music room. We whipped through what I was singing in no time, so Gill went for a stroll in the gardens whilst I found my way to Kate’s office where David printed out seventy-five programmes for me. He’s a power house of achievement; as well as having had an extraordinary career in TV, he is a successful author and is now exercising his considerable entrepreneurial skills in the open market.
Downstairs the activity was fast and furious; Rose and Frances, Kate’s wonder-woman, were in full swing and three of their grandchildren, Holly, Hayley and Michael were poised to help. Joan and Elizabeth were at the table with Lorna, preparing strawberries for dessert. I was finished for the time being so went upstairs for a 40 minute pre-concert snooze.
Around 5pm, Nick Folwell and Sue Bickley arrived and we rehearsed the ensembles; Jill Phillips was later than she intended because of confusion over the directions she’d been given by Lorna – but after a cup of tea (the Great British Cure-all) she recovered and set to gathering information about the artists she would be introducing.
There was no sign of Adrian Thompson and as six o’clock came and went we became a little apprehensive – the M25 is notoriously bad in the rush hour –what a misnomer that is; who on earth is rushing anywhere?
To everyone’s relief, he arrived safe and sound at 6.40pm and after running through his arias with Gill, he joined Nick in the ‘boys’ dressing room to change while the ‘girls’ used my bedroom to get ready.
There was lots of gossip, giggling and catching up with news as we plastered on the Polyfilla and made ourselves presentable.
Guests began arriving at 7pm and we could hear the low murmur of voices as the assembly in the hall grew larger and more convivial.
The concert began just before 7.45pm and lasted until just after 9pm. Spot on, if I say so myself. The audience was most appreciative, though I suspect some were deafened in the comparatively small space. I know for a fact that one gentleman turned his hearing aid off during the singing and turned it on again when Jill was reading. This she did with her usual aplomb and from the adjoining smoking room, where we awaited our turn like patients waiting for the dentist, we could hear the audience laughing as she gave her two very funny readings.
We all sang rather well – and the ensembles were really very good. Murray thanked us at the end and said the concert had been like having their Desert Island Discs without the bother of having to be either castaway on a desert island or castaway at BBC Broadcasting House. The guests were told to check the seating plan and make their way to their allotted seats as dinner would shortly be served. While they found their places, I seized the opportunity to tidy up the music room, gathering together all the concert shells and donation forms that were lying on the seats or on the floor before going into the hall to join Murray and his guests for dinner. There were tables in the dining room, hall and sitting room and Rose, Frances and their grandchildren had lit the candles five minutes before the concert ended. Everything looked perfect and the meal was superb. Polly, Flora and Ibby, their duties done, appeared and disappeared like Titania’s fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream. And it was midsummer; the evening was still light and a soft, a luminescent glow lay over the garden and fields beyond. The deep gold of the grazing Jersey cattle across the ha-ha melted into the deeper green of the trees behind and in the distance, tiny pinpricks of light dotted the landscape like a carpet of fairy dust.
Back inside the house, the air was alive with chatter and laughter. I sat beside Murray and had most interesting and lively conversations with two of his long-standing friends.
Murray was a most eminent QC and highly regarded judge. Although retired, he has lost none of his brilliance and quickness (and wicked sense of humour) and I’m very, very glad that I never had to appear before him on the wrong side of the law. Justice would have always been well-served, but with his upright, impressive build and keen perception, he must have frightened the life out of any wrong-doer. What an incentive to be law-abiding.
And Joan is equally impressive; Kate told me a little about her and how, with six children in as many years, she ran Serge Hill like a general as well as supporting Murray in his career and involving herself in a colossal number of other activities, many of them charitable.
People like these should run the country; then we wouldn’t be in the bloody awful state we’re in now. One of the great pleasures of walking long distances is that you’re too tired to bother with newspapers and TV. It’s a great relief not to know what ghastliness is going on in the world, because most of the dreadful things we hear about on a daily basis are things we can do nothing about. So we constantly exist in a state of depression and stress, and feel powerless to change the way things are. And that, I suspect, is what politicians and media tycoons around the world intend; by keeping everyone permanently fearful about the next potential disaster (be it bird flu, asteroids, or foreign dictators) and by whittling quietly away at our little freedoms, they gain more and more control over us. We are now living Orwell’s 1984; there has been a sea-change and it’s not for the better.
Off the soap-box and back to the wonderful evening at Serge Hill; I met many charming and generous people who promised to support the Opera Walk and it was a marvellous way to bring the musical part of the Walk to a close.
One by one the musicians departed and as the audience drifted away – many of them clutching the CDs they’d bought from Lorna – peace fell over the house and we whispered our goodnights before making our various ways to bed. One more day to go. How extraordinary.

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