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Miss Sarajevo - Eno, Bono, the Edge and Pavarotti

It is an interesting fact that lots of successful rock artists of the sixties and seventies were art students either at art college or university, not least amongst whom were John Lennon, Joe Strummer, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Bryan Ferry. One of the reasons for this is that in those days the only way of studying music as further education was to be a classical musician. Almost all of the classical musicians I have ever met have a big gap in their musical adolescence. Where the soundtracks to the average person's teen years were rock and soul, my friends who went to music college had barely listened to the Stones or the Beatles let alone even heard of the likes of Van Morrison or Otis Redding, the Byrds or Aretha Franklin. It's only in the last thirty years that music colleges have noticed that music forms other than classical have existed from the time of Jazz onward. So the place to study and meet like minds was art college.

In 1970, in an ironic variation on this theme, students at Portsmouth School of Art staged a concert of classical music performed by an orchestra comprising arts students rather than musicians. The prerequisite of being a performer was that they hadn't had any musical training on their specific instrument. As an art installation, the performance was a great success, and like all successful art installations, they elected to tour it. In the end, the orchestra kept on touring and performing as the Portsmouth Sinfonia for the following decade, even once appearing at the Royal Albert Hall. I always thought their point was that if you put passion into the playing, this would show through. It also cheerily challenged many other conventions about classical music along the way with often hilarious results: for example the excruciating moment when the trumpeter misses the high note in their recording of Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra" and the way they make the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from the Nutcracker Suite sound like the soundtrack of a sequel to Hitchcock's "Psycho" - both on the album "Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics".

Back in 1971, Pete Radmall (see last post) as a student at Portsmouth somehow wound up being their Assistant Touring Manager on a national tour where they appeared as support to Roxy Music. This unlikely situation came about because Brian Eno, Roxy's then synthesizer player, was also a member of the Sinfonia. (He played clarinet for the Sinfonia, an instrument with which he was unfamiliar!) Word got around that the support was a bit artistic, and one night an enterprising punter had the idea of selling large quantities of past-sell-by-date eggs and tomatoes to punters on the way into the gig for the sole purpose of hurling them at the orchestra.This was an amusing idea and soon the artist/musicians were performing in an unrelenting blizzard of turning eggs and very ripe tomatoes, so much so that the conductor's jacket was coated red and white rather than its original majestic Prussian blue. This could have been merely all part of the artistic experience for the performers if it wasn't for the fact that the sound technicians and Roxy drummer Paul Thompson began to fear for their kit which was already set up, as is usually the case, on stage behind the Sinfonia, ready for the headline act. Between numbers, the chief techie nipped out onstage to inform the conductor that the concert had to finish "now" for the sake of the kit, but the conductor replied that this was out of the question and that they had a contract and were going to finish the gig come what may. They remonstrated for a short while, until the techie, on the receiving end of much of the continuing barrage from an enthusiastic audience who were having a whale of a time, gave up and retreated. The orchestra then launched into Rossini's William Tell Overture while at the same time the Roxy Tour Manager ordered the two roadies to get the Sinfonia offstage. The players, determined to continue, were removed one by one by the roadies. The latter acted in concert, as it were, taking a side of each of the performers' chairs and carrying them off, methodically working through the orchestra, beginning with the woodwind, moving on to the brass section and so on, leaving a commandeered bouncer to deal with the percussion section and a rather large tuba player. Attempts to remove the conductor proved complicated as he had once represented his public school rugby team at fly half, and was able to side step and dodge his pursuers with ease while continuing to conduct with gusto, leaving them slipping over and falling on their pants on the by now sodden stage floor, like a cavalcade of circus clowns, much to the rapture of the audience. All three together tackled the last remaining instrumentalist, the double bass, who's determined, not-quite-in-tempo rendering of the Lone Ranger theme faded defiantly as he was borne aloft through the backstage fire exit. The conductor, still clutching his baton but with no-one left to conduct and looking like a man who had been for a swim in a vat of raspberry ripple, turned to the audience and delivered a solemn bow, before walking off with dignity, his held held high, to a standing ovation.

Later, after leaving Roxy Music, Eno produced two of the Portsmouth Sinfonia's albums, but it took him another twenty years to perform with further classical elite, when he and U2 combined to pen Miss Sarajevo and invited Luciano Pavarotti to join them in performing it. The song was designed to draw attention to "Miss Sarajevo", a documentary film by Bill Carter that highlighted the attempts of the people of Sarajevo to carry on with their normal lives while under a three and a half year siege from Serbian forces. This was the longest city siege of the twentieth century. One of the most striking scenes from the film was a shot of contestants in a beauty pageant holding up a sign that said "Don't Let Them Kill Us". People often criticise the likes of Bono and Sting for sanctimoniously looking good through their support of worthy causes, but if today's music stars don't use their influence to lead the way, who will? Hats off to them, that's what I say, keep it up, even if they cop a few metaphorical rotten eggs and ripe tomatoes on the way.

And who can resist that combination of smooth, middle-aged rock royalty, a world class tenor, a good tune and moving lyrics? Even if we can't understand the words, maybe it's a sign of the times that the Italian lyrics are the ones that pull on our heartstrings the most.

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