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The rehearsals and the concerts

Royal Albert Hall, September 24-26, 1999

© Bruce Payne

Could you describe the period leading up to the RAH concerts, and the week of rehearsals? 

On the evening of Sunday September 19th 1999, I arrived at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge, London, to find a message from Ian Gillan on my bedside table thing – although not in Spanish - asking if I’d like to join him in the bar, where he was having a few drinks with his friends. The following morning, therefore, is largely memorable for a fierce hangover, and for the fact that when Jon Lord arrived at 9am with the completed Concerto parts, some of them had been printed back to front. This momentous week auspiciously began with composer and hungover conductor wandering the rain-soaked streets of London in search of a photocopying shop, and then glamorously driving to the offices of the LSO to deliver the music in person. 

By the end of the afternoon, however, things – including my head - were already improving considerably. We started to assemble in the small studio in Putney, which was to be our home for the next four intense days of rehearsal, during which I did my best to impersonate the orchestra on the piano, while the band got to grips with everything else. Their chemistry is such that a great deal was achieved within this relatively short space of time, in an immensely constructive and positive atmosphere with lots of serious work but plenty of laughs along the way. (Lighter moments included coming out of the studio one evening to find our van blocked in by a car, which Messrs Gillan, Glover and Morse bodily moved aside so that we could drive away. I’d love to know what the owner thought when he came back to find his car standing a few inches to the left of where he’d parked it. There was also the delightful moment when we momentarily stopped the rehearsal to watch Deep Purple performing Black Night in 1970 on the BBC’s TOTP2 programme. The voiceover at the end earned himself a sarcastic round of applause with the comment “wonder what they look like now?”) 

By the time we reached the Albert Hall on the Friday it was clear that something special was about to be unleashed. I will never forget the frisson in the air as the opening bars of the Concerto floated around that huge empty space, thirty years to the day since they had first done so. 

In retrospect, it is extraordinary how well it all came together, especially considering that the planning process started only around five or six months ahead of time. The availability at such short notice of the LSO, the Albert Hall, and all the guest performers – not to mention a certain conductor who had grown up listening to the Concerto – still seems an amazing piece of synchronicity, especially on that particular 30th anniversary weekend. Things did get very close to the wire – the orchestral parts of Smoke on the Water and Pictured Within were still being printed the evening before the first rehearsal – but it was almost as if some benign deity was watching over us, and nothing so mean as simple practicalities would be allowed get in our way!

How was the content of the concerts chosen? 

This evolved gradually as a result of discussions among the band members at different times during the later stages of the Abandon tour. One of the first ideas had been to incorporate something from everyone’s solo work, although the original plan had been to play this in the second half, after the Concerto. This was rethought quite late in the day, giving, I think, a much better overall shape to the concert. 

What was the LSO’s attitude to the project, and to the band?  How did they compare with the RPO in 1969?  Did any of the musicians play in both concerts? 

At 3pm on Friday 24th September, the musicians of the LSO arrived at the Albert Hall for the first rehearsal, having flown in from a tour of Europe only twelve hours before. I’m sure that, with six hours’ work ahead, at least some of them would rather have been catching up on some sleep, but their attitude couldn’t have been more positive.  They are a special orchestra – not only one of the world’s greatest, but also one of the best-natured, and their wholehearted commitment was everywhere in evidence - check out all the smiling faces on the video, the gentleman in the first violins tapping his feet to Ted the Mechanic, or the entire double bass section singing along to Smoke on the Water, not to mention the simply sensational performance of the Concerto.  

A number of other instances revealed the orchestra’s respect and affection for the band. For example, one of the violinists was brought up in Soviet Russia, during a period where merely owning a Deep Purple album was enough to land you in jail.  During a rehearsal break, he asked if he could have a photograph taken of himself with the band – something that obviously meant a great deal to him. Many other musicians brought albums to be signed, and the entire percussion section visited Ian Paice in the dressing room for autographs. 

The orchestra also had considerable respect for Jon as a composer - I don’t think they were expecting the Concerto itself to be so skilfully composed, or so enjoyable to play. They took pleasure in the sheer range of the concert, from the subtlest moments to the wild free-for-all of Smoke on the Water. Just for those few special days, the normal demarcations of musical ‘territory’ didn’t apply – it was just great musicians responding to great musicians. 

I seem to recall that the whole rhythm section from the orchestra went to see Ian Paice en masse after one of the rehearsals to get his autograph. Of all the musicians in all the seven orchestras we played the concerto with on the ensuing, I'd say a considerable majority of them brought in albums to sign, or asked to have photos taken with members of the band. The rest were probably too shy to ask.

All this was a long way from the moment thirty years before when a cellist tried to walk out of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s rehearsal saying that she hadn’t joined the RPO to play with “a bunch of third-rate Beatles”. Back then, there was an innate prejudice on the part of the orchestra against playing with any kind of rock band, especially one as young and relatively unknown as Deep Purple. This made for a clash of personalities, the consequences of which are clearly audible in a performance which can best be described as approximate, the strings in particular barely make any kind of effort to negotiate some of the difficult passagework. (Something to this effect was mentioned during the Putney rehearsals in 1999, and Steve Morse suddenly looked upset:  “But I spent hours rehearsing them”, he said.) 

I think it was a viola player from the LSO who came up to Jon during a break in the 1999 rehearsals, with a copy of the original album to be signed. He was visible on one of the photographs on the inside of the sleeve.  There may have been a couple of others who were there on both occasions – there was certainly talk of this – but no one seemed very sure!  Maybe they just didn’t want to admit it! 

Who did the orchestrations? 

The credits are as follows: Jon Lord orchestrated Pictured Within, Wait a While, and, of course, the Concerto. Graham Preskett did the orchestrations of Sitting in a Dream, Love is All, and Night Meets Light. Sally Herbert orchestrated all the band songs. 

From which show is the audio recording taken? Why does neither the DVD nor the CD contain the complete concert?

The video omissions are the result of a Musicians’ Union rule, restricting filming to a maximum of two hours in any three-hour session. Since this remains in effect whenever the orchestra are on the platform, regardless of whether they are actually playing, it would have been financially impossible to film the entire concert. Some difficult decisions had therefore to be made about what to drop. I understand, and share the frustration of fans at the missing material, but this was something outside our control. 

(Incidentally, a similar issue was behind our not leaving the stage before Smoke on the Water on the first night.  If the length of the concert had exceeded three hours, we would have incurred huge overtime costs, but since the first show ended a minute or two inside the deadline, we figured we could afford to do a ‘false tabs’ before Smoke on the second night, thereby avoiding any more confusion over encores!) 

Regarding the CD set, it seems that the record company took a decision to omit Night Meets Light in favour of adding the video track of Smoke on the Water, an unnecessary move in my view, since the VHS and DVD appeared at more or less the same time. Night Meets Light was restored for the limited edition CD issued to coincide with the European tour, but this was not available in every country.  I know that Steve was disappointed at its exclusion from the main release, as was I – this was one of the most effective, as well as – with its complex metrical structure - one of the most challenging pieces in the concert. 

Regarding the Arnold piece, with which the evening opened, I guess this was considered too straightforwardly classical for the purposes of the CD release. However, it was recorded, so maybe it’ll turn up eventually – probably on the thirtieth anniversary remaster, sometime in 2029! 

As far as I know, the content of the CD is substantially that of the second show, certainly in the case of the Concerto. My first thought when we mixed the album was to make a composite edit of the best things from both Concerto performances, but it quickly became clear that this would cause too many problems, the most serious of which was that it would have been virtually impossible to synchronise an edited version in both sound and vision. Since we all agreed that the second performance was the better of the two, (and of course, the only one to be filmed), we decided to use that in its entirety, with only a couple of minor drop-ins for things such as a missing timpani roll in the second movement. The rest was left intact, maintaining the sense and spirit of a once-only occasion. For me, this is one of the strengths of the recording; it feels very ‘live’, and captures the atmosphere of the shows very effectively.  The last movement of the Concerto, in particular, is real edge-of-the-seat stuff; until I heard the playbacks, I hadn’t realised just how fast and furious it had been on the night.  I never drove it quite that hard in any of the subsequent performances! 

What did Sir Malcolm Arnold think of the new Concerto? 

Sir Malcolm is one of the great figures of English music, I think, and his bringing together of the whole thing in ’69 was nothing short of a miracle against all the odds of a hostile, unco-operative orchestra, and a severe shortage of rehearsal time. It seemed entirely appropriate to open the 1999 concert with his Four Scottish Dances, a work in the light classical style, of which he is a master. [For those who have asked about a recording, there is a fine and inexpensive one available on the Naxos label: by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Penny: Naxos, 8.553526.

I know that Jon kept in touch with Sir Malcolm prior to the shows, and naturally invited him to be with us. Poor health kept him away in the end, though, much to his own regret. The revised score of the Concerto is dedicated to him, and of course he was sent a copy of the recording when it appeared. Unfortunately, recurrent illness has made more regular contact with him difficult, and we still don’t really know what he made of it all. 

In Jon’s words, “May God bless him and warm the cockles of his generous heart!”


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