When I asked the Really Terrible Orchestra’s assistant concertmaster what they would be playing in the Fringe concert this year, she said she had no idea.
Bear in mind that this was about two hours before kick-off, in St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, where a full house of almost 800 was gathering to hear the world’s worst musicians in their annual festival outing.
It is well known among RTO regulars that several members of the Edinburgh-based orchestra attend concerts but not rehearsals, one of the many quirks that give this outfit its unique sound.
Another is that mastery of a musical instrument is not essential – in fact, ability is a disadvantage, as the RTO’s co-founder and baritone saxophone, Alexander McCall Smith, explained to a bewildered audience on Saturday afternoon.
Every year the festival show is a sell-out, which proves there is a demand for very bad music.
‘People think we’re not trying but we really are,’ said the best-selling author (and Scottish Field columnist).
Anyone who gets too good is kicked out, or is made to switch to another instrument, in line with RTO policy, although such cases are rare.
There is natural attrition, however, and McCall Smith announced that the orchestra was currently recruiting: ‘If any of you feel you’d like to play, you may join us during the concert,’ he said.
And so it began, under the distinguished baton of Sir Richard Neville Towle, with Go West, a ‘rousing medley of Western film themes’, setting the tone for what was to follow.
Identifying a familiar tune was not completely impossible, given the sprinkling of guest players among the ranks of the RTOers.
But rumours that standards had improved – after attempts to institute a practice regime – were way off the mark and the orchestra more than met the expectations of the crowd, one of whom was heard to remark to her husband, ‘it’s very fashionable to come to this’.
It must be because, suddenly, heralded by what could have been (hard to be sure) the former Today show theme tune, James Naughtie appeared in the pulpit to deliver ‘the speech’.
‘The speech’ is a fixture of RTO concerts, inserted when the orchestra was launched more than 20 years ago to offer the public welcome respite from the music.
Naughtie, who rubs shoulders with classical music’s greats and has presided over equally notable musical evenings, such as the Proms, seemed to have the measure of this band.
‘It’s only a matter of time before they open the festival – then it would be the only occasion you’d have the opening and closing concerts at the same time,’ he said.
And with the warning that ‘there are no bad orchestras, only bad conductors’, he introduced that fine actor, and Wagnerian, Simon Callow to direct the Ride of the Valkyries.
Callow said he had only accepted the challenge when the orchestra presented him with one of Wagner’s own batons. In preparation, he had been at the Usher Hall the previous night to listen to Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra and pick up a few tips from the maestro.
These clearly hadn’t sunk in by Saturday afternoon and Callow’s arm waving and facial contortions were likened by one second violin to his performance in Four Weddings and a Funeral, just at the moment when his character Gareth has a fatal heart attack.
Callow brought the Valkyries to an abrupt halt after barely two minutes, ‘on behalf of Richard Wagner’. He said, uncharitably, that the musicians sounded like they were playing the BBC’s latest Proms commission but on this form the thespian is a natural fit for the Terribles.
The RTO, which had a one-hour slot in the cathedral, was struggling to complete its programme so Sir Richard gave the players a choice between another Western score, the Big Country, or Sibelius’s Finlandia.
The majority opted for Sibelius, while McCall Smith won some support for doing both pieces at the same time. In the end, it was difficult to make out which decision prevailed in a finale that is probably best described as unforgettable.
In all, entertainment that never failed to miss the spot – a truly terrible five star triumph.
Read more about the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scottish Field HERE.