Joining Anthony Hewitt on (one bit of) his Land's End to John O'Groats concert tour
Readers may recall I have form when it comes to combining music with another of my great passions, cycling, having once written a piece about retracing Elgar's cycling routes around the Malvern Hills.
Which is why I find myself on a Friday morning riding into drizzle and a chilly breeze in the company of Anthony Hewitt, the self-styled Olympianist. He's currently cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats in 21 days, performing a concert every evening. It brings a whole new meaning to suffering for your art, not least when you throw in the hail and headwinds which greeted him throughout part of the first week. Sometimes he's performing a more traditional concert, such as with the Manchester Camerata, at other times he's performing in market squares, playing a piano being carried by his support truck - his BeethoVan.
I've joined him on the leg that leads to Clitheroe, a pretty hilltop town above the Ribble Valley. After an initial stretch of urban riding we find ourselves riding up into some beautiful scenic countryside. On the horizon there's an impressive hill, topped by a small monument. 'Don't worry' Hewitt says, consulting his map, 'we're not going up there.' Half an hour later, the green fields dropping away to either side, we realise we are. 'You're never quite sure when you've reached the top' I say, as I think we've reached the summit, only to round a bend and find the gradient kicking up again. 'Just like a musical phrase,' replies Hewitt, before going on to draw a neat analogy between the two. We then try to develop a similar parallel with cadence, but give up music/cycling analogies as the road begins to fall away again, and the rushing wind makes conversation difficult. I realise this is a new experience for me: the first time I've conducted an interview on a bike. At 25mph. Wearing Lycra. With passing fields of cows as an audience.
Hewitt obviously takes his cycling seriously, and a little later on we reflect on the links between the mental and physical dedication required for both professional performance and endurance sport. There's another aspect to the tour too - he's raising money for a number of charities which help children and the disadvantaged benefit from life-enhancing access to music and music-making.
We arrive into Clitheroe on time, an uphill sprint to the Norman castle where the mayor and representatives of the town's vibrant Concerts Society greet Hewitt, before he heads off to put in a couple of hours practice, while I, er, head to the Camra beer festival.
The evening's concert, at the stylish Grand venue, is delightful, the attentive audience's goodwill met with playing - Schubert, Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt, Scriabin - which would be impressive even were it not for the fact the pianist had just reached the halfway point of a 1200 mile ride. And one final music/cycling link. Hewitt commissioned composer Stephen Goss to write a cycling-themed work for the tour. Called Piano Cycle, its premiere is the following day at the Swaledale Festival, but we get a sneak preview trial run of a couple of movements tonight. One, 'Velodrome', depicts the circular motion of pedals and laps of the track, the musical instruction: 'play hell-for-leather'. Another develops the fugue subject from Beethoven's Op 110 Sonata into a rich texture - before coming to a halt in a final dying chord depicting a puncture, fading to silence. Its title? 'A flat'.
You can follow Anthony Hewitt's progress - and find out more about the charities he's supporting - at olympianist.com
Martin Cullingford is editor of Gramophone - brought up in Britten country on the Suffolk coast, when not practising the guitar he can often be found enjoying Evensong.