You don’t automatically link the live performance of classical music with the scourge of drug and alcohol dependence. But watch Channel 4’s remarkable one-off documentary Addicts’ Symphony and your perceptions might be altered.
The programme chronicles the attempts of ten musicians whose lives have been blighted by addiction to get themselves sufficiently up to scratch to play with the London Symphony Orchestra. Not just to slip into a studio and swap a few furtive notes with those virtuosi. No, the aim is to perform, as an ensemble, live on stage with the LSO.
Listen in particular to the testimony of a highly talented young cellist called Rachael Lander and you might even come to regard a Mahler score as a dangerous substance. Some years ago she was ground to a halt by the massive amounts of vodka required to medicate her panic attacks in the concert hall. She felt she had no choice but to leave the profession and her CV became, in her own words: drunken waitress, aged 23.
What’s the problem, I ask. What is the nature of the terror in this joyful business of making music? Why does it drive people to seek relief in a poison that does more harm than the condition it seems to treat?
Lander smiles ruefully and says: “That might be my lifelong journey, to know what it is that I’ve been avoiding. I remember being in the National Youth Orchestra as a teenager, and we were doing the BBC Proms. I had this overpowering feeling of not being able to move in the way I wanted to – I felt trapped. I couldn’t cope with the adrenaline, and I felt myself tipping into panic attacks.
“When I drank, these attacks stopped. I also took valium and beta-blockers. So you could block the adrenal gland and still hang on to your mental capacity. The valium was great because… because I didn’t really have to be in the room.”
It would be good to say that Lander’s problems have been dispelled, that seven years of abstinence, marriage to Rob, an internet consultant who has been in recovery for the same time, and now a baby on the way, have cured her for good. It might also be wrong.
Three years ago, Lander had another episode. She was preparing to play in an opera. She woke full of fear, but made herself drive to the venue. She put her performing dress on, felt the adrenaline rising in waves, and started to hyperventilate, her hands seizing up, the bow dropping from her grasp.
“I thought my career was over,” she says, “but the principal cello was understanding and just said, ‘Don’t worry, it happens to everyone.’”
Nor is recourse to debilitating props uncommon. A couple of years ago, Lander wrote a blog post about her drinking and she still receives emails form musicians of all ages and calibres who worry about theirs.
“Addiction problems are widespread among classical musicians, for many reasons,” says Lander. “There is a lifestyle, the odd hours, working weekends, post-concert socializing. Many players use alcohol and beta-blockers to control their performance anxiety and then, after the ‘high’ of the a performance, musicians can struggle to ‘come down’ and therefore drink to relax – it becomes habitual.”
So what was it that made Lander and the others in the group take part in the programme? There are as many answers as there are players/addicts. A synthesis of the group’s motives would run something like this: we loved music and the playing of it. It touched and moved us at a deeper level than (almost) anything else. We became unable to perform without drugs or drink. For a while these things helped, but they exacted a dreadful price. Getting through a performance sober is huge.
The other reason for the creation of the Addicts’ Orchestra is the saddest. It involves the death of the son of the orchestra’s founder, James McConnel, himself a former alcoholic. Freddy, a gifted songwriter, was just 18 when he died of a heroin overdose in 2011. His death became public property because one of his friends and fellow users was Peaches Geldof. Freddy wrote about his addiction in a series of moving diary entries: “The heroin has reached my stomach and I feel sick. It no longer gives me freedom or enjoyment such as it did before… music, my family and by extension love are all that keep me going at all. I feel lost, a passenger at an empty station.”
And there you have it, out of the mouths of babes, the whole cycle of fixing and failing, all in the most shocking compression.