Outside Edge: Sabine Durrant on a pair who arrange outdoor music concerts

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The Independent Culture
SALLY SMITH is a giggly, self-confessed music snob from Cheshire. She says 'awfully' a lot and squeaks 'Oh God, help]' when you ask her a question. Graham Wilkinson from Huddersfield is more deadpan and has not always had much truck with classical music. 'The closest I got at school was the triangle,' he says. 'They wouldn't even let me on the tambourine.' And, he adds: 'The most exciting thing that's happened since I've met Sally is the time she bought a round a drinks.'

Smith and Wilkinson make an odd pair. Smith, or 'Aunt Sally' as Wilkinson calls her, is a former pianist ('I'm awfully out of practice') who runs outdoor music concerts in the grounds of stately homes. Forty-two nights a year, her husband, Nicholas Smith, conducts the Performing Arts Symphony Orchestra - a bunch of freelance musicians from Manchester - through a run of popular classics (the William Tell Overture, the Coronation March, Ravel's Bolero, the 1812 - 'We're absolutely and vulgarly jumping on the pop band wagon' - before a mesmerised crowd of about 8,000. Those are the bigs one. They also do intimate soirees for restricted numbers: 'Oh, say 3,000,' says Smith.

The crammed car-parks and the queues outside the Portaloos are, according to Smith, largely thanks to Classic FM. But they could also be placed at the door of Graham Wilkinson. In the world of the outdoor concert, Wilkinson is king. He is Mr Light Fantastic, as well as Rocket Man: he is Display Designer at Standard Fireworks.

Every year, the music snob and the firework planner sit down and settle a pile of old scores. They dissect the music into 'time passages' - picking out quiet moments for lasers and 'pretties' and loud sections for rockets and showers - with Smith humming and wishing for 'fizzy wizzy bits' and Wilkinson talking about salvoes and firing boxes and saying things like 'What we need here is a blue to crackling gold aerial shellburst,' or 'How about a report effect?' Later, after rehearsals, they add the cues. 'We work backwards,' says Wilkinson, 'sorting out in seconds the time it takes each firework to reach its bursting point. It's very difficult to be accurate with a rocket because the fusing can be erratic. That's why we prefer mortar shells. You can be pretty close with mortars.'

They also take into account the delay in the relay. On the night, Smith - 'usually in my rainhat' - stands at the side of the stage, watching the conductor, and yells 'Fire' - sometimes 14 times in one piece - into a walkie-talkie. 'The firing board thing can be some distance away - the other side of the house or the lake,' she explains. 'So when I shout 'fire one', or 'fire two' or whatever, I have to take that into consideration. It's terribly complicated. It can be absolutely ghastly. I can't tell you how dreadful it is when it goes wrong. When there's one that doesn't take and then staggers up two minutes after the The Great Gate of Kiev has finished. Awful, awful.'

When it works, though, emotions run sky high. 'We all jump up and down and hug each other,' says Smith. She's even been known to buy a round of drinks.

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