Last Tuesday’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall with Sir Simon Rattle was always going to be a busy night. Not only was it Sir Simon, which always brings a frisson of excitement, but we had a sold-out Royal Festival Hall, which while fantastic, is always a little stressful. We also had a plethora of different receptions going on around the venue for the various people who had supported our Silver Appeal and for our sponsors, Commerzbank. At the last moment though, an additional complication was thrown into the mix.

As you might have read previously on the blog we knew that Madonna liked the Labèque sisters, so we really did send an invite to her. Of course we didn’t think for a minute she would actually come. The day before the concert our Intern, Georgina, received a mysterious call from someone needing to make special arrangements for a VIP. They had previously been in contact with our Projects Director, Ceri, but she was now in the air en route to Dublin. So Georgina took down all the details and requests of the mysterious VIP without actually knowing who it was. Ceri was uncontactable for the next 2 hours – cue feverish speculation in  the OAE office.

As soon as Ceri landed Georgina called her. It was indeed the Queen of Pop Madonna. To use teen speak, everyone was a bit OMG.

Well, I say everyone, but we were all a bit cloak and dagger about it – it had to be kept quiet, because, after all, even Madonna wants a quiet night out every now and then, and we didn’t want all and sundry to know otherwise it would be all over Twitter. So only a few people were told – and even then we decided to adopt a code name of ‘Cottontail’.

This is where I should admit I am the WORST possible person at keeping a secret and I *may* have told a couple of friends, both of whom promptly decided they were HUGE fans of Mozart and Haydn and were suddenly desperate to come to the concert…(even my Mum and Dad, not known to be massive fans of Madonna were I think, secretly, a little bit curious).

Anyway, the 21st dawned and at 4.30pm we met up with Madonna’s security man to go through arrangements for her visit. This was more complicated than you might imagine. First of course, she wasn’t arriving on the tube, so we had to find a discreet way for her to arrive by car and come straight into the hall. Then came the small issue of where she was to sit. A box is more private, but the stalls better for sound. After much debate we decided that we’d go for stalls. At this point it seemed clear that I was going to be the main chaperone – as I happened to be sitting in the seat over the aisle from Madonna. This was scary, yet pretty damn exciting too. Her security had to sit behind me, and I was instructed that a tap on the shoulder meant that we had to leave immediately!

We went through all the various scenarios for entering and leaving the hall, the route backstage to see the Labèques etc. Timing was an issue – the concert was due to start at 7pm sharp, and was being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. Madonna was intending to arrive at about 6.59pm. We had to politely explain that the concert was going to start on time, no matter what!

So, by this time I was feeling a trifle nervous – after all one doesn’t expect to be looking after the world’s most famous popstar when you work for a period instrument orchestra.

6.45pm saw me plus colleagues Ceri and Georgina in the depths of the Royal Festival Hall waiting for the car to arrive. We had been told that I would get a text from the driver when they were five minutes away. So we waited. And waited. And waited some more. During this time I started pacing. As time went on my pacing became more energetic. It turns out that the car was held up in traffic, so the start of the concert was missed. Now there was an opportunity after the first piece to get in, after about 20 minutes, so Madonna really had to arrive by then, otherwise she would miss her friends, the Labèques and the whole point of coming to the concert. I continued pacing.

I paced some more.

And more.

By 7.15pm my pacing had reached epic proportions as I imagined saying to Madonna ‘No, I’m afraid you can’t come in, you’ll just have to go home’…

By 7.16pm Ceri was at boiling point and said in a forceful but restrained way ‘Will, will you *PLEASE* stop pacing, it’s driving me insane…’

At about the same time we get a text saying that Madonna is 5 minutes away. It’s down to the wire, with the second piece about to start around 7.25. The car rolls in and Madonna, a friend and her security get out. We stroll (rather slowly for my taste) to the lift and make our way up, with frantic text messages being exchanged between myself and our Event Producer from Southbank Centre, Christina, as to our progress. The lift takes what seems like 4 years to reach the 4th floor and we stroll out. It was a surreal lift journey, with three OAE staff one side of the lift, and Madonna, friend and security the other, and with only a small ‘hi’ being exchanged between us.

We’re just in time, Madonna enters the hall just as the applause starts for the Labèques entry onto the stage. Last obstacle being that there seemed to be two people sitting in her seats. I asked, in the politest possible way, if they could move, like NOW, and luckily they did, Madonna was seated and I sat down, a big ball of nerves and sweat (nice).

I tried as much as possible to enjoy the piece but couldn’t resist the odd glance over at Madonna, who was, rather incongruously, reading the OAE programme I had given her.

Come the interval we took Madonna backstage, making our way past OAE musicians to get to the Labeque Sisters’ dressing room. I desperately wanted to say ‘look, it’s Madonna!’, but the players didn’t know she was coming and didn’t seem to register her. After some time spent catching up with her friends backstage it was time for her to leave, so we went back out to the car and she was gone… The whole thing had been less than an hour but had possibly been one of the most stressful experiences of my six years at the OAE.

Of course, it *was* pretty cool, and made for a pretty awesome Facebook status update the next day… (and the next. And the day after that too).

Madonna – if you’re out there reading this, thanks for coming, do come back and don’t forget that I expect the free tickets to be reciprocated some time…(please?)

William Norris, Communications Director