November 16, 2011 by Nathaniel Anderson-Frank
We're on the Eurostar at the moment, speeding back home to London through a heavy blanket of fog. This is the only way to travel - no traffic delays or tyre blowouts here.
Last night's concert at the Thèâtre des Champs-Elysées was an exciting one and in some ways the most challenging of the entire tour, at least for those of us playing on the first half. Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste is a brilliantly virtuosic work for double string orchestra plus piano, celeste, harp, timpani, and percussion. It's a proper 'roast-up' (to use my favourite new British-ism) for us all at the best of times, playing it for the first and only time on the ninth day of a tour presented additional challenges which the orchestra rose above and beyond, I think I may say. And all on live French radio. As a friend who attended the concert said afterward, 'great band!'.
The interval provided some well-earned fortification, fine Parisian chocolates compliments of our hosts at the Thèâtre. It's a tradition for us here apparently – one which I could get dangerously used to!
The second half featured our final concert performance of Bluebeard's Castle. This one had an added element of spice provided by the narrator, Carole Bouquet, longtime Chanel model and sometime Bond girl (For Your Eyes Only). Your blogger's attempt at a photograph with this stunning star was foiled by the gaggle of autograph-seekers after the show. I was, however, lucky enough to finally snap one with Michelle! The reception to this Bluebeard was particularly enthusiastic and when we finally walked off stage it was to the sound of the capacity crowd still clapping in rhythmic unison.
Last night marked the conclusion of the Philharmonia's Infernal Dance series. I know I speak on behalf of my colleagues in saying that it's been an incredible opportunity to perform this music with Esa-Pekka. Working on a project of this magnitude provides in the space of ten months a scope and perspective on Bartok's oeuvre that might otherwise take ten years for a player or orchestra to build up. When you play all these great works alongside each other – the three piano concertos, the Second Violin Concerto, the Concerto for Orchestra, Bluebeard's Castle, plus assorted other pieces – specific musical gestures begin to take on a greater dialectic sense. Whether it's particular instrumental pairings Bartok uses or the development of his stylistic idiom across the decades, you as a player feel like you are witnessing some private, or at least encoded, compositional narrative. If you've been in the audience for these Infernal Dance concerts perhaps you've also felt this too. That is the great advantage of performing cycles and retrospectives, be it Mahler or Bartok. What a privilege to have been part of both, and all within my first Philharmonia year.
As this is also my final post in this blog, I'd like to give a special mention to the team that has kept it all running this tour: Rosemary, Roy, Steve, Holly, and Per. Without their hard work and the efforts of a great many others back in the London office, we'd be a bunch of musicians just looking for somewhere to play.
It's been a new and unusual thing for both Amy and me, as complete blog newbies, to write this. We hope you've enjoyed the glimpses of what we get up to here in the Philharmonia, although I reckon we've enjoyed ourselves even more in the getting-up-to-it! We're signing off now but check back in early 2012 for a new instalment of Philharmonia Orchestra life.
November 15, 2011 by Amy Harman
After 17 concerts, 12 cities and 7 countries we have come to the last day of our tour. We're currently back on the coach (wheels intact) and on our way to Paris for the final performance of Bluebeard.
Last night we performed in Brussels, it was a great concert. I'm sad to say goodbye, for now, to some pieces, particularly the Dance Suite which has an outrageous bassoon part that I've had a lot of fun with!
After the concert a few of us went exploring and much to our delight, in our post-concert starvation, stumbled across le Chat Noir, a restaurant that serves a mean Steak Frites 24 hours a day. Principal Oboe Chris Cowie said he felt like he'd hit the jackpot!
After Paris it's back on the Eurostar to our own beds in London. This has been my first tour as a member of the orchestra and, despite looking a good decade older than I did a month ago, I couldn't have had a better time. The concerts have been fantastic and it's been lovely to get to know a lot of my colleagues better and I feel very lucky to have been a part of it all! I hope you've enjoyed reading this blog as much as I've enjoyed writing it, and I shall hand over to Nate who will give you the final instalment tomorrow.
November 12, 2011 by Nathaniel Anderson-Frank
I'm blogging from backstage at the Konzerthaus, Dortmund. We're all waiting in the wings while the production team finish their technical rehearsal. The crew invited me along today to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what really goes into running the Bluebeard show. To give you an idea you can watch 24 hours of Bluebeard at Southbank Centre in this 1-minute timelapse film (http://vimeo.com/31608742.) Tonight is our last performance of the production so I was glad to be able to see this. I even got to wear a headset and listen in to the tech banter!
It takes a crew of about fifteen people working literally around the clock to make this all happen. After last night's concert finished the team moved in, working until 6am to get the sets up for today. The production plus crew plus gear, including four massive video projectors, have all travelled here from London. But even though this is the fourth and final show, I'm told that the set-up begins almost from scratch in each new venue. It's a huge amount of work that culminates here tonight in Dortmund and a special mention is due to Richard Slaney, Nick Hillel, and the entire crew.
The two concerts in Dortmund went down extremely well, if I do say so. We played both nights to a full house and by the end literally everyone was standing (to applaud, not to leave!). Friday night's concert featured Esa-Pekka's Violin Concerto and The Rite of Spring, or "Amy's little number" as our conductor referred to it in rehearsal that day. My fellow blogger deserves special mention for her opening solo that evening, which got her a well-earned bow at the end.
After the concert the entire orchestra was invited over to a party celebrating the Philharmonia's RE-RITE exhibition in Dortmund (which you may have seen two years ago at the Bargehouse in London, and which travelled to Leicester last April and Lisbon earlier this year). It seems to be off to a good start here too: 4,500 visitors in the first week alone! Anyway, the evening's entertainment was provided by DJ Gabriel Prokofiev in an impressive audio-video extravaganza that filled the vast top floor space with light and sound. The highlight of the evening came with the newsflash (on the giant video screen) that Katy Woolley has just been appointed Joint Principal Horn of the Philharmonia. Woot woot! Congratulations, Katy!
Saturday's concert was our final production version of Bluebeard's Castle, and our ninth of ten overall performances of this piece. While perhaps a few colleagues have been counting down the remaining dates in, ahem, anticipation, I'm continuing to notice things that I hadn't appreciated before. It is relatively rare for our orchestra to play one piece so many times in a month and the experience is quite different to our usual style of working. Sir John and Michelle continue to amaze each and every night with their artistry, and the audience response has been overwhelming wherever we've been.
November 10, 2011 by Amy Harman
I'm blogging live from a service station somewhere in the south of France, where we are going to be for a while after a rather dramatic incident with a coach tyre. What do a load of musicians do in an emergency? Crack open a few bottles of bubbly and have a picnic. Thanks to the very obliging Supermarché in Dijon we're equipped with quite a spread (pictured) it's also bass player and former blog superstar Mike Fuller's birthday so everyone is in good spirits!
Last night we performed Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and Bluebeard to a very welcoming audience in Dijon. We're currently en route to Dortmund for a bit of The Rite of Spring and another staged performance of Bluebeard, I'll keep you all posted on our progress!
November 09, 2011 by Nathaniel Anderson-Frank
We're en route to Dijon this morning after two brilliant days in Vienna. Last night's concert of Debussy, Bartok's Wooden Prince and Bluebeard, was enthusiastically received by the audience at the Konzerthaus. The opera (in the concert version without production) was recorded live for future release by the Philharmonia and there was a particular energy to this performance.
I spent a few free hours yesterday soaking up the finest artwork of fin-de-siècle Vienna at the Schloss Belvedere, along with splendid views of its gardens and the city beyond. Gustav Klimt's 'The Kiss' and 'Judith' are permanently displayed here, and the temporary exhibition surveyed the decades-long collaboration between Klimt and the architect-designer Josef Hoffman. My Viennese afternoon was finished off in true form with a schnitzel at the local brauerei!
Monday night's concert here was a virtuosic all-Bartok affair: the Dance Suite, the Violin Concerto No. 2 with Christian Tetzlaff as soloist, and the Concerto for Orchestra. Tetzlaff has long been one of my very favourite violinists and it was a thrill to share the stage with him. He delivered an authoritative performance of this, one of our most challenging concertos, and the audience response was tremendous. Tetzlaff finished with an ambitious and breath-taking encore: the slow movement from Bartok's Solo Sonata. Our evening continued post-concert at a dinner party for the orchestra hosted by Esa-Pekka at the local bierkeller. Good times were had by all, needless to say; you'd never have guessed we were all at Heathrow at 7am that morning!
If you were lucky enough to have got a ticket to last week's concert at the Royal Festival Hall, then you saw Bluebeard's Castle and the production that I've been banging on about. That particular performance also had a special energy to it - more than a few colleagues were inspired to go home and experience it again on the BBC iPlayer. Have a listen if you missed the Radio 3 broadcast! (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b016kf6y) What you won't hear are the special (and unplanned) lighting effects that we experienced during the first half, when a power surge briefly left us playing in near darkness. Exciting!
The flight is about to take off now, so I'll sign off until next time.
November 03, 2011 by Amy Harman
On Monday morning we arrived in Madrid for the next two concerts of our Spanish tour, which were both to be played in the Auditorio Nacional which is, accoustically and visually, beautiful (to the right is a picture of the interior).
We began the first concert with the Dance Suite which starts with, much to my delight, a fabulous bassoon solo. Esa-Pekka told me I should try and sound like 'the drunkest person at the bus stop' and every time we play this piece I very much enjoy trying to imagine what that must be like (!). Next came the Second Piano Concerto, with another wonderfully charachterful perfomance from Yefim Bronfman. We finished the evening with the Concerto for Orchestra. It was my first experience of the piece and I was not disappointed, it's a lot of fun to play and gives all the different sections of the orchestra their chance to shine. Esa-Pekka chose Stravinsky's Galop as the encore for the eager Madrid audience, which includes another bassoon solo that second bassoon Mike Cole said is supposed to sound 'drunk' (I'm beginning to see a theme here!).
The next day we had until the afternoon to explore the city further so myself, fellow blogger Nate and a few others headed out for a spot of sightseeing. Madrid is such a beautiful city and it was lovely to have a few hours off to really enjoy it. We managed to have time for a boys vs girls boat race in the lake of the Buen Retiro Park, the result was neck and neck, although I believe the girls took the moral victory.
That evening we played the second concert in the Auditorio. After we tuned and Esa-Pekka walked on, we went to start Prelude à l'apres-midi d'un faune, but were instead plunged into darkness due to some problems with the lighting! Although this could have been somewhat off-putting, Principal Flute Sam Coles didn't break a sweat and delivered another stunning performance. We finished with more well received performances of the Second Piano Concerto and Bluebeard's Castle.
Now back in London we have just finished rehearsing for tonight's staged performance of Bluebeard. I'm especially excited tonight as my opera-loving 93-year-old Granny is coming to watch and I'm sure her, and the rest of the sold out Festival Hall audience will not be disappointed!
October 31, 2011 by Nathaniel Anderson-Frank
We're blogging live from the airport in Vigo, Galicia, en route to Madrid. Our concert here last night has made the front page of the morning paper (www.farodevigo.es), complete with a nice shot of Esa-Pekka and the viola section. It was gloriously sunny when we arrived yesterday in this port city not far from the Portuguese border. A few of us used the brief window of time before the rehearsal to walk from the hotel down to the beach. It wasn't exactly balmy but fellow fiddler Jan Regulski and I jumped into the Atlantic surf. Once my legs went numb it was very refreshing! The concert itself seemed to go down well with the Vigo audience. Yefim Bronfman followed a brilliant performance of the Bartok Third Piano Concerto with an encore that delighted us all - Liszt's virtuosic transcription of a Paganini violin caprice. The second half of the concert was Bluebeard's Castle, this time in the performance version minus production. The spoken introduction was given by Pilar Jurado en Espanol with particular dramatic flair! Post-concert, our evening continued with some delicious local seafood including my favourite: 'pulpo a feira', or octopus prepared in the Galician style.
To briefly wrap-up last week for our dedicated blog-readers, the orchestra performed at the The Anvil in Basingstoke on Wednesday and at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday (a live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 - catch it on iPlayer if you missed it last week! http://goo.gl/zibBN). Both concerts featured the indomitable Bronfman in the Second Bartok Piano Concerto. We will be back in London later this week for Thursday's concert at the Royal Festival Hall. I heartily recommend attending if you can (tickets are nearly sold out, I'm told) because this is your one chance to see the Bluebeard's Castle production in London and Bronfman returning for the Third Bartok Piano Concerto!
October 25, 2011 by Amy Harman
On Sunday, to our delight, we began the next leg of the tour with a playing-free travel day, I'm told this is something of a rarity in the busy Philharmonia schedule. After enjoying a G'n'T or 2 on the plane (medicinal of course as I am a nervous flyer!) we made it to Lisbon.
After arriving at the hotel myself and some colleagues headed out for a lovely al fresco dinner in the old town, which, despite being rudely interrupted by a tropical storm, was a lovely end to a relaxing day!
The next day we headed to the Gulbekian Foundation Hall for rehearsals for the evening's concert. This hall and Lisbon hold a special place in my heart as it was here that I played my very first Philharmonia concert on trial in January. It was amazing how I remebered every detail so vividly, from the local streets to the layout backstage! It was great to be back!
After rehearsals and a quick siesta, it was show time. Janacek's Sinfonietta began the concert with the fantastic off-stage brass delivering another superb performance. I'd never played this piece before this tour and I am now seriously smitten, it has everything from gorgeous melodies to lightening quick dances and it's a great showcase for the fabulous Philharmonia brass players. I feel like I have the best (albeit loudest!) seat in the house!
Next came Bluebeard's Castle. This time the introduction was in Portugese, given beautifully by Natália Luiza. One of the best things about repeating a programme on tour is that as the orchestra knows the piece more intimately, you feel you can immerse yourself more and more in the experience. I really enjoyed our performance of Bluebeard, and by the sound of the audience after the lights came up, so did they!
So after a few celebratory cervejas, we left lovely Lisbon to return to the UK for concerts in Basingstoke and London. Not before a quick diversion on our way home for a rehearsal in a somewhat contrasting location; Watford!
October 21, 2011 by Nathaniel Anderson-Frank
And we're off! Last night we were at Symphony Hall Birmingham for our first Bluebeard performance. In the afternoon rehearsal run-through, everyone gamely met the usual challenges of bringing an elaborate technical production on the road, namely lights (too much in the eyes, too little on the conductor) and temperature (meat freezer). The Bartók opera was to provide the second half of the concert, with the Debussy Prelude l'apres-midi d'un faune and the Janacek Sinfonietta in the first half. This was actually my very first time at Symphony Hall and even in Birmingham itself (I'm a foreigner, what can I say), and I loved the atmosphere of it all!
From the opening moments of the concert - principal flautist Sam Cole's superbly sultry faun awakening - it was clear something special was about to unfold on stage. The Janacek that followed couldn't have provided a better foil to the Debussy: it opens with twenty-five brass players blazing away, split antiphonally between the stage and the upper tiers of the hall. As the strings don't play during this first fanfare, I got to glance out at the glowing faces in the audience. Nobody doesn't like a good bit of brass playing, after all, and the heavy artillery were surely on form this evening. Sustained applause necessitated multiple curtain calls - and this was only the end of the first half!
"Once upon a time...where did this happen? Outside, or within? Ancient fable - what does it mean, Ladies and Gentlemen?" With these words, ominously delivered by Juliet Stevenson out of darkness, Duke Bluebeard's Castle begins. Now, when operas are billed as being presented 'semi-staged' it often causes more than a few inward groans amongst fans. Let me just say this now: there is absolutely nothing 'semi-' about this production! What takes place on stage enhances the drama and intensity of the music so effectively that I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise up at more than one point in the performance last night. Bluebeard is one of my favourite operas and I have seen a few excellent performances in the past, including an unforgettable concert version with Michelle DeYoung and Pierre Boulez conducting in Cleveland. But this production trumps anything I've seen before with its subtlety and evocative power. And to feel the dramatic tension created literally at my elbow on stage by Sir John and Michelle is a moving experience. As Esa-Pekka said at the first rehearsal, this isn't a story about murdering women; it's a story about a man murdering himself.
On a cheerier note, we're all off to Lisbon on Sunday. Stay tuned for the next instalment!
October 20, 2011 by Amy Harman
Today the Royal Festival Hall was a very different place to what we're used to, most notably for me was the gigantic spike suspended a foot above my head. This was for the dress rehearsal of Duke Bluebeard's Caste, and was forming part of the 4-piece origami like screen that changes shape throughout the opera, an awesome sight. I did, however, spend the first 10 minutes trying not to look up, and praying that they'd made sure it was properly secure so I would make it to my 25th birthday.
Esa-Pekka and the singers arrived, the lights went down and the dress rehearsal began. With the orchestra in complete darkness, actress Juliet Stevenson walked slowly on for her spoken introduction, she set the eerie mood perfectly. The lights gradually brightened as the orchestra began, the singers walked on and the projections started. As Judith opens the doors, the origami pieces move, opening up bit by bit and providing the backdrop for the projections, representing the different discoveries she makes. My particular favourite was the room of riches, where the entire hall was lit by glittering silver light (Principal Horn Nigel Black said it reminded him of a 70s disco!).
It was clear from the dress rehearsal that this production is really going to be something special. Sir John Tomlinson and Michelle DeYoung completely embodied their characters, and the production dragged you into their dark world. I'm really looking forward to the performances now, the more we play the music, the more I understand why Esa-Pekka goes on about what a masterpiece it is!
Tomorrow we're off to Symphony Hall, Birmingham where, fingers crossed; we shall have a great opening night (with no wooden spike catastrophe!).
October 20, 2011 by Nathaniel Anderson-Frank
It's been an intense few days of rehearsal in preparation for our opening concert at Symphony Hall in Birmingham this Friday and our subsequent trip to Lisbon. Wednesday found us at Sir Henry Wood Hall, beginning in a blaze of exuberance with the Janacek Sinfonietta. I love the pure energy of this piece, its rousing brass fanfares and the busyness of the string parts (or as one colleague put it, Janacek's complete disregard for his musicians' comfort!). Esa-Pekka explained the music's fervour with a titillating biographical morsel: Janacek, in his sixties, was madly in love with a teenage girl. This is certainly music to get the blood flowing!
Amy already mentioned Esa-Pekka's infectious enthusiasm and I can only agree, well, enthusiastically! The rapport between the Philharmonia and its Principal Conductor is instantly palpable, from the collaborative spirit of the music-making to the snippets of good-natured banter between maestro and players. Laughs are never in short supply, which is a good thing when you're working through challenging repertoire. The Dance Suite by Bartók is without a doubt one of my personal favourites - pure rock'n'roll, this. Despite its populist folk-dance style though, the Suite isn't performed that frequently mainly because of its difficulty, as Esa-Pekka pointed out. The frequent and abrupt shifts in tempo, not to mention the sheer volume of notes, kept us busy up until lunch and well into the afternoon's rehearsal as well.
The day concluded with another Bartók rarity, the suite from his early ballet The Wooden Prince. We all love a good bit of story-time and so we settled back as Esa-Pekka gave his synopsis of the ballet's plot. Without wanting to give away too much, suffice to say that there's a prince, a princess, a forest-fairy, a wooden scarecrow doll, and a happily-ever-after. You'll just have to catch the concert to hear the rest for yourself!
October 18, 2011 by Amy Harman
Today we all arrived bright and early to the Royal Festival Hall for the first day of rehearsals for Duke Bluebeard's Castle. Esa-Pekka's enthusiasm was infectious; it's clearly a project he feels very excited about. I am also particularly excited as it's my first tour as a member of the orchestra since being appointed in May! Myself and another new(ish!) member Nate Anderson-Frank will be blogging throughout the tour.
I've never played Bluebeard's Castle before, so contra bassoonist Luke Whitehead had a go at explaining the plot to me; "this bird goes into a castle. She opens loads of doors and there are weird wives everywhere"
Esa-Pekka explained in a bit more detail during the rehearsal! There are only 2 characters in the opera, Duke Bluebeard and his new wife, Judith, who on arriving at the Duke's castle, sees seven locked doors. She opens the doors one by one and discovers sinister scenes behind each. Sir John Tomlinson and Michelle DeYoung, who are singing the roles of the Duke and Judith, arrived halfway through the morning and we ran through the opera.
Despite being in early stages of rehearsals, it sounded fantastic and I was amazed by the darkness and beauty of the opera. Sir John sounded exactly as I imagined Duke Bluebeard when I was learning the piece and I can't wait to see the video projections in the dress rehearsal on Thursday.
Tomorrow we're rehearsing more Bartok; Dance Suite and Wooden Prince as well as some Janáček and Debussy. Due to the nature of the Dance Suite 1st bassoon part (it has rather a lot of notes!) this will be the end of my first blog as practise beckons!