The violas relax during a break at the Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester
Hello, and welcome to another Philharmonia blog! I'm Sam Burstin, a viola player with the orchestra since 2005, and regular tour blogger. This month we're performing in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and England with our Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, and I'll be describing the most impressive and interesting sights and sounds as we go.
A lot has happened since I last wrote to you from Japan - in June I married Ana, my beautiful wife! She's Slovenian, a wonderful pianist, a decent cook, speaks five languages and tolerates my sporting obsessions, so it was a no-brainer. Even the mother-in-law is lovely! And recently we've been busy preparing for the arrival of our first baby, a little girl. She's due on the 29th of this month, which is the date of the final concert of this patch with Esa-Pekka, so if all goes according to plan I may have to make a swift mid-concert exit from the Royal Festival Hall! But if Ana goes into labour early this blog might take a dramatic twist with tales of taxi dashes to airports and suchlike. It'll be gripping stuff either way.
Our summer was fun. A lovely week in Gloucester for the Three Choirs Festival was followed by chamber music concerts with some Philharmonia colleagues at my wine-making friends' beautiful chateau in France. Some wine may have been drunk. Soon we were back at work preparing for our annual Prom concert. The glorious, glowing tones of Bruckner's seventh symphony filled the bedomed Royal Albert Hall - thunderous applause and rave reviews followed. And we were still buzzing from that concert when rehearsals began for this tour. E-P told us he'd been shopping in preparation for it and had bought a large selection of his favourite black tee-shirts (he wears nothing else). If people are smiling at the start of a period of work the chances are the whole thing will be enjoyable, and so far, with a jolly conductor, that has been the case.
On Friday morning we flew from Heathrow to Vienna's smart airport, and walked out into strong sunlight - I wished I'd packed my sunglasses. Waiting coaches took us to our first venue, an open air stage at Schloss Grafenegg, a fairy-tale castle about an hour's drive through lovely Austrian countryside. A tasty but pricey Wiener schnitzel was consumed at the nearby restaurant, before we began rehearsing Prokofiev's second violin concerto with Janine Jansen.
We work with an awful lot of awfully good soloists in this orchestra, but for me, and many others, Janine is right at the top of the tree. She has an extraordinarily beautiful sound, even in a piece as spiky, energetic and fiendishly difficult as the Prokofiev, and she communicates with orchestra and audience alike to the extent that we simply support her, in tone and tempo, easily and comfortably. And she is as convincing playing Mozart as Mendelssohn, Sibelius as Shostakovich. Music flows through her, straight from composer to listener, with no ego or sense of self getting in the way. It is a joy to share a stage with her.
Also on the programme was Brett Dean's Testament, a very cool homage to Beethoven we played last year in Bonn, and the Eroica symphony. It is always a challenge playing outdoors, especially without a hotel rest between plane and stage, but we coped admirably. The highlight for me though was Janine's encore, the Sarabande from Bach's D minor Partita. Just magical. Post-gig we were given a sample of lovely local wine, and got back on the coaches for an hour to the hotel. A long first day.
A brief sleep later and we left the hotel at 8am, travelled back to the airport and boarded a plane for Dusseldorf, from where (you guessed it) we took coaches direct to the venue in Cologne. Pizza for lunch, and then a rehearsal and performance of Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet. It's a big work, 95 minutes, and contains some spectacularly beautiful music. E-P told us that at the end of his life, of all his creations, Berlioz was most proud of the Love Scene from this piece, and you can hear why. The Philharmonischer Chor der Stadt Bonn were great, full of tone and articulation, and our soloists Christianne Stotijn, Paul Groves and Gerald Finley sang wonderfully too. On leaving the stage we were presented with glasses of a refreshing local beverage, which were gratefully consumed, before we got back on the buses for the journey to our hotel in Dortmund. We arrived at half past midnight, and I went straight to bed.
Sunday was a comparative day of rest! Of course we still had a rehearsal and concert to give, but having a lie-in, breakfast at 11.59 and a concert hall just 5 minutes' walk away makes such an enormous difference to energy levels. We played the Dean and Prokofiev again (after which I went to thank Janine for her inspirational playing, and we congratulated each other on our recent nuptials), and then we were back on very familiar ground with Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. I starred in a Philharmonia podcast for this piece a few years ago, so I know all about the idée fixe that appears throughout, and I must have played it with E-P about 50 times now. This was, for me, the best it's been. The orchestra were on top form, full of colour, nuance and explosive power. I nearly broke my bow during the fearsome col legno passage near the end, and the brass boys and girls blew their hearts out. Epic stuff. Afterwards we had viola night in the Zum alten Markt pub (along with the rest of the band), and at closing time meandered happily home through the quiet streets.
Monday began with a four-and-a-half hour train journey to Berlin during which I worked on a score of Brahms Symphony No. 4. I was sitting next to our principal horn Katy Woolley, who wrote in helpful things like Don't Fall Over and Sam's Favourite Page. She'll be playing in the concert I'm conducting in January, so it's good to build up these working relationships. On arrival in the capital we travelled to the hotel, where I had just enough time for a swim in the lovely pool, before we walked to the iconic Philharmonie concert hall. Some people love it. I like the acoustic, but find the layered, angular stone interior a little odd and cold. Sitting on the circular stage under bright white spotlights feels a bit like being on a petri dish for close inspection by a mad scientist. And given that we were playing a new programme of tricky Lutosławski for the notoriously knowledgeable Berlin public, the pressure was on!
The rehearsal went pretty well, E-P controlling things nicely as usual, but there was a definite air of deep concentration and seriousness. When we, a great orchestra, go and play in another great orchestra's home town, we want to do ourselves, and the music, justice. If we had been repeating the previous day's concert we'd have all been entirely happy and comfortable. But playing challenging, unfamiliar music concentrates the mind like nothing else. We had some food at the lovely cheap canteen backstage (how different from London), got changed and warmed up. Soon the bell went for us to make our way on stage. Thousands of austere German faces watched closely from above as we filled on and settled down. Soon E-P trotted on, took a bow, and waited for silence.
First up was Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Samuel Coles breathed into his flute, and ten minutes later the delicious warmth of the magical music faded into silence. A wonderful start. Then the brilliant Matthias Goerne came on to sing Luto's Les espaces du sommeil. A brilliant piece full of dynamic and rhythmic contrasts, he gave a masterful, measured performance. E-P, who knows the music better than anyone alive, was clearly delighted with how it had gone. The second half began with another French masterpiece, Ravel's suite Ma mère l'oye . Again, the wind section demonstrated individual and collective brilliance. I particularly loved contrabassoonist Luke Whitehead's dirty beast (not a sentence I write lightly) in the fourth movement, Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête. Once the final blazing C major chord had finished, the audience once again applauded enthusiastically.
Esa-Pekka had already told us how much this series of concerts of music by his mentor and teacher Lutosławski, in what would have been his 100th year, meant to him. This was the final one, and the final piece was to be his Third Symphony. It is a work of towering strength, enormous contrasts, and not a little humour. The last page contains one of the great climaxes in the symphonic repertoire, full of pain and power. It was a monumental performance, from conductor and orchestra, and the emotion at the end was deep and sincere. E-P held aloft the score, visibly moved. Afterwards, at a reception given by the Berliner Musikfest and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, E-P spoke again of how much he missed his mentor, and how grateful he was that he had an orchestra to lead that played with so much passion, heart and expertise. Then we drank lots of amazing Polish vodka. It was a very, very special night.