8 October 2012
Brett Dean flanked by a phalanx of violas, Gijs, Mike, Carol and Linda
In descending order, Gijs, Sam, Steven Stucky and E-P.
Joseph Phibbs and blogger outside Beethoven's House.
Philharmonia FC in full flow!
Posing in front of the Beethoven statue.
One for my family album - Godmother Pat, her son David, me and E-P and my parents before the Ninth.
Tim doing a rather fine Oscar Peterson impression.
Gijs writes: It's Monday morning now, and it's all over. We did it, all 9 symphonies in 5 concerts. Last night was the climax with a (I think) thrilling performance of the Ninth, after which we were treated to an at-least-as thrilling reception with brilliant food and drinks galore. What an amazing way to end this epic cycle! But there were more highlights: I think it was fantastic we performed a contemporary piece in every concert, usually sandwiched by two of the master's symphonies. We thus performed wonderful music by Unsuk Chin (Violin Concerto), Brett Dean (Testament), Joseph Phibbs (Rivers to the Sea) and Steven Stucky (Radical Light). As I wrote before, I strongly believe this formula really works, and that proved to be true, as all pieces seemed to go down really well with the Bonner audience. The fact that all composers were present at the concerts also contributed, so they could take their applause and it gave us the opportunity to have a word with them. They all turned out to be lovely people too!
On Saturday we visited the Beethoven Haus. In this lovely building there is a great exhibition of portraits, manuscripts, letters, hearing devices and much more. There are a lot of instruments too, of which the highlight is the viola Beethoven played when he worked in the orchestra in Bonn, obviously an excellent choice of instrument! There is also a digital department, in which one could spend a few weeks easily. Everything from scores, autographs, manuscripts, sketches, letters and recordings can be found here, and for us it was just amazing to look at the first written down ideas, as well as early preliminary stages of a few of these masterworks that we know so well.
On the second floor, there is the room in which Beethoven was apparently born. But was he really born there? Nobody is sure about that and in fact, some recent studies show that there is a genuine possibility that Beethoven wasn't actually born in Bonn at all, but in the town of Zutphen, in the Netherlands! There is some evidence that he was born in an inn there, as his mother was coming back from a trip, having only one more day to travel to their home in Bonn, and little Ludwig would have been a bit earlier than expected. Who knows, he for sure was baptised in Bonn a few days later, to spend the first 22 years of his live there. After that he left for Vienna, to study with Haydn never to return to Bonn.
Sam writes: Well Gijs, I suppose the debate about whether LvB was actually Dutch or not will never be fully resolved; but what is not in doubt is the result of the first Philharmonia FC game in 15 years! On Friday afternoon a goodly number of us took to the perfectly proportioned lawn outside the concert hall for a very professional warm-up and stretching session, before half of us donned yellow bibs for a keenly contested match - reds (the PFC kit is actually a dark pink, and not at all striped like AC Milan's) versus yellows. There was lots of huffing and puffing, and occasionally some rather excellent play, in particular from Alistair Mackie (trumpet) down the right, Brazilian-shirted Mark Derudder (violin) storming through midfield, Emma Wragg (violin) pretty much everywhere, Linda Kidwell (viola) who nutmeged me with ease, and Steve Brown (Assistant Stage and Transport Manager) in goal. The reds came back from 4-2 down with just 10 minutes left to force a 4-4 draw (with the help of a minute or so of 'Fergie time'), which meant a penalty shoot out! It was probably inevitable that we would miss a few, and true enough, after 6 spot kicks each the score stood at 1-1! This was partly due to some shoddy shooting, but also to some fine glovework from Steve and, ahem, me. Us 'keepers were the last to step up to try and win the game for our respective teams with the last kicks. Modesty forbids me to say what happened next, but you can perhaps work it out. The main thing is great fun was had by all, there weren't too many injuries, and we managed to all get on stage in one piece for the evening concert. We played again on Sunday afternoon in the sunshine, and this time we tried warming down too because there were some very sore legs on Saturday! We will certainly be playing again, and hopefully we'll be able to organise some games against other musical outfits. Do write in and let us know if you fancy taking us on! I can see us participating in the FA Cup too... Wembley beckons!
My loving septuagenarian parents travelled out to Bonn on Thursday to come and hear our concerts, and to keep an eye on my alcohol intake. They are very entertaining, without quite meaning to be. My father is old and wise, and he tends to let my mother do all the talking, which she has become exceptionally good at over the years. She has no qualms about telling complete strangers, or a gathering of Philharmonia violists, for example, the most random and unremarkable stories, leaving people with rather bemused expressions on their faces. After the concert on Saturday she came along to the lovely Germanic pub we had settled in and spoke to pretty much every member of the orchestra present about anything and everything that popped into her head - boiled eggs, Mozart duets, flowers; nothing was off limits. She's quite a character, and everyone loves her. My Godmother Pat lives in Germany, and her son David Marlow is the conductor of the wonderful WDR chorus with whom we performed the Ninth symphony last night. It was, as Gijs has said, a fantastic end to an unforgettable week. Having my parents there made it extra special, and Esa-Pekka was kind enough to pose for a lovely extended family portrait!
Apart from my Mum, something else quite wonderful happened in the pub this week. The fine establishment we congregated in is just a couple of doors down from Beethoven's House, so the great man almost certainly had a pint or two here, and it has a nice little upright piano. Maybe it was the close proximity to LvB's residence that inspired him, or perhaps it was the 5 pints he'd consumed, but either way an elder statesman of the second violins, Timothy Colman, took it upon himself to dazzle us with a hitherto unknown talent for jazz piano! Tim is the kind of chap you speak to if you want to know the most petrol-efficient way of getting to Cheltenham. He has a kind of lovable, Churchill Insurance dog look about him, and I enjoy catching his eye across the orchestra. So it was a wonderful treat to see and hear him in a new environment, letting some fantastic blues flow from his fingers. It made me think how one can often have just a one-sided view of somebody or something, and as six or seven of us sat in rapt silence listening and watching him play with a lovely smile on his face, it was really quite moving. Afterwards he spoke enthusiastically of bringing some busking books with him on our US tour in November! Can't wait Tim...
So what's next for Gijs and me? If you live in the Netherlands, look out for Gijs' wonderful Ricciotti Ensemble who will be on tour soon. They're an amazing group of brilliant young musicians who travel around in a bus and then leap out and perform fantastically thrilling music at the drop of a hat. Gijs has been very busy this week (on top of performing a Beethoven Cycle and blogging!) arranging a circus piece, which is hilarious. This is their website - http://www.ricciotti.nl/. And if you happen to be free and in London on Saturday 20 October, please consider coming to hear my Paradisal Players performing Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart in Highbury. We're raising money for a local community centre. Plenty of our Philharmonia colleagues will be giving up their free day to rehearse and play, and you'll be able to join me in showing them your appreciation by buying them a post-concert drink in the Highbury Barn pub! Here's the website with more details - www.paradisalplayers.com.
Well, I guess that's about it! We both hope you have enjoyed reading our thoughts and views on life in this great orchestra of ours. The Philharmonia's amazingly oiled machine just keeps going, with rehearsals tomorrow for concerts in Madrid, the RFH, Bedford, the RFH again and then Leicester in the next week, and further ahead we have a very exciting tour to the USA in November, where we will be playing Mahler's Ninth and Berg's Wozzeck with Esa-Pekka. The blogging will continue from there, so do keep checking the Philharmonia's website for more tales of music, travel and amazing companionship.
4 October 2012
Frankie and Dai helping us check in at Heathrow
Gijs and Unsuk Chin
Not quite getting to grips with the whole 'two bow' thing in the Dean.
Sam writes: So, here we are in Bonn, birthplace of Beethoven, former capital of Germany, and our home for six days as we perform all of the great man's symphonies, plus a few other funky pieces, in the appropriately-named Beethovenhalle. He is everywhere! On posters, signs, paintings, restaurants, and even in the form of a huge, imposing statue in Esa-Pekka's hotel room! I hope he's sleeping well...
Having two days off after the Scotland trip probably made getting up at 5.30am on Wednesday morning even harder - just when a sense of normality had begun to seep into our lives, the Philharmonia schedule abruptly removed it and a weary bunch of musicians arrived at the largest enclosed space in Britain (T5) at 8am for a flight to Düsseldorf. Thankfully we were greeted by the smiling faces of Frankie and Dai, the tour and orchestra managers, who are always a sight for sore eyes. Once on board, we were served a recession-sized sandwich, and arrived on time but rather hungry in Germany 90 minutes later. Coaches took us on to Bonn, where we had a couple of hours to eat, and then we walked through the drizzle to the hall to rehearse, get changed into the old penguin suits, and perform. I always marvel at how we manage to get focused and mentally alert for concerts, even when tiredness is clawing at our eyelids.
The programme for this opening concert was symphonies numbers 1 and 7, with the Unsuk Chin Violin Concerto the filling in the sandwich. It was played with exemplary poise and precision by the wonderfully elegant Viviane Hagner. The piece was described by the judging committee of the Grawemeyer Award as having “a synthesis of glittering orchestration, rarefied sonorities, volatility of expression, musical puzzles and unexpected turns”, and who am I to disagree? We got a tumultuous reception from the sell-out crowd, and afterwards the composer was kind enough to pose for a rather amusing photo with Gijs - she was even wearing heels!
Many years ago, before my time in the band, there existed a Philharmonia football team. Due to a lack of investment at grass-roots level, and the inevitable retirement of some of the older pros, the team fell into disrepair, and the players were either shipped out or sold for embarrassingly low transfer fees. After some recent discussion, it was thought that given the boundless energy displayed by some of the newer, younger members of the orchestra, an effort should be made to resurrect the POFC, and that this tour was the perfect time to start! So I was charged with organising a training session/kickabout in one of Bonn's delightful parks. You will be thrilled to read that this is going to take place tomorrow (Friday) afternoon, and that an extraordinary number of our party have expressed an interest in pulling on the old kit (I've not seen it yet, but apparently it's red and black stripes, so a bit like AC Milan). Someone has even washed it. I believe there will be some serious talent on display. Billy Cole, bass, is an Arsenal fan and promises to combine the heart of Tony Adams with the class of Thierry Henry. Mark Calder, trumpet, is small but Scottish and a Celtic fan, and so is therefore very hard and on a high following their recent triumph in the Champions League in Moscow. His tackles will be fearsome. Gijs, viola, is very, very tall, and so will probably go in goal. And Emma Wragg, violin, is one of England's finest female footballers, so she's going to be on my team. I'm sure a large number of non-playing orchestra people will be there to shout encouragement, laugh at the slow, unfit players and take photos, so make sure to read the next blog for the story of the game, the result and the pictures of triumph and despair that are bound to be etched on the participants' faces.
Of course, we might also have time to mention tonight's concert, which showcases a brilliantly conceived and very tricky piece by the Aussie Brett Dean. He played viola in the Berlin Philharmonic, and has composed this work, Testament, as an aural depiction of Beethoven's deafness and the despair he felt when writing the Heiligenstadt Testament in 1802, and which just happened to come after the second and before the third symphonies. And guess what, that's the programme tonight! Clever, no? The Dean requires the use of two different bows, a normal one with rosin (we rub the sap of a tree on the bow hair to form a very fine white powder that helps the hair grip the strings to make a rich, sonorous sound - yeah, even on a viola) and one completely without rosin. The result is an amazing transparency, and the visual effect of seeing an orchestra playing but with virtually no aural result must be very similar to what Beethoven himself experienced. It is quite awful to think how bad his deafness was from so early in his output.
1 October 2012
Glamorous celtic ladies Julia and Sali-Wyn outside Perth's lovely hall.
The lovely June Scott, our very own flute-blowing Perthian.
The River Tay, snapped from the coach.
Sam writes: We arrived back very late on Sunday night from a short tour of Bonnie Scotland, a badly delayed flight from Edinburgh somewhat taking the gloss off two lovely concerts in Aberdeen and Perth. I was one of the lucky ones, just managing to catch the last Piccadilly line train as news of Europe's magnificent Ryder Cup comeback came through - many of us were left to struggle home on night buses and in expensive cabs. Touring can be terribly unglamorous!
Aberdeen is known as the Granite City, and as our bumpy plane descended over the Scottish countryside on Saturday it was easy to see why - plenty of strong, grey buildings, designed to withstand cold winter winds blowing off the North Sea. Happily though, we had beautiful sunshine to greet our arrival, and some gleaming golden coaches whisked us to our hotel. After a couple of hours for lunch, we reconvened at the Music Hall to rehearse the evening's programme. We had a new soloist for the First Piano Concerto, the young Finn Juho Pohjonen, who played with finesse, style and not a little humour. His is certainly a name to watch out for. And then we started to rehearse the Pastoral Symphony.
The Aberdeen Music Hall is a beautiful building, and has a generous, warm acoustic. However, it's quite tricky for us on stage to hear each other as the sound gets blended quickly. And during the rehearsal of the slow movement, we began to have a few ensemble issues. The piano was still in place in the middle of the stage in order to save time and the effort of moving it off and then back on again for the concert, so the first violins were a very long way from the basses. The music depicts a gently flowing stream, and there is not a lot to aurally 'latch on' to - the soft legato semiquavers we were playing in the middle of the texture were proving more of a hindrance than a help. So - how does an orchestra of eighty, ninety or more individuals play precisely together?
Most of the time, once the music has started, we simply listen to each other. But of course, we also have a rather useful person at the front who wields a little stick. One could argue that the main job of a conductor is to make sure all the players start together, and then, that they all play at the same tempo. To do this, they give a preparatory 'up' beat, before we then play on the 'down' beat. The up beat is vital. In many cases, all an orchestra needs to play perfectly for a whole movement is one good up beat, as it should show the tempo, the character, the dynamic, and precisely when to play. I'll say that again, it is the up beat that actually tells us when to play. We don't even need the down beat if the up beat is good enough! Let me explain.
Imagine someone tosses you a ball, underarm. The movement of their hand is like the up beat, and the moment the ball lands in yours is the moment we would play. There is a natural inevitability in the trajectory of a ball toss that is amazingly precise. You can even judge pretty accurately when the ball will land with your eyes closed. If ten people watch someone throw a ball upwards, and then close their eyes, and then clap when they think it'll land, you will get an extraordinarily unanimous sound. A heavier ball, or a greater distance thrown, requires more energy in the toss which would produce a slower tempo, or louder sound from us musicians.
I'm delighted to say that Esa-Pekka is rather good at up beats, and in the concert, sans bulky piano, we all played very nicely together. The good people of Aberdeen gave us a wonderful reception, and then Gijs and I went for a really fantastic curry at Cinnamon on Union Street - highly recommended. The following day involved a two-hour coach ride to Perth, a picturesque city on the River Tay which boasts a beautiful newish hall with very funky blue lights, where the audience were rather delighted with our performance of the Seventh and Fifth symphonies. Then came a coach trip to the airport, a few last tasters of whisky and the journey home. We now have a couple of rare days off to recharge batteries before the culmination of this Beethoven Cycle in Bonn.
27 September 2012
Jan with his Sonaglie in the artist bar
Probably the best melody in Beethoven 9
Gijs writes: As I'm sitting down in front of my computer, after a nice refreshing cycle ride to Walthamstow, I leisurely recall the large spectrum of music, moods and emotions of tonight’s epic concert. Or perhaps even majestic, as the programme included Kurtág, Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto and the Ninth Symphony. Altogether a pretty long show (we didn't get off stage until 10.15) but all worth it!
Prior to the gig, Sam and I came into action at 6pm to do our pre-concert talk. This was really fun actually, we talked about touring, Beethoven (obviously), Esa-Pekka, the inclusion of contemporary works in concerts and how we should handle the ‘ritual’ aspect of classical concerts. Unfortunately we didn't really have enough time for more than two interesting questions from the audience, maybe next time we'll try to be more compact in our answers…
The concert then opened with the …quasi una fantasia… by Kurtág, which I now managed to listen to completely. What an amazing piece! I wrote about the unusual instrumentation earlier but it all really works, especially the harmonicas and recorders. The piece has everything to do with Beethoven, as the title refers to the Moonlight sonata, and also the opus number is the same. It starts with a C major scale in the solo piano and broadens from there. This scale comes back in the timpani near the end of the piece, brilliantly played by our own Andy Smith. All our colleagues playing unusual instruments did very well, on the photo you can see Jan, who usually plays the violin, cuddling his newly learnt sonaglie.
We continued the concert with the First Piano Concerto, again fantastically played by Leif Ove Andsnes. Afterwards he had to come back about 5 times, so he performed the last movement of the opus 54 sonata again, and that involves some proper funky harmonies, brilliant!
Anyway, in the second half it was time for the monumental Ninth. There is so much one can say about this unbelievable piece that it's hard to write anything. But maybe I should just mention something that for me makes this such a beautiful piece. It is the frequent use of a ‘drone’, a note that sustains underneath the musical texture as a constant factor. This is something Beethoven writes quite a lot in his later works, and which is probably derived from folk music, think about bagpipes for instance. Composers after Beethoven used this ingredient more and more and eventually developed it into something called soundscapes. Beethoven creates one of those already in the development section of the Sixth Symphony, but in the Ninth he takes it to a more advanced stage. The opening of the work, where he develops the main theme from an open fifth is just spectacular and is something that is almost a literal preview of what Bruckner would do about 50 years later. Another wonderful drone happens in the trio section of the bouncy second movement. This really is a moment where you feel you have just walked out into the countryside and found some local 19th-century Germans playing their homemade horns and pipes. But the best drone is in the stunning third movement. Throughout pretty much the whole movement, the fifth is held underneath, or on top of the melody. There are modulations as the form is a set of variations on two themes, but the drone moves with the modulation, and is always there. This creates some ultimate broadness, and for me it is probably the sound of eternity or at least something like that. It is one of those movements that I really wouldn’t mind going on forever, especially the second theme, which comes first in the second violins and violas! This must also have been a great inspiration for Bruckner, as it clearly anticipates the great melody of the adagio from his Seventh Symphony. I took a photo of our part where this marvelous theme is manifested so you may sing along with it in front of your screen.
The finale was overwhelming with vocal and chorusness. The Philharmonia Chorus was in top condition! As we learned from Christopher and Steven (in the train picture in yesterday’s blog) all members have to re-audition every 2-3 years. That must certainly keep the chorus in perfect shape, although I'm glad we don't have this system in our orchestra! Christopher (right in the picture) has actually been in the chorus for 39 years, his first concert was in 1973 with I believe Giulini. We reckon he must have done Beethoven 9 at least 100 times!
Tomorrow we rest for a bit, with a Beethoven-less day, and then we're off to Caledonia: Aberdeen on Saturday and Perth on Sunday. You'll read about that soon!
26 September 2012
Big burgundy bus backstage Basingstoke.
Chorus and Orchestra on the train home.
Sam writes: The last two nights have seen the orchestra travel to two of its favourite 'out-of-town' venues, Leicester's De Montfort Hall and Basingstoke's The Anvil, for more ebullient Beethoven. Both are lovely, generous acoustics to play in, and the audiences were lovely and generous in their appreciation! Although the travelling can get a little tiresome, the warmth of the welcomes we get (and, in Leicester, the heat of the pre-concert curry) mean the journeys are always worth it. On Tuesday we were delighted to accompany the masterful Leif Ove Andsnes in his thrillingly articulated, lyrical account of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1. We were also treated to an encore, the last movement of LvB's Sonata No. 22, Op. 54 in F, which, according to Wikipedia, was written around the same time as the first sketches of the Fifth symphony, which we played in the second half. Our soloist is in the middle of his own epic Beethoven Journey, with tours and recordings of all the concerti, and recitals all over the world. If you can, do go and hear him, because his playing is of the very highest order. And I'm not just saying that because he was nice enough to pose for a photo...
After seven years in the orchestra, I'm now at the stage with the Fifth symphony of feeling like I really 'know' it. I must have played it 40 times in concert, countless more in rehearsal, and I've also conducted it, which of course necessitates learning the score to the best of your ability. But with Esa-Pekka waving, there are always new things to hear. His composer's brain means he focuses on bringing out interesting details in the score that otherwise might get covered. He asks for some wind parts to be reinforced with extra players, and also gets us violas to occasionally beef up the second violin and cello lines; to be fair, those guys need all the help they can get! One of my favourite moments in the piece is right near the beginning, bar 18, when there is a crescendo from piano to forte that really only the violas can do properly because we have a long note, whereas everyone else has quavers. Beethoven knew better than anyone that the violas are the most important instrument in the orchestra, which is why he gave us the responsibility of instigating this vital shift in decibel level.
Last night in Basingstoke we played the Eighth and Ninth symphonies. The former isn't played as regularly as it ought to be, but I think I know why. The first movement is in 3/4 time, and most conductors beat three beats per bar, which is fine, except that it is also marked Allegro vivace e con brio, meaning quick and lively with extra brio; Esa-Pekka does it in just one beat per bar, and it's so much fun! The whole symphony is a series of dance movements, and once we feel it as such, it becomes an absolute joy. It's all about finding that 'right' tempo, the right character. The last movement is 'blink-and-you-miss-it' quick, and full of funky cross rhythms and sudden violent outbursts. Have a listen!
The famous Choral symphony was written when deafness had completely robbed the great man of all of his aural capabilities; indeed, the story goes that after conducting to the end of the piece at the première, he had to be turned to see the audience clapping wildly as he had no idea how it was being received. It is the first symphony to include four solo singers and chorus. It was great to be joined for the performance by the Philharmonia Chorus, and they were on great form. Often we have to 'back off' a little to get the balance right for a choir, but their powerful, sonorous voices soared through easily. And it was nice to travel back to London on the train with some of them, as we don't often get the chance to talk to our vocal colleagues. We shared a few touring stories and tales of conductors we admired, and we're really looking forward to playing with them again this evening.
If you are coming to the concert at the Royal Festival Hall tonight, consider coming by at 6.00pm for the pre-concert talk (no curry this time) when Gijs and I will be giving a LIVE demonstration of the Art of Oral Blogging. We'll do our best to answer all of your questions!
25 September 2012
Sectional for the lower strings on the beginning of the finale of the Ninth
On the way to the Waterloo Chamber in Windsor Castle
Gijs writes: We're a few days further into this Ludwigian patch, with a lovely concert in Windsor Castle on Sunday, some rehearsals in London yesterday and as we write we're in between rehearsal and concert in Leicester’s De Montfort Hall, another of our residencies. Tonight we'll perform the majestic Fifth Symphony, together with the Namensfeier overture and the First Piano Concerto, with the fabulous Leif Ove Andsnes, who, being Norweigan, communicates in rehearsal with the maestro in quite incomprehensible gibberish (Swedish). The great thing about tonight's programme is that all of the pieces are in C and all finish in radiant C major euphoria.
Yesterday we were in the Royal Festival Hall to rehearse a huge variety of repertoire: Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1, the grand finale of Symphony No. 9, and then some more contemporary stuff by Kurtág, Stucky and Dean. This last composer (Brett Dean) wrote a piece in 2008 which requires all string players to have two bows, one with rosin and one without. Now, for the non-string players amongst us, when you play your instrument with a bow without rosin, you can do whatever you like, but you won't actually hear anything. Nothing at all? No, not quite, perhaps when you play by yourself, but in a big section, like in this piece, one actually hears the most amazing eerie, watery, hollow sound, which no one would ever imagine possibly coming out of a string section.
Another remarkable piece is …quasi una fantasia… by Kurtág. Sadly, neither I nor Sam are playing in it, but not withstanding this, it is still a cool piece because it requires a number of players to set up all over the hall in different places. The instrumentation also requires lots of exotica, like bicycle bells, sonagli and harmonicas. A lot of performers are needed for this, and for this special occasion a number of Philharmonia players briefly swap their usual instrument for something completely different. So if you want to see some of our members out of their natural habitat, come to the concert this Thursday in Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, where we will also play Beethoven's Ninth. Something to look forward to earlier that evening is the pre-concert talk at 6pm, featuring me and Sam, the Beethoven Bloggers!
Last week we almost suffered from a Beethoven overkill, as we rehearsed all nine symphonies in three days. Thanks to that, we can now actually play one or two different symphonies every day, which is very exciting. So tomorrow it is 8 and 9, tonight 5, last Saturday it was 4 and 6, and Sunday 2 and 7. That was in the Waterloo Chamber in Windsor Castle on a very small and cramped stage. We were being stared at by a large collection of very severe looking Royals of the past five centuries; this is who I presume the portrayed people were. The audience looked very nicely dressed too. What I liked, just like tonight and only playing in C, was that in the castle, with symphonies 2 and 7, we actually played all Beethoven's symphonies that have sharps in the key signature!
23 September 2012
The view from the stage door of The Marlowe Theatre, with big face, little river and big cathedral.
The theatre looking radiant midway through the evening.
Sam writes: Yesterday we travelled to the beautiful, ancient city of Canterbury to play our second concert of the Beethoven series. The Marlowe Theatre is named after a local playwright (surely it should be playwrite?!) who was a contemporary of Shakespeare's. The building re-opened after a major refurbishment a year ago, and is now a beautiful addition to our roster of regular residency venues. What also helps our perception of the place is that the first fast train back to London after the concert is at 22.25, which allows us a few minutes to sample some local beer whilst taking the plaudits of the clearly delighted audience members!
It was another lovely concert, LvB's Namensfeier overture providing an energetic opening, before we again played his Fourth and Sixth symphonies. What's interesting about performing a similar programme in different venues is how we have to alter the way we play to adjust to the new acoustic. In a big, resonant hall like the one in Turin we can play with light, short bow strokes, whereas in a drier acoustic we need to work a little harder to create a sonorous sound, with slightly more weight in the bow on the strings, and maybe a touch more vibrato for beauty. The difficulty then can be allowing the winds to be heard clearly above our stronger string sound. I cannot overestimate the importance of listening in an orchestra! Really listening to each other means we play together, and the balance of the different voices will be right.
These are things that a good orchestra should be able to manage themselves. We are all fine musicians, after all! But something that requires a singular decision is the choice of tempo for the music. It is a hugely important variable that is often the key reason to the success, or not, of a performance. Finding the 'right' tempo is one of the main responsibilities of the conductor. Too fast, and the music becomes a cluttered, messy mash. Too slow, and you're left with an unsustainable, incomprehensible series of notes.
I would say the conductor has three main avenues of evidence to inform his or her decision. Firstly, there's the evidence written in the score from the composer. Generally speaking, the earlier you go in classical music, the less of this evidence there is. Modern composers tend to be very specific about how fast their music should be played, with very precise metronome markings, whereas Bach just wrote the name of a dance and then relied on his musicians to know how music for said dance should be played. In Beethoven's case, he sat down in 1817 and wrote a series of metronome markings for all his completed symphonies (numbers 1 to 8). There is much discussion and debate about the accuracy of his markings; some think he was drunk when he wrote them, others that he had a faulty metronome! Others insist that they are all spot on - who are we to question the great man's own markings? But what's certain is that some of them make the music unplayably fast, like the finale of the Eighth symphony. So what does a conductor do then? They use their musical knowledge and innate musicianship to decide what tempo best serves the character of the music. Years of study and performance come into play here, as well as an element of personal interpretation. Finally, a good conductor will also take into account the acoustics of the theatre/hall/cathedral the orchestra is playing in that day, and any physical and technical limitations the players might have. Of course, in our orchestra, we like to think we can play rather well! But the decision on tempo has to be made afresh each and every day, and is dependent on all these factors. This is why a live performance is so thrilling; it is a unique experience each and every time.
21 September 2012
Sam and Nathaniel having a work out on the roof of Lingotti, with the Alps in the background
Gijs writes: And we're off! The first show in this mighty Beethoven cycle was in Auditorio Lingotti in Turin on Thursday night. We all got up nice and early to get to Gatwick for a charter flight to Italy. It's always quite fun to have a whole plane to yourself with an orchestra and it makes things quicker and less complicated. The building in which the Hall is situated, is really quite magnificent. It once was the place where Fiats were made, which is the reason for a spectacular test track for cars on the roof. Apart from that it features the lovely hotel we always stay in, and a huge shopping mall. The building apparently is for sale now, as the maestro told us, so get in there before it’s too late!
Anyway, we rehearsed for a few hours and then started off with No. 6, the Pastoral, with the brook scene, thunderstorm and bird calls feeling just in the right place in the basement of one of Italy's biggest industrial firms.
After the interval we performed Joseph Phibbs' Rivers to the Sea, commissioned jointly by The Anvil in Basingstoke and the Orchestra, where we premiered it a couple of months ago. This symphonic adventure is a great piece to play, it features lush romantic soundscapes as well as thrilling passages with a tremendous drive. We'll play it again next month in Bonn.
We then concluded the concert with No. 4, the wonderful B flat major symphony, which I find the most mysterious of all of Beethoven's symphonies. Listen to the start and you directly understand where Mahler got the idea for the beginning of his First from. Beethoven's Fourth is actually the one with the smallest instrumentation, but the symphonic fireworks going on in the outer movements are pretty stunning. The first violins, as well as the principal winds have very virtuosic parts to play, and it all sounded brilliant in this great Hall in Turin.
Afterwards we had a nice glass of grappa in the Junglesque hotel garden, before having to get up not all that much later for the return flight to London. Tomorrow we'll visit Canterbury with the same two symphonies, but then in reverse order!
19 September 2012
All in a day's work!
Gijs flanked by lovely violins, Karin, Soong and Emma.
The CellarVie wine tasting experts have our undivided attention.
Sam writes: Hello, and welcome to the new series of the Beethoven Blog! I'm Sam Burstin, and my viola-playing colleague Gijs Kramers and I will be writing our thoughts on the orchestra's upcoming Beethoven cycle over the next few weeks.
We have just finished three days of rehearsing all nine of the great man's magnificent symphonies with our friendly Finnish Maestro, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who, I'm delighted to say, has fully recovered from his Olympian running efforts this summer. We will be playing these masterpieces in thirteen concerts across Britain and Europe, culminating in a full, five-day cycle in Bonn, the city of the composer's birth, in October.
A Beethoven symphony cycle requires an Olympian effort from the orchestra too. There are an awful lot of notes (especially for the violas), and some movements are an almost constant blaze of energetic semiquavers which leave you feeling like you need a new right arm (the final movements of the 5th and 7th in particular!). But I would say the real test for us musicians is a mental one. These pieces have endured, and are so well loved, because of the incredibly powerful messages they convey of what it means to be human. There is joy, sorrow, hope, fear, and love. You simply cannot just turn up and play the notes. Well you can, but then you'd be entirely missing the point. Music isn't music without the communication of these messages and feelings; we, the orchestra, have to be completely involved in the music in order for you, the audience, to feel how special it is, and that requires a lot of mental effort as well as the physical endurance of playing the notes. All nine of the symphonies have their own characters, and we have to approach each one afresh - easier said than done when you have to play all nine in a row! So it's a physical and psychological challenge, but an enormously rewarding one.
I must admit that this morning, when Esa-Pekka said we would start the day's rehearsal with the fearsome Storm movement from the Pastoral symphony, my heart sank a little, because my head was a tad on the sore side. The Philharmonia has a new partnership deal with a wine company with the ingenious name CellarVie Wines, and on Tuesday evening they had very kindly provided a free wine-tasting session for the players. I think it's a widely known fact that orchestral musicians can drink even medical students under the table, and two full days of Beethoven playing had left many of us with a decent thirst. Thankfully, CellarVie's wines were both delicious and plentiful (and extremely reasonably priced too, it must be said), and we made sure that all eight varieties were diligently and exhaustively explored. My personal favourites were the white Viognier and Solandia Primitivo red. Needless to say, the spittoons were left mostly untroubled. Have a look at their website, www.cellarviewines.com. The partnership will formally start at the London season opening concert next week.
We are off to Turin first thing on Thursday morning for the first concert, where we'll be playing the 6th and 4th symphonies, sandwiching a lovely new piece called Rivers to the Sea by Joseph Phibbs. It promises to be the start of a very exciting few weeks for the orchestra, and we'll be posting more words of wisdom here as and when we have time to write them!
26 March 2012
Sam taking a picture of managing Director David Whelton with Esa-Pekka
Two tall men and two small girls.
Thanks for reading our blog, we'll be back in September!
Gijs writes: Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, even the Beethoven Blog - but only temporarily, as we will continue again in September, when we travel to Bonn (where Ludwig is actually from!) to perform all nine symphonies in an epic cycle.
Talking of which, we just finished the piano concerto cycle with Lang Lang, topping off the series with the Emperor concerto. It was a great performance to a completely full Royal Albert Hall, which was very exciting. The audience went mad at the end, and Lang Lang even had to play two encores. Both were by Liszt. It was actually quite nice and refreshing to hear something other than Beethoven for a change!
Anyway, here I must drop a note from the audience appreciation committee; the yell/scream/outburst/cry or whatever it was that sounded when Lang Lang sat down to play his encore was very impressive indeed, resembling more an overenthusiastic class of teenage girls than your average classical music audience!
To this same cool audience we played the Fourth Symphony in the first half of the concert. A very interesting choice I thought, as this is not one of Beethoven's most accessible works. This does not mean it isn't an amazing piece of music - to me it always has a special place. I feel the ultimate novelty of this composition is the lack of any recognisable tune, the kind of thing you would whistle whilst walking down the street. If you were to ask somebody to sing the theme of any movement of Beethoven 4 you would get something pretty abstract and incoherent, as all the themes and motives seem to be ideas rather than conventional melodies. Ideas that are shaped into a great form, full of energy and unexpected turns. Also, Mahler must have been very impressed by this piece as he very clearly borrowed the idea for the opening of his first symphony from the introduction of Beethoven 4.
Sam writes: Hold on Gijs! The slow movement, whilst indeed being built from that lovely dum, de dum, de dum figure, also clearly has a lovely descending, crotchety tune which I reckon can be whistled, or perhaps hummed, on a good day. (Gijs: A good day for someone with the lung capacity of a hippo that is...!) Just because us violas never get it doesn't mean it's not there! You're totally right about the Mahler though. And speaking of 'inspiring' bits of Beethoven, did anyone else notice the close similarity between the coda at the end of the Emperor concerto and the theme tune by a well-known British composer for the BBC's Pride and Prejudice TV series? Great minds think alike I suppose!
Now, seeing as this is the last Beethoven Blog for a while, I am going to shamelessly (ab)use my position of power here to tell you about a concert I am organising for Amnesty International on Saturday 14 April. There is no Philharmonia concert that day, and the scheduled Arsenal v Wigan game has been moved to the Monday evening, so quite frankly you have no excuse not to be there! Several Philharmonia colleagues (Gijs included) will be performing in Christ Church, Highbury as part of the Paradisal Players. The programme is Sibelius's Finlandia, Haydn's beautiful Sinfonia Concertante (with soloists Nathaniel Anderson-Frank, Amy Harman and Maria Zachariadou from the orchestra, plus brilliant oboist Suzie Thorn) and Brahms's epic Symphony No.2. Click here to see a video with all the information. A great concert for a great cause - please come if you can!
Gijs writes: So a joyful end to a brilliant few weeks, very much supported by yesterday's brilliant weather. We walked around all afternoon in a summery Hyde Park, and even had the pleasure of introducing Elsa and Hazel to each other, mine and cellist Richard Birchall's brand new daughters. In the picture you can see the two tallest members of the orchestra posing with their considerably smaller offspring!
Thanks for reading, please do send in any questions you'd like answered or topics you'd like covered. We'll be back later in the year with more Beethoven Blogging!
22 March 2012
Joint Principal Bassoon Amy Harman has a half time horn lesson. She needs to stick to the day job.
Gijs realises that No.2 Bass Christian Geldsetzer actually looks exactly like Beethoven!
The Serpentine in Hyde Park, an hour before yesterday's concert.
Sam writes: I'm going to talk about sound and silence today. As musicians, our whole lives depend on sound and its relationship with silence, so please pay attention!
Way back on 9 March (boy does that seem like a long time ago!) we wrote about the magical pianissimo we achieve when playing Sibelius's Valse Triste. This week, during this quite wonderful Beethoven Piano Concerto Cycle with Lang Lang, we've been treated to something equally extraordinary.
As string players, we are capable of playing extremely quietly indeed. We have a bow that weighs about 60-75 grams, and with good technique and a few years of practice, we're able to rest it ever so gently on a string and move it ever so slowly; a wonderfully soft, unbroken line of sound emerges. It requires concentration and breathing and listening, but it is fundamentally a simple thing. We create a note that comes from silence. We provide the energy and expertise that carries and sustains it, and then when we take away that energy, the sound dies. It falls back into silence. This is why silence is so important for a musician; it is always, without exception, where music comes from, and where it returns to.
What Lang Lang has done in the first four concerti so far this week, in the cavernous interior of the Royal Albert Hall, is to have such mastery over the pianissimo sound he creates on the piano that he draws every listener in. And a piano is a very different beast to a string section! Yes it has strings, but it is really a percussion instrument. Its sound comes from velvety hammers that strike the strings. And a hammer would not be my tool of choice if I wanted to make a soft sound! So to have the control, delicacy and lightness of touch to play as softly, as legato (smoothly) as he has done, is quite remarkable. It's fundamentally a difficult thing. It's a bit like riding a bike; most people can whizz along easily enough, but you have to have a special control to stand almost motionless on one, like those courier people do at the lights.
Going back to silence for a minute. One of the most amazing experiences with the Philharmonia was playing Wagner's Tristan and Isolde under Esa-Pekka a couple of years ago. This mighty 4-and-a-half hour opera begins and ends with an absolute dependency on silence. The first notes in the celli are an A to an F. But the music doesn't start with the A. It starts with the silence before the A, as the A emerges from the silence. It simply cannot work if there is any sound or noise before the A. There is huge anticipation in that silence, huge possibility. Anything could happen! That is why we wait until the hall is quiet before we play. Similarly, at the end of the opera, the listener is awash with the emotion of four-and-a-half hours of the most beautiful, romantic music ever composed, as Isolde floats up to heaven to meet her beloved. As the last, magical chord dies away, the silence that it dissolves into still contains all the sounds that we've created. They may not register on a microphone, but in our minds they linger, with our personal thoughts and feelings. The music is living within us.
This is why is it so cruel, so thoughtless and so destructive to make a sound like clapping or cheering immediately 'after' the music has 'ended'. It hasn't! Ok, it may have if you've simply been hearing it. But if you've been listening, really listening, if you've been drawn in by a magical pianissimo, the best part is yet to come - the silence. Next time you're at a concert, please enjoy it.
21 March 2012
Lang Lang and our Concert Master Andrew Haveron
Gijs writes: This week: Royal Albert Hall. A place in which we don't often play, apart from the annual Prom and the odd Christmas sing-along concert. But this week it feels like we're resident there with plenty of rehearsals and concerts, doing all Beethovens piano concertos with Lang Lang amongst some overtures and the Fourth Symphony. I always like playing in the Royal Albert Hall as, despite its massive size, somehow the stage feels smalll and cosy, almost like a chamber music venue. Until you turn around that is, and face the humongous organ with its massive 64 foot pipes on the far left and right! Shame there is no organ in Beethoven 4... So this week we're doing the 5 concertos, which is an amazing experience. The pieces are all so different and show clearly at which stage the composer was in his life and career, but no doubt all these concertos are amongst his best works. If I had to describe them it would be something like this:
- No. 1: Lovely early Beethoven style, yet long and expanded with some stunning harmonic changes and unexpected episodes.
- No. 2: The lightest. Smallest orchestration (no clarinets, trumpets or timps) and very classical in style. Crisp, happy, and an amazing slow movement.
- No. 3: Sturm und Drang. Poignant motive in the first movement and fantastic juxtapostition of C minor and E major in the other movements.
- No. 4: Magic. Everything in this concerto seems to come from some übergenius. The second movement is one of the best things Beethoven ever wrote.
- No. 5: GRAND. Everything in this piece is big: the form, the sound, the texture, the gestures. Eb major at its best!
Last night we kicked off to a very full house with the not very often performed Namensfeier Overture, Op. 115. A late work with a brilliant 6/8 bar drive. After that we played the First and Fourth concertos. Lang Lang's performance was stunning, the sheer variety of colours he manages to get out of the instrument is truly unbelievable. The highlight was the second movement of the Fourth Concerto which is inspired by the sad story of Orpheus in the Underworld. Lang Lang's interpretation of the long and soft piano lines against the hammering motives of the strings left most of the audience breathless, especially in the last few icy minutes just before the finale kicks in. But there are other kinds of entertainmant as well: as Sam pointed out to me the second theme of the first concerto's finale resembles 'Tiko Tiko' quite a bit and I always feel like being in a Cuban salsa club halfway through the Fourth Concerto's first movement cadenza; Beethoven certainly was a funky character!
And then, audience clapping appreciation monitoring! Last night's show was extraordinary, as this London audience turned out to be quite different from our usual Royal Festival Hall crowd: there was clapping after every movement and Lang Lang (and us) were treated to a standing ovation as well! Lots of pictures were taken and it was flowers galore at the end. Lang Lang is obviously very 'hot', but we too felt a bit like rockstars last night, great stuff!
Tonight, we'll be playing Beethoven's Overture, Leonore No. 2 and the Second and Third Concertos. I'm particularly looking forward to the Second, as this has always been one of my favourite pieces and it's not so often performed. I wonder what Sam will be writing about this tomorrow!
20 March 2012
Happy rugby fans in Cardiff! Sali-Wyn, Gareth, Sam and Jenny.
EPS and Lang Lang go through the Beethoven cadenzas during rehearsals at Watford Colosseum.
Sam writes: Sometimes, when writing a Beethoven Blog, one is forced to think long and hard how best to describe a concert. You can focus on the merits of a particular piece, or a performer, or perhaps the conductor. It can, as I'm sure you're by now aware, be wise to mention the quality and complexity of the audience's clapping. But the concert we gave at St David's Hall in Cardiff on Friday evening can quite easily be summed up in one word - bloody awesome. Ok that's two words. But they'll do.
It was totally bloody awesome! Did I say that already? I may have done. But it really was! Herr van Beethoven's King Stephen overture flew along in a bouncey, happy Eb major (my favourite key). We all smiled at the end. Then Antti Siirala came on and performed the Schumann Piano Concerto again, and it was assured and light and delightful and beautiful; it was simply a pleasure to be there. Antti is clearly destined for very great things.
And then the Seventh. We're at that stage now where we know exactly what EPS wants, and he knows that he'll get it. The chemistry is just spot on, almost telepathic. I was never any good at Chemistry at school. I had a teacher who was Welsh and blond and smothered in dark orange fake tan, like Dale Winton crossed with Noel Edmonds. We used to deliberately do strange experiments and blow up test tubes and things just to annoy him. I did not do very well at Chemistry. However, this Cardiff chemistry went rather better. There were some wonderful moments where EPS just stopped and let us play, like during the long, slow crescendo during the second violins' tune in the slow movement. Sixteen bars of freedom, of chamber music. What a treat! The finale was rip-roaring, and led to several minutes of thunderous applause. No clever cross rhythms here, just huge appreciation of a quite brilliant concert. Marvellous!
Being the astute individual that I am, I had spotted several months ago that our Cardiff concert fell on the eve of the Wales v France Six Nations rugby match. A keen rugby fan, I booked tickets for the game as soon as I had returned from New Zealand, where I had spent a magical month during the Rugby World Cup in September. So on Saturday myself and a few Welsh Philharmonia colleagues spent the day singing, drinking, drinking some more and generally being very merry indeed as Wales completed an historic Grand Slam. I am English, but a strong believer that nationalities are not as important as people. So my Welsh friends got the dubious pleasure of my support and company for 48 hours! Bassist Gareth Sheppard wrote out the Welsh anthem phonetically for me, violinist Sali-Wyn Ryan and myself did our best Bryn Terfel impressions along with 75,000 others crammed into the Millennium Stadium, and flautist Jenny Doyne made sure I caught the last train home... Another great day.
Thankfully we were not working on Sunday, and even on Monday I was still feeling a tad fragile! We had a few hours of rehearsals with lovely Chinese pianist Lang Lang for a Beethoven Piano Concerto Cycle at the Royal Albert Hall. I'm looking forward to playing there; usually we only get to experience the hall once a year at our Prom concert. It should be a great week!
19 March 2012
A glimpse of the huge percussion department in the Chin Violin Concerto.
The bloggers with soloist Viviane Hagner.
Crossing the Severn Bridge - almost in Wales!
Gijs writes: On tour last week our blogs mainly came from hotel foyers, airports or coaches. Today I'm actually blogging from the M4, dictating the text to my esteemed colleague and fellow violist, Ellen, who can actually type as quickly as I talk (quite an asset for a viola player!). Anyway, we're on our way to Cardiff for yet another concert where we will play Beethoven's Seventh Symphony again, having not done this piece for a week. Last night we performed not just one, but two of Beethoven's symphonies in a single concert. The monumental Third Symphony formed the second half, but we started the gig with the exuberant and optimistic First Symphony. This piece is of a totally different calibre than the later symphonies as it is clearly influenced by Mozart - it has a general lightness and transparency that we don't see so much anymore in Beethoven's later works. I especially love the introduction to the finale (Ellen agrees) where it seems that the first violin section receive a lesson in playing scales, making several attempts and adding one note at a time. After they have found all the correct notes they suddenly jump into the frivolous theme of this thrilling movement. I've actually never realised what a roast-up this symphony is for the first violin section. They're carrying the tune almost all the time and most of it is extremely quick and difficult, but the firsts were on fire last night! The section sounded amazing under the leadership of our new Joint Concert Master, Andrew Haveron.
Sandwiched between the two Beethoven symphonies was Unsuk Chin's Violin Concerto, written in 2001 for Viviane Hagner, with whom we had the honour of playing. I wholeheartedly approve of juxtaposing modern music with more conventional repertoire in this way. Both contemporary music lovers and Beethoven fans alike will have the opportunity to listen to something new, some music they didn't necessarily come for. As we all know, hearing something unexpected and fresh can be a real ear-opener! Describing this wonderful piece is hard as it takes the listener into so many sound-worlds not likely to have been heard before. The extravagant orchestral apparatus adds to this fascinating sensation as the percussion section is expanded with steel drums, a lithophone, a thundersheet, a zanza and even oil barrels amongst others. All that equipment took up half of the Royal Festival Hall stage. Now, one would logically expect some kind of bombastic spectacle but nothing could be further from the truth. The use of the percussion instruments is unbelievably subtle and mainly functions as colouring to emphasize the beautiful solo violin part. The work originates from harmonics based on the open strings of the violin which are developed throughout the first movement to culminate in frantic runs in the brass and solo violin part. The second movement features unearthly sounds of swirling harmonics and tingling bells. The brief third movement is probably the most extravagant; it contains hardly any melodic material. The collection of sounds coming from the orchestra is so spooky that they resemble not orchestral instruments but guinea- pig skeletons copulating on a corrugated iron roof (credits: Ellen). After that the finale leads us eventually to where the work began and the music dissolves in stratospheric overtones.
The audience clapped enthusiastically and for a long time. This was what a satisfied London audience sounds like: no bravos, no cross rhythms and no standing up, simply a long and thorough gesture of appreciation. May I take this opportunity to explain why I am so fascinated by clapping traditions in different countries. In the Netherlands, where I'm from, audiences ALWAYS give a standing ovation, thus completely negating the meaning of this way of showing one's appreciation. It is something that has been bugging me since I was little and I've always wondered when this tradition started, and why. Some cynical people claim that it's mainly so that the audience can reach the cloakroom quicker, as they are already standing! But every country has its own clapping tradition and it's great to be able to compare and enjoy them. However, I do want to express the hope that the Dutch public will stay seated a bit more often in the future. Otherwise, how can we tell if we've played a good concert or not? I'm sorry to continue on a slightly different path, but Dutch concert goers should probably be happy if they've got anything to clap for at all in a few years time. The government in the Netherlands is currently cutting the arts budget in such a way that four out of the ten existing orchestras have to fold in the next year. I've actually launched a campaign to make the Dutch politicians more aware of the importance of musical culture and show them the extent to which the international musical community is concerned about the situation. Orchestras from all over the world recorded one minute of Dutch film music called Soldier of Orange and published the videos on the internet. The Philharmonia Orchestra with Esa-Pekka was the first video to be shown and we have currently reached a total of 93 films. Have a look at www.soldieroforange.nl.
The whole situation is quite depressing. I often realise how lucky I am to work in an orchestra in England, where things aren't easy either, but certainly not as disastrous as in Holland. The Philharmonia has plenty of engagements, great tours, fantastic residencies and wonderful concert halls to perform in such as St David's Hall where we will play tonight. Right now we've reached the Severn bridge: Croeso i Cymru soon! We're very much looking forward to playing to a nice Welsh audience who obviously care for their music and culture.
14 March 2012
My deskie Carol enjoying Beethoven's King Stephen overture.
EPS asking the trumpets to play a little louder. Probably.
Sam writes: So on we roll with the Beethoven Blog! We've just had a few days away from our Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor Esa-Pekka Salonen, we went to Rome for a highly memorable concert of Beethoven, Bruch and Brahms, and then over to Cardiff for a lovely evening of Classic FM favourites, sponsored by Nissan. Today we were all back on the road, or in my case, rail, for a day at De Montfort Hall in Leicester. We’ve been resident at the hall for about fifteen years now, and the warmth we feel from both audience and acoustic makes every visit a pleasure.
It was an early start for the morning rehearsal and then the lunchtime concert. We played movements from Carmen, Beethoven's 5th and Pirates of the Caribbean to a hall bursting with very enthusiastic schoolchildren! It was part of the Philharmonia's amazing Orchestra Unwrapped project, during which every 7-11 year old child in Leicester will hear us play before 2015. A lot of fun was had by all.
During our break for lunch Esa-Pekka emerged from the orchestra's chauffer-driven car looking quite refreshed and invigorated after his 'quickest-ever' journey from London. He saw me holding some scores I'm studying for a concert I'm conducting next month, and he gave me a few tips on what to do with the basses in Finlandia. Not a bad tutor to have for some Sibelius insight!
Our afternoon rehearsal began with a quite outrageously contemporary-sounding fanfare of fourths; this was Beethoven's King Stephen overture, a piece most of us had never even heard of, let alone heard! It settles into a sweet, lilting dance, before moving up several gears into a Hungarian-style, brass-led swagger. Great fun! We were then joined by a brilliant young compatriot of our conductor, Antti Siirala, for Schumann's beautiful Piano Concerto; wonderful music, wonderfully played. Finally we covered a few corners of the Eroica, before a break for dinner before the evening concert. It's always nice to take advantage of the good local food on offer on our travels, so after pizza in Rome and leek and daffodil soup in Cardiff, it was curry time! A few of us tried a new buffet place subtly entitled MORE. Very moorish it was too.
The concert went brilliantly. There was no particularly rhythmical clapping at the end, but it was long and loud, and there's one chap in the balcony who always cheers 'Bravo!' with aplomb and gusto. Sir, we thank and salute you!
Due to us not doing the first movement repeat in the symphony, we safely made the 21.55 train back to London. You see, conductors have so many things to consider, the travel plans of their orchestra being a priority! We'll be on stage again at 10 in the morning, so every second we get at home in bed is crucial for us to appear bright-eyed and bushey-tailed at the RFH tomorrow. Thanks for reading!
9 March 2012
Joint Principal Horn Katy Woolley and Cellist Morwenna Del Mar again, this time in a different setting
The Graf Zeppelin over Wembley, 1930. Not our photo.
A baby Zeppelin at Friedrichshafen airport. Our photo!
Sam and Gijs write: Friedrichshafen is a smallish town in the southernmost part of Germany. It lies on the north shore of Lake Constance, and on a clear day you can see both the Swiss and Austrian Alps across the water. At this time of year it's pretty cold, and you get the feeling it's waiting for the sun to come out to entice people onto its lovely long promenades. In fact, there isn't so much to do at all on a day like this out of season. On the central square there was a huge manifestation for Women's Day, with about 25 participants and a lady with a megaphone complaining about women's wages. Also, dinner opportunities weren't that numerous, so in the short break between our rehearsal and the concert, unfortunately the Golden Arches seemed to be the only place to go for putting something in our stomachs. But as you can see, some of our players can make even that look elegant. One of the glamorous sides of touring!
The town itself is probably most famous for being the birthplace of the enormous Zeppelin airships. They became very popular with luxury travellers in the 1920s, but the horrific, fiery destruction of the Hindenburg in New Jersey in 1937, as it tried to dock in stormy weather after a transatlantic flight, helped spell the end of the airship industry. Possibly the most famous example of these wondrous creations in Britain was an appearance by the Graf Zeppelin at the 1930 FA Cup Final at Wembley. It sailed serenely over the 'Twin Towers' as underdogs Arsenal were beating mighty Huddersfield Town 2-0.
Sadly the fantastic Zeppelin Museum on the waterfront was closed yesterday, so instead I (Sam) took the opportunity to go through the score of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony which we were performing that evening. It truly is an astonishingly awesome piece. Symphonic music up until that point (1804) was 'Classical', mostly light in style, cheery or mournful, beautiful and often simplistic. In the Eroica, Beethoven gives us pain, suffering, destruction, death, redemption, and finally joy. It's the first true 'Romantic' work for an orchestra, and is an absolute blast to play! From a viola player's point of view it's quite hard work; we're playing all the time. But it offers a welcome change from the 7th, which due to its pumping dance grooves often manifested in the viola part (believe it or not!) make our right arms feel like falling off by the end of the finale. This is at least not the case in Eroica. The very end might be the most unbelievable orchestral sprint ever written, but the section just before that is pretty laid back, where the thematic material gradually breaks down, creating a huge tension anticipating the huge final explosion.
I'm always ever so slightly apprehensive about playing Beethoven in Germany (I agree, Sam) - it's a little like taking coals to Newcastle! But the locals seemed to love it, there were plenty of 'bravos'. This was very much appreciated by the audience clapping monitoring team: despite the lack of rhythmical inventiveness, it's something you don't so often get in the UK! Also, a special mention must go to Beethoven Blog fan Michael from Munich, who travelled all the way to Friedrichshafen just for our concert and spoke to us in the interval. We hope you enjoyed the second half of the show as well!
As is often the case with a Salonen concert, we ended with an encore - Sibelius's Valse Triste. I will never tire of playing this most moving of pieces. I'm always glad to see Esa-Pekka come back on stage for an umpteenth curtain call without his baton, as that's the sign we're about to get intimate! His delicate finger gestures coax the sweetest, softest sounds from us, and at one point (bar 57 if you're following!) we drop to real, true pianissimo. There is nothing else like it. One hair of the bow is touching the string, way over the fingerboard, and you just breathe the downs and ups. We're basically not even playing. There's just a cushion of sonorous air, a melancholic ghost that is somehow still waltzing through a grand, dusty ballroom. And then the end: four solo violins in ultimate solitude. Magical.
Then, a glass or two of fine local wine, and today back to London for an afternoon rehearsal for our trip to Rome on Saturday. The Philharmonia keeps on rolling!
8 March 2012
Sam and Gijs in Luxemburg
A Viola night out
Sam and Gijs write: An orchestra on tour is a little like a flock of starlings flying in close formation, weaving this way and that through the day, all to a soundtrack of its own making. We follow each other onto planes and coaches, into hotels and halls, never in the same order, a few breakaway groups here and there, but fundamentally all heading in the same direction. It means every day has its own dynamic, its highs and lows, but always with the ultimate goal of us appearing on the next city's stage, with the right clothes, the right instruments, the right music in front of us, to peak at just the right time to perform at a consistantly high level.
There are different ways of dealing with this practical side; an impeccably clear touring schedule states all details about flight times, phone numbers, addresses and anything else that could by relevant, and some players actually read this very carefully. Another option is the 'sheep method', which doesn't involve any thinking or reading and is just about simply following the person in front of you, playing the notes on your stand, eating the food that's put in front of you and getting up at a time related to the coaches' leaving hour which you pick up from a colleague just before you hit the sack. The players in this category also often don't actually realise which country or town they're in!
People have different feelings about touring. For some, it's almost a holiday, an escape from life at home. We are given subsistence money to spend how we choose, and plenty goes on meals and drinks after concerts. Some hotel beds see their users for only a handful of hours per night. The travelling time the next day is then used for rest and recuperation before the evening show, before the cycle starts again. For others, being away from home is a chance to catch up on much needed sleep and work. Several members of the orchestra have small children (Gijs's gorgeous baby Elsa (thanks Sam!)(a pleasure!) is just 10 weeks old), and the chance to get a full night's uninterrupted sleep is not to be missed! The travel time is then free for books to be read, scores to be marked up (there are a number of budding conductors in the band, us two included), and emails to be written.
When we arrived in Luxembourg yesterday some people chose to rest, others went into the picturesque town centre for a large lunch, and two others decided to hire the Luxembourgian equivalent of 'Boris' bikes and cycle all over the place, up and down hills in pretty freezing conditions (Sam should have taken his gloves...)
The concert went brilliantly, and it really lifts the spirits to play in such a great hall as the Philharmonie in Luxembourg, one of the best in the world. And that's not just acoustics, the building looks amazing too. Situated on the Plateau de Kirchberg it's surrounded by European Union buildings and at the back a steep drop leads to a beautiful valley, with the church spires of the old town at the other side. The programme was the same as the night before and Leila and kit drummer Chris were equally brilliant. In our audience clapping appreciation series the Luxembourgians didn't score very high: the applause was long and enthusiastic, but fairly conventional. After the gig all twelve viola players sat down for a meal together, the buzzing, energy fuelled mash-up that is 'viola night'. It happens every tour and is obviously one of the main highlights for us! It's probably a highlight for the rest of the orchestra too as it gives them a break from us VIPs and is a chance for them to come up with new viola jokes.
As for now, we just arrived in Friedrichshafen after a short flight. Upon landing the coaches to take us to the hotel were actually lined up next to the plane for a swift transition, so no queues, no passport controls or waiting for bags. We feel like rock stars, especially as the coach company is called Funk! Marvellous!
7 March 2012
Sam and Gijs with soloist Leila Josefowicz
Esa-Pekka and Leila in Rehearsal
Sam and Gijs write: Travelling obviously takes up a lot of time during our tours, but three and a half hours on a coach from Brussels to Luxembourg isn't that bad when you have a good book and enough legroom to stretch out and have a little nap. Our coach today even featured a coffee machine - splendid! (Two things you should know about Gijs - he loves coffee and is 6 ft 8 inches tall...) Last night we played in the Palais des Beaux Arts, an interesting hall in Art Nouveau Style, to a very enthusiastic audience. They showed their appreciation with some impressive rhythmic clapping as well, but the Belgians don't speed up or excel in cross-rhythmic patterns like the Hungarians. Something for them to work on perhaps! Instead of the Sibelius Concerto we played Salonen's Violin Concerto with a 7 months pregnant Leila Josefowicz. This intriguing and exciting piece moves from one extreme to the other. The first movement, 'Mirage', begins with the solo violin alone playing slightly nervous figures. More and more instruments start joining in after celesta and vibraphone take the lead. There are incredibly delicate passages with tender chords and double stop harmonics on the violin in the second movement, 'Pulse I'. Some massively complicated rhythms on the drum kit(!) in the third movement, 'Pulse II', seem to resemble urban dance and clubbing music. 'Adieu', the finale, is a beautifully shaped arc, with a thunderous climax from the heavy brass coming before a lyrical, sort of 'unanswered question' last chord. Leila plays the piece with ultimate conviction and devotion, and does it all from memory. We just hope the baby enjoys it as much as we do!
One of the best things about being in the Philharmonia is the quality of musicians we get to work with on a daily basis. The soloists who come and perform concertos are usually artists at the absolute peak of their powers. We are proud of the way we accompany these musicians, giving them the space and freedom to play just how they want to. The secret to doing this well is really very simple - listening. If every player on stage can hear the soloist, even during forte passages, we will not only play precisely with them, but the balance will be right too. The melody will have space and support in just the right way. It's this care and attention to detail that makes ours such a special orchestra. It of course helps to have someone like Esa-Pekka on the box. He is obviously a brilliantly clear conductor, but also an award- winning composer. His knowledge and understanding of instruments and what we need from him in order to play them well, is what makes working with him such fun. As a great conductor, he knows when to just get out of the way and let us play!
The main square in Brussels is absolutely gorgeous, especially on a crisp, clear night. We celebrated violinist Emma Wragg's birthday in a lovely bar with several varieties of fine Belgian beer. The trouble with Belgian beer is that it is a) very nice and b) usually at least 8%, which explains our need for the extra naps on the coach this morning... More from Luxembourg tomorrow!
6 March 2012
Sam and Gijs with soloist Vilde Frang
Sir Lancelot, our dinner venue post-concert
Sam and Gijs write: Sometimes in this job we experience something so wonderful and out of the ordinary that it raises the spirit to a higher plane; appropriate, as we are writing this whilst waiting to board our charter flight from Budapest to Brussels! Last night we were privileged to be part of a performance of Sibelius's Violin Concerto that will live very long in the memory. The young Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang played with a range of colours and a sense of lyricism that was quite remarkable. From her opening statement all the way to the very last bar her interpretation evoked images of snowy Scandinavian forests, icy lakes and, in the last movement, fiery folklore. We were then treated to a truly stunning encore of more folklore, this time of Norwegian origin. What a great soloist! We're very much looking forward to performing with her again on Thursday in Friedrichshafen.
The concert had begun with Sibelius's atmospheric Pohjola's Daughter, by the end of which our bowing arms had indeed had a very good workout! After the interval we played Beethoven's 7th again. It was really thrilling to play this great piece in the beautiful acoustics of the National Concert Hall in Budapest. Now about the audience; they didn't disappoint, the clapping was as intriguing as always in Budapest. This is what happens: the applause starts in traditional manner, but at a certain point everyone suddenly joins together in a nice steady rhythm, after which collective speeding up follows. Then one clap gets accented, the other one weakened, thus creating a half time feel, which then gradually starts accelerating and the same things happens again. But last night it got even better, because in the end the clapping seemed to spread in a kaleidoscope of Hungarian-based rhythms that felt like 5/8 and 9/8 bars as in local traditional music! Great stuff.
After the show a goodly number of us went to a fantastic restaurant called Sir Lancelot, where suits of armour and inconveniently placed swords are liberally positioned around a long hall-like cellar. The tables are solid planks, the wonderful food comes on huge wooden platters, the beer arrives in flagons and all is served by local buxom wenches! A marvellous end to a great touring day.
5 March 2012
Sam & Gijs
Gijs Kramers writes: Right, we just got to Bupapest. Glorious day here, nice and crisp which is just what we need since this moring the alarm clock went off at 5.15. Ouch! Yesterday we rehearsed Beethoven's Eroica symphony and Pohjola's Daughter, a great piece by Sibelius about a Finnish guy who has to fulfill an arduous assignment in order to get closer to an unbelievably beautiful woman, but failes miserably to do so. All this results in a stunning piece with a truly spectacular passage near the end where pounding brass cords are accompanied by a thumping groove by the strings, all on upbows so we all look like we're digging a hole in the garden.
Now we're on the way to the hotel, then to the hall, to rehearse for tonight's concert, where we will play Sibelius and Beethoven 7. We got very good reviews of the Beethoven after last Thursday's concert in the RFH, so looking forward to it again, especially to the finale, labelled by Esa-Pekka as a "Napoleonic disco"! But what I'm probably looking forward to most is the clapping tradition of the Hungarian audience, which is like nowhere else in the world. We'll let you know more details in the next blog!
2 March 2012
Beethoven 7 - A Still Life
Cellist Morwenna Del Mar and Joint Principal Horn Katy Woolley take their Beethoven studies very seriously
Sam Burstin writes: Hello! We're Sam Burstin and Gijs Kramers from the viola section - welcome to the Philharmonia's new Beethoven Blog! We've been given the honour of describing the magnificent journey the orchestra is embarking on through the works of arguably the greatest composer who ever lived, Ludwig van Beethoven. Our Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, will lead us through overtures, concertos and all nine symphonies with an exploration that will span eight months and take in seven countries, thirteen cities, and twenty-three concerts, and will end with a five-day residency in Bonn, the German city of Beethoven's birth. What a trip!
We began the series last night with a fantastic concert at our 'home', the Royal Festival Hall in London. At least I think it was fantastic - I've been suffering with a very heavy cold (Man 'flu) and have been adding elephant-like fanfares of nose-blowing during the rehearsals this week, and last night I was completely deaf in my left ear. It's quite possible that the cellos and basses were playing completely out of tune throughout the concert and I just didn't notice, but judging by the huge cheers and rousing ovation we received at the end, I guess it went very well indeed!
The first half began with Brahms's beautiful Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, which is a masterpiece in counterpoint and orchestral colour. It's all about making sure the delicate woodwind lines can be heard, which requires us string players to entice the famous 'Philharmonia' sound from our instruments. I may let you into the secret one day... :)
We were then joined by lovely, legendary pianist Mitsuko Uchida for Schoenberg's complex Piano Concerto. I wasn't required to play as the strings were reduced, so I used the time backstage to blow my nose and take some photos for the blog. I saw the conductor and soloist just after they had come off stage, and Mitsuko was clearly delighted with how the performance had gone. We look forward to working with her again soon.
Then, Beethoven's 7th! What a piece - full of joy and passion, and possibly the best bass line ever in the last movement, a series of swaggering low E-D#-E-D# crotchets that sounds like dear Ludwig had had a few too many in the pub. Not that us musicians would know anything about that at all. Esa-Pekka did his best Crouching Cat Swaying Tail impression that inspired the low strings to dig deep for those notes, and even I heard them! Wonderful stuff, and we're very much looking forward to playing more on our tour to Hungary, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany next week.