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HAPPY HENZE DAY!

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 16:41 UK Time, Friday, 15 January 2010

hbp.jpg10.35 and still no conductor....It's a big orchestra assembled for the first rehearsal of Henze's new cantata, Elogium Musicum and there's a lot of restless warming-up type sounds. Eventually Olly Knussen arrives and climbs on to his stool but not before taking a swig out of his ubiquitous diet coke bottle which a member of the management has thoughtfully placed next to the podium. 'Sorry I'm late... I got stuck somewhere.' Olly vaguely tells us. He then proceeds to say a few words about the new piece (mainly that it is difficult for the chorus but not too bad for us) and with a cheery 'here we go' he brings down his baton.

Now one of the attractions of playing a brand new piece is that, with the exception of the conductor, nobody knows what is coming next.

Today, however, the boot is on the other foot as there is a rather nice tradition in the BBCSO of playing Happy Birthday to its members on the first downbeat of the rehearsal. Word is secretly passed round the band but not to the unsuspecting conductor who is inevitably caught out, especially when they are expecting a gentle start to a piece. Yesterday it was my turn to be serenaded and as the band rendered Happy Birthday in the style of Henze, I reflected on how much more lyrical it was than when they played it to me last year (Stockhausen) or on my 40th (Elliot Carter). Hopefully one January we'll be playing Vaughan Williams or my personal favourite, Janáček.

Olly joins in conducting it with aplomb.

Carefully we unravel the new work and we play through to the end of the first movement then go back to the beginning. There are quite a few unusual instruments - Wagner Tuba, bass trumpet, alto flute and, amongst other goodies, a sistra in the percussion department. Olly tries to tune a few chords with some of them: 'Sorry to be sadistic, but can I have the alto flute and third bassoon, you are meant to be in unison...' They try again and mend the intonation. Then he starts on the Wagner Tuba (a pretty unstable instrument at the best of times) before moving on to the bass trumpet player whom he moves so he can be heard better.

We crawl through each movement stopping and starting until all four movements have been covered. There's an interesting logistical problem at the end of one movement - the first two trumpets have only a single bar in which they must go and play offstage. Only the USS Enterprise's Transporter could manage that feat within the space of a few seconds, so some head-scratching ensues: 'Maybe you could use mutes and point the trumpets at the floor, or turn your backs to the public,' Olly suggests. Andrew Haveron, the leader, tries to help, asking if the Barbican stage has a trap door through which they could descend... it's rapidly getting silly and therefore time for a coffee break and birthday cake, courtesy of the vola section.

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