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Concerts and Christmas markets with the BBC SO in Germany

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 10:24 UK Time, Friday, 9 December 2011

Picture of a  Christmas Market in Germany


BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall finds warm, welcoming  and well-dressed audiences on the band. recent German tour ...

One of the joys of touring Germany in late November is the ubiquitous Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market). Christmas comes early in Deutschland and they really know how to make the outdoors cosy or, as they say,  'gemütlich'. Amid the giant Christmas trees and twinkly lights we circle the colourful stalls and feast on curry Würst and Glühwein with a shot of rum. I buy a few presents including a cat basket for my  new kitten and an oversized Stollen cake. Then I wonder how on earth I'm going to get them all home ...
The nice thing about audiences in Germany is that they tend to dress up. They smile often too. Unfortunately on this occasion some of them seem to have been suffering from something akin to emphysema as I have seldom heard so much coughing and spluttering in a concert. 

Fortunately the concert is not being recorded and whilst the vibrant acoustics in Dortmund's Konzerthaus amplify the noises off, it does assist in us delivering lively performances of Dvořák's Golden Spinning Wheel and Janáček's blood-thirsty yet stirring Taras Bulba,  pieces close to conductor Jiří Bělohlávek's heart.
Due to availability problems we hadn't had a chance to rehearse with Russian pianist Nikolai Tokarev in London, so with only a run-through  before the concert we had to be on our toes a bit for the Liszt 2nd concerto. However upon leaving the stage we are rewarded with free local beer.  Thank you Dortmund.

Photo: Nikos Zarb

We catch an early train to Hamburg the next morning and enjoy the scenic foggy view as we travel north. Well, most of us do - 2nd horn  Mike Murray (see left) might not have been...

The concert that night is in the beautiful, neo-Baroque 19th century  Laeiszhalle. It too has lively acoustics and a highly efficient heating system. Unfortunately it was a little too efficient as it was literally SWELTERING on stage. Ironically the audience seemed cooler than the cheering hordes in Dortmund but they enjoy the Grieg Piano Concerto and the Janàček whose final Moravian cadences are splendidly enhanced by the hall's famous organ. That forces an encore of Smetana's Bartered Bride overture, (nicely done second violins!).

As we travel back down to Cologne the next morning, a group of four extra percussionists back home set out to Heathrow at an ungodly hour, only to find that their flight to Düsseldorf was cancelled due to fog.  Five hours later they are finally on a plane and land just in time to rehearse Shostakovich 15. Ah, the joys of touring...

The hall in Düsseldorf is a converted  Planetarium  and with all the extra percussion (7 players in all) we are rather cramped on the stage. Unusually there is no piano concerto rehearsal as Jiří uses all the time in the Shostakovich which we have not performed yet. It pays off in the concert as it goes very well indeed, particularly the huge cello and trombone solos superbly taken by Sue Monks and Helen Vollam. Remarkably Helen later tells me that her ears were blocked and she couldn't hear a thing!

The last day in Cologne is spent in a leisurely manner . Some people still haven't had their fill of shopping and attack one or two of that city's SEVEN Christmas markets. In the evening we have a 20-minute seating call and Jiří thanks the orchestra for the concerts; as this is the last time we'll see him this year, he wishes us a Happy Christmas.

The Kölner Philharmonie is probably the best of the concert halls, with the audience sitting all around us. It has famously clear acoustics and I hear details in the music which I've not heard before. It is also famous for generously giving trays of Kölsch beer to visiting orchestras as they leave the stage. Something we all appreciate enormously. Now how about introducing that tradition over here along with a Christmas market or two?


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