Am I Drihming?
Phil Hall is sub-principal viola of the BBC Symphony Orchestra
I probably shouldn't admit to this, but just occasionally there are times in concerts when, only for a nanosecond, something in me says: 'What on earth are you doing? You shouldn't be sitting here playing this stuff. It's way too difficult!' - and then concentration takes over and the voice in my head recedes. It happened fleetingly during some bars' rest in the first piece by Wolfgang Rihm in the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Total Immersion concert, Schwarzer und roter Tanz. To jolt my mind back I quickly glanced to my left at the front desk cello part. Unfortunately there was no reassurance to be had as the page was completely black with notes, and extremely complex rhythmically. It resembled one of those 'Magic Eye' pictures you used to buy, where if you stare at it for long enough, you see a rhinocerous or something. Then I remembered that the cellos had had their own special rehearsal on that passage, on their own, while the rest of us were allowed out of the studio to enjoy the delights of the BBC canteen.
Honestly, some of the things composers these days ask you to play can make your hair curl! I wouldn't be surprised if Steven Isserlis's hair had been straight before he sat down and opened his part to Rihm's 3rd cello concerto, such are its finger-numbing complexities. It certainly had him flying around his 1740 Montagnana cello. But he threw himself into it with characteristic gusto. I lost count of how many hairs he broke on his bow; by the end it resembled a fishing rod.
These Total Immersion events at the Barbican always take a lot of planning and occasionally things don't go as swimmingly as they might: 'The soprano Gabriele Schnaut is unable to perform,' comes the message to the BBCSO office just a few days before our concert performance (and UK Premiere) of Rihm's one-act monodrama Das Gehege*.
A soloist pulling out at the last minute is nothing new but it always ups the blood-pressure of artistic administrators, especially when the work in question is new and difficult, and not exactly sitting on the music stand in the boudoir of many sopranos. The BBCSO's management team must be thanking every star in the firmament that one of the few people in the solar system to have sung the role before happens to be free, able and willing. Step forward Canadian soprano Rayanne Dupuis. She not only acquits herself admirably in rehearsals but sings the whole thing from memory in the concert. 'Give Canada another gold medal,' say the voices in my head.
- The picture above shows Rayanne Dupuis with Wolfgang Rihm, at the opening night of Das Gehege at the Basel Theater in September 2009.
- Plot details of Das Gehege (courtesy of Munich State Opera) are as follows: 'The woman in this music theatre solo conducts a conversation with an eagle in a compound. She highlights with great concentration and in the expressive sound language of today her longings for strength and dedication and for individual self-realization and integration into society.'
- You can hear Das Gehege in Hear and Now at 10.30pm on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 20 March, together with the String Quartet No. 5, performed by the Arditti String Quartet. The final broadcast from Total Immersion: Wolfgang Rihm is on 27 March.