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It's all good in Bad Kissingen

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 15:43 UK Time, Monday, 28 June 2010

More news from the BBC Symphony Orchestra on tour, with sub-principal viola Phil Hall

Orchestral players are creatures of habit. It is probably why we sign up to a life of practising, repetition and rehearsal in the first place. The BBC Symphony Orchestra has been coming to the Bavarian Spa town of Bad Kissingen almost every year for over 10 years, and yet again I find myself sitting at the same table, outside the same restaurant, ordering the same food (Pfifferlinge mushrooms) and drinking Apfelschorle, an apple juice and mineral water cocktail. But then may be it's the nature of this pleasant, sleepy town, two hours East of Frankfurt, where change only happens slowly - and that's the way the visitors since the time of Otto von Bismark, like it.

Regentenbau.jpgI get to the concert hall (the elegantly wood-panelled Regentenbau, 1914) and take my viola out of the flight case. We load the instruments into these heavy metal boxes for touring which in turn go onto the orchestra's handsome lorry. Sometimes string instruments can suffer from the changes in temperature whilst in transit and as I draw my bow across the C string (which has dropped a tone to B flat since I last played it) I'm greeted with a sound more akin to a bass vuvuzela than a viola. I wonder if the wood has come unstuck. I worryingly check the instrument over until I find the culprit - a loose string adjuster... and I can relax...

We rehearse Dvorak's Cello Concerto with the young German cellist Marie-Elisabeth Hecker followed by Beethoven's Violin Concerto with Nikolaj Znaider. He has the priviledge of playing on Fritz Kreisler's Guarnerius and boy, does it sound good. That's not strictly a fair comment - HE sounds good. Heifetz was once told that his violin sounded amazing. He lifted it up, put it to his ear and said: 'I don't hear anything!'

The next morning we rehearse for the evening concert and afterwards Jiri Belohlavek wishes us good luck for the England v Slovenia match that afternoon (he's worried that it'll be a bad concert if we lose!). Fortunately our boys come good and I celebrate with a dip in the hotel pool. We always stay in the same spa hotel which is pretty much full of octogenarians and their walking frames. In fact for years I thought the orchestra were the only people in the town under 70.

There are a few empty seats in the hall and I realise that Germany are playing their crucial game at 8.30. We skip through Kodaly's Dances from Galanta, Nicolaj Znaider turns out a stunner of a Beethoven concerto and follows it with, as he says to the audience, the only composer who could possibly be played after that concerto - Bach, whose Sarabande he plays exquisitely.

In the interval I nip to the nearest cafe to find out the latest football score and discover that it's nil-nil, or nul-nul as they say here. By the end of the concert, however, it becomes clear to us onstage that Germany have triumphed as during our second encore, the blare of car horns and shouting mingles with the Pizzicato Polka. I wonder if Bavarian Radio (who are recording the concert) will broadcast that...

As I munch my late-night steak, I'm informed that we'll now have to play Germany in our next game. There is pessimistic talk of England once again losing on penalties...and a gloom descends... but Norbert, our German principal viola isn't worried, he has a foot in both camps.


The next day is free for most people save for those involved in an al fresco chamber concert. Some people go hiking, others hire bikes. I take the opportunity to do a bit of practice for our next project: a new opera by Australian Brett Dean called Bliss, based on the novel by Peter Carey. I'm finding it anything but, and considering the composer plays the viola I'm surprised at some of the awkward things he has written for the instrument. Then again, this is the man who wrote one of the toughest viola concertos on the planet, for himself to play ...

speck.jpgIt's a sunny day and I arrange to go for a run with one of our bassoonists and have lunch wherever we end up. We end up in a restaurant next to the Bad Kissingen Airfield. One of the tricky things about eating out in Germany is avoiding cream, meat and dressed salads. Several times vegetarians are assured that there is no meat in the dish, only to find a piece of bacon floating around. When challenged the waiters look perplexed and say: 'It's not meat, it's Speck!"

The evening is gorgeous and the chamber concert takes place in a walled Italian sunken garden, the wonderfully named Schmuckhof. It's packed but Jiri and his wife spot Carol and I and beckon us to sit with them. Unfortunately the seat they are kindly offering is a large wooden storage trunk facing sideways, opposite them. Now I spend quite a lot of time looking at my chief conductor and tonight I'd really like to watch my colleagues in action so I listen to arrangements of Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel and the Dvorak Czech Suite with a slight crick in my neck. But, no matter, the weather is so perfect and the swallows overhead sing goodnight as they start the Schubert Octet. Andrew Haveron dispatches the virtuosic first violin part with aplomb and everyone is euphoric by the end.

splat_the_cat.jpgAfter the concert there is a little party for the orchestra's unofficial mascot, Splat, the cat. He is four today and someone orders a cake and candles and celebrations continue late into the night. Next morning I arrive at the rehearsal and am staggered to find 500 school children sitting in the hall. For all the years we've been coming here I've hardly ever seen any children in the streets. It normally feels like something out of a Grimm fairy tale or as if the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has actually succeeded!  It's nice to see them and I hope they are inspired by their young cello-playing countrywoman Marie-Elisabeth, who doesn't look much older than they do. Another Elisabeth arrives next to play the fiercely difficult Prokofiev 2nd piano concerto, Elisabeth Leonskaja. We've played and toured quite a lot with her over the years and adore her geniality and wonderful touch on the keyboard. Always a joy and she has such a gracious smile. In the concert she treats us to a beautiful encore: the slow movement of the Schubert A major piano sonata. Pure balm after the barnstorming Prokofiev.

Afterwards there is dinner and drinks for everyone in the Ratskeller (Old Town Hall restaurant). We listen to a speech from the Mayor of Bad Kissingen and applaud his English. The good news is we'll be back in two years' time and I'm pretty sure the place won't have changed much... almost as sure as England losing to Germany at football...*

  • *Phil's blog was written before the unfortunate events in Bloemfontein on Sunday afternoon, and proved remarkably prescient ... (Ed.)




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