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Our BBC Symphony Orchestra blogger says listen to tonight's Birtwistle premiere ...

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 16:32 UK Time, Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Photo of Sir Harrison Birtwistle c.BBC

Sir Harrison Birtwistle (photo copyright BBC)

BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall with the inside track on tonight's Proms premiere ...

The BBC Symphony Orchestra is no stranger to giving premiere performances of new works.  I would say over 50% of our concerts contain new pieces. Tonight we'll be playing the UK premiere of veteran English modernist Sir Harrison Birtwistle's Violin Concerto with the indefatigable German violinist Christian Tetzlaff. He gets off relatively lightly this time since when he gave the world premiere in Boston earlier this year he sandwiched it between concertos by Mozart and Bartok.

This is the first time Harry (as he's universally known) has called a composition 'Concerto' and I find it to be one of his more soft-edged pieces, almost lyrical at times but with plenty of mood changes. His main concern was that the soloist could be heard throughout against the orchestra. To which end, despite a score that looks complex and dense at first sight, the piece is actually fairly lightly scored. His skill is in being ultra-precise with the dynamics and thinning out textures. Sure he has multi-divided strings (which causes much ink on the page) but often we play chords in harmonics or in hushed dynamics without vibrato.

There is a small group of soloists within the orchestra who take it in turn to duet with the soloist: cello, bassoon, flute, piccolo and oboe. Rehearsing the piece with David Robertson (who has some challenging unconventional bars to conduct) he reports that the composer envisaged those players stepping forward and standing next to the soloist...but that's a bit impractical, especially for Sue Monks and her cello! Christian is also very involved, getting the bow strokes unanimous within the strings so we all produce the same kind of attack on the notes.

I notice that in fact the violin seldom plays WITH the orchestra. It's as if we are a Greek chorus commenting on what the protagonist is saying. A device Birtwistle has used many times in his Greek inspired compositions. Cast in a single 30-minute span, the piece draws to a close over a sustained 5-note viola chord and percussion rattles and abruptly ends with a solo pizzicato on a 'wrong' note as if to say, 'That's all folks!'

Surprisingly Harry has not been to any rehearsals (he normally comes and utters a few well-chosen words of advice in his broad Lancastrian burr). I expect he'll be there tonight to hear it and take the applause. I hope you can hear it too.

Tonight's Prom will be available to listen to on the BBC iPlayer for seven days after the concert 



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