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BBC Symphony Orchestra - world premiere in Bonn

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 15:43 UK Time, Thursday, 6 October 2011

Photo: Soloist Carolin Widdmann takes her applause after the premiere of Rebecca Saunders' violin concerto

Applause for soloist Carolin Widmann after the premiere of Rebecca Saunders' violin concerto

BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall reports from the band's recent tour to Germany and Belgium

As I pack my tails and shoes into the wardrobe box and my viola into a flight case, I muse on the fact that touring is a very civilised affair with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This is the first of three tours this autumn and newly-minted luggage labels sit alongside tour schedules, hot off the press. All is presided over by our ever-efficient tour manager Kathryn who is on hand to answer awkward questions, such as: 'Why are we flying to Düsseldorf when Bonn has its own airport?' 'Is toothpaste classed as a liquid?' and 'What time does the 9.30 coach leave?'
And why shouldn't touring be civilised? It used to be in the pre-jet age. I'd love to have gone by boat to America - all that legroom and no jet-lag. Then I remember that the London Symphony Orchestra was originally booked on the Titanic ...

Somehow all the civility changes when I wake up at crikey-o'clock to get to Heathrow for a red-eye flight to Düsseldorf. I take my wife a cup of tea. She mumbles something I don't quite understand and I trip over the cat on my way out the door. Maybe she was telling me about the cat... I arrive at Terminal 5 in far too much time. A smooth flight and an uneventful coach journey ensue and we reach the hotel and head out for lunch on the old square.


After a large dose of Schweinshaxe and Leber mit kartoffelpüree (pork knuckle, liver and mash) my trusty interpreter Norbert and I seek out the Beethoven-Haus. It's 30 years since I last went but the overly attentive curators haven't changed; they tell me to throw my ice cream cone in the bin and put my iPhone away as soon as I even think about taking a picture of one of Beethoven's violas.

Photo of Phil Hall at the Beethoven-Haus, Bonn

Phil at the Beethoven-Haus, Bonn

At the rehearsal Sylvain Cambreling (the only conductor I know with a pony tail) apologises for the dry acoustics of the Beethovenhalle. It becomes drier still in the concert with the audience. There's a slight distraction after Weber's Oberon overture as members of the Iraqi Youth Orchestra join the audience in the auditorium. I wonder what they make of the world premiere of Rebecca Saunders' violin concerto - Still - in which the soloist, Carolin Widmann has to de-tune her D-string a quarter-tone flat for the first movement. It is a dark piece that has a lot of unusual percussion, a piano and - a first in a violin concerto I wonder? - an accordion. But the audience love it and the composer has to make repeated curtain calls.

Maybe horn-of-plenty Mahler is more the students' thing as afterwards they flock backstage asking to meet our horn-players. Mahler's Fourth Symphony is always a joy - a mix of spookiness, heavenly vision and naïveté. Incredible to think that at 54 minutes it's Mahler's shortest symphony!
The next morning we sit on a coach for four hours (oh, the glamour ...) and by the time we cross the border into Belgium news reaches us that first flute Dan Pailthorpe has appendicitis and has stayed on in Bonn for an appendectomy.
Over moules frites by a scenic Ghent canal we discuss the options - flying out a replacement or playing one player short. All is revealed in our second venue, the wonderfully Gothic St Baaf's Cathedral. The acoustics couldn't be more different than that of the previous night and as Nick Korth launches into the opening horn call at the start of Oberon, his notes float up past the Gargoyles into the stained glass and create a truly magical effect in the hushed cathedral. I wonder if a lot of the detail from the Saunders will be lost past the first few rows, but the audience listens attentively and gives our soloist a very warm reception after the concerto. 

So, what of the poor absent flautist? Well, our brave second flute Tomoka Mukai steps up to the plate and saves the day leaving Kathleen to juggle the second and third flute parts of the Mahler. This piece too takes on a heavenly glow in the cathedral, particularly in the slow movement in which the cellos sound especially golden as does soprano Sarah-Jane Brandon's voice in the finale.
Afterwards we celebrate at the excessively-named 'House of a thousand beers'. I feel woefully inept asking the waitress for 'a beer'. "Which one?" she says. For once, I'm silent.


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