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Immersed in violas ...

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 11:43 UK Time, Monday, 19 March 2012

Picture of the BBC Symphony Orchestra viola section

The BBC Symphony Orchestra's 12 solo violas

BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall and his colleagues faced a stiff challenge in an unusual work written for just a dozen violas ...

No sooner had the dust settled on the Music Nation weekend when along came the juggernaut that is Mahler 7. All grist to the mill but while this was going on a dozen of us were beavering away in private for something entirely different...

When I joined the BBC SO in December 1991 the librarian gave the entire viola section a Christmas present: it was our parts for Benedict Mason's 'Concerto for the viola section': a six-movement workout for the violas with a vast orchestra which had everything in it but the proverbial kitchen sink. It even had a cadenza for the second violins!

Two weeks ago we announced the arrival of fresh blood in the form of Peter Mallinson and Matthias Wiesner to the violas, making the section complete for the first time in a while. It seemed timely then that the BBCSO's Total Immersion concert of music by Australian composer Brett Dean on Saturday should feature his piece 'Testament' for just 12 solo violas. Brett was himself a violist in the Berlin Philharmonic and composed the piece for them back in 2003. He wanted to play it with us and chose the tenth part.

Often when learning a single line in something new it is difficult to grasp the whole picture. Indeed it wasn't until we first played it through together with Brett (and David Robertson conducting) that it all made sense to me. The piece is inspired by Beethoven's 'Heiligenstadt testament' - the letter which he wrote to his brothers reflecting his grief at the onset of deafness. Brett cleverly weaves fragments of a Beethoven string quartet around the 12 different parts in a despairingly spectral fashion. His music, typically, is complex and technically quite challenging but very rewarding and always full of energy, interesting new effects - rosin-less bows to simulate the scratching of quill on paper - and myriad colours. A highly effective and unusual piece, which made us come off stage wanting to do it all again!


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