Playing: Nocturnes for orchestra by Claude Debussy
BBC Radio 3

BBC Symphony Orchestra at the St Magnus Festival - #7

BBC Symphony Orchestra

BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall relishes a strings-only concert, and Graeme Kay reports from the receiving end ...

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall

So we are ramping up for our final concert on these fair isles, and the one which (if I am absolutely honest) I have been looking forward to the most. Our colleagues who bang and blow things have departed on the noisy turbo-prop plane southward leaving just the strings to perform a delicious confection of Elgar's Introduction & Allegro, Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia and Strauss's  Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings. As if that isn't enough we will play them in St Magnus Cathedral – a 12th century masterpiece in red Dundee Stone, at 9pm tonight.

Conductor's video relay to players in the Apse

As we rehearsed this afternoon it seemed as if the music was oozing out of the ancient stones and spiralling upwards. The Tallis Fantasy is famous for having ‘cathedral effects’ built in to it, and crucially one has to place the second orchestra in the right place for spacial effect. Today I can't see them: nobody can, not even the conductor (Andrew Gourlay), as they are placed in the apse behind the large rood screen (that’s what it looks like but it actually contains the cathedral organ) that divides the sanctuary. Via modern technology (video monitors) these disembodied voices can  see the conductor but that isn't enough, as there is inevitably a time lag. Fortunately the players are used to this piece and anticipate the beats enough so as to play together with the rest of us.

Phil Hall on stage

Much reshuffling ensues to rehearse the Elgar which has a solo quartet out front, and then another big change for the Strauss as we have elected to play the piece standing up (it helps free up the body). The only problem is that I am too tall for Mike Leaver (Viola No.4) standing behind me struggling to see the baton ... (sorry Mike...I'll try and shrink in time for the concert...).

Multiplatform producer Graeme Kay adds: 'Phil needn't have worried about masking Mike Leaver - I could tell from my seat in the audience that the 23 players were achieving complete unity of ensemble as much by listening to each other as watching! Lasting fully 25 minutes of unbroken and expansive polyphony, Strauss's Metamorphosen is a work of startling intensity, born of the composer's  horror and grief over the destruction of the Munich Opera House in 1943, and the subsequent bomb damage to the cities and theatres with which he had been associated throughout his long life.

'With this in mind, as we listened, I was reminded of the sermon at the Festival Service on Sunday, in which the minister alluded to Oliver Cromwell's incursion into the Orkney Islands and his taking over of the cathedral – at the crossing between the nave and the transepts, where our orchestra performed, Cromwell had apparently used the space to tether his horses ...

'The last time I was in this magnificent cathedral was in 1979, when the St Magnus Festival was in its infancy and co-founder Peter Maxwell Davies was the very much the musical genius loci. Then as now, community spirit was everywhere apparent – everyone lent a hand – and I remember, as a member of the audience, being drafted in to help move music stands and Gregory Knowles's percussion instruments  out to the waiting truck after a concert by the legendary Fires of London. The cathedral's ancient stones have witnessed amazing events and been steeped in great music now for many decades – we all hope that the BBC Symphony Orchestra's visit will leave memories of great music-making for – and with – the people of Orkney.'
  • The concert recorded in Kirkwall Cathedral will be broadcast in Afternoon on 3 on Monday 1 July.
  • Janacek's Suite from The Cunning Little Vixen, Alasdair Nicolson's Shadows on the Wall - Five Hauntings for Voice and Orchestra, and Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (1945), recorded at Kirkwall's Pickaquoy Centre on Sunday, will be broadcast in Afternoon on 3 on Tuesday 2 July.

More Posts