Playing: Symphony no. 4 in F minor Op.36 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
BBC Radio 3

BBC Symphony Orchestra at the St Magnus Festival - #3

Producer, R3 Multiplatform

Unloading at the Pickaquoy Centre

It’s Midsummer Day, and it’s bright and early to find the BBC Symphony Orchestra truck at the Pickaquoy Centre, retrieve some kit, and get to know Kirkwall’s multi-purpose leisure centre, which will be the band’s base for the next few days. There is barely-suppressed excitement among the friendly staff at the Pickaquoy, because this weekend marks not only the arrival of the BBC SO for its first visit, but the opening of their newest facility – a state-of-the-art swimming pool. 

Kit and climbing wall at the Pickaquoy Centre

Three of the orchestra’s concerts are taking place in the large sports hall – as the truck is unloaded the instrument cases are lined up in the lee of a dizzyingly high indoor climbing wall – probably a first; also a first is Radio 3’s technical team being led from a wheelchair: senior studio manager Neil Pemberton broke his ankle on a walking holiday in Perthshire just before the Orkney tour – undeterred, Neil is doing as much as he can with the help of his attentive and personally assigned Festival volunteer, Connor Molloy.

As if this weren’t enough, chief producer Ann McKay has an extra duty today – one of the highlights of recent St Magnus Festivals has been its workshop courses for composers, conductors, writers and singers; this year’s composers’ course is run by Alasdair Nicolson and Sally Beamish, with resident ensemble the Hebrides Ensemble, and the eight participating composers also pair up with the conductors who are working with Martyn Brabbins and Charles Peebles, for sessions with the BBC SO; Ann’s task is to hold a session with the composers to explain how the process of commissioning new music works and to give them the benefit of her experience through practical advice on how to make the best of the opportunities presented by a commission.

Hall of the Pickaquoy Centre

All is rigged and ready in time for the 330pm rehearsal but, such are the vagaries of moving so many people, instruments and kit 700 miles away from base, some players have fallen by the wayside – a bird strike affected one group’s flight, resulting in a missed connection to Kirkwall.

But by concert time at 7pm, everyone is finally in place and Alexander Vedernikov raises his baton for a seasonally-appropriate rendition of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream music; Christine Brewer joins the orchestra to sing Berg’s lushly evocative Seven Early Songs, and Vedernikov dispenses with his score to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture; after the interval, the sylvan melodies and bracing harmonies of Sibelius’s En Saga point to Orkney’s links with Scandinavia; and Christine Brewer returns to give a radiant performance – much appreciated by the capacity Orcadian audience – of the ‘Liebestod’ from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. By way of appreciation, conductor and soloist are not rewarded with the traditional bouquets of flowers (which would have to be expensively imported to the islands), but by gifts an appropriate, locally-made product which goes by the name of ‘Highland Park’.

‘They’ve found the warmest place in Orkney for us tonight,’ comments our regular BBC SO blogger Phil Hall, indicating the powerful lights which are flooding the Hall, and it’s true – most of the men in the audience soon have their jackets off while the orchestra gents swelter in their smart black suits, shirts and ties. Notwithstanding, the wonderful sound reverberating from the sprung wooden floor is excellent: Neil and Ann concur afterwards that the Radio 3 audience will find much to enjoy when the programmes are broadcast in the first week in July.

On Saturday, the players will be back in the Hall for a Side-by-Side concert with an orchestra made up of young musicians from Orkney schools. The young players were rehearsing in a side room all day on Friday, ready to join the SO players in a challenging and varied pop-classic programme of Orff, Grieg, Ravel, Handel, Haydn, John Adams, Verdi and Musorgsky. And one popular novelty will be a reprise for the now-discarded ‘BBC Radio 4 UK theme’ – Fritz Spiegel’s confection of British folk tunes from all four home nations with which Radio 4 listeners were greeted at dawn. ‘Early one morning, just as the sun was rising …’ Except here in Orkney, on the longest day of the year, the sun barely sets …

You can see the Hall and watch a short extract from the rehearsal here:

Alexander Verdernikov rehearses Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream, in Kirkwall.


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