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The BBC Symphony Orchestra's immersion exertion ...

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 20:53 UK Time, Sunday, 17 January 2010

hans_werner_henze.jpg'Fiona, can I hear your bongos?' is a rather unusual way for a conductor to begin most orchestral rehearsals but that's how the General (final) rehearsal for the BBC Symphony Orchestra's contribution to the Total Immersion weekend of Hans Werner Henze's music in the Barbican started. As the orchestra normally rehearses in a different venue (the notoriously dry acoustics of Maida Vale Studio 1) everything now sounds rather different from the previous few days.

Not that the orchestra isn't used to the Barbican acoustics, but some balances inevitably have to be addressed and our conductor Oliver Knussen is anxious to tackle them straight away.'Don't give me Health and Safety fortissimos, give me the real thing,' he bellows at the hard working BBC Symphony Chorus. Olly wasn't wrong about it being hard to sing: they already have their hands full just trying to pitch their notes from various instruments in the orchestra.We move on to the purely orchestral pieces and let chorus master Stephen Jackson add his finishing touches to the chorus in another room.

There's a tricky passage in Fraternite - 'Could we just cover from Figure 32 again please Olly?' asks the Principal viola. 'You mean my circus-act bit?' he says referring to the place where he conducts in five with his left hand whilst doing four with his right. No mean feat, the conducting equivalent of rubbing your tummy whilst patting your head. We play through the bit once again and it goes better than it's ever done. I'm instinctively worried and so it turns out is Olly: 'That was too good,' I say. 'Yes,' he replies, 'we should have left it for the concert!' But that's the thing with rehearsals ... one can reach a peak and then the only way is down! It's a fine line and you seldom know when you are going to cross it.


So, rehearsals over we are now fed, watered, suited, booted and backstage with the 40 minutes of solo piano music Huw Watkins is manfully tackling, being piped over the tannoy. Occasional shusshing comes from the management when the conversation volume rises. 'Has anyone seen the trombones?' asks the assistant manager in a remarkably calm voice. 'I think they went for a curry,' comes the reply.

But everyone is onstage on time and when Olly enters he realises that he is a bit hemmed-in by the forest of microphones surrounding him. Violins hastily shuffle back and make room and finally all of the quiet, dark, eery soundworld Henze created is allowed to unfurl.

The octogenarian Hans Werner Henze is present in the Hall, looking quite frail these days but still immaculately turned out in his trademark bow tie and waistcoat. He bows, hand on heart to the orchestra and audience after each piece. The response from the audience is warm and at the end there is a standing ovation. He looks happy, as are we. Over my pint afterwards we dissect some of things that went well and others that didn't quite come off. I wonder when we'll next play any of the pieces. That's the thing with the BBC Symphony Orchestra: we play such a wide range of repertoire that things seldom come round again often.

Wolfgang_Rihm.jpgNext Total Immersion up will be Wolfgang Rihm - like Henze, a conjurer of vivid orchestral sounds. It should be interesting and doubtless there will be influences from his older compatriot. 'Till then we'll be living senza Henze for a while, but it's been fun being immersed, and yes, I still like him.

  • Phil Hall is sub-principal viola of the BBC Symphon Orchestra
  • Total Immersion - Wolfgang Rihm takes place from Friday 12 to Saturday 13 March. Cellist Steven Isserlis and the Arditti Quartet are among the artists celebrating Wolfgang Rihm's 58th birthday on 13 March. The German composer, born in Karlsruhe in 1952, cut his creative teeth studying with Karlheinz Stockhausen before striking out in the 1970s as a powerfully independent, astonishingly inventive artist. 'Dear Wolfgang Rihm,' Stockhausen once wrote to his pupil: 'Please only heed your inner voice.' It was advice soundly taken and heeded ever since.



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