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Inside Total Immersion - Wolfgang Rihm

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 17:07 UK Time, Friday, 12 March 2010

BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall resumes his blog, on the latest Total Immersion weekend ...


One of the attractions of playing in a band such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra is that two consecutive weeks are seldom the same. Take last week for instance: there we were playing Pergolesi's sublime Stabat Mater with early music magician Marc Minkowski, dutifully leaving our vibrato at home, and now here we are with several days of music by the contemporary German composer Wolfgang Rihm.


I guess being christened Wolfgang could be a mixed blessing for a composer but the Muse definitely sits on his shoulder: to date Rihm has written in excess of 500 pieces, almost as much as his 18th century namesake - there are literally reams of Rihm.


Now you might think that anyone who writes so much must be in danger of repeating himself but Rihm constantly seeks out different styles and moods, some of which have caused quite a stir. Ever since I first encountered Stravinsky's Rite of Spring my ears have pricked up at the thought of concerts creating a scandal. However in over 20 years in the profession I can safely say that barring one lone shout of 'Rubbish!!' after a Proms performance, I have never witnessed one at any of my concerts.


Of course there have been occasions when members of the public have walked out and I remember the first ten rows of the Vienna Musikverein audience demonstrably not applauding after we had opened our concert there with a particularly acerbic piece of contemporary English music. Call me perverse ,but I'd still like to witness a bit of rotten egg or tomato throwing just once before I shuffle off my mortal coil. Maybe British audiences are too polite.


Not so in Berlin's Deutsche Oper, for that's what happened at the premiere of Rihm's grotesque ballet Tutuguri in 1982. We are only playing a 16-minute extract from it but it's enough to make you see why the conservative Berliners were launching groceries and the original goes on for considerably longer. Think of 2hrs of Varèse or Xenakis at their most violent and you get an idea why the conservative burghers of Berlin were so upset. Alongside this we'll be performing Rihm's bizarre monodrama Das Gehege which involves a mad woman falling in love with and castrating an eagle. Don't worry, no animals will be harmed in the making of this concert.


kelsey_grammer.jpgNo signs of a violent person in the flesh however. Wolfgang Rihm enters Maida Vale Studio 1 hesitantly. A huge man (weirdly looking like a cross between Kelsey Grammer and Beethoven), he seems almost shy. He speaks quietly to the conductor and to Steven Isserlis for whom he has written his colourful 3rd cello concerto. At one point he approaches the orchestra and says poetically: 'You must change like the weather between these two bars... it is now Spring, no harsh sounds'. He thanks the soloist and orchestra profusely and leaves to do the rounds of interviews, university appearances and more rehearsals in preparation for his busy weekend. Maybe he'll check the Barbican's grocery supplies, just in case ...


  • Total Immersion - Wolfgang Rihm takes place at London's Barbican Centre on Saturday 13 March. For full details, click on this link.



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