Archives for May 2010

Tea time - home time for the BBC Symphony Orchestra

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 15:23 UK time, Friday, 28 May 2010

Our indefatigable BBC Symphony Orchestra blogger Phil Hall takes us to the end of the Orchestra's Far East tour ... and home.

At Taipei airport I discover a new taste sensation: Bubble Tea. Basically iced tea with tea-flavoured tapioca pearls that you suck through a straw; truly a Taiwanese phenomenon. We land in Hong Kong and are held for 20 minutes while our visas for re-entry into China are obtained. The bus to Guangzhou takes over 4 hours and is driven by a frustrated rally driver. I notice upon leaving the Hong Kong/Chinese border that we go from driving on the left hand carriageway to driving on the right.

The hotel in Guangzhou is on a small island in the Pearl River - a romantic name for what is a wide, muddy and very busy waterway. It is also surrounded by old Colonial buildings most of which are in the process of being renovated and are mainly used now by Embassies. I walk down a side street and am surprised to hear Auld Lang Syne being hauntingly played on a Gourd Flute. I suppose that's quite appropriate for the end of a tour. The player segues effortlessly into a beautiful Chinese melody.

ssoA.jpgOur final concert takes place in the Xinghai concert hall which enjoys good acoustics (the halls in China have been uniformly excellent) although the extreme humidity outside mixed with the air conditioning plays havoc with oboe and bassoon reeds. After the short rehearsal there are speeches and votes of thanks by and to the management team and our superb crew of instrument handlers (who have seemingly limitless patience) and we are all invited for a drink after the concert near by the hotel. I do a short interview for Radio 3 to accompany the broadcasts of our tour concerts and head backstage for something to eat. An orchestra marches on its stomach and we all go bananas and crackers over an array of, er, bananas and crackers ...

sso1e.jpgWhenever we tour, our management travel early to the Hall and put up little notices to help us find our dressing rooms and stage entrances. This is incredibly useful as we have no time to get to know these frequently labyrinthine backstage areas. Often the signs are not without humour, such as the one on the left in the Chinese-style loos.

One of our clarinet player's mothers hails from the area and he warned us that the audience may be quite restless. He wasn't wrong. I don't think the talking actually ever stopped throughout the concert despite some shushing from other patrons.

sso3e.jpgMaybe they were discussing the discrepancy of our clarinet soloist Sabine Meyer's photo in the programme (which, weirdly, was in fact of one of her students!) But they are appreciative and after Brahms's Symphony No 4 we treat them to a Dvorak Slavonic Dance and a final Entry of the Gladiators by Fucik before Jiří (in a gesture I've never witnessed before), gives a flower from his bouquet to every female member of the orchestra. It takes him quite a few minutes to get round to everyone and the good people of Guangzhou are nearly clapped-out by the end!

The tour backs on to two weeks of annual leave for the orchestra which is fortunate in that it gives us time to recover from the jet lag. Like most people I personally suffer badly going East and inevitably find the first few concerts hard work. I remember floating through Strauss's Don Juan in the first concert of the tour in Korea a few years ago, a real out-of-body experience. I don't yet have a foolproof cure. Some drink whisky, others take sleeping pills. I try and adjust to the new time as soon as I'm on the plane. It's better going West but I still feel pity for our principal clarinet Richard Hosford, who upon landing at Heathrow at 5.30am goes straight to the Royal College of Music to do 8 hours' teaching. Rather him than me. I have the luxury of being met by my wife and driven home just in time to distribute presents, take my youngest to school and relax with a cuppa. It was a good trip but it's great to be back. I wouldn't swap that feeling for all the tea in China... Taiwan... Korea... or Japan.

BBC SO in Taiwan - It ain't half hot, mum!

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 14:47 UK time, Friday, 28 May 2010

BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall continues his blog from the orchestra's Far East tour

When the orchestra travels to the Far East we have a well-detailed tour schedule full of local background information courtesy of the mandarins (sorry) at the BBC and the Foreign Office. I notice that we are touring a part of the world frequently beset by national disasters: earthquakes in Japan, typhoons in Korea, mudslides in China and tropical storms in Taiwan. It can also get pretty bumpy flying around here too and we experience about 3 hours of bad turbulence between Beijing and Hong Kong, upsetting some of the passengers. We are in transit for a few hours before catching a shorter flight to Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second city and harbour.

taiwan1b.jpgThe heat and humidity is sauna-esque and I'd forgotten about the swarms of scooters that plague the country, sometimes three people to one bike. They do not believe in pavements in Taiwan we are forced into the road and frequently mown down.)

We go out into the night and dine on street food, some of which we cannot accurately identify. The pièce de resistance is one of nature's most malodorous fruits, the Durian, which, as a consequence, is banned in most public buildings. It smells putrid and tastes like a cross between stewed apple and diesel, but mainly diesel....

  taiwan2b.jpgThe next morning I head out on the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) to the Lotus Pond north of the city which is surrounded by Temples and gates. A peaceful contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city centre. At the MRT station I see the BBC SO playing on a TV screen - an advert for our evening concert which is also being shown outside the hall to 10,000 people.

The audience inside the hall is very warm. On stage it's even hotter.  There are reports of violin varnish melting and lots of players have sunburn, me included. We play Elgar's 'In the South' and I suppose it must be that time of the tour as I feel a twinge of homesickness at this little piece of England in Taiwan.

taiwan3b.jpgThat evaporates however when we play Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 as immediately I'm put in mind of the '70's sit-com,  It Ain't Half Hot Mum and I start chuckling to myself. Our newest recruit Joe Atkins (2nd Trumpet - pictured, left) already looks like he's been in a Burmese jungle for far too long.

The high speed train ride north to Taipei the next morning is accompanied by heavy rain (something we haven't had since Tokyo) and our randomly appointed seating allows me to catch-up with some people I haven't spent much time with thus far. Tours are useful for getting to know one's colleagues better or for clearing the air. On the other hand after 2 weeks of such close proximity - eating, playing and travelling next to one another- even one's closest friends can become trying...(or so my closest friends tell me).

The Chiang-Kai Shek concert hall is vast but with a good, lively acoustics. But during Prokofiev's 5th Symphony I hit a low. There is always one on a long tour and after all the late nights and early starts my body was running on empty and I have to fight to stay on my perch. The audience is very appreciative and upon leaving the stage door I notice a long line of people queueing for autographs in the rain. All I can think about however is the 6 am start tomorrow for Hong Kong and my bed. Well, ok, maybe ONE beer ...  

Fry on Wagner - Behind the scenes

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 17:18 UK time, Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Tonight on BBC 4 at 9pm you can see Stephen Fry on Wagner, the latest broadcast in the Opera on the BBC season.

You can read some fascinating behind-the-scenes details of the film and Stephen's journey to Bayreuth in a BBC blog by the film's director, Patrick McGrady. Just follow this link to view the blog!




On to China with the BBC Symphony Orchestra ...

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 11:28 UK time, Monday, 24 May 2010

BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall continues his vivid blog describing life on the orchestra's demanding Far East Tour. The picture below shows the Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre, the spectacular venue for one of the orchestra's tour dates.


shanghai_maglev.jpgAs I board the bone-shaking green bus driven by a man who thinks his horn is an  accelerator, I kick myself. I had forgotten about the Maglev. Some far-sighted colleagues have seized the opportunity and travelled at 430kmh, floating by magnetic levitation, from Shanghai airport to the city centre in 10 minutes. I am tottering along in an ancient, mephitic bus for way too long. Next time...

CNN tells me that the Icelandic ash cloud has struck again and that spells bad news for the extra percussionists and E-flat clarinet player who are meant to be flying out from the UK to join us in Beijing for Prokofiev 5. We may need to employ local musicians if they can't make it. CNN also tells me that Shanghai is known as the 'Paris of the East', the 'Pearl of the Orient'. It is a vast, vibrant city and our hotel is next to the Oriental Arts Centre where we'll be playing our concert.

hotel_room_view.jpgAs I walk past, touts try and sell me a ticket, excitedly barking: 'BBC, BBC!' I tell them I already have a seat. The hotel is called 'Park View' and as I look at the víew from my room, I muse on the irony, as all I can see is an electricity substation and lots of grey apartment blocks...

We venture out to the subway in the hot and humid night night air. I see glowing kites flying with LEDs on them and also trees dripping with lights and buildings flashing neon advertisements. How China has changed....We board the underground (40p fare, Boris Johnson take note) and at the first stop are immediately made aware of a cultural difference between China and the previous two countries we have visited. I am pushed and elbowed as people rush on and off the train: the interpersonal respect we enjoyed in Japan and Korea doesn't seem to exist here.

We eat in the French Concession district and notice a lot of colonial European-style buildings. The guide book has led us to a restaurant famed for its fish soup and braised bullfrogs. The dishes are actually delicious but all contain industrial amounts of red Szechuan chilli which later cause my bowels to mutiny. We wash it down with Tsing-Tao beer and as we leave we notice the glass cases full of the poor doomed creatures looking all too much like they know their destiny...

The next morning is spent shopping for presents and we visit the old part of this huge city. It's incredible to see how the traditional and modern co-exist: quiet, narrow alleyways full of bicycles, washing lines, kittens and street food contrast with the buzzing high rise and endless traffic of modern Shanghai. We haggle with the hawkers whose English is surprisingly good and lunch on tripe soup - a good hangover cure, so I'm told...

The concert hall is large and excellent; beforehand, a speech from the mayor of Shanghai is weirdly punctuated by bursts of Star Wars-type music. Our famous guest clarinet soloist, Sabine Meyer, catches me out in the Mozart concerto as she does an unscheduled encore. 'Bar 60,' conductor Jirí hisses hastily, but Sabine has already started playing and I'm momentarily thrown and start in the last movement... only she is playing the second...

sooty_sweep_bbc.jpgAfter the concert there is a themed party back at the hotel. These have become a tradition on lengthy tours and provide some light relief. This time the theme was 'S' so there were spacemen, surfers, a schoolmaster, Simon Cowell and a surgeon to name but a few. Amongst the prizewinners were Sooty & Sweep and principal bass, Paul Marrion, bravely sporting just his swimming trunks! The viola section, as always in these things, distinguished itself.


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Buddha's birthday, and an upside down violinist ...

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 11:49 UK time, Wednesday, 19 May 2010

seoul1.jpgHalf-way through the flight from Tokyo to Seoul, writes Phil Hall, I turn on the inflight TV and see an unexpected sight: the back of my head. Asiana airlines is showing the Last Night of the Proms from 2009. Word quickly spreads amongst the orchestra and we muse on our fellow passengers watching it blissfully unaware that they are surrounded by the very orchestra they are looking at.

Blue skies greet us in Seoul (an improvement on the smog we had here last time) and after a quick swim I pay a visit to the old Downtown Temple opposite the hotel. It is Buddha's 2554th birthday and thus a holiday in Korea. The temple grounds are full of the devout, bending in prayer, singing  and lighting incense.

Another culinary challenge awaits us in the form of Kim Chi (pickled, chillified cabbage), a delicious octopus Nakji Bokum (a sort of fiiery paella) and a pancake of scallions and oysters washed down with beer and Soju (Korean fortified sake). Unlike some of my more adventurous colleagues, however, I pass on eating actual live octopus (the tenticle suckers stick to the roof of your mouth, apparently).

It is a free day for most of us and I take the opportunity to indulge myself with a Korean massage, and body scrub, great for easing the aches and pains of travel and viola-playing. Afterwards I float off with glowing skin to attend a delightful chamber music concert of Webern, Mendelssohn and Schumann put on by some of my string colleagues.

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Yet another Istanbul love story... or two, or three

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Khyam Allami Khyam Allami | 16:48 UK time, Tuesday, 18 May 2010

London based Oud player Khyam Allami resumes his Radio 3 World Routes Academy blog

  WRA-Blog_18May_01.jpgApologies for the silence since my last blog but as you can probably guess, things have been a little hectic. Not only that, but during the last six weeks, I fell in love.

The first story went something like this. I arrived in Istanbul to do some research about Turkish 'Ud.  Shboom! Love at first sight. Çay (tea) on every street corner, beautiful architecture, boat trips across the Bosphorous for public transport, balik ekmek (fresh grilled fish sandwiches), Üsküdar, Burgazada, all kinds of music everywhere, Selim Sesler at least once a week and most importantly, very wonderful people.

Some of the kindest of these people were the Turkish 'Ud maestros Mehmet Emin Bitmez, Necati Çelik and Yurdal Tokcan. Most of my time was spent with Mehmet hoca (meaning teacher in Turkish) studying the fine details of Turkish 'Ud technique, transcribing one of his taksims (improvisations) and writing an essay about it.

A few afternoons were spent with Yordal hoca and the Istanbul State Turkish Classical Music Group, and a couple of afternoons with Necati hoca who kindly shared some of his audio archive with me. It never ceases to frustrate me how a single musical phrase by any one of these grand musicians, can take me so long to be able to play. Proof of their mastery, my studentship and a possible metaphor for many other things philosophical. But... back to more pressing topics.

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First concert in Japan ...

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 15:12 UK time, Monday, 17 May 2010

BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall continues his blog from the orchestra's Far East tour... 

nhk_hall_tokyo.jpgAt the first Tokyo rehearsal we compare notes as to how badly we slept and also our eating experiences. On the podium is our diacritical chief conductor Jiří Bělohlávek. He seems wide awake which is just as well as this is the only rehearsal we have on the Sibelius violin concerto and the three encores which we're playing in four hours' time.

The concert venue is new to me, the NHK Hall. NHK is the Japanese equivalent of the BBC and they are also televising the concert. It's a large hall which feels a bit dry acoustically, but we warm to it after a while.



The concert starts with Elgar's overture In the South, a piece the orchestra knows well having recently played it in the Barbican with Sir Andrew Davis. The two conductors have quite differing takes on the piece; basically Jiří is faster in the outer sections and slow in the middle and Andrew takes the piece globally more slowly but gets more of a move on in the central viola solo.

The 23-year-old Japanese violinist Mayuko Kamio turns out to play like a dream and fortunately is easy to follow. She does a Paganini encore that wows us and the large audience further.


tokyo_fish_market2.jpgJiří must have conducted the Dvořák New World symphony more times than I've had hot clichés but he brings an elegance and love to the score that is infectious. The audience love it too and we treat them to all three encores, which sound far too good for the amount of rehearsal they had! Eventually we tear ourselves away from the stage, change out of our glad rags and there is just time to thank our Japanese promoters before climbing aboard the bus heading for the bar ... I mean hotel. A few of us plan to meet up tomorrow at 6am to take in the famous Fish Market before we leave for Korea tomorrow morning. I hope we'll be back in Japan soon - an incredible, friendly, unique and captivating place.


BBC Symphony in Tokyo - getting the lie of the land ...

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 16:01 UK time, Thursday, 13 May 2010

japan2.jpgThere is nowhere quite like Tokyo. Chaotically juxtaposed buildings vie with a well-dressed, well-ordered people. As we battle through sluggish traffic from Narita Airport I notice that despite the preponderance of cherry trees, we are just too late for the wonderful white blossom; after what seems like an age, we eventually reach our hotel. Within half an hour of checking-in, people have already gone out jogging, buried their heads in local maps or made dinner reservations. Some prefer to take it easy, practise or chill in their rooms with room service and a good book. Others jump into taxis for sightseeing. I like to get out and about on foot to get the lie of the land.

Later, a small group of us head for the Tokyo underground and grapple with the ticket machines. After congratulating ourselves for only getting lost once, we tumble out into Roppongi, the downtown restaurant district of Tokyo. We find a typical, cosy Japanese restaurant with just a few locals in suits eating there. Seven of us take off our shoes and clamber round a low table. The waiter barely speaks English but knows enough to ask where we're from. 'Ah, England! ..David Beckham!' he announces proudly.He proceeds to pamper us with delicacies such as pickled bamboo, scallops, dried squid guts and barbecued chicken cartilage with a sauce containing yellow dandelions. He also offers us sake on the house - we heartily accept - soon, we'll be getting down to the serious business...

  • Phil Hall is sub-principal viola of the BBC Symphony Orchestra: look out for his blogs here, throughout the orchestra's tour of the Far East.


BBC Symphony Orchestra takes to the skies ...

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 10:39 UK time, Tuesday, 11 May 2010

BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall is back on the Blog, reporting from the orchestra's Far East tour

ba_aircraft_takeoff_300.jpg'Bore da! is the Welsh greeting I'm met with from the German passenger on my right on BA flight 005 to Tokyo. The utterer is none other than our principal viola Norbert Blume who has recently purchased a property in North Wales and has been keenly teaching himself Welsh for a few weeks now. He has a penchant for languages and often says things to me in Catalan in rehearsals... well, it's one way of livening them up!

So, as I settle into my seat I raise my eyes heavenward and wonder if he's going to be trying out unintelligible phrases on me for the next 11.5 hrs. You know it's pretty crucial on these long flights to get the seating plan right, for as much as we enjoy making music with each other, (and I hope I'm not shattering any illusions here), that enjoyment sometimes extends only so far when the instruments are put down. Thus when a long-haul flight list appears in Maida Vale 1 an angry mob descends upon it and devours the little boxes until all that's left is a tattered piece of paper with crossings out and hastily written names, lest one sit next to a less-than-favourable travel buddy.

We'll be on tour in the Far East for the next two and a half weeks visiting Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan. We've been to most of the places recently but we haven't played in Tokyo since 1997. Touring is generally considered a good morale booster for the orchestra - some struggle leaving loved ones behind (I waved my youngest off to school with a lump in my throat) but my philosophy is to try and make the best of each trip: the more you put in, the more memories you'll take home. I'm hoping to report back from each country and give a little insight into life on tour with the BBC SO.

Better go, the Japanese air steward is looking bemused ... no Norbert, she doesn't speak Welsh!


  • The orchestra's tour with chief conductor Jirí Belohlávek takes in Tokyo (11-13 May), Seoul (13-17 May), Shanghai (17-20 May), Beijing (20-21May), Taipei (21-22nd May), Kaohsiung (22-23 May), Taipei  (23-24 May), and Guangzhon (24-26 May). Programmes include Dvorak 9, Elgar 'In the South', Prokofiev 5, Brahms 4 and Tippett's 'Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli.  

Music Planet - coming on Radio 3 in the autumn ...

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Roger Short Roger Short | 11:41 UK time, Friday, 7 May 2010

Yes indeed, as Andy Kershaw tells us on his promo video, filmed recently in Papua New Guinea, he and Lucy Duran are currently travelling the globe for a new eight-part series of world music programmes. 

music_planet_team_newguinea.JPGMusic Planet will be a companion series for BBC1's major new natural history project Human Planet, presenting the music of some of the cultures featured in the TV series.  As I write, Andy is on his way to Thailand, there to join producer James Parkin and engineer James Birtwistle for a trip that includes Laos and Burma;  tomorrow Lucy Duran and I, with engineer Martin Appleby, head off on a rather shorter haul to Galicia in northern Spain - this is for a feature on how the local traditions are influenced by music from across the sea (and did you know there was a mass migration of Britons buying villas in northern Spain in the sixth century, bringing Celtic culture to that part of the world?). 

Just as Human Planet shows how people relate to their landscape and environment, in Music Planet we're showing how all this is reflected in the local music.  So far Lucy has visited Madagascar, Kenya, Greenland and Mali, and Andy has been to the Solomon Islands as well as Papua New Guinea.  There's plenty more before the autumn.  Look out for our regular blogs as we let you know how we get on ... 

  • Music Planet will accompany the transmission of BBC1's Human Planet, and follows the different environments and landscapes of the TV series: Arctic, Oceans, Grasslands, Rivers, Deserts, Mountains, Jungles and finally the Urban environment.
  • The photo shows the Music Planet team - engineer James Birtwistle, presenter Andy Kershaw and producer Roger Short - looking at the wrong camera while on location in Papua New Guinea

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