Archives for June 2010

It's all good in Bad Kissingen

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 15:43 UK time, Monday, 28 June 2010

More news from the BBC Symphony Orchestra on tour, with sub-principal viola Phil Hall

Orchestral players are creatures of habit. It is probably why we sign up to a life of practising, repetition and rehearsal in the first place. The BBC Symphony Orchestra has been coming to the Bavarian Spa town of Bad Kissingen almost every year for over 10 years, and yet again I find myself sitting at the same table, outside the same restaurant, ordering the same food (Pfifferlinge mushrooms) and drinking Apfelschorle, an apple juice and mineral water cocktail. But then may be it's the nature of this pleasant, sleepy town, two hours East of Frankfurt, where change only happens slowly - and that's the way the visitors since the time of Otto von Bismark, like it.

Regentenbau.jpgI get to the concert hall (the elegantly wood-panelled Regentenbau, 1914) and take my viola out of the flight case. We load the instruments into these heavy metal boxes for touring which in turn go onto the orchestra's handsome lorry. Sometimes string instruments can suffer from the changes in temperature whilst in transit and as I draw my bow across the C string (which has dropped a tone to B flat since I last played it) I'm greeted with a sound more akin to a bass vuvuzela than a viola. I wonder if the wood has come unstuck. I worryingly check the instrument over until I find the culprit - a loose string adjuster... and I can relax...

We rehearse Dvorak's Cello Concerto with the young German cellist Marie-Elisabeth Hecker followed by Beethoven's Violin Concerto with Nikolaj Znaider. He has the priviledge of playing on Fritz Kreisler's Guarnerius and boy, does it sound good. That's not strictly a fair comment - HE sounds good. Heifetz was once told that his violin sounded amazing. He lifted it up, put it to his ear and said: 'I don't hear anything!'

The next morning we rehearse for the evening concert and afterwards Jiri Belohlavek wishes us good luck for the England v Slovenia match that afternoon (he's worried that it'll be a bad concert if we lose!). Fortunately our boys come good and I celebrate with a dip in the hotel pool. We always stay in the same spa hotel which is pretty much full of octogenarians and their walking frames. In fact for years I thought the orchestra were the only people in the town under 70.

There are a few empty seats in the hall and I realise that Germany are playing their crucial game at 8.30. We skip through Kodaly's Dances from Galanta, Nicolaj Znaider turns out a stunner of a Beethoven concerto and follows it with, as he says to the audience, the only composer who could possibly be played after that concerto - Bach, whose Sarabande he plays exquisitely.

In the interval I nip to the nearest cafe to find out the latest football score and discover that it's nil-nil, or nul-nul as they say here. By the end of the concert, however, it becomes clear to us onstage that Germany have triumphed as during our second encore, the blare of car horns and shouting mingles with the Pizzicato Polka. I wonder if Bavarian Radio (who are recording the concert) will broadcast that...

As I munch my late-night steak, I'm informed that we'll now have to play Germany in our next game. There is pessimistic talk of England once again losing on penalties...and a gloom descends... but Norbert, our German principal viola isn't worried, he has a foot in both camps.


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Domingo says Z is for Zarzuela ...

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Calantha Haggie Calantha Haggie | 17:11 UK time, Thursday, 24 June 2010

Broadcast Assistant Calantha Haggie describes the paddling that went on below the surface as the swan of Radio 3's A-Z of Opera sailed serenely through five weeks of In Tune ...

domingo_bbc.jpgIt was a wonderful way to finish. Plácido Domingo (left) discussing his childhood memories of Zarzuela. Furthermore, with Zarzuela the final curtain has fallen on the In Tune A-Z of Opera guide. It's hard to believe that it's all over and yet these five weeks have gone so quickly...

In Tune played a special role in the launch of the Opera on the BBC season; in mid-May we were broadcasting live from the Royal Opera House, with a multitude of superstars performing including Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Ermonela Jaho, and a personal highlight was the last minute addition of Erwin Schrott performing a selection of Tango songs - the atmosphere of the whole broadcast was incredible.

The very next day we launched the In Tune A-Z of Opera with A for Aria. The brainchild of producer Tom Nelson, the production team leapt into action; all of us wanted to help with making 26 mini-features running back-to-back. With senior producer Paul Frankl and assistant producer Rosie Childs in charge, thankfully the production conveyor-belt operated smoothly once it was cranked up. This was also thanks to our amazing contributors - all 27 of them - who helped make each letter very memorable (do visit the In Tune programme pages for all contributor details) and they're still available to download.

a-z_studio_180.jpgOf course, this 'smooth operation' did have its moments... the tiny editing room (right) that we call 'Birdland', on the first floor of Broadcasting House, was the home of the A-Z of opera and has never looked in such a state of disarray (rumour has it that one technician is refusing to work in there - don't worry, we're tidying up now!). Minutes before broadcast, this was the scene of producers wildly scrambling through every opera recording imaginable to find the one they needed. While all this was going on, I was busily trying to edit the audio to upload our podcast on time, and of course keep the In Tune guests coming in - not always easy given occasional technical problems and cancellations. In addition, as always with live radio the listener can interact with what is playing: by giving listeners the chance to email us with their A-Z suggestions, we had to try and predict what they could possibly come up with - imagine the possibilities with X-Rated!

The office seems very quiet now that the constant hum of opera seeping out of offices and headphones has gone. But, it's never quiet for too long as we're already gearing up for the beginning of the Proms. In less than a month In Tune will be broadcast live from the Royal College of Music with a preview of some highlights from this year's Proms. At least we managed to revel in the success of the A-Z guide with an afternoon break of tea and cake.

Now though, it's on to the Proms...

  • The complete In Tune A-Z of Opera is available to download from the BBC. Please click this link.
  • Also, don't forget to listen in on the 16th July at 17.00 for the In Tune Proms special with Sean Rafferty and Petroc Trelawny.

Backstage at the Opera ...

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Jan Younghusband Jan Younghusband | 11:48 UK time, Thursday, 24 June 2010

A big welcome to the Blog for Jan Younghusband, the BBC's Commissioning Editor, Music & Events! Jan draws on her personal experiences of opera to reflect on this year's Opera at the BBC programmes; she describes the thought processes involved in translating opera from the theatre experience to the viewer's living-room experience - and there's lots of good news about future broadcasts.


I was thinking about Gareth Malone's Glyndebourne programme today and remembering my own excitement when I first went to the Sussex opera house as an 18-year-old - when I saw the stage for the first time I knew in that moment that I just had to do something with opera. 



The show was Raymond Leppard's famous 'realisation' of Cavalli's opera La Calisto - it was thought to be the first production since 1651 (!) and came right in the middle of the early opera revival; Leppard's work was regarded as a significant step in creating new audiences for baroque opera: so it was great to hear the opera again the other day on Radio 3.  And amazingly, Glyndebourne was to become part of my life: I went on to train in opera production there, and later it became part of my working life in TV. 



langridge_grimes_100px.jpgWhen I first saw Britten's Peter Grimes at English National Opera, I thought 'it's a film'; ever since then, I have putting opera on TV. My first ever TV opera was Grimes, for the BBC. Grimes was played by Philip Langridge, who sadly died earlier this year - God bless him: was he the best Peter Grimes ever? Come on, I don't think you can argue too much about that!


So it's great to be back at Glyndebourne. I urge you to go on to the website for Knight Crew - the opera which has been the catalyst for Gareth's chorus work, and the TV programmes  - and listen to the music: it's a great opera... (Whoops, shouldn't be saying that, I suppose, because hopefully you're watching the programmes and know that already!)


The other good news is that we have also just recorded Britten's Billy Budd - it's had universal rave reviews and has been one of the Glyndebourne season's hottest tickets; and in August we're doing Jonathan Kent's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni, new this year.  So we are back at Glyndebourne in a big way. I wonder if everyone knows yet that you can also see Billy Budd on a Big Screen in Somerset House, London in August - check it out on the Glyndebourne website

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A good listen

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Abigail Appleton Abigail Appleton | 11:27 UK time, Tuesday, 15 June 2010


Girl_listening_to_radio.jpgThere's something about the radio at night isn't there - a special intensity?  Earlier today I was part of a discussion with members of our Through the Night team who are passionate about the programmes they compile for the small hours of the morning. They showcase recordings of live music from across Europe and, as well as to the UK, their sequences are relayed to thirteen other European countries whose broadcasters add their own announcements in the relevant languages.

Like many listeners I usually hear their work through the BBC iPlayer, in daylight, yet to listen to the same sequence at night feels to me more adventurous - a journey into uncharted territory where works by composers I've never heard of tuck in between the classics.

I'm writing this now on Monday night and the house is quiet - quiet, that is, except for the clicks and creaks of any ageing building, the odd shout from the street outside, the tap of my laptop keys and the inquiring tones of historian of broadcasting David Hendy at the start of the first of his series of talks in The Essay this week.  'Do you remember listening to the radio for the first time?' he asks, and I'm not surprised that he describes his own earliest, intense listening to the radio as a night time experience - listening as a boy to voices from across the world through an old Bakelite radio installed by the bed. 

This memory is a way, for Hendy, of conjuring the magic of the very early days of the medium when not just children but writers, artists and scientists became fascinated by the distances covered and the invisibility the waves. For some, radio presented a threat of thought control, for others a chance to bring back the dead.   I'm fascinated by this Essay and it's not just the late hour as I read the whole week in advance and have been enthusing to friends and colleagues to catch the series.  Throughout the week David Hendy is looking at different ways in which a century of electronic media may have shaped the way we think.  He digs out an old BBC pamphlet on 'Wireless Discussion Groups: What They Are and How to Run Them', aimed at enlightening the 'plain man'.  The paternalism is obviously dated but the endeavour to nurture a continuous coming-into-contact with different points of view doesn't seem to me that far removed from that of a lively week of Night Waves.   

Broadcasting  isn't,  Hendy argues, about rewiring the mind in an instant but it has had a more complicated impact and has worked, as he puts it, a 'cognitive magic' more subtly, its effects building up over time.   By Friday's Essay he'll have got to the impact of the internet.

It's a hot topic of course, and his reflections are divided between acknowledging the richness it has brought our lives and the dangers of too much noise.    I've  become something of a fan of David Hendy's writing recently,  having also enjoyed reading his thoughtful Life on Air: a History of Radio Four (Oxford University Press, 2007), and a drama script he's developing for Radio 3 with playwright Adrian Bean.  I love his evident passion for radio, his appreciation of it as a stimulus to the imagination as well as the intellect, and his sensitivity to the place it can take in our lives.

But I also respond to his suggestion that despite the pleasures of radio, television and internet, just sometimes we need to disconnect and find some quiet.  This for me is part of the pleasure of radio at night, first the listening and then the silence...  

Cross-border music and a rock(et) festival ...

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James Parkin James Parkin | 10:49 UK time, Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Radio 3 world music producer James Parkin recounts the latest travel trials of Radio 3's Music Planet recording team ...
 Le Royal hotel in Phnom Penh - the capital of Cambodia - is an historic landmark in this lively town. In April 1975, as the ragged and terrifying Khmer Rouge army stormed into the city, expats, journalists, aid workers and a few Cambodians took refuge in this elegant oasis. Jon Swain in his book River of Time describes the moment that Pol Pot's forces entered the compound and cleared it. The Cambodians were killed and foreigners were sent to the French Embassy. Khmer Rouge soldiers - many of them children - looted what they could (even drinking the medical teams' serums), and then left.
Today the hotel has been renovated, but doesn't have any of the sexy tropical appeal that Swain describes in the 70s. And it was in Le Royal that the Music Planet team were forced to hole up during the unrest in neighbouring Thailand.  Our work in Cambodia done, we were due to fly to Bangkok, but a 4am call from the BBC in London advised us that there was a general state of emergency throughout the country. The British Embassy was closed and the centre of Bangkok had been evacuated.
If the production of this part of Music Planet (in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma) has a theme, it would be unforseen circumstances, changes of plan. From the very start, I should have seen the signs. Andy Kershaw couldn't get off the Isle of Man due to more volcanic dust. He missed his flight to Bangkok. When he did arrive, we headed to Laos. The festival we should have recorded wasn't happening, but a similar one in Thailand - just across the Mekong - was. In other words, we left Thailand to go to Laos, to get to Thailand. That meant long drives, more missed flights and eventually, an overland border crossing into Cambodia.
But things have worked out. In Thailand we attended the Yasothon Rocket Festival, and witnessed a firework display of lunatic proportions. Homemade rockets were launched stuffed with 125kg of gunpowder and reaching heights of 8km. They sound like fast jets taking off and look like intercontinental ballistic missiles: fun for all the family... We crossed the border into Cambodia  - a very kind man filled out the forms for us and another man (holding a baby and wearing a straw hat) opened the barrier; we then drove through some of the most heavily landmined territory in the world (I hasten to add that the road itself is safely passable). Even in 2010, this part of Cambodia is still a Khmer Rouge stronghold - the Cambodian government even take advantage of their guerrilla skills and knowledge of the land in the disputed border areas with the Thais. In Siem Reap it was a moving experience to record musicians, many of whom had lost limbs whilst tending their crops in mined fields. In Phnom Penh we met the one musician who survived Pol Pot's purge of artists, as well as a new young collective of musicians who rap over the lost rock music of the 60s and 70s.
Listen out for the recordings in Music Planet in the autumn!

Damascus, it's been such a long time ...

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Khyam Allami Khyam Allami | 17:07 UK time, Wednesday, 2 June 2010

It's been such a long time, and I was just a child then
What will you say, when you see my face?
Time feels like it's flown away, the days just pass and fade away
What will you say, when they take my place?
Its funny now, I just don't feel like a man
What will you say, when you see my face?

- Jeff Buckley: What will you say

No matter how many words I write, it is almost impossible really to express the complex web of emotions that I experienced in Damascus last week, my first time back since we left for London in 1990. Yes, my eyes filled to the brim with tears as we first drove through the city, but I held them back. Yes, my heart pounded and my blood raced through me, but I took deep breaths. Yes, my legs trembled and my knees were weak but I stood up straight and walked faster. Yes, I was afraid, afraid of nothing but myself, but I'm here. I'm here and my 'Ud is beside me. For it was my 'Ud that opened the doors, it was music that brought me here.

Many people have often told me that my story is interesting. Even the Lebanese 'Ud player Charbel Rouhana commented that it would make a good novel when we met for the first time in Beirut a few weeks back. But to me it seems ridiculous, so ridiculous: first, that I could be so afraid of experiencing my past, when it contains nothing particularly fearful or painful. And second, that I am even telling people about it. But it makes sense to step through these shadows and experience this directly. Because if I can be so haunted and so moved by something so simple, I can at least then have some personal reference for understanding human nature, human suffering, human joy.

damascus1.jpgIf I was, and am, so affected by this simple experience, then how must my parents have felt when they first stepped onto Iraqi soil after more than 30 years in exile? If I can be so moved by sitting next to our old neighbour after 20 years of distance, then how must my mother have felt sitting next to her mother after over 30 years of tragedy? If I felt all of this while walking back into Damascus with my 'Ud in hand, music as my guide and BBC R3 documenting my journey, then how must my father have felt when he walked back into Baghdad in 2008 with his first novel in hand, with the word as his guide, with press and people congratulating his literary achievement and return? If I can be so moved by the scent of Jasmine on the streets of Damascus and the green of the square beside our old home (pictured, left), then how must my father have felt experiencing the smell of refuse and the rubble of the city that once nurtured and nourished him?

Although it is difficult to articulate any answers, one thing is blindingly bright and obvious, that I am of the lucky few.

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Khyam Allami in Beirut

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Khyam Allami Khyam Allami | 16:50 UK time, Wednesday, 2 June 2010

When my parents left Iraq in 1979, the first city they arrived in was Beirut. Now here I am over 30 years later and it's impossible to imagine how it must have been.

I arrived a few days ahead of Ilham Al-Madfai and the BBC Radio 3 crew in order to have a little time alone to wander the streets and do some research before our hectic schedule kicked off. It was impossible to sleep on the first night. Anxiety, nerves and excitement kept my brain ticking non-stop and so the 'Ud came out to try and settle my spirits a little and soften the silence in the air.

My friends at the NGO Un Ponte Per... were kind enough to host me and the first few days were spent walking and looking for books and CDs in the Al-Hamra neighbourhood and checking out what was going on in the city. During a short conversation with my father upon his recent return from Baghdad, he told me about a cafe called Cafe Express in Al-Hamra where he passed many days with his friends, fellow writers, journalists, artists and musicians. I tried searching it out but unfortunately there was no trace of it.

beirut1.jpgWhat I did notice was that one of the outside corner seats at the Costa Cafe on Al-Hamra street, was continuously occupied (i.e. every time I walked by throughout the week) by an aged Lebanese man. Dressed in a simple suit he would sit smoking a pipe and drinking espressos whilst chatting to his array of friends, all of whom would come to sit beside him and converse one after the other throughout the day. Nice to see some remnants of tradition.

The next few days were spent getting to know Ilham Al-Madfai (with me, left) and his wonderful wife, whose cooking I can't wait to try once we get to Amman! One evening whilst sitting in the hotel foyer I decided to bring my 'Ud because I was restless and waned to play. Slowly a lovely evening of Lebanese wine and Iraqi took form and many stories were shared.

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