Northern Ballet Sinfonia Orchestra Leader, Geoffrey Allan, tells us about the forthcoming String Trio Concert at the Stanley & Audrey Burton Theatre at Northern Ballet. From the players, through the tight rehearsal schedule to a behind-the-scenes insight into life on tour...
Shortly before the Sinfonia was informed of the plan to stage a season of chamber music concerts in our new studio theatre at Quarry Hill, a small group of us were asked to take part in an outreach project promoted by the Leeds International Piano Competition. The core of this project was concert pianist Benjamin Frith, and the LIPC were keen on the idea of the String Trio to complement Ben, thus forming a Piano Quartet. As Sue Hall (Deputy Leader), Sasha Volpov (Principal Cello) and I had performed as a Trio before, and worked well together, it seemed a good plan to maintain the existing group. An additional advantage for the outreach work, where flexibility is important, is that Sue plays both violin and viola. Of course, she plays viola in the Trio.
It seemed natural, therefore, when volunteers were sought for the concert series, to propose a recital by this Trio. We don’t have a name yet. When I had a String Trio as a student at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music many years ago, we called ourselves the Neapolitan Trio. Few were aware that this colourful title alluded to our addiction to Terry’s Neapolitan chocolates, and it was the duty of each member in turn to provide a box of these for rehearsals (the waste bin was located centrally for the wrappers). So if any confectionery manufacturers are reading this and wish to sponsor us, we’re open to offers!
Although we’re performing two of the finest works for the combination (by Mozart and Dohnanyi), they are also two of the most difficult! You would think that it would be very easy to plan rehearsals when we’re all on tour together with Northern Ballet, but it’s never straightforward. Our first opportunity came in Belfast three weeks ago, but one problem immediately presented itself. Sue, of course, wanted to take her viola with her on the plane as well as her violin, but in this matter Easyjet displayed a strong anti-viola bias. So another way had to be found, and the viola was entrusted to Ros Cabot and Ian Hood (our Principal Viola and Tympani players) who were sailing across to Ireland with the timps and percussion gear in their van (thanks guys!). So we had rehearsal No.1 in the band-room in the Grand Opera House, where we worked through the Mozart and some of the Dohnanyi, making some initial decisions about bowings, phrasings and tempi. There’s a lot to discuss with the Mozart, since apparently no autograph score of the piece has survived, and we have been comparing different editions of the work taken from varying sources. Of course we don’t always agree about every detail, but a certain degree of fairness tends to prevail in these circumstances – if a player is successful in persuading the others in favour of his preferred bowing for example, then he will perhaps be ready to return the compliment when one of his colleagues shows strong opinions about another passage!
The next two rehearsals took place the following week in Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. To our dismay, we were initially informed that there was no space available anywhere in the building on either matinee-free afternoon. But then someone remembered a small studio theatre which wasn’t in use, and we were in business again! We were all really busy in the London week, and in both cases I barely managed to get to the rehearsal in time after respectively having bows rehaired and collecting my car from a specialist in Sussex (I think lunch was a hasty burger one day and a muffin and coffee the other – the joy of touring!). However, we did some really valuable work in these two sessions and the pieces were beginning to fall into place.
And so to last week in Leeds, our final week of the season. Unusually at this stage of the tour, the Company was performing a new work, Giselle, which necessitated orchestra rehearsals on Monday and Tuesday. Unfortunately, I was feeling quite unwell by this time, and although I managed to get through the rehearsals with our guest-conductor Mihhail Gerts from Estonia (very popular with us all!), I eventually had to give in during our Trio session in the afternoon and retire to bed. A visit to the doctor next day revealed that I only needed antibiotics and rest until Saturday at the earliest, but this posed a dilemma. We had lost one rehearsal, and after Saturday night Sasha would be returning to his home in Kent, coming back up/to the north only a couple of days before our concert. So on Friday I dragged myself into the Grand Theatre for a three-hour rehearsal, even though I wasn’t going to be playing the show in the evening. Funnily enough, we accomplished a lot and I felt no worse at the end than I did when we started, although that wasn’t saying much!
So while Sasha has probably been busy watering his allotment in Canterbury between practice sessions, Sue and I have been working on the last item in the programme, the Handel/Halvorsen Passacaglia for violin and viola. It is a brilliant composition, very popular with string players, but technically very demanding. We’ve performed it together before, but we have been rehearsing the piece as if we hadn’t, discussing every detail. It never ceases to impress me how Sue takes to the viola so effortlessly when she spends most of her professional life playing the violin! So now we're all ready for the final sessions when Sasha returns to Leeds on Wednesday. It’s funny to think that with the Northern Ballet Sinfonia our lives are based on repetition, playing each show many times: we can always think about doing better tomorrow. On Thursday we have just one chance to do justice to the fantastic music we have chosen to perform, and I think that fact will create a special chemistry on the night. We all hope so anyway!
- Mozart's Divertimento in E flat K. 563
- Passacaglia (Handel/Halvorsen) for Violin and Viola
- Dohnanyi's Serenade in C
- First half - 40 minutes
- Interval - 20 minutes
- Second half - 40 minutes
- Geoffrey Allan (violin)
- Susan Hall (viola)
- Sasha Volpov (cello)
9 June, 2011 - book now