I can’t begin to describe my first rehearsal with the Berlin Philharmonic

I can’t begin to describe my first rehearsal with the Berlin Philharmonic


norman lebrecht

May 12, 2017

From our weekly diarist, violinist Anthea Kreston

I am on the 29 bus on the way home from my first rehearsal with the Berlin Philharmonic.

I love the 29 – it cuts through Berlin from the funkiness of Kreutzberg, through the middle of town (Checkpoint Charlie), and onto Charlottenberg, with the glitter and glam of K-Damm and the Michael Kors and dogs wearing Chanel.  It is a double decker, and in this way, feels like a free sight-seeing tour through Berlin. I have my favorite seat – top front window. 

This week I was busy preparing my part for Heldenleben, on the viola. I wanted to arrive with the part well-in-hand so I could get maximum enjoyment from every part of this amazing experience. I had a “check-up” lesson with my brother-in-law, and I got the green light.  

I have been very nicely asked to refrain from comment about my time while in my seat at orchestra – and so I will talk a little about my preparation and about the most hilarious standpartner I have ever had. I will say, however, that I feel as if I have just taken a four-hour bath in the most glorious Bouillabaisse in the world. Each instrument, each section has a full-bodied character, and the broth – oh, the broth…….

In my mid-20’s I experienced my one-and-only injury which was caused by playing (the others were just silly knife slippages or random sports injuries).  I had been playing viola in the Avalon Quartet for 4 years, and in the mean time had met Jason and begun the Amelia Piano Trio. There was a sweet time when Quartet and Trio were both running with full pistons, which of course meant that I was doing double duty and playing two different instruments. My right forearm started to burn and have consistent pain.  I went to Dr. Alice Brandfonbrener, one of the foremost classical music doctors in the country (who happened also to be a family friend and neighbor from my childhood).  She asked me to bring my instruments. I played for her – and she said – “Anthea, there is nothing wrong with your position, but I have something to say to you that you won’t want to hear”.  I told her to go ahead. She said, “I have been watching you play since you were a little girl, and I know you love to play both instruments. But, you are on a collision course, and I must advise you, as your doctor, to pick one instrument over the other, and you and I both know that the instrument you have to give up is viola”.

Well, I certainly didn’t want to hear this. My whole personality is based on the word “yes”, and I knew I could do it. That day I began to experiment, knowing I had to try to find a solution. And, indeed I did – I continued in the quartet for another three years before committing to Trio full-time. And here is what my solution was. 

I made a mandatory down-time between instruments of four hours. And I couldn’t switch back the same day. This was an absolutely firm line – if I pushed it, my arm would react. But then, what to do if I ended the day on viola but had to practice violin for the next morning?  I made the mistake before of switching back – it didn’t work. So – I decided to practice all rep on the final instrument, no matter which instrument or what rep. So – I practiced violin parts on the viola, learned Bartok quartet viola parts on the violin. Then I would just switch back to the right instrument when the time came. 

Because the amount of playing I am doing these days is so intense, and because I am 20 years older, my arm is more fragile. Now I only play one instrument per day. So – that is how I learned Heldenleben this week. On the violin. Then, I switched to the viola permanently the night before the first rehearsal, and the violin will go dark for five days. I will practice my violin rep on the viola in the mean time. Strange, I know, but it works. It totally works. 

Funny Standpartner Story:

Dennis Kim was my standpartner at Curtis. He is from Toronto, and has a mischievous look about him, but only if certain people look at him – to most people he looks serious and well-intentioned. He plays it close to the vest, and he was quiet during rehearsals. At Curtis, at least when I was there, they would have two orchestra rehearsals per week with a full program, then have an open concert on Saturdays.  New rep every week. That is a pretty quick turn-around, and so everyone’s sightreading chops became honed quickly, because there was no other choice. To pick up a pencil during rehearsal was embarrassing – and let’s not even mention those poor unfortunate souls who would dare to bring their music home to practice. Oh my goodness. 

So – a couple of weeks into school, we are playing our Saturday concert, and a subito FF appears, and I go for it. But, I am the only one in the orchestra. Dennis doesn’t play the FF and doesn’t even look at me. Deadpan. Then I play a couple of really strange notes – again, Dennis seems to play the ones everyone else is playing. I am mortified. 

I take a close look at the part after orchestra, and notice that those markings are made in a very fine hand, to look just like printed markings, but done with a pencil. Dennis denies any wrong doing, and I notice he never takes the part home. The next week I am on guard to notice anything different in the part during the concert that wasn’t there in rehearsal. I catch a couple of things, but still lay down a couple of real dosies – surprise solos. He never really admitted any wrong-doing, and these “mystery marking” continued for my entire time as his standpartner – this was a crafty sly fellow with a big laugh and a twinkle in his eyes. 

He has gone on to be concertmaster of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, and now is concertmaster of Buffalo. I asked him the other day if I could talk about what a terrible standpartner he was on the Diary, and if I could use his name, and he said – “of course you have to use my name – I finally need credit!”.  Ha ha. Greetings Dennis! 


  • Jack Burt says:

    She’s right. The 29 is a great bus ride!

  • Ravi Narasimhan says:

    “I can’t begin to describe my first rehearsal…” and “I have been very nicely asked to refrain from comment about my time while in my seat at orchestra ”

    Hmmmm… verrry suspicious.

    What is the BPO hiding? Subscribing minds want to know.

    • Tommy says:

      I think it is called “Integrity”.

      They probably have documents that defines a “code of conduct”. Could be like; each and every member of the organisation (BPO) are expected to bring qualities in support of the interest of the orchestra and its members. Ha ha – well… 🙂 Anyway – all organisation I have worked for have had codes of conduct.

      An easy one: For members to discuss qualities of guest conductors in public would be highly inappropriate. But it is a very important subject internally, especially since this orchestra is self governing. They probably don’t want to hide anything as long as it is in the interest of the orchestra. But you have to know when to shut up…

      New members or substitutes may be more vulnerable here, hence the polite recommendations. Still – it would be nice if Ms Keston could find a way to share her experience… 🙂

      • Ravi Narasimhan says:

        “I think it is called “Integrity”.

        No… that’s what they want us to think. 😉

        I’m watching the live stream now. Terrific ‘Heldenleben’.

        • Tommy says:

          Oh yes, I saw it too. Ein Heldenleben is such a great music and BPO/Bychkov plays beyond greatness. The glorious sound they produce is simply overwhelming (to me at least). And the string playing is… well I just love it. In a class of their own. I listened to a very good sound setup this time.

          One has to “see” Ein Heldenleben to understand the amount of time the horns actually are playing. They almost play all the time and are probably now in for emergency rehab :-). I noticed the producer once managed to zoom in on the entire horn section – when they weren’t playing! That’s also an achievement 🙂

          If anyone at the BPO management are reading this: You now have two absolute cracking performances of late. This Ein Heldenleben and the Tchaikovsky 6 with Petrenko. Make sure they are released !!

          • Ravi Narasimhan says:

            No arguments here. It’s been over ten years since I heard it in a concert hall.

            The audience today certainly let it rip for the horns and the concertmaster during the deservedly long curtain call.

          • Anthea kreston says:

            That was so much fun!!!!!!!

  • John Borstlap says:

    My PA says: wouldn’t it be better if this player would spend the time she dedicates to her diary entries to practicing, with such a busy schedule?

    • Scotty says:

      Does Borstrap’s PA question the amount of time Borstlap spends commenting on SD? Borstlap’s weekly word count on SD certainly exceeds Kreston’s. Shouldn’t the PA make some attempt to keep the boss working, if only to ensure her own employment? If she were to land on the dole she’d be compelled to sell her pearls.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Sally here says she is in total agreement with this comment. But since she takes a lot of work out of my hand, there is no danger for her employment. Sometimes she even writes some of my music, but I have to correct that and delete the wrong dissonances from the textures (she has a secret love for Boulez), but in the end, it leaves me enough time to practice with adverse opinions on SD.

      • John says:


    • Anthea kreston says:

      Ha ha John – you sound like my mother! I wrote this one on the bus on my way home – don’t think the other riders would have wanted to hear me practice

  • herrera says:

    So playing in the Berlin is like soaking in a bouillabaisse bath.

    So who’s the clam chowder of orchestras?

    I personally prefer a clear, clean consommé.

    de gustibus…

  • John says:

    Andrea, ignore the snark from the get-a-life types here. Sounds like you’re having the time of your life!

  • Marg says:

    As always, a fascinating look inside aspects of music-making. Thoroughly enjoyable.

  • Eric says:

    Anyone else have stand partner or neighbor-subverting part doctoring stories? What a brilliant idea……