Henry Wood Hall in the pouring rain is not exactly an enticing prospect on a Wednesday morning. Clinging to Starbucks cups and shaking off their coats as they enter, players check their names off the register and greet desk partners. Oboists obsessively scrape and scratch at reeds, the flute section gossips, violinists scribble markings on scores. We all know orchestras put in hours of preparation before each concert… but what exactly goes on during rehearsals? I spent the day with the Philharmonia watching them rehearse with Paavo Järvi to find out.

Paavo Järvi rehearses the Philharmonia
© Mark Pullinger

Järvi is a familiar face to London audiences, frequently conducting the Philharmonia, so the players largely know what to expect. By 10:29, all are in place – bar a tardy second violin – and Concertmaster Designate Benjamin Marquise Gilmore stands to greet Järvi who, without a word, launches straight into the growling opening phrase of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique.

What surprises me is that there is very little interruption to the music, playing through all four movements with only momentary pauses to correct things – more swell to the violas’ dynamics, asking the bassoons to hold a tenuto marking a little longer, seeking more horn menace, or cleaning up the ending to the lop-sided 5/4 second movement waltz with a neat baton flick.

“More and more, I try to play right through first,” Järvi explains during a break. “Musicians are human beings. It doesn’t matter how many times they’ve played a piece, they still need to play through it once. Musicians’ brains are very quick, so once they’ve played it through, a lot of things fall naturally into place and there is a lot that is understood without any word from me. In London, there is always little rehearsal time. With a short rehearsal period, you can’t immediately get into minute details before you’ve had a chance to inhabit the work. It’s a waste of time.”

Paavo Järvi
© Julia Bayer

I follow the score as Järvi then works from the finale back to the first movement, correcting dynamics or seeking rhythmical clarity by shortening a note in the march, the conductor bouncing along wearing a broad grin. The triumphant end to this movement often induces a burst of applause. Does this matter?

“Oh it does,” he declares. “It’s a tricky thing. I don’t mind in some music when the audience applauds. But in between the third and fourth movements of the Pathétique, they really shouldn’t applaud because there is a story which is still being told. Applauding the Scherzo makes it like a silly tenor aria in opera where the applause breaks the story and then it resumes. I don’t mind if they applaud after the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto – it invites applause – but in this particular case, knowing the whole dramatic background to the symphony, it’s better if there is none.”

Then how does he avoid applause? “I try to move straight into the finale, but an attacca here is not musical – there has to be a breath, so you just have to rely on timing and good luck.” This is clearly something that can’t be rehearsed.

What can be rehearsed are details in phrasing, elongating the first note of the violins in the “big tune” in the first movement to emphasise its yearning qualities, or sharpening up crispness in the brass attack. Järvi is known for rehearsing very thoroughly which, as violinist Victoria Irish admits over lunch, is more tiring as they end up playing more. “The Philharmonia is a very adaptable orchestra though,” she explains, “and it tends to morph into the style of the conductor who is rehearsing us very easily. We’re like putty.”

Paavi Järvi rehearses the Philharmonia
© Mark Pullinger

She relates a recent concert under Philippe Herreweghe, a period instrument specialist, that really took the orchestra out of their comfort zone. “He had to do a lot of work to reduce vibrato, with more concise bow strokes, but he managed to get us playing in quite an authentic way.”

Järvi touches on that authentic approach in the afternoon when they rehearse Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, where period timpani and “historically informed performance” manners drive the music-making forward. Järvi makes big scything baton sweeps as the decibels swell, the double bass principal shielding his ears from neighbouring piccolo shrieks.

It’s good to see the orchestra is proactive in rehearsal too, the same bass principal requesting that they can resume a section from a certain point so they can tidy something up. “It’s a fantastic orchestra,” Järvi says. “It has an incredible musical spirit. I am a big fan. There is no sense of routine. The engagement with the music is very fresh and very real.”

Mid-afternoon, soloist Viktoria Mullova arrives to rehearse Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Her aristocratic tone is familiar, but there is nothing aloof about her manner. Much of the communication with Järvi is done through smiles and a few quick checks of his score. What role does the conductor play in rehearsing a concerto? Is there ever a battle of wills? Järvi admits he only really works with soloists whose musicianship he respects and he is happy to listen to what the soloist brings to the table.

Paavo Järvi
© Kaupo Kikkas

“In the best cases,” he explains, “concertos are collaborative but as a conductor you have to live or die for your soloist. I don’t impose my view. There are certain cases where you don’t understand why someone is doing something and then you have a problem and have to clarify but usually there are many ways of doing things. The only test is not whether you agree with their point of view or not, but can it convince at that moment? I’ve seen Sibelius played by Leonidas Kavakos and Sibelius played by Midori and they couldn’t be any more different but both of them were totally valid views.”

Happily, Mullova and Järvi are on the same page when it comes to Sibelius and before long they are busy rehearsing Arvo Pärt’s Passacaglia which is to be the surprise encore in Saturday’s Royal Festival Hall concert. Scored for just violin, string orchestra and vibraphone, it enables the other Philharmonia players to pack up and head back out into the open, just in time for the latest torrential downpour.