“Impossible,” scoffed the Scotch-born impresario Neil Wallace, when Benjamin Zander proposed a tour of the Netherlands for June, 2013 rather than the summer of 2014 or 2015. That was at a point about a year ago, when Zander’s Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra existed only on paper; the players were still being chosen, and no rehearsals had taken place yet.
Perhaps Wallace did not yet realize what he was dealing with - or with whom. Zander is after all the co-author of a book called The Art of Possibility and of course he believed it was possible. In fact, in the end Zander dubbed this adventure “A Tour of Possibility,” and even the red T-shirt issued to all of the players was emblazoned with the slogan, “Shaping Future Leaders Through Music.” Each musician paraded it proudly and without a trace of self-consciousness.
Thanks to Zander’s communicative enthusiasm and fund-raising skills, generous donors, hard-working staff, and enormous good-will all around, the tour did take place – five large public concerts in Maastricht, Almere, Haarlem, Rotterdam (where Mahler’s Second Symphony was broadcast to The Netherlands and made available in cyberspace to the world), and, finally, in Amsterdam’s legendary concert hall, the Concertgebouw, where the afternoon sun catches Apollo’s great lyre at the apex of the roof and bathes it in a deeper, richer gold. There was also a series of outreach events, described earlier in this blog – a joint appearance with a wind-ensemble based in a university in Eindhoven, the Harmonieorkest Auletes; another joint appearance, this one with the Leerorkest, an ensemble of more than 500 underprivileged children in Amsterdam; a masterclass and workshop for young conductors in Rotterdam.
This was a tour offering the young players a chance to strut their stuff, but it was also crowded with learning opportunities, which the musicians eagerly seized; the tour wasn’t just an artistic experience – it also had personal dimensions and social objectives and achievements, and community commitments. It was designed to make an impact not just on audiences and the players themselves, but on colleagues and other organizations, and even on the whole ecology of music-making in The Netherlands, where budget cuts are seriously undermining the country’s cultural life and heritage. It was an opportunity to explore the rich visual culture of Amsterdam’s great museums and the fascinating city itself; there was also an opportunity to visit a castle to see how people who didn’t travel to youth hostels once lived. And of course the tour was designed to impact the lives and interactions of the players themselves as they moved from weekly rehearsals to the more stressful and rewarding experience of working, traveling and living together 24/7.
There were already standing friendships in place among various players of the same instruments, as well as among groups from the various schools represented in the orchestra – Lexington High School, New England Conservatory, Boston University, and an impressive showing from Boston Conservatory. But this trip allowed individuals to interact on a more social basis – a second violinist, for example, would have had very little time to interact with a percussionist during a Saturday afternoon rehearsal and they may not even have met before, unless they went to the same school. What it all meant was something different and personal to each individual, and the overall impact on the musicians and those who heard them is something that cannot be assessed in the days or weeks after the tour, any more than a person who drops a stone into a great lake can imagine where or when the last ripple will wash onto the shore.
The reflective “white sheets” of summing-up that Zander asked all the players to send to him after they got home are as different from each other as the personalities of the people who wrote them but the two most common themes were about new friendships and how they contributed to the collective endeavor. It’s clear that everyone went home with a great store of memories, and the frustrations were simply those inevitable with travel. The group was seething with youthful energies (and hormones), but it was a group that had been disciplined by years of musical study and practice, and there were no real problems, apart from one instance of curfew carelessness (the chaperones spent some agitated hours prowling the streets of Maastricht until they found the culprit, who apologized to the group and all was forgiven and forgotten).
Zander was immensely proud that the orchestra travelled with only four chaperones – there were some chaotic moments, and there were times when the chaperones had their hands full, but most of the time the musicians were doing a very good job of chaperoning themselves. (Zander and artistic advisor Mark Churchill had decided to expand the upper age limit for players in BPYO through undergraduate, thus creating an additional level of mentors, as well as adding solidity and experience to the chemistry of the orchestra.) All of the chaperones were musicians – violist Noriko Herndon, percussionist Robert Schulz, and Michael Czitrom, a longtime cellist in the parent Boston Philharmonic (like the tour physician Peter Sheckman); the fourth, Kysha Bradshaw, is a violinist and lifelong friend of Elisabeth Christensen, the orchestra’s general manager, and like Christensen, is a tirelessly upbeat personality. The “adults” had almost as much fun as the “kids,” and on one night off, we went to a fusion restaurant in Haarlem where the more adventurous members of the group tried the kangaroo carpaccio. I was a coward and didn’t, choosing the Texas beef instead. It was good, but it wasn’t much like anything I have ever eaten in Texas!
The orchestra rehearsed the tour’s two programs for months in Boston, but played them only once apiece in Symphony Hall. Rehearsing and performing them again and again in The Netherlands not only “brought these works back,” but also repeatedly took the performance of each piece to new levels – each performance was an experience in and of itself, and each, until the last, was a preparation for the next one. Also each week, Zander gave the players a non-musical assignment, drawn from the principles in The Art of Possibility; he knew how these assignments, designed to further personal growth, would feed into and nurture the music-making, and that this would be just as important as the weekly coaching of each section of the orchestra by a professional musician, many of them drawn from the Boston Symphony. By the end, the repertory was completely lived in, and the musicians sometimes even “conversed” on the busses by singing the principal themes to one another; Mahler’s Second Symphony was always “in the air,” even when the group wasn’t discussing it (one percussionist turned around from the seat in front of me on the bus from the Amsterdam airport and asked, “What did Mahler believe?” I am still struggling to find the adequate answer that eluded me then; he believed in different things in different periods of his life, but he always believed in something).
On their own, and without Zander’s initiative or even his presence, various sections scheduled meetings to talk about problem passages. Through all of this, in addition to daily rehearsals and almost-daily performances, the Mahler symphony became a major part of everyone’s lives, and not just for the two weeks of the tour – as Zander remarked, this music will remain part of their minds, memories, and spirits for the rest of their lives.
In fact there was a real melancholy that threaded through all the effort, exhaustion, achievement, fulfillment, celebration and ovations. By any criterion, these concerts were highpoints of the lives of these young musicians – many of them said so in excited phone calls to family, in emails, and in letters to Zander when it was all over. But one wondered how many of them would have the opportunity to play these demanding works again in such inspiring surroundings and circumstances, even the ones who go on to fulltime careers as professional musicians – one of the things that grinds musicians down are the demands of a professional career and too many routine performances of works that were once special experiences for them. And those are the lucky ones, who hold well-paying positions in orchestras while others are playing jingles for television commercials – if they are working at all.
In the course of this adventure, Wallace, like many other impresarios before him, became an unabashed fan of youth orchestras, as well as an admirer of this one in particular. Youth orchestras are immensely appealing to audiences – the youth of the players is captivating (one question that was frequently asked was “which players are the 12 year-olds?”) and their palpable enthusiasm for what they are doing is contagious – the edge-of-the-chair involvement and excitement is remote indeed from the Tuesday night routine of even a great orchestra, even when there is a great conductor as well. Youth Orchestras also almost by definition can attract a younger audience.
Less frequently invoked for obvious reasons is the simple advantage of not having to pay the performers because this activity represents a crucial aspect of their musical education. And while the managements of major orchestras go to extravagant (and contractually mandated) lengths to minimize the built-in stresses of travel and to assure the comfort of the musicians, youth orchestras move uncomplainingly through a far more rigorous schedule and regime – one can easily imagine how the Boston Symphony or the Berlin Philharmonic would respond to the conditions within which the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra managed to flourish.
It was an exhausting schedule, one that sometimes drew dangerously close to the line between the confident expectation that the players could rise to any challenge and an outright exploitation of inexhaustible youthful energies. Nevertheless, a sense of shared skills and community endeavor buoyed everyone across every potential crisis, and no one collapsed before the end, although the tour physician (and skilled amateur cellist) Peter Sheckman and his wife Maryanne kept having to find pharmacies to replenish the supply of cough drops that they had brought along, and tour members were still coughing two weeks later. But three of them, encountered on the lawn at Tanglewood a few weeks later, and fully involved in the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, were still aglow with memories of Mahler.
One reason the schedules and accommodations of front-line professional orchestras are so carefully structured and planned for is to ensure that the players will be able to function at their best. The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra managed to function at its best despite the stresses and strains.
The reviews in the principal Dutch newspapers were enthusiastic. Reporting in Volkskrant, Biëlla Luttmer wrote, “[The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra performed] in the Bavo Church [in Haarlem], an acoustically impossible – but nonetheless ideal – venue in which to experience, to the core, the atmosphere of Mahler’s Second Symphony. The conductor and music ‘guru’ who has, in less than a year, created this orchestra from scratch is Benjamin Zander. In Haarlem he held the musicians and the public captive in a web of pliant tempi and long, effective silences. In the reverberating Bavo he achieved the impossible, keeping the work rhythmically tight and driven . . . The piece takes us from the gruesome depths to salvation, the Aufersehung (Resurrection). In the last movement the Choral Biennale Choir showed how light can stream from the caverns of the soul. Together with the restrained and controlled voices (of soloists) Sarah-Jane Brandon and Yvonne Naef, the choir took us from the temporal to the divine – a more beautiful atmosphere than that of the Bavo is unimaginable.”
Luttmer gave the concert five stars – out of a possible five; Zander delightedly informed the orchestra that the only other five-star event of the nine events reviewed in the paper that day was a concert by Bruce Springsteen.
Peter van der Lindt, writing in the Amsterdam newspaper Trouw, (and also granting the coveted 5-star rating), was even more enthusiastic about the performance of the Mahler in Rotterdam’s principal concert hall, De Doelen. “When – at the end of Mahler’s Second Symphony – a lonely horn sounds from outside the concert hall and you hear an echo from the far other side of the building, you know the resurrection is close. You know the light source at the end of the bizarre symphonic tunnel is becoming visible. You feel it in every fiber of your being, especially if the conductor is Benjamin Zander. The British cult-conductor, who creates a stir with every new Mahler interpretation, is touring The Netherlands with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra that he founded last year – it’s their first international tour. And there they were Tuesday night at De Doelen in Rotterdam, the 120 young and fabulous musicians – ranging from 12 to 21 years old, motivated to the bone to make, after this impressive call of the horn, something special out of the approaching Auferstehung. And boy oh boy they did it amazingly well.
“It was impressive to see how thoroughly these young people make their music, how well they understand the underlying meaning of this piece and Mahler’s intentions. It’s not surprising, since everybody is explicitly invited after the rehearsals to think and engage in a dialogue with Zander about every note and the meaning behind it. . .The release from tension after the roaring final chord in the near capacity Doelen was grandiose and lengthy. And completely deserved!
“Zander is a great and clear conductor. After the impressive first part, he managed to hold the tension and the musicians remained in their playing posture for at least half a minute. When after that, members of the audience almost started to applaud, Zander stopped it with his hands. They are magical hands, which spread majestically to catch the first part of the final chord. In the second part, Zander and his musicians managed to play magnificently in the game of rubato, stolen time, and how tenderly and unctuously did the cello section play the countermelody. It was a unique night, led by a truly unique person. The fact that Zander had the mezzo-soprano Yvonne Naef at his side for the Urlicht made this amazing concert complete.”
Van der Lindt wrote that the highlight of the tour for Zander and the musicians would be the final concert in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw – the prestigious hall that Zander had booked before he had a program, sponsors, or even an orchestra – and pointed out that Zander’s mother was Dutch. And certainly the Concertgebouw was a major subject of conversation before the players arrived, while they were there, and long afterwards; like Symphony Hall, the Concertgebouw is a shrine to the highest human values and to excellence in all kinds of music – in a stairway leading from the stage door to the dressing rooms and backstage areas there is a photo display of notable musicians who had performed there; in a particularly piquant juxtaposition, Ella Fitzgerald seemed to be scatting for Gustav Mahler himself.
The concert was played to a full and demonstrative house that included a number of orchestra parents who had flown in for the occasion from Boston and even from as far away as India. The program opened with the Schumann Piano Concerto featuring teenaged George Li, who will be attending Harvard University this fall in its joint program with New England Conservatory. Li was the soloist in the other program of the tour, which also featured Richard Strauss’s glorious, if self-serving, tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life, the immodest hero in question being himself at the age of 34!) Although this program was played twice on the tour, it was not reviewed in the Dutch press, so only the public actually present at his performances was aware of Li’s qualities – which were evident at every performance, but appeared in fullest measure only in the Concertgebouw. It is a pleasure, a relief, and a privilege to report that Li was at his best where it counted the most – various circumstances had conspired against his leaving a fully satisfying impression in the earlier performances (an overpowering orchestra in Symphony Hall, a problematic piano in Almere, an unfortunate encore in Maastricht, etc.). In the Concertgebouw, Zander had the orchestra under control and the young musicians were listening to each other and to Li and making chamber music in what is, after all, a chamber-music concerto, and Li was also holding his horses without banking his fires – in the earlier performances he bolted in the finale. This time I heard all the qualities that Li’s admirers were talking about throughout the tour with such protective respect. This time all was sensitivity, mutuality, poetry, passion and glittering high spirits. As an encore, he unspooled Chopin’s Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor with mystery, atmosphere, and depth of feeling. In the Concertgebouw performance his playing would have been exceptional coming from a pianist of any age.
The Concertgebouw’s famous acoustics (reverberation time: 2 ½ seconds when the hall is full) surrounded Li’s tone with an aura, and of course benefitted the orchestra as well – this is an ideal space for Mahler, creating an environmental poise between clarity and warmth. Zander sent me an email correcting WikiPedia, which doesn’t list the Second among the symphonies that Mahler himself conducted there; in fact, he did so on Wednesday and Thursday, 26 and 27 of October, 1904. That was almost 109 years ago, but when Zander said “Mahler stood right there,” pointing to the podium at his left, one could feel the composer’s presence. And while it cannot be the function of this blog to provide a formal review of the concert, one did feel Mahler’s presence throughout the performance because of his music; and of course one thought of the astonishment he would have felt that a performance of this quality could come from a youth orchestra, because in his time, this work stood as a formidable challenge for the greatest orchestras of the world – and indeed it still does, even though the symphony has become a standard repertory work rather than a privileged rarity. And one has heard the brass sections of more than one major orchestra blast, split and bluster through the exposed chorale writing of the “Urlicht” section, when the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra managed these difficult entries smoothly and with a sense of reverential wonder.
What one can say about the performance as a whole was that it was ever-attentive to detail, but also unusually spacious, without any loss of momentum or of cumulative effect – Zander had profited from the experience of conducting the piece in the cathedral in Haarlem, and from realizing the special nature of the Concertgebouw acoustics. He also had every reason to feel confident about the concentration and attentiveness of his players, so he was unafraid to lead with a soloist’s assured freedom of rubato, particularly in the enchanting second movement, an Andante moderato that Mahler marked, “very comfortable – don’t hurry.” In this, the cello section played as if there were only one, and with a radiant quality of tone.
For the record, Mahler’s soloists were Martha Stapefeldt, alto, and Alida Oldenboom-Lutkemann (“a small and fat soprano with a voice of bell-like purity” that Mahler admired, according to one of his biographers). Zander once again had the majestic and warmly human mezzo Yvonne Naef, whose distinguished international career has spanned several decades (and included many appearances with the Boston Symphony) and the promising British soprano Sarah-Jane Brandon. Naef had developed the cold that was making the rounds, but her voice still had gleam and luster, and she sang this last time with the utmost simplicity of expression, but also with an infinite depth of insight. She had been an ideal colleague throughout the tour, going to the back of the orchestra to convey her appreciation to the brass section, and sitting on a high stool in De Doelen’s cafeteria eating a plate of Indonesian food along with the musicians. Brandon, unlike Mahler’s soprano, Oldenbloom-Lutkemann, was a beautiful presence and her youthful voice boasts an attractive sheen and color. Her musical instincts are good, but her technique is still a work in progress, so her singing was inconsistent and sometimes damagingly unsteady in tone and inexact in rhythm.
At the end, the great organ chimed in and the floor trembled as Mahler flung wide the gates of heaven and one felt as if angels were swelling the sound by plucking the great golden lyre on the roof. The applause was enthusiastic and long-lasting, and Zander saw that everyone got his or her due; at the very end he held the printed score aloft. He acknowledged the chorus assembled for this festival and these performances and director Beni Csillag, who is still eager-beaver young but also already highly accomplished, and he also brought out Benjamin Vickers, the assistant conductor who was concluding his two-year term as the Zander Fellow with this concert. Vickers was omnipresent throughout the tour as an extra pair of eyes and ears for Zander, and the conductor of all the backstage music in the Mahler Second – the brass and percussion ensembles stationed in the balconies, sometimes behind closed doors, or, in the cathedral, concealed in the roof. I wonder if Vickers realized that the now-legendary Mahler conductor Otto Klemperer began his career with precisely these responsibilities in performances of the Second Symphony conducted by Oskar Fried in the presence of Mahler himself , or that Klemperer went on to conduct a very famous performance of the symphony by the Concertgebouw Orchestra in this hall, a performance preserved on a live recording.
Zander acknowledged all of his principals and beckoned each of them to stand and take a solo bow, following which he asked each of the sections of the orchestra to rise, until the whole band was on its feet, like the audience.
In the old days when I was at The Boston Globe, I enjoyed listing principal players, remarking, sometimes, that “they deserved to have their names in the paper.” These players deserve a proud place in cyberspace, so here they are; not that long ago they were interesting, eager, but anonymous faces in a crowded room and by now all were familiar by sight and I had come to know and admire several of them and delight in their company. There were two concertmasters – both women. The delightful Francesca Bass led the Schumann concerto; Hikaru Yonezaki, the Mahler. (“Please spell my name correctly,” she asked very politely, after I had failed to do so). Yonezaki’s largest solo duties came in the Strauss Ein Heldenleben, in which the solo violin characterizes the hero’s beloved – specifically Richard Strauss’s soprano wife Pauline, who was feared by all who met her but adored, and probably feared, by the composer himself. Yonezaki’s first performances were splendidly played and well-coached, but she had not yet made the “role” her own, but by the last performance she had changed utterly – Zander had described Pauline to her and Yonezaki had recreated her in sound – beautiful, capricious, demanding, volatile and irresistible. (“Tell her all she needs to do is look in the mirror,” I told Zander he should say to her; I don’t know if he did, but she certainly grasped the point). Joshua Newburger, quiet, ever vigilant, and very smart, led the second violins, and Raymond Dineen and the impassioned Rainer Crosett, the violas and the cellos respectively. Eric Farnan was principal bass, and Sarah Sullivan the shining flute. Elizabeth O’Neil has found the soul of the oboe and makes it speak and sing; Hunter Bennett was the amazingly accomplished clarinet, and Isaac Schultz, principal bassoon; harpist Anna DeLoi is already a finished artist. The horn section is exceptionally strong – Nicholas Auer is the hardworking and gifted principal, and kudos were owed to two outstanding players who had short but total exposed solos, Chuta Chulavalaivong and his echo from the other side of the universe, Mackenzie Newell, who thought nothing of climbing above the roof in the cathedral in Haarlem to answer Chulavalaivong from her perilous perch. Neither of them ever bobbled, and each ended the key phrase with a perfectly executed diminuendo prolonged all the way to the edge of silence. The mother of the principal trumpet Brian Olson is a flutist, and he told me that he has been taunted about that fact and told he plays the trumpet as if it were a flute. He should pay no mind, because he never blasts except when the music tells him to, and otherwise plays with exceptional finesse, musicality and unforced beauty of tone. Ian Maser headed the trombone section and Rui Liu is the tuba section. Brandon Ilaw was the commanding principal timpanist and no one worked harder than the seven percussionists, whose job began long before every concert with the load-in of the equipment and continued long afterwards as they packed up all their instruments – Mahler’s score requires seven percussionists to play eight tympani, snare drums, bass drum, snare drums, cymbals, triangle, glockenspsiel, bells, and tam-tams. Zander fielded 8 players because Robert Schulz, one of Boston’s busiest and best free-lance musicians, stepped in to play in one of the off-stage ensembles. Good sport that he is, he also joined the load-in and load-out at every performance, and that’s a lot of heavy lifting.
About Zander himself one can only say that he was the animator as well as the conductor of the performance; he breathed life into it. He is not, or rather, no longer, a dictator conductor, and he is interested in and enthralled by what each individual musician has to say, especially in the non-verbal world of performance; he knows the whole and steers the details along so that they contribute to the whole. It was clear that this performance, and this particular orchestra, meant a very great deal to him; in fact, he later wrote in an e-mail, “That one performance brought together all the strands of my life in the most fully realized way; it was, in a sense, the culmination of my whole career as a musician, teacher, conductor and educator.”
I haven’t attended all of Zander’s concerts in the 40 years I have been following Boston’s musical life, but I’ve been to a lot of them, and he may be right; this was up there with the best of them, and it was all the more remarkable because it followed the most difficult crisis of a career that has been marked by several, none of them, however, front-page news, as this most recent one became. So the tour and the concert represented a human victory as well as an artistic achievement. With the support of many friends and admirers, and with great inner strength, Zander rose from the slough of despondence and practiced what he preaches in The Art of Possibility and in his high-profile talks to audiences of every kind around the world. His experiences have changed him; some of the musicians who have toured with Zander before commented on the complete absence this time of what they affectionately called “zantrums,” which occasionally appeared in the past as crisis loomed. He is honest with himself and with others – even when a group of Dutch high school students asked him what went wrong with his marriages, Zander told them, taking most of the blame himself. Looming crisis comes with the territory when touring with more than 100 young musicians in a foreign country, but it never seemed to get Zander down, or anyone else for long, because of the example he set. And this personal transformation has also transformed the way he approaches music and the great task of music-making.
Afterwards, there was a noisy and entertaining celebration dinner with steak for all who wanted it. Zander took the floor and paid exhaustive tribute to the players (with a special ovation for the percussion section), the parents, the sponsors, the donors, his co-author Rosamund Zander, the chaperones, the Dutch colleagues, the hardworking staff, the assistant conductor, Dave Jamrog, the inventive and tireless videographer – he taped all the concerts dressed in black, successfully camouflaged as a member of the orchestra; in rehearsal he was half tight-wire walker, half ballet dancer, as he bobbed, bowed, jumped and dipped silently through the orchestra – at one point he appeared to be moonwalking, at another, to be both partners in a tangled tango. There was a real upheaval of enthusiasm when Zander reached the name of the unflappable intern and front-line crisis manager Johnny Helyar, who would still be young enough to play his violin in the orchestra, if he ever had time.
The concert itself ended, as all youth orchestra tours and seasons Zander has led for decades, with an encore, the “Nimrod” movement from Elgar’s Enigma Variations – always a deeply emotional moment because this is how the orchestra members say goodbye to each other and to their shared experience. It is also very beautiful music, a tribute to friendship, love, and all that is noble in human personalities and relationships. Earlier in the tour, Zander had engaged in a vigorous discussion of the “correct” tempo with his Dutch counterpart from the Harmonieorkest wind ensemble from Eindhoven. At a joint rehearsal of the BPYO with the Harmonieorkest, Zander told Jos Schroeders that he was taking the variation too slowly, and that Elgar did not compose this as funeral music – it is now often used on ceremonial occasions. But at this concert Zander took it even slower than Schroeders had, which left me smiling at the irony as well as in tears of emotion. There is, of course, no invariably correct tempo for any piece of music – tempo depends on the occasion, the skill of the players, the acoustic, the emotional temperature, possibly even the pulse of the conductor. The reason Zander chose the slow tempo for “Nimrod” was quite obvious, even if it would feel “wrong” in the context of a complete performance of the Enigma Variations, or on another occasion or under different circumstances. And the reason he did was quite apparent, and Mark Churchill put it well when we talked about it – “Ben just didn’t want the shining moment to end.”