First Mahler 2; Updates

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Richard Dyer's picture
Sun, 06/23/2013 - 7:48am -- Richard Dyer

Difficulties of internet access have made this blog erratic – not that the writer isn’t abundantly erratic himself – so this is a kind of carryall catchup for the last few days.

But we should begin with tonight’s glorious and triumphant performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection, by conductor Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.

Then, if you wish, you can scroll to notes on earlier days that were difficult to complete and impossible to send in a timely manner.

SATURDAY

The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra performed Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony tonight in an unusual venue, the historic cathedral Grote of St. Bavokerk in Haarlem, the Netherlands.

This lofty, beautiful and inspiring place was created  in the 15th century; the Dutch master painter Frans Hals is buried here, and both Handel and Mozart played the famous organ. Wikipedia quotes Moby Dick, a passage in which Herman Melville describes the mouth of a whale. "Seeing all these colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about, would you not think you were inside of the great Haarlem organ, and gazing upon its thousand pipes?"

The high wooden ceiling is intricately coffered; everywhere there are many angled or rounded or niched surfaces for sound to bounce off of.

So when the orchestra arrived for rehearsal late Friday afternoon, everyone naturally expected resonance and reverberation, but not as much as in fact there is. The players were worried, and so was Zander.  Much time went into finding appropriate places for the “offstage” music in the symphony. Several were tried and found unsatisfactory; ultimately one horn player was stationed behind the choir grate (Chuta Chulavalaivong) and the responding horn, Mackenzie Newell, was high in an opening above the ceiling (up more than 200 winding stairs to get there).  A small brass and percussion ensemble led by Zander Fellow and assistant conductor Benjamin Vickers moved several times until eye and ear could coordinate it with the orchestra.

Some members were initially in a state of shock because of the acoustics and the difficulty of hearing themselves, not to speak of other sections; it became clear that they were going to have to watch Zander with special attention because they could not depend on their ears.

Ultimately each every position in the cathedral has its own specialized acoustic, depending on which instruments are playing, what direction the musicians are facing in, and even the volume each instrument is  putting out.  Zander himself needed to adopt tempos different from the ones he had rehearsed because he had to allow extra time for the decay of sounds and phrases. It may have been helpful to be reminded that Mozart coped with the situation, and he was only 10 at the time.

This writer found the sound thrilling and unusual – so did Berlioz, for example, who composed his Requiem to capitalize on just such a space.  And I couldn’t wait to hear the actual performance.

Tonight much of the detail that musicians labor to master and convey in important concert halls simply vanished – details of balance, of articulation, of dynamics and even tonal quality.  Paradoxically, all these details nevertheless needed to be present in order to create the sounds that we did hear.

And those sounds were simply glorious. The most unusual characteristic is that the individual timbres and colors had no audible point of origin.  One could see the chorus perfectly well, ranged behind the orchestra in front of the altar, but the sound appeared to come from the other end of the cathedral, as did the sound of the horns and trumpets and occasionally other instruments.  And the “sound mix” created by the acoustic ambience and by the way phrases “bled” into one another was like nothing else one had ever heard.  Some of the loud sounds were of apocalyptic dimensions; some of the quiet music was uniquely indrawing, with a “halo” around the sound that was truly mystical. In an exact sense of the phrase, this was “surround sound” – it not only surrounded each listener, it embraced everyone it reached.  Mahler spoke of his symphonies as universes, and in this case the audience was the sun, at the white-hot center of the universe.  One might not want to hear this symphony, or any music not specifically composed for cathedral performance, very often in these circumstances, but the circumstances told us things about the work we might never otherwise have known.  And just being in that vast, beautiful, and mysterious space was like being in the presence of music before the music even began; one does not have to be religious in order to feel the spiritual power in a cathedral.

What both the sound and sight conveyed was the utter conviction and involvement of every single player (as well as of the chorus, the soloists, and, of course, Zander).  There were rough spots, but there was nothing routine, and the performance was alive in every beat and bar.

The still point at the center of the symphony is the mezzo’s solo song, “Urlicht” (“Primal Light”), and Yvonne Naef’s voicing of it – in the context of the brass ensemble chorale and the breathtakingly eloquent oboe solo by Elizabeth O’Neil – was selfless and rapturous.  In rehearsal Zander had pointed out the presence of the glockenspiel.  “Do you know what that was?” Zander asked. “She has seen an angel, and she’s in heaven.”

The applause was prolonged, enthusiastic and, above all, grateful. Repeatedly Zander returned to the podium, ultimately acknowledging the soloists, the chorus (Koorbiennale Festivalkoor), its conductor, Beni Csillag, the principal players, and each individual section of the orchestra; all the “offstage’’ musicians also filed on at the front of the platform.

Afterwards the mayor of Haarlem hosted a reception for the orchestra and made a speech about how the Netherlands has nothing really comparable to the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, and expressed the hope for a return in time for the next biennial choral festival. Neil Wallace, a Scotsman who has become the leading impresario and a major idea man in Dutch musical life, told the story of how this tour came to be.

One day, only a few months ago, Zander, whom he did not know, called him out of the blue and suggested a tour of the Netherlands for the BPYO.  “You mean in 2015 or 2016,” Wallace asked. “No, I mean 2013,” Zander replied. “That is completely impossible,” Wallace responded.  But in the ensuing days and weeks the conversation continued, and when the centerpiece event that had been meticulously planned for the Biennial Choral Festival in Haarlem fell through because of funding problems, Wallace agreed to a plan he frankly thought was crazy.  But tonight he sounded very glad that he did it – he now believes that youth orchestras are crucial to the future of music – and to the creation of new audiences.

Making it all happen wasn’t easy.  The cathedral was not the first choice for a venue in Haarlem, but the concert hall has just closed for renovations and a dangerous-sounding “repurposing.”

No one really expected the cathedral to provide the experience it did provide. Just now, I am overhearing a member of the orchestra calling home – he’s around the corner so I can’t see who it is – he is saying that he has just participated in the greatest concert he’s ever been in, and the highlight of his life to date. Zander put it another way during a brief sound-check rehearsal an hour or so before the concert. “There’s a word we hear and use all the time, to the point that it doesn’t mean anything much – awesome.  We can even call an ice cream cone awesome.  But that is not what the word means.  This is awesome.”

WEDNESDAY - The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s  first formal concert on its tour of The Netherlands, in the Theater aan het Vrijthof  in Maastricht, attracted a substantial if not sell-out crowd. The program began with the Spanish-themed aperitifs which were played by the Auletes Wind Ensemble from Eindhoven, with a healthy supplement of wind, brass and percussion players from the BPYO. The main courses were Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, the Schumann Piano Concerto with George Li; Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.

The short report is the orchestra(s) played their hearts out and had a lot of fun in the process, and the audience rewarded everyone with a standing ovation.

On the face of it, the program was a bit peculiar – probably no concert ending with Ein Heldenleben has begun with dance and operetta music or a work by Khachaturian – but it all worked out.  After all, Strauss emerged from the same culture as operetta, and the presence of light opera music and dance music in works like Der Rosenkavalier or the delicious neglected ballet Schlagobers is significant, a substantial presence of “insubstantial” music.  In this agreeable context, one perceived previously unnoticed touches of whipped-cream operetta amid all the heavy lifting of Ein Heldenleben.

The first two movements of the Schumann concerto were particularly observant, subtle and sensitive. In the morning rehearsal conductor Benjamin Zander had emphasized the chamber-music dimensions of this music – “a conversation among equals,” he said – and called for the orchestra to produce exceptional beauty of tone because, he said, “no one has a more beautiful tone than George.”  Great shuffling of feet from the orchestra.  The finale was more successful in the rehearsal than in the performance, which unexpectedly became another conventional loud and breathlessly fast race to the finish line.  Li offered an encore, Liszt’s transcription of one of Schumann’s most beloved songs, “Widmung” (“Dedication”) – the favorite encore of the late Van Cliburn.

Zander introduced the Beethoven overture by telling the story of the Dutch freedom fighter Lamoral, Count Egmont, beheaded not far away, in Brussels in 1568, and also gave a delightful summary of Strauss’s self-glorifying tone poem.  It was only after the conductor started to talk that someone backstage realized that the score had not been placed on Zander’s music stand.  The stealthy hand of indispensable  “intern” and factotum Johnny Helyar– passed the music to the rear of the violins and it was passed hand to hand until it reached the podium.  There was a startling moment when cellist Benjamin Adams reached to turn the page and his bow flew out of his hand, landing on the stage with a bang.

But this was a minor and momentary distraction from an enjoyable oncert; even some occasional rough edges were welcome in Strauss’s musical autobiography – this is a piece worn down by generations of performances which have made all the rough places plain, so that the music often exhibits sonic glamor at the expense of character and narrative. This performance was full of character, and the ardor of youth.

A hundred or so bright and attentive international 7th, 8th and 9th graders from the recently-formed United World College in Maastricht filed into the last part of the rehearsal, and quite a number of them returned for the concert itself.  Downstairs, in a lobby, they had set up a display they had created honoring their own personal heroes – there were drawings and various other artworks depicting the heroes and their achievements.  From the world of music there were Chopin, Mozart, Amalia Rodrigues, John Lennon, Michael Jackson and AC/DC.  Others ranged from U.S. Presidents (Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, JFK and Obama made the cut), through scientists (Marie Curie, Isaac Newton, Einstein, Nikola Tesla), and such diverse figures as Margaret Thatcher, Che Guevara, Stella McCartney, Steve Jobs, Anne Frank,  Helen Keller, Oprah Winfrey, Mohammed Ali, Dr. Seuss and Gordon Ramsay.

One was deeply impressed by these international students, their interests and enthusiasms, the attentiveness they brought to a lecture on “the art of possibility” that Zander gave especially for them, and by the probing pertinence and intelligence of their questions.  But troubled thoughts also arose, when the recent memory of the Leerorkest intruded – one group of young people with every advantage and shiny with promise, another with far fewer advantages, even in a highly developed country like Holland, where, by law, every school must have one teacher for every 10 students.  Talent and ability appear throughout every population, wherever it may be, but encouragement and opportunity do not.  The Leerorkest was created to make a difference because its founders recognized that this is an issue and a problem.

Most of the vexations and difficulties and issues that inevitably emerge when more than 100 people are traveling together on tour didn’t affect the music-making.  The  StayOkay Hostel in Maastricht was home for two sweltering nights, the rooms hotter than a witch’s oven in a fairy tale, and few people slept well, most people emerging in the mornings as well-crisped gingerbread men who came back to life only when they had musical instruments in their hands.  There were also minor emergencies. A cellist had popped a string and didn’t have a replacement, but enroute to the concert hall he had noticed a lute and violin shop, which was able to supply one; the proprieter said, “You are going to need it tomorrow night.”  One musician had left his tux behind in Haarlem, so complicated impromptu arrangements needed to be made. Trumpeter Brian Olson who wasn’t playing in the wind ensemble part of the program came to the rescue for that part of the evening, and reclaimed his shirt for the second part; at that point, trumpeter Nathaniel Meyer, who wasn’t playing in Ein Heldenleben, donated the shirt off his back.

The concert was followed by a barbecue for the orchestra and its Dutch friends back at the StayOkay on the patio overlooking the river Meuse.  It turned out to be a barbecue by the orchestra as well – the group was expected to cook the pork, hamburgers, and veggie burgers for itself, and so principal second violin Josh Newberger and chaperones Peter and Maryanne Sheckman, and Robert Schulz commandeered the grill.  Some revelers remained until the wee hours of the morning.

THURSDAY

The day began with the boarding of busses for the three-hour trip to Rotterdam.  The group made a brief stop in Margraten to visit the American military cemetery for soldiers who gave their lives in the liberation of Holland at the end of World War II. In a vast green field stand more than 8000 white crosses arranged in elliptical symmetry.  One reaches the field by walking a long wall engraved with an additional 1722 names of the missing. Each grave is tended by a grateful Dutch family.

It was raining, and the group didn’t stay long, but it was a profoundly moving experience, even for those for whom World War II is now ancient history – or memories of old movies.  “How long,” observed Mark Churchill, one of the tour leaders, “will the world keep on doing this?”  I myself was in tears; my father did come home from World War II, a period of his life he would never talk about; I didn’t really know him until I was 5.  But there were so many who gave so much to win the war and didn’t come home; they fought in the hope of a better world, a hope that has repeatedly been dashed despite their sacrifice.

In Rotterdam the group was once again lodged in a StayOkay hostel, a famous landmark in the city since it was built in 1984.  Architect Piet Bloom designed it to look like a cubist painting, or a tumbled pile of children’s blocks.  It is a considerable achievement to have built this within a limited space, but access is difficult – the double decker busses spent an hour circling around a place they could clearly see without finding a way in, and once they did, it was quite an effort for the orchestra people carrying heavy luggage and large instruments, to navigate the complicated series of stairs and ramps leading up to the building.  Inside one faced tightly-wound, narrow circular staircases or a long wait at an elevator that could handle only three people and their luggage at a time. The rooms were adequate but strange, with columns running through the middle of each room, like the tree in Act I of Wagner’s Die Walkuere (at least in traditional productions!).  And the wi-fi simply collapsed under the weight of more than 100 people trying to use it at the same time. 

The great concert hall in Rotterdam is De Doelen (which means “goals” or “aspirations”).  Bombed by the Germans in  1940, it was finally rebuilt in 1966.  The exterior is nondescript, but the inside is a handsome space, home to the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and to visiting orchestras, soloists and even pop groups; the main auditorium seats 2,200, and there are other performing spaces as well.

The BPYO unpacked its instruments in a smaller hall named in honor of the Dutch conductor Eduard Flipse, the music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic for more than 30 years.  One felt, as always, the strength of the continuum of music, its ever-widening stream. Flipse was one of the great early advocates of Mahler’s music, and 60 years ago led the second recording of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and the very first recording of Mahler’s Eighth. (When I mentioned this to Benjamin Zander, he replied that he had met Flipse when he was a teenage apprentice of the eminent Spanish cellist Gaspar Cassado). I wondered if it ever crossed Flipse’s mind that one day a youth orchestra would ever be able to play Mahler’s Second Symphony as well at the BPYO now does; he would probably have been surprised as well as overjoyed.

This writer would also have been surprised back in Flipse’s day – I heard the Mahler Second for the first time on the radio in the mid 1950s, a live performance broadcast from the Toronto Symphony under the direction of Sir Ernest MacMillan.  I followed with the score, fully believing that I would never have the opportunity to hear a live performance of this work in my lifetime.  Instead, of course, the Mahler Second has become a repertory piece, shopworn through constant repetition; it now rivals Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a favorite choice for state occasions and commemorative events.  At Tanglewood last summer there was a seminar for the conducting fellows lamenting that a performance of the Second is no longer invariably a great, rare, soul-stirring occasion. The seminar explored what the early performances were like and how conductors who knew Mahler or at least heard him conduct, approached and interpreted the work – a first stage in figuring out how to renew it. One answer comes from this tour – let it be played by young people for whom it is new, and who approach it with a sense of wonder in discovery.

Zander and the orchestra spent the evening meticulously rehearsing the symphony; the discrepancy between the everydayness of the players’ dress and the sublimity of the music was startling – one top read “Love Punk” in black glitter; a Boston Strong t-shirt reverberated in the emotions like the music.

This session brought the first meeting with the soloists for this tour – mezzo Yvonne Naef and soprano Sarah-Jane Brandon, a soprano from South Africa who studied in London and won the prestigious award named in honor of the great British contralto Kathleen Ferrier.

Naef is an artist who appeared with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on several occasions during the James Levine years. I sometimes expressed reservations about her singing in print, so now I need to take this opportunity to serve myself some crow and eat it.  People in the orchestra and on the staff did try to tell me what a joy and a privilege it was to work with her, and now I understand why they felt that way.

There is nothing of the diva about her, and she is a great artist and musician, who is fully present in every moment she is performing, freely and consistently offering what is in her heart and soul.  She is also an exceptional colleague, repeatedly turning after and even during her great solo moment in the Mahler, the Urlicht, to express her appreciation for the expressive oboe soloist Elizabeth O’Neil; at the rehearsal she went back to speak to the brass players who intone the chorale.

Zander called an orchestra meeting after the rehearsal which took place in the courtyard of the hostel – there was some of the atmosphere of a coach’s halftime talk to the team; a touch of a “struggle session” during the Cultural Revolution in China; the mutually supportive feeling of a 12-step meeting; and something of Zander’s own in the way challenges were always viewed as opportunities and while personal courtesies were infallibly observed.

The curfew rule needed reinforcing, and Zander spoke of how high the stakes are; the Rotterdam performance of the Mahler June 25 will be a live broadcast to all of Holland – and via streaming it will reach the entire world. “This is the best youth orchestra group I have ever had, but you are not so good about getting to bed on time. You are Olympic athletes on the eve of a great race.” 

The floor was then opened to requests from the floor about specific issues of general or individual concern – about silence from other sections while one section is tuning, for example, or a request that Zander spend more time with the group when he is off the podium. Some of the applause for individual observations became so spirited that the hostel administration came outside to intervene and make its own suggestion – that the meeting close – and its own response; there was a threat to call the police, so the session did close, and there were no police, although we did hear a siren slicing through the night.

(Elisabeth Christiansen from the BPYO office has sent an email to parents of players about how to listen to the broadcast on the web. Here is the relevant paragraph: “Live streaming of the concert can be accessed via http://www.radio4.nl/. You will probably have to accept "cookies" (in Dutch) the first time you access the page. To listen to the live stream, click on "Luister Live." The concert begins at 7:30pm [on Tuesday, June 25th] local time (1:30pm Boston time). The first piece is a choral piece by Brahms, that will not be broadcast live, so the broadcast will probably start sometime around 7:45 pm (1:45pm in Boston). The broadcast will also be available for a couple of weeks after the concert at the same website. "Gemist" is the link for delayed broadcasts, or you will be able to find it by clicking on "Gids" (i.e. guide).) 

 

FRIDAY

Today brought another special event organized by Neil Wallace, a Scotsman who is a prime mover in the musical life of The Netherlands, and a major figure in arranging the current tour by the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra – a master class for three young conductors by Benjamin Zander with the BPYO in attendance to play Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet.”  It was an enthralling and rewarding event.

There were three talented young conductors, and Zander – and the orchestra – were in rip-roaring form. Zander threw down the gauntlet early on when he complimented the first conductor on how well he had done before continuing on to ask a lethal question – “Why are you doing things that are not what Tchaikovsky wrote in the score?  He was a meticulous composer who knew what he was doing.”

He put forward the fact that Tchaikovsky intended the warring themes – the “conflict” theme and the love theme – to unfold at the same tempo, and he repeatedly cautioned the young conductors not to impose their own “effects” on the score – “it is not about you,” Zander said, “it is about them,” meaning the orchestra and, secondarily, the audience. “If an orchestra makes a mistake, it is always the conductor’s fault.” “Always show the orchestra what to do; never tell them what not to do.” “Trust the musicians – don’t ever convey that you are worried about them.”

There was plenty of specific advice about how to get the results a conductor might want.  Zander asked the first young conductor what he thought the quiet opening passage for clarinets and bassoons represents.  The young conductor responded that he thought it was a liturgical chorus; Zander agreed that it was religious music, depicting Friar Laurence in Shakespeare’s play, but his own view was that the opening was meant to suggest organ music.  Nevertheless he accepted the young conductor’s view and showed him how to get the sound he wanted. “You should pull the music out of the orchestra, drawing the music towards yourself with your hands and gestures.”  He exaggerated what the student conductor had been doing, a useless horizontal motion, as if he were spreading peanut butter. An adroit mimic, Zander could also imitate bad and self-important conductors – conducting the great love theme while simultaneously fixing his hair, and turning his head in profile as if to pose for a coin.

The versality and adaptability of the BPYO was astonishing; it could do anything any of the conductors wanted and it instantly sounded different under each of them.  Someone observed that one kind of conductor can make any orchestra sound the same – Eugene Ormandy came to mind as an example, because he could summon or bestow the famous “Philadelphia Sound” on any orchestra he led.  Another kind of conductor can preserve the individual identity of music from every period and country while also preserving the individual identity of the orchestra. 

It isn’t fair to discuss in a public forum the performance problems and limitations of a student in a masterclass, but it is necessary to praise the best and last of the three young conductors, a trumpeter in the BPYO named Nathaniel Meyer, veteran of several years of Zander youth orchestra activities; Meyer is now at Yale, and Zander asked him back to play the sixth trumpet part in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2.  From Meyer’s conversation it is evident that he is highly intelligent, but it was nice to learn that he also boasts the musical imagination and the physical gifts of a born conductor.  He led the final section of  Tchaikovsky’s overture-fantasy with power, passion and pertinence, building an overwhelming climax at the crest of the love theme.  The audience and the orchestra burst into applause and cheers.

The session had already gone quite a bit overtime, but Zander  after a brief consultation with Wallace, decided to conduct the complete work himself. This year’s BPYO will disband after the tour and its members will disperse in many directions; next year there will be another orchestra with many new members. The ensemble had played Romeo and Juliet in the last concert of its Boston season, and taken it up again without rehearsal in its joint appearance with the Leerorkest the other day in Amsterdam; and Zander wanted to lead the work with these players one last time.  Which he did, accomplishing with the stick what he had described verbally in the preceding hours.

Finally many of the players still don’t know about another exceptional service done for them by their chaperones and staff, and it seems worth it to tell them.  Two busses delivered  the orchestra from the StayOkay Hostel to De Doelen, fully loaded with luggage; everyone assumed the same busses would then convey the orchestra to Haarlem, where the group will lodge for the rest of the tour.  Once the players had left the busses and headed inside for the masterclass, one of the drivers asked, “What are you going to do about the luggage?”  His bus had been contracted for another job, and all of the baggage  for more than 60 musicians needed to be moved out of the bus and the storage areas beneath so he could leave.  Chaperones, staff, and the drivers swung into action, moving everything from Bus One to Bus Two.

The problem was that the storage areas and every spare square inch of the lower level of Bus Two, a two decker, were already groaning with the luggage of the Bus Two musicians. The only place Bus One’s bags could go was onto the “second floor” of Bus Two, which meant lifting heavy and awkward pieces up a twisting steep staircase to the top level. Everyone chipped in without a murmur of complaint – “so this is what a chaperone does,” quipped said Robert Schulz, as he did it, along with colleagues who already love this orchestra as much as the musicians do.

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