“See you in Holland,” said conductor Benjamin Zander at a break in the final Boson rehearsal for the new Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra first tour.
Zander waved goodbye that Saturday afternoon, June 16, 2013 in the rehearsal space the orchestra rents every Saturday in the Benjamin Franklin Institute in Boston’s South End, and that already seems a very long time ago.
On the docket was the major repertory for the 5-concert tour in five cities in the Netherlands. 17 year-old pianist George Li was present to play through the Schumann Concerto on a small electric piano that looked like a toy. Li confessed he’d never played on anything like it and it even took the staff a while to figure out how to turn it on. Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Richard Strauss’s tone poem Ein Heldenleben [The Life of a Hero], the hero in question being the 34 year-old Strauss himself will complete that program. The other concerts will feature Mahler’s heaven-storming Symphony No. 2, the Resurrection, which the orchestra will play in Amsterdam’s renowned Concertgebouw, one of the world’s great concert halls and a shrine for Mahler performance since the composer was alive. There will be a Dutch chorus, and international soloists, including the Swiss mezzo-soprano Yvonne Naef, who has often sung with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Zander was in characteristic charismatic form and looking lithe - he made a point of introducing his personal physical trainer, who was looking even lither. The trainere had dropped by to check on his protégé and send him on his way. Zander beamed that he had lost 30 pounds, and your reporter reluctantly admitted that he had found them.
“Give me the gong of death,” Zander cried during the Mahler, and at an agonizing harmony quoted the words of Christ on the cross, “O God, why has thou forsaken me?” At a quiet moment, he wanted the music to be “dumbstruck with sorrow.”
Often he drew attention to Mahler’s markings of expression in the score. “Do not speed up just because you are getting louder,” he cautioned. Zander’s method, of course, is to teach all the time, but not so you’d notice he was doing anything “educational.” The tension in Mahler arises because so much of what he wants an orchestra to do is counterintuitive, and there are sometimes as many instructions about what NOT to do as there are about what must be done – don’t speed up, don’t slow down, in the very places where that is what instinct leads you to do, in places where that is what the ear expects to hear. Denying expectation and forcing the listener to hear, feel and experience in a new and different way is how this music works.
The rehearsal work was always serious, but the mood often wasn’t. The room was seething with the energy of 120 players between the ages of 13 and 23 who are challenging themselves, and the norm of teenage- and young-adult culture by choosing to do this instead this instead of other, easier things. Looking at the orchestra, one realizes that what analysts are always calling “the future of America” is already here – representing many religions, ethnicities, races, and personal persuasions, the orchestra looks like a poster for diversity, but the mission the players have embraced with such enthusiasm is to find common ground with the composers, the music, each other, and the public. It is as inspiring to look at them as it is to hear them.
Late Sunday afternoon and early Sunday evening the players gathered at Logan Airport in the international terminal; quite a few young musicians would be making their first trip to Europe. There was a palpable excitement in the air, and the group looked like any random assortment of ids and young adults their age, except many of them were carrying instruments and the bulky cases the instruments travel in. Substantial advance planning assured there would be places for string basses and cellos, but there was also a cheerful air of improvisation; not all carry-ons would fit in the overhead bins alongside all those violins, violas, and brass instruments.
The orchestra, with chaperones and administrative personnel, left in two groups – one flew to Munich, then to Amsterdam; the second group, a little later, arrived in Amsterdam via a five-hour layover in Frankfurt. On the Frankfurt flight some people watched Ryan Gosling in Gangster Squad or Jason Statham in Parker. Probably more people watched Valery Gergiev conducting Mahler’s Fifth Symphony than on any previous Lufthansa flight, and the scraps of conversation one overheard were not what one would expect from any random group of teenagers and young adults – it was actual conversation about actual things.
Your reporter was with the Frankfurt group, and while no one could say that five hours flew away as we sat at a bleak departure gate, the BPYO made the best of it and there was no whining. As accomplished as the young musicians are in actual things, they are completely at home in the mechanics of virtual reality as well. The Frankfurt airport allows only a half hour of free internet access, but this crowd figured out fast how to get around this limitation. “Just enter a new email for any random trumpet player at New England Conservatory.”
And it didn’t take long for the instruments to come out of their cases (and, in this public space, the mutes). A pair of violinists – Thomas Cooper and Eric Mrugala – read through a Passacaglia by Frescobaldi, while nearby, around a corner, trumpeters Joe Blumberg and Nathaniel Meyer, offered this excessively experienced listener his first opportunity to hear a duo by Pierre Francois Clodomir (????-1804) – “a famous trumpet guy,” the players added by way of a program note.
Another trumpeter announced his regret at missing a barbecue weekend in Boston. “There’s a hot sauce contest sauce, and before you are allowed to taste, you have to sign a waiver.”
Finally it was time to board another plane for the short flight to Amsterdam; the group stood in a boiling-hot bus on the tarmac for nearly as long as the flight. Then two busses trailed by a truck crammed with big musical instruments drove the group to a StayOkay youth hostel in Haarlem that would be home for the night. There the players reunited with their colleagues from the earlier flight and enjoyed a simple dinner of tomato soup, salads, meatballs and tortellini; there was also a general meeting to introduce chaperones and work through logistics. Then everyone claimed their Spartan , crowded, but impeccably clean rooms. Negotiations about upper and lower bunkbeds and shower schedules followed, and while some players fanned out to explore the park around the nearby canal, others unpacked their instruments and began to practice – although most had been awake for more than 24 hours by this point.
This writer reflected on his own first trip to Europe, in 1961, more than a week on the SS Maasdam on the Holland-American line, Hoboken-Rotterdam, a boat full of junior year-abroad students; I was headed for Paris, and a whole new world of music. That was very different from this trip, and a lot easier (I’d choose a boat over an airplane anytime), but both trips were fun because of the other people on the ride.
I still have the enthusiasm of youth, especially for for music, but not the energies for travel, so I collapsed onto my bunk and the last thing I heard before falling asleep was appropriate music by Wagner, from Tannhaeuser, the chorus of journeying pilgrims.