The most memorable moments in Monday’s music making by the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra on tour in The Netherlands came not in the evening concert but during the rehearsal beforehand.
The orchestra was reviewing the repertory in the new hall in the new city of Almere which was built over the last 30 years on land claimed from the sea – the first house there was constructed in 1976, and today there is a population of more than 200,000 people living in an area that was once underwater.
(Enroute to Almere the busses stopped at Muiderslot, a 13th-century castle that looked exactly as a castle should – and has, in many movies made at Muiderslot; there’s a moat, a dungeon, a primitive privy, a drawbridge, a moat, and lush formal gardens. The emerald fields approaching the castle were dotted with sheep, cattle, and horses, all of them enjoying a buffet that never closes.)
Inside there was an informative tour – the interiors were domestic rather than imposing, and the light made one think of the old Dutch masters – one half expected to see a girl wearing a pearl earring in the next room.
At the rehearsal conductor Benjamin Zander was not happy with what he was hearing in Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben; the playing had grown a bit mechanical and even stale; the orchestra, understandably exhausted at this point, had activated automatic pilot and cruise control.
These are very serious young musicians – both the violinist and cellists had held special meetings at their own intiative in order to address some problems and work out some technical details. The players also walk around all day singing themes from Ein Heldlenleben and Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony; at this moment, in the hallway of the concert hall De Doelen in Rotterdam one can hear the trumpets tuning a powerful dissonance in the Mahler.
These musicians play as hard as they work, and a day off in Amsterdam turned out to be was as tiring as playing the Mahler symphony in the cathedral in Haarlem. So Monday afternoon they were sailing along the freeway but not observing the landscape. Zander therefore issued a surprise order. “Put your music on the floor.”
The orchestra did, and then Zander led them though the whole first section of the tone poem which they were playing from memory, an amazing and instructive feat. Forced to watch Zander and each other, forced to listen intently, the players began to make music again and to make it together – and they kept it up for the rest of the day.
It was also fun to hear Zander instruct the principal flute Sarah Sullivan and the principal oboe Elizabeth O’Neil to play as nastily as possible in the section depicting the critics who are the enemies of Strauss’s hero, and they vied with each other to produce increasingly carping tone.
The concert hall in Almere is not really, or primarily, a concert hall designed for orchestral programs; it is a multi-purpose facility, with several performance areas in a functional building that takes full advantage of its waterfront location – there are many stunning water views (think of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival’s new hall), generous lobbies, and the design is functional. Posters on the wall proclaimed the variety of performances that have passed over the stages in the building – comedy, plays, dance, musicals, acrobats, you name it.
In its industrial way the auditorium looks very striking; the walls and balcony fronts are fashioned of stainless steel or aluminum, braided, brushed and shining. The stage is almost on the floor level; the audience area slopes down to the stage (this reminded some of the players of the ICA, back in Boston).
But the sound is electronically “enhanced,” with the ensemble’s choice of reverberation added (what made anyone think that a metal auditorium would sound good?). The eager and attentive audience loved the concert, with plenty of reason, but to anyone who had heard the orchestra rehearsing and performing in the other venues on the tour it was disappointing for reasons having nothing to do with the playing itself. It just didn’t quite sound like itself. And the electronics did not serve the piano well at all; perhaps the instrument itself was limited. Either way, the sound of the piano was hard, harsh and unyielding, which is not George Li’s style, and there were hints of his characteristic qualities in his encore than in the Schumann concerto. Li substituted a limpid and elegant performance of Chopin’s ineffably poignant Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor for the Schumann-Liszt “Widmung” he had offered at his earlier performance.
We all fall into careless habits of speech, and it is not unusual even for musicians to observe that they “saw a concert.’’ I recently heard the conductor Leonard Slatkin emphasizing to an audience that music is first and foremost an auditory experience. But for once, perhaps, the expression was justified, because one could see, one could even feel, how intently and intensely the orchestra was playing this program, even if one was not quite hearing what Zander and the orchestra were obviously delivering. And one could also hear how the performances of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben had evolved, developed and improved over a the course of performances at home in Symphony Hall and in Holland – Zander has several times referred to how far Ein Heldenleben has come since the very first read-through in the Franklin Institute last November.
(It is worth remembering that at home this orchestra rehearses only once a week, on Saturday afternoons, and for only four hours.)
Perhaps the most striking example of improvement came in the playing of the famously challenging extended solos that Richard Strauss composed for the concert master – a virtual concerto depicting the hero’s companion/wife/lover, who in real life was Strauss’s, the soprano Pauline de Ahna, for whom he wrote songs and operatic roles; the influence of her voice and soaring singing can be heard in everything Strauss composed after 1894, when he married her. Pauline was captivating and infuriating, changeable from one moment to the next, an exasperating shrew and harridan one moment, a loving and supportive wife the next. She was stern, sexy, terrifying, witty and irresistible. No one knew what she would do or say next, and Strauss adored her. He also depended on her utterly.
The BPYO has offered audiences an unusual opportunity to hear one of music’s most enchanting portraits of a lady played for once by a woman – even today most concertmasters are still men. Of leading American orchestras only Minnesota and Atlanta have had women concertmasters. Hikaro Yonekaza is precocious and charming – a tiny young woman who also happens to be a monster violinist. In Symphony Hall she played these solos with altogether exceptional assurance and command, and what has happened during this tour is that the playing has become a vivid characterization as well – what was meticulously planned and superbly executed before has now become spontaneous, whimsical, scary and all-embracing. All Yonekaza had to do was look at herself in the mirror – and then work very hard.
(Incidentally, the alternate concertmaster who was the leader for the Egmont Overture is also a woman, a charming creature named Francesca Bass, elegant in appearance and demeanor; she comes by her striking resemblance to Boston Symphony Orchestra violinist Tatiana Dimitriades quite naturally – Dimitriades is her mother!).
The orchestra was well fed before the concert, and a buffet ideal for a young crowd was spread out downstairs afterwards - pizza, cheesecake, and soda pop.
Meanwhile a substantial part of the audience, which was clearly captivated by the BPYO and untroubled by the acoustics, didn’t want to go home, and instead lingered at a reception upstairs eager to meet the young musicians, who, full of pizza and cheesecake, still had room for some elegant hors d’oeuvres and remained for an additional hour chatting with their Dutch fans – and also with family members from America, who have been flying over to enjoy the end of the tour.
The first newspaper review has appeared, but we are still awaiting a translation from the Dutch. Still the graphics were quite clear. There were two 5-star events in the Netherlands over the week-end – the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in Haarlem, and a concert by Bruce Springsteen!
On Sunday the orchestra split into several chaperoned groups that traveled by train to Amsterdam – a journey shorter than many trips on the Red Line, and far more pleasant. Some went to the Van Gogh Museum, some to the Rijksmuseum, some to the Anne Frank house, some to a boat trip along the canals. The musicians were also allowed to go off on their own, as long as they didn’t go alone and travelled only in groups, and one heard reports about visits to such tourist attractions as the Medieval Torture Museum, the Sex Museum; there was even some window shopping in the notorious red light district. But everyone showed up when and where they were supposed to, present and accounted for.
I went along to the Van Gogh Museum with a group of 20 which did not yet exist when I first visited Amsterdam in 1961 – neither probably did the Medieval Torture Museum, although I can tell you that the red light district did exist back then, and as a 19 year-old I had to see it for myself.
Sunday a group of about 20 players walked from the train station to the museum that took about two hours because the streets were as crowded as Picadilly Circus or Red Square and there were so many things to look at, and to do, on the way – lunch was pickled herring, or pastries, or French fries with curried sour cream or even hot wings from Colonel Sanders. Shop windows displayed everything from tulips to vibrators, and sometimes both. Musicians tried on knit caps with imitation dredlocks sewn on to them. One subgroup even ran into some non-musical classmates from Exeter who joined the excursion.
The Van Gogh Museum was opened in 1973 to house the collection of unsold paintings held by the painter’s brother Theo and passed on through his family. Today the museum welcomes 1.5 million visitors annually and it felt as it most of them were present on Sunday afternoon, pushing you away from the paintings so that they could take pictures of the pictures on exhibit, more than 200 of them, including paintings by his friends and contemporaries that van Gogh saw, knew and admired.
This was not a leisurely contemplative stroll through the museum, but it was nevertheless a totally fascinating experience, but the current exhibit “Van Gogh at Work” is organized both chronologically and according to topic, and loans from other museums made it possible to see paintings together that can otherwise be studied only in groups – both versions of “Sunflowers” for example.
Working upwards through four floors of galleries we moved from van Gogh’s student period, through copies he made in various styles, and through the several “periods” scholars have identified in his work until the final masterworks, and even the last of all his paintings. There were also corollary items, like the painter’s only surviving palette.
Some moved swiftly through the galleries and onto the café and gift shop; others lingered thoughtfully. The exhibit was all about the slow and often painful process through which van Gogh emerged as his own self, recognizable in every image, and by the end in every brush stroke.
It was thrilling to watch young musical artists , still in the early stages of comparable journeys of self discovery, tracing van Gogh through his own. They didn’t have much to say beyond how “exciting” and “great” and “awesome” it was, but I know their thoughts ran deeper.