For musicians, the great concert halls of the world are holy ground – the expression comes from the Bible, Exodus 3:5, a verse describing the moment when the voice of the Lord spoke to Moses from within a burning bush and said, “Draw not near here: put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” Nobody that I saw took off his shoes when the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra entered Amersterdam’s Concertgebouw for rehearsal on Thursday, but one of the young players, cellist Leland Ko, did move forward impulsively to kiss the stage, and nobody felt the gesture was inappropriate – this is just how musicians feel about the places they revere.
Opened in 1888, the hall is the home of one of the world’s finest orchestras, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; BPYO conductor Benjamin Zander pointed out that one of the reasons that orchestra is great is that it rehearses and plays in one of the world’s greatest halls – the same thing might be said about the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Symphony Hall. The Concertgebouw seats 1974 people, as opposed to Symphony Hall’s 2625, but it feels far more intimate than the numbers would indicate, not just because of the smaller capacity but also because the auditorium it is wider but not as long – from no point does one feel distant from the stage. Also the Concertgebouw has seats “in the round,” and when the orchestra is not performing a work with chorus, the public can sit behind and above the orchestra, facing the conductor.
The name of Beethoven stands emblazoned above the proscenium in Symphony Hall; the design left blanks for other names, but the blanks have never been filled in, because the winds of fashion change – the Hatch Memorial Shell on the Esplanade, in contrast, does proclaim the names of composers few in the public are likely to remember. There are many composer plaques in the Concertgebouw, most of them predictable (the most recent names are those of Stravinsky and Bartok), but also some surprises like Cherubini, Rubinstein, Gounod, Lully and Spohr; a number of Dutch composers from Sweelinck through Pijper are included, a nice touch.
At the center of the balcony, in the royal box position. stands the name of Mahler – the Concertgebouw has a rich Mahler tradition dating back to the composer’s lifetime. Two additional plaques on the lower walls salute major Mahler festivals, one in 1995, and one back in 1920, which commemorated conductor Willem Mengelberg’s 25th season as music director. Mengelberg met Mahler in 1902 and became one of the most passionate early advocates of his music, inviting Mahler to the Concertgebouw, where the composer led performances of his first, third, fourth and seventh symphonies as well as the song cycle Kindertotenlieder and the cantata Das Klagende Lied.
Zander told the orchestra that Mengelberg was the “greatest master of rubato who ever lived,” at least among conductors, and urged the BPYO to listen to Mengelberg’s famous recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony as an example. He also stressed that orchestral rubato of that subtle unanimity was made possible only because Mengelberg dedicated himself almost solely to the Concertgebouw, which he served for 50 years, the last of them clouded by concessions he made to the Nazis who were occupying The Netherlands.
(The BPYO plays Mahler’s Second Symphony tonight in the Concertgebouw. It is not playing its other program here, but the principal work on it, Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, was written for and dedicated to the Concertbebouw, and Strauss wrote with relief that for the first time he didn’t need to worry that he would write something that would prove too difficult for the performers.)
Without the presence of an audience the Concertgebouw, like Symphony Hall, is too resonant for comfort; rehearsals are conducted behind a heavy curtain that tames the reverberation, just as they are in Symphony Hall. The BPYO had not requested the curtain, so the rehearsal was delayed for a few moments while the Concertgebouw pulled up the curtain.
After the rehearsal there was an orchestra meeting in the hall’s choir room; Zander introduced his cousin Suzanne, a sprightly lady with shining eyes, a former dancer who now teaches English as second language. She provided a glimpse of Zander as a boy, “playing hockey on the lawn, using a cane as a hockey stick” and recalled an occasion when Zander introduced her to his musical mentor, Benjamin Britten.
Most of the afternoon was devoted to a tour of the famous Rijksmuseum, recently reopened after a long renovation. This tour, which was free to the players, was paid for by a friend of Zander’s in exchange for Zander’s giving one of his famous talks to a group of prominent businessmen. Members of the orchestra expressed their delight by an almost-impromptu “flashmob” chamber-music concert in the courtyard of the museum. Eight string players ranged around a table in the rehearsal room ran through a light-fingered movement from the Octet composed by Mendelssohn at the age of 16 - the same age as some of the players.
There were no music stands available in the museum so other BPYO musicians sat on the ground in the center of the circle created by the Mendelssohn Eight, and held the printed music as “human music stands.” There was a lot of ambient noise, but many people drew close to hear the music, and there was so much applause that the performers immediately offered an encore performance that was even faster and more dazzling. Then five of the BPYO trumpeters joined the strings to play that old Boston Pops favorite “Buglers Holiday” by Leroy Anderson, and they too had to play it twice.
The museum is full of masterpieces, of course, and the players followed their instincts and interests, as well as joining the crowds before the Vermeers and to Rembrandt’s Night Watch, the most famous painting in the collection. Among the countless visitors who have stood in wonder before Night Watch was a composer who repeatedly visited the painting more than a century ago and who said the painting inspired the second movement of his Seventh Symphony – his name was Gustav Mahler.