In tribute to the centennial of Gustav Mahler’s death, the NEC Youth Philharmonic under Benjamin Zander has recently performed in a highly successful tour of Eastern Europe from June 14 — 24 that featured concerts in Vienna at the Musikverein and in Prague at Dvorák Hall in the Rudolfinum — both cities at that figured importantly in Mahler’s career. Other stops were the Jihlava Mahler Festival (in the town where Mahler spent his childhood), the Litomysl Smetana Festival in the Czech Republic, and the Bratislava Summer Festival in Slovakia. At the centerpiece of this “Mahler Journey” were performances of the composer’s last completed symphony, the Ninth. Also alternating on the programs were performances of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 with 15-year old wunderkind pianist George Li and the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations with cellist Jonah Ellsworth.
The caravan of 125 musicians, countless instruments, conductors, parents and hangers-on having run its course, musicologist Christopher Hailey now offers an extract from his published blogs. Keyword search “YPO Tour 2011” for interesting links.
There is a moment when the music dies away, a silence unlike any other, that pause before the first tentative applause breaks the spell. There has been a series of such remarkable moments on this journey of discovery: in Prague and Litomysl, in the Hall of the Slovak Radio in Bratislav; in the grey, cramped House of Culture in Jihlava; in the majestic fourteenth-century Dominican church in Krems.
The young players of the YPO are good and they know it; they’ve been told that by their parents, teachers, mentors, adoring audiences, and above all by their devoted conductor. They’ve got chops. Their pianissimos are breathtaking, their fortes inspire awe, their ensemble is beautifully balanced, and each soloist a brilliant reflection upon the whole. They are so amazingly responsive to every gesture, cue, and glance.
One such player is cellist Jonah Ellsworth, who performed Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations in Bratislava. Any praise of Jonah’s technical abilities is likely to be an understatement. He is completely assured and intensely musical; each of the variations had a distinctive character and tone color. I was particularly impressed with his sensitivity to the interaction with the orchestra, the hallmark of natural chamber musician (a quality that is evident in his sectional leadership, as well). This is a young man on the verge of an international career.
Fast forward to Vienna: The Musikverein, großer Saal. I know this golden hall, probably better than any other concert space in the world. I heard my first concert here forty years ago and over the decades have seen countless rehearsals and performances by many soloists, orchestras, and conductors, including some of the greatest. And I know this audience: sophisticated, experienced, snobby, and smug. Win them over and their enthusiasm knows no bounds; fail and their polite indifference has the sting of an Arctic blast. This was the last hurdle of the YPO’s Mahler tour, its greatest challenge, the highpoint and culmination. For me it was a homecoming.
For this reason, perhaps, I approached this concert with surprising calm. I could appreciate the wide-eyed wonder these young people were experiencing – I, too, had once gawked at so much gilded splendor. I could also sense their physical pleasure in bathing in the warmth of this unparalleled acoustic space. But for once I felt closer to the Viennese audience welcoming strangers into “their hall.”
I had spread the word and invited Viennese friends – musicians and music lovers. Many came, some with reservations. After all, there had been two recent performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and now this “Kinderorchester”? It took some persuasion. Probably quite a lot of persuasion, because this Thursday was a holiday and the Viennese love their four-day week-ends. But in the end the hall was packed, and not with tourists and coerced students groups. This was a Viennese audience, the real deal. Now it was up to the YPO to prove itself.
The concert in the Musikverein began with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, which the orchestra and soloist George Li had last performed in Litomysl. Li’s performance was surprisingly impetuous; he took risks and pushed at the edges of this work’s classically balanced structure. It was a daring and provocative reading – and the audience loved it and him. He was called back again and again and when the orchestra stood there was a roar approval. Half the battle.
During intermission there was much talk about the youth of the orchestra. “That concert mistress – how old do you think she is? Did you hear the woodwinds? And the sound of the strings!” One friend, a professional flutist, exclaimed with conviction that this had to be the best youth orchestra in America. Another friend nodded, but grumbled, “All well and good, but Mahler? We’ll see.”
The Ninth Symphony is a work that requires nearly an hour and a half of intense concentration with little, if any, opportunity for emotional repose. The outer movements are slow with long, sustained arching lines. There are explosive climaxes in the first; an extremely hushed and drawn-out farewell in the last. The middle movements are quirky and quixotic, a series of sharply etched character studies with frequent shifts in tempo and often dense contrapuntal textures. There are challenges everywhere for the brass and woodwinds, for intonation and intra-sectional ensemble.
The audience listened with the kind of rapt attention that suggested the novelty of a stage full of teenagers had been pushed into the background. This performance was going to be judged entirely on its own merits and these young musicians held to highest standards. Ben Zander took risks, as well. Those climaxes in the first movement had a grandeur unlike anything we’d heard before; in the middle movements he asked for and received unprecedented clarity and brilliance; and in the last movement, this intensely inward-looking Adagio, he achieved an expansive calm that must have surprised even the players themselves.
And then that exquisite moment of silence. Too much to bear. It was broken, somewhat prematurely, by a single booming “Bravo!” That unleashed a torrent of applause and stamping feet (ah, the wooden floors of the Musikverein!), followed by the sound of clattering seats as the audience rose as one for a standing ovation. It was loud, heartfelt, and sustained, punctuated but not driven by shouts and whistles coming from New England Conservatory schoolmates from the touring Youth Symphony, who had come over from Bratislava to hear the concert. What a proud day for this conservatory to be represented by such ambassadors! And what a triumph for Ben Zander, who has molded these gifted young players into an ensemble of astonishing power and depth. This was a performance fully worthy of the hallowed traditions of the Musikverein and these young artists had earned their place among the generations of musicians that had preceded them. They, too, were now at home.
Musicologist Christopher Hailey, director of the Franz Schreker Foundation, was the visiting professor at the Arnold Schoenberg Institute in Vienna from 1999-2003. He was scholar-in-residence for the 2010 Bard Music Festival, for which he has edited a companion volume, Alban Berg and his World, and he is now working on the history of Viennese musical modernism.