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BPYO Brought Mahler Back Home


Next week the Boston Symphony may be bringing Mahler’s Third (along with Bernstein and Shostakovich) on a European tour, but the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra got the Mahler march on the BSO last June. Benjamin Zander designed his 25th youth orchestra tour in 47 years as a kind of pilgrimage through Mahler’s life, from his birthplace to his grave. No participant is likely to forget the journey through many of the cities important in Mahler’s life, performing the Ninth Symphony eight times in some of the world’s most beautiful concert halls in five countries: Berlin, Prague, Salzburg, Budapest, Pecs, as well as in Mahler’s hometown, Jihlava, and culminating in two especially inspiring concerts in the Musikverein in Vienna and at the one place where his music was well-received during his lifetime – Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw.

From the extensive accounts submitted by the the participants in their “white sheets” and blog entries, BMInt has culled a representative 2,500 words, which tell the story in terms of its culmination. For an attractively illustrated souvenir compendium of a significant portion of the inspiring comments from the participants, woven together by Zander’s explorations of the philosophy and practices that make this orchestra so remarkable,  click HERE.

Netherlands Radio’s recording [HERE] of the Concertgebouw performance of Mahler’s 9th also includes the Musikverein performances of the Butterworth Banks of Green Willow and Ravel’s La Valse, recorded by the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation. Both concerts will air in their respective countries during the upcoming season. In the final performance of Elgar’s Nimrod, Zander took a slower tempo than ever before, and with good reason, “we were not ready to say goodbye to each other or to conclude the experience of a lifetime!”

Richard Dyer, the former Chief Music Critic of the Boston Globe elaborated on the inspiring concluding concert in an excerpt from his extensive blogs. The unedited version is HERE. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but Mahler’s goal is not about perfection — it is about striving for perfection.

There were of course extra-musical reasons for experiencing this musical event in a special way, most especially, Mahler’s close relationship with the Amsterdam orchestra and its music director, Willem Mengelberg, whose half-century of stubborn advocacy for Mahler’s music, led to the Dutch public’s warm response. In a hallway upstairs there is a famous bust of Mahler by his sculptor-daughter Anna; in the stairwell down to the performers’ dressing rooms and cafeteria there is a photo collage, and in it Mahler stands next to Ella Fitzgerald.

And in a way this final performance by this orchestra was the culmination of an effort stretching across ten months of rehearsal and performance and the thrilling experience of seeing some of the landscapes and interiors of Mahler’s life. The tour visited some of the cities and even some of the venues where Mahler worked; it paused at his birthplace, where he would certainly have been delighted at the games children were playing during a festival on the lawns leading up to the Mahler inn/store. In the residence itself there is now a small concert room with a piano. Zander sounded “D-A-D-A and the orchestra spontaneously became a chorus intoning the D-minor version of the canonic children’s song “Frere Jacques” that Mahler used in the slow movement of his Symphony No. 1. A few members of the group were able to visit the modest dwelling in Jihlava where Mahler lived until he was a teenager; the house is now a small museum honoring the town’s most famous resident, and there was a special exhibit upstairs devoted to Mahler’s widow. The wine cellar still looks very much the way it must have more than a century ago.

Others in the BPYO made their way to pay homage at Mahler’s grave. Some were surprised to find nearby the grave of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Mahler’s wife from her second marriage—Manon’s early death led to the composition of Alban Berg’s sublime Violin Concerto which he dedicated “to the memory of an angel.’’

So by the time of the last performances, the BPYO had become as immersed in Mahler’s worlds as anyone could expect in a two-week tour; one rehearsal proved the orchestra could play the first five minutes or so of the symphony from memory, and every busload had groups of young people who could sing longer stretches of the music —  it had become part of their interior lives.

Zander did on several occasions remark on how astonished Mahler would be to hear performances of some of his most difficult and challenging music performed at this level by a youth orchestra. That is no doubt true — the youth orchestra movement scarcely existed in Mahler’s day.

Mahler was perhaps the greatest conductor of his era, and he knew everything there is to know about orchestral players and what holds their interest. Throughout his composing career, he turned over and over again to instruments that rarely have prominent solos — from bass clarinet to piccolo (actually every piccolo solo is prominent!), from contrabassoon to flute. Virtually every instrument has a solo in the Ninth Symphony and the percussion parts are interesting too; often there are unusual duets (flute and horn, for example) or various chamber-music ensembles. All this in addition to memorable solos for instruments that often have them — the concertmaster, for example, or the cello, the oboe, or the bassoon. There are several solos for the concertmaster in the Ninth, one of which may derive from an unfamiliar waltz by Johann Strauss, Jr., Freuet euch des Lebens. It is impossible to know now whether this was a conscious decision or the result of a subconscious memory, or simply a coincidence. But the title is appropriate to the context — “Enjoy Life!”

Zander has developed various exercises to develop the independence of every single player. The first rehearsal in Europe took place in the dining room of the BPYO’s hotel in Berlin — a wide, narrow rectangular space where players seated across the room from each other couldn’t possibly hear each other, let alone respond. So Zander asked them to move around the space and sit, or stand, next to the player of a different instrument. The late John Oliver used to do this with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, putting a bass next to a soprano, a tenor next to an alto. It was at this same rehearsal that Zander asked the players to put their music folders on the floor and play the opening of the symphony from memory — which they could do.

What the musicians’ union might do if Zander attempted to do this with professional players is unclear, but the union certainly wouldn’t like another of Zander’s intentional upheavals. He remarked that in Porsche automobiles, the engine is in the rear; “that’s where the power comes from.” Then he added that in an orchestra that is playing Mahler, the last stand of players is fully as important as the first. And to prove his point, he asked the first stand of all the string sections to exchange places with the last stand. This was wonderful for morale as it made, and proved, a point.

Zander likes to say that he doesn’t want to send anyone home for bad behavior, ever — and he has done so on only one previous tour, last year, South America. His reason, he tells the young players, is that he needs every single one of them. So does Mahler.

One major characteristic of composer’s scores is how often he has different solo instruments or different sections of the orchestra playing at different dynamic levels simultaneously. The intent may appear self-contradictory, and of course the default position of most orchestral players is to go along with whomever, or what section, is playing the loudest at any given moment. But the effect of doing what Mahler asks for is to push the sonority into three dimensions because this introduces perspective into the sound, an effect far more complex than merely melody versus accompaniment. Zander was repeatedly insistent on this point; he never wanted anything smoothed out.

In his program note, Zander offered his defense of this. “With often as many as ten or eleven different voices to be heard at once, and with Mahler’s painstakingly precise indications of phrasing and dynamics for each voice, often different from those for all the other voices, the Ninth makes extraordinary demands on even the ablest orchestral players . . . [they] must be encouraged not to compromise the sharp oppositions, not to minimize the strangeness, even the ugliness Mahler has written into his score. . . The ideal orchestra for the work would be one composed entirely of great individualists, each with the courage to play exactly what he is given, regardless of what the others are doing. Each would then fulfill his role within the common tempo and rhythmic framework provided by the conductor . . .”

This may be the moment to salute again the great individualists who led the sections in the Mahler; some of them alternated with other players in the rest of the program. The concertmaster was Mitusru Yonezaki, who has played in the orchestra since she was a child; last season she commuted weekly from the Juilliard School in New York. Abigail Hong was the principal second violin, Dominick Douglas is the principal viola, Annette Jakovcic, the principal cello, Harrison Klein, the principal bass. Olivia Iverson was the piccolo, Carlos Aguilar, the flute, Ryoei (Leo) Kawai, the oboe, Cheyanna Duran, English horn, Diego Baciagalupe, the E-flat clarinet, Jason Russo, clarinet, Matthew Gellar, bass clarinet, Kai Rocke, bassoon, Ryan Turano, contrabassoon. Elmer Churampi, bound for the Dallas Symphony, was principal trumpet, Joseph Cradler, headed for the U.S. Marine Band was principal horn, Robyn Smith, principal trombone, Changwon Park, bass trombone, and Frank John, tuba. Neil McNulty was on the timpani, and Arilyn Mitchell, the harp.

Nearly all these people had solo moments — Cradler probably the longest and most exposed part; Jakovcic had only eight solo notes but she made them seem like a poignantly personal blessing, a grateful acceptance, from Mahler. Mahler also pulls solos out from within the section — Maria D’Ambrosio was memorable in the second horn part at the opening of the symphony; Reed Pulleo played the tubular chimes in a crucial measure; and Mattijs van Maaren provided a hair-raising crescendo over a climactic pair of cymbal crashes. Nor should we forget the players from the middle and the back of the sections, individuals and individualists all of them — and a fair measure of the Porsche power comes from them.

The finale is a counterweight to the first movement, almost as long as the beginning, but with far fewer notes stretched across the time span. There is a melody — Zander and others compare it to the beloved 19th century Anglican funeral hymn tune “Abide With Me,” although I can’t imagine where Mahler would ever have heard it, except possibly in church in America — but the main melodic gesture is a turn, where adjacent notes curl around, or embrace, a primary tone in the middle.

There are two ways of dealing with this gesture in the Mahler Ninth, where it occurs more than 100 times, sometimes simultaneously in different registers and at different speeds. One is Abbado’s choice, which is to use it to propel the music into the next pitch or idea or rhythmic grouping; the other is Zander’s which is to make it expressive in and of itself, usually through rubato, stealing time and then making it up. Both approaches are equally valid, and they are not mutually exclusive — one can hear each of them making exceptions to the “rule” they have established. And both performances are extremely effective — and affecting. It is impossible to listen to this music without experiencing profound emotion, feelings of love and loss but also acceptance, even gratitude, and a peace that passes understanding.

The last pages of the symphony reverse the procedure of the first pages — the complexities vanish. The winds and the brass and the percussion drop out, and only the strings are left, and they are playing with mutes. This is exceptionally important and exceptionally difficult to coordinate. When Sir John Barbirolli made his great recording of the Ninth with the Berlin Philharmonic, he insisted that the orchestra begin by recording the last movement, and especially the end of the last movement. “The orchestra has to know what it is aiming for,” he explained.

Zander took the precaution of handing out the full orchestral score to the last page to everyone who would play it; “that is the only way the players can do it,” he said, “they have to know what everyone else is doing and where and how they fit in.”

The sound dies away, and there are beats of silence, and finally the music sinks below the horizon of audibility; the harmony is at last resolved. There is nothing left to say or to hear but everything to feel.                                                                                                                                               

Of course, a tour of this size — 130 people headed in many directions, large instruments, bulky suitcases, concert attire, multiple busses, a train and several airlines— is an almost impossible thing to manage and control. Zander himself was almost omnipresent even when he wasn’t on the podium or hopping tables in a restaurant — every player’s trip is completely subsidized, so with transportation costs, hotels, meals, instrument rentals, fees for the halls and all the rest of it this tour cost nearly a million dollars. It would not have happened, could not have happened, without Zander’s energy, enthusiasm, morale-building and fundraising fearlessness. If you couldn’t find him, it was usually because he was off giving a speech or raising money. He likes to reverse the usual paradigm — he has the grand vision first, and then he sets about raising money to make it a reality.

He had able assistance from a professional tour management, and the tireless efforts from BPYO staff, particularly Mark Churchill, who has collaborated with Zander on all of his youth orchestra tours to date; and indefatigable and prodigious Elisabeth Christensen, who handles all of the most exasperating details for months on end and then, once the tour is underway, often from the middle of the night until daybreak. There was also a gregarious and helpful crew of chaperones, most of them musicians and some even former members of the BPYO, a photographer/recordist, a doctor who is a cellist in the Boston Philharmonic, his wife, a nurse — all of them equipped to deal cheerfully with emergencies, sore throats, lost-and-found, worried parents, confused bus drivers, raging hormones, and oversleeping musicians.

Zander strikes pose for photographer Paul Marrota

Zander likes to think of orchestral playing as an ongoing lesson in how to live — according to the best-selling book written with Rosamund Zander, The Art of Possibility, every experience can be an ongoing lesson; Zander likes to quote “Roz” as saying, “Possibility is always only one sentence away.”

This belief is an underpinning for the BPYO and it is possible to feel that Mahler’s music, which embraces opposites at every level, does something comparable. It is not an accident that the tour’s red t-shirt has a motto on it, “Shaping Future Leaders Through Music.” Zander has unquestionably created an orchestra based on the possibility that young people with strong and diverse personalities can respond to what Mahler requires of them, can create a community without compromising individuality. An orchestra can be a model for other communities, demonstrating that diversity is a source of strength rather than a weakness. A community can experience problems, and even create some for itself. But only a community can solve them.


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