How does one sum up the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s eight-city, nine-concert tour of Brazil last month? Calling it “wonderful” and “extraordinary” might seem hyperbolic, and yet, the trip — which stopped in the metropolises of Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Ribeirão Preto, Campinas, Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte, and Curitiba — was both.
We drew the repertoire from the BPYO’s last season and anchored it with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2 on all nine concerts (featuring the exceptional Anna Fedorova as soloist; more on her in a moment). Surrounding the Rachmaninoff (depending on the evening) came one of three curtain raisers — Wagner’s Act 1 Prelude to Die Meistersinger, Weber’s Euryanthe Overture, or Clarice Assad’s Bonecos de Olindo — and a symphony: either Shostakovich’s Tenth or Dvorak’s Ninth.
That’s meaty fare, to be sure. Any mix of those pieces demands deep reservoirs of concentration and stamina from an orchestra – not to mention a huge range of technical and expressive nuance.
But those are just the sorts of challenges on which the BPYO and I thrive. Our interpretations of these pieces developed from the first concert in Salvador to the last one in Curitiba. Certainly the orchestra started from a position of strength (which, if you caught any of their Boston performances last season, won’t come as a surprise). But to hear these readings deepen — in terms of flexibility, subtlety, and power — over the course of nine nights was, frankly, very gratifying to me, and I hope, the listeners.
Anna Fedorova is a world-class pianist and the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto is her calling card. An artist of stupendous technical gifts and profound musical sensibilities, it was simply a delight to listen from the podium to her navigation its formidable demands and to partake of the profound rapport she developed with us. Every night featured passionate, responsive, galvanic playing. Many people have told me that the Fedorova-BPYO Rachmaninoff rose to a benchmark.
Brilliant musician though she is, Fedorova’s the anti-diva: totally approachable, down-to-earth, and unpretentious in person. Indeed, on tour, if she wasn’t practicing or giving masterclasses, she was hanging out with the us in hotel lobbies, chatting with us on the bus rides from city to city, joining us for meals. Anna was an utter delight to conduct and to be around.
In its fifth year, the BPYO is a youth orchestra in name only. Yes, it’s made up of players aged, roughly, 12 to 21 (the Brazil tour included a few ringers well into their twenties). But, aside from that technicality, all that’s discernably “youthful” about the playing is the total commitment, which audiences have frequently remarked upon.
On the contrary: this is as refined and polished an orchestra as they come, on par with most professional outfits – a fact that was nicely emphasized near the end of our trip when Boston Magazine named the BYPO the “Best Classical Ensemble” in Boston for 2019. They certainly played like it, venue after Brazilian venue.
And we got to perform in remarkable sites. Several were truly immaculate, like the aesthetic and acoustic gem that is the Sala São Paulo, or the Opera Garnier-inspired Theatro Municipal in Rio. Others, like Porto Alegre’s Auditório Araújo Vianna, a brick-and-concrete barn, left something to be desired, sound-wise.
Regardless of where we were, though, fire and passion were our watchwords. The São Paulo concert, the tour’s third, was on a level that truly the fit quality of that incredible space. But two of our finest nights came in less-starry settings.
One was in Campinas’s Teatro Castro Mendes. The hall, itself, seats around 1000 and its folding seats recall a high school auditorium; the exterior blends into the urban jungle that is Campinas. That night, though, for a deeply-attentive and sold-out house, our interpretations of Wagner, Rachmaninoff, and Dvorak spoke with particularly electrifying force.
On the next night in Porto Alegre we delivered a mixed but interesting concert. The Auditório Araújo Vianna, a massive complex that seats 3000 and caters primarily to rock and pop acts, had to be amplified for the BPYO and Fedorova. And, while the sound engineers managed a respectable balance among everybody on the stage, the orchestra’s and piano’s resonances sounded desperately unnatural.
But if you could look past that aural shortcoming, what that night’s performance revealed was something quite remarkable. Literally every music stand had a microphone above it, so there was nowhere for anybody to hide. As a result, all sorts of little details in the music — especially accompanimental lines in the Rachmaninoff — suddenly came to the fore, according to our tour diarist Jonathan Blumhofer. What’s more, he told me that the amplification revealed an orchestra playing extremely well, from a technical standpoint, but also one that was clearly listening to itself, its articulations and phrasings consistently matched and seamlessly passed off section to section.
On top of that, the audience we had in Porto Alegre (which filled about three-quarters of the cavernous hall) was among the most focused, appreciative, and best-behaved I’ve had the pleasure to preside over. They were completely caught up in the night’s performance: during the most rapt moments in the Rachmaninoff and Dvorak, we may as well have been in Bayreuth, so focused was their concentration. Indeed, we fed off of the palpable energy that night’s crowd transmitted to us – and the it massively invigorated us.
Of course, formal concerts were only part of what the BPYO did in Brazil. A series of conducting masterclasses and side-by-side exchanges with local musicians from most of the cities we visited gave us satisfying encounters with Brazilian musicians and left some of the tour’s most lasting impressions.
A side-by-side with an El Sistema-inspired music school in Porto Alegre — located deep in a favela that required us to have an armed police escort there and back — was the tour’s most touching and, given the social, economic, and musical obstacles the kids there faced, heartbreaking.
In our first exchange, with Salvador’s NEOJIBA orchestra, pure joy abounded: the massive forces (which included nine oboes and ten bassoons) gave thrilling run-throughs of the New World Symphony’s finale and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet Overture, al fresco, with apartment buildings rising above the compound walls and car horns blaring in the streets just a few feet away.
An exchange in São Paulo featured a group of five- through maybe seven-year-old children getting chances to conduct The Stars & Stripes Forever (I got my tour workout lifting them up one at a time!) and ended with more than a few BPYO members trekking out into the neighborhood with their new-found colleagues to indulge in the glories of Brazilian chicken.
It’s perhaps ironic, but we had precious little time to do many touristy things in Brazil. A ride up Rio’s Sugar Loaf Mountain and a day trip to the colonial city of Ouro Preto were the trip’s main excursions, though Andrew Lan (our tour doctor) managed to fit in some extra exploring in each place we visited, including Belo Horizonte’s incredible Mercado Central.
Still, we had a lovely introduction to the country and its people through our concerts and exchanges; our bus rides to Ribeirão Preto, Campinas, and Ouro Preto; the phenomenal cuisine we sampled everywhere we went; and the many folks who did their utmost to ensure that we enjoyed our visit. Culturally, musically, gastronomically — the BPYO’s tour gave us unforgettable experience.
But it also ran deeper than that. And perhaps I should yield my pen to Blumhofer.
An excerpt from his eighth and final tour blog follows (you can find all of them HERE)
“That was the BPYO’s 2019 tour to Brazil. In just over two weeks the orchestra traversed more than 14,000 miles and played nine concerts in eight cities. By my…estimate, the total audiences for those concerts numbered around 11,000 (not including those who came to the exchanges and open rehearsals). And, in our six side-by-side exchanges, we played with and for another two hundred-some Brazilian musicians.
“What conclusions – if any – can one draw from it?
“I’ve already talked about the massive enthusiasm we encountered from our Brazilian audiences. How that continued throughout the tour is something that will stick with me for a long time to come.
“There are no two ways around the fact that there’s a native curiosity about music in Brazil. As a result, we drew impressively-sized and engaged crowds to our concerts in every city we visited. While there is some sort of classical music network in Brazil, I’m still unsure of its extent and reach. Indeed, there were more than a few times when we’d hear that our concert was the first time someone (or several people) in our audience had heard an orchestra live – or classical music, for that matter (such was the case with one of our bus drivers in Rio, who came to our concert there).
“That said, our audiences were decidedly mixed, age-wise. I’d say at least a third to one-half of our hearers in each city looked to be aged forty and under – and there were usually a good number of children present, too. It was so refreshing to see so many young concert-goers. For all the not-unfounded concern about the state of the arts and music education in the U.S., there are a few things, I think, we can learn about general musical interest from our brothers and sisters in Brazil.
“As far as the BPYO goes, I came away from this trip as deeply impressed with them as ever. As a musical entity, they’re one of the elite ensembles in the country…
“But as a social experiment they’re even more remarkable. What Benjamin Zander is endeavoring to do with the BPYO is to create a generation of leaders by engaging these young musicians as artists as well as enrolling them in his personal philosophy of “possibility” – namely, enabling them to take creative advantage of whatever situation in which they find themselves (musical, professional, personal) to positively affect those around them.
“Teaching the selflessness and awareness this process requires is a tall task and sometimes a daunting one. But to see the musicians of the BPYO in action in Brazil – how willingly and instinctively they engaged with their cohorts at the exchanges, or how gamely and flexibly they went along with last-minute changes to the tour itinerary – was as refreshing as it was heartening. Surely, observing and spending time with members of this young generation, as Zander said several times during the tour, is enough to give one hope for the future.
“‘Where are the shining eyes?’ is a recurring Zander refrain and we heard it more than a few times these last two weeks. What are those eyes? They’re ones that radiate enthusiasm, wonder, and enrollment in the task at hand.
“The fact is, we saw a lot of shining eyes in Brazil.
“They were in the audiences who came to our concerts, responded with thunderous ovations, and then thronged to meet Zander and the orchestra after performances. They were there in the locals we met outside of concerts, as well: the shop owners, hotel workers, waiters, bus drivers, and others who went out of their way to make us feel welcome and at home in their beautiful country.
“We saw them, too, in the musicians we met during the side-by-side exchanges, from NEOJIBA and São Paulo to Ribeirão Preto and, especially, Porto Alegre. I’ll not soon forget the little girl I saw in that last city watching Kai Rocke, one of our bassoonists, toss off, by ear, the Brahms Hungarian Dance no. 5: her eyes were all but popping out of her head!
“The children who populated our open rehearsals (and, occasionally, side-by-sides) were similarly taken: from the kids who got to “conduct” The Stars & Stripes Forever to the little boy sitting on his mom’s lap, clapping along – perfectly in time – to that march in Ribeirão Preto.
“And you couldn’t miss the shining eyes in the BPYO. Like Paul Mardy’s, after he knocked off the dazzling clarinet runs in the last movement of the Shostakovich. Or Mark Macha’s while he was giving an impromptu trumpet lesson in Porto Alegre. Or Thomas Juhasz’s whenever he had his oboe in his hands. Or Luis Celis’ when he was playing The Stars & Stripes Forever or showing off his bass to the curious kids who clamored onstage after an exchange or…well, let’s face it: Luis’s eyes are shining pretty much constantly.
“Maybe Anna Fedorova put it best. In a note to Zander after our last concert, she wrote that, on this tour ‘I felt so loved, taken care of, surrounded by so much warmth…nothing would be able to top this experience! Sharing [the] stage with you almost every day was [the] greatest privilege and joy…I can say that experience of us playing together I can’t compare with anything else – it was just pure happiness every moment!’
“So it was.”