Terrassa is a small city about an hour outside Barcelona. You’ve probably never heard of it; it is neither on the tourist map nor on the concert circuit. But if you happened to find yourself in the city on Tuesday night you would have found yourself in the midst of a BPYO love-fest of incomparable Latin intensity.
The orchestra’s concert had been advertised extensively in the city newspaper (front page articles with color pictures of Ben Zander, including some of the extremely dramatic action photos that are probably familiar to you from BPO/BPYO publicity). Following the orchestra’s afternoon rehearsal Ben was ushered, with awed deference, into the business offices of the concert hall and introduced to the staff where he penned an entry in the official guestbook – an event recorded for posterity by three video cameras capturing the moment from different angles. A visit from Pope Francis himself could hardly have been bigger news. And yet this hero’s welcome was nothing compared to the concert itself.
But first a word about the concert hall itself. It is a newish theater that holds about 1000 people, and there wasn’t a single empty seat. Although extremely comfortable for the concert goers – you sink into those chairs almost as if you were in your own living room – it is acoustically a challenging place – for the audience and, frustratingly, for the performers. The acoustics are bone-dry. As a comparison, Symphony Hall in Boston is often spoken of as a hall with virtually ideal acoustics for symphonic performances; it has a reverberation time of two seconds. I would estimate the reverberation time at the hall in Terrassa at about half a second – just about as dry as it gets. This is the hardest sort of acoustic for players to perform in. The hall puts no bloom around the sound, the laser-like clearness of everything will cruelly expose even the slightest lapse of precision or intonation, and the experience of the sound from the stage – what the players hear, as opposed to what the audience hears – is that nothing is truly beautiful. Orchestras love to play in Symphony Hall and in Carnegie not just because they are famous – these halls also help them to sound good. In Terrassa, Ben and the orchestra were truly and utterly left to their own devices.
So what happened had a near-miraculous quality. For the orchestra succeeded in giving a couple of the finest performances in their entire history. The challenging program (aren’t they all challenging?) was Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila, Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo Capriccioso and Dvorak’s Silent Woods (both for solo cello and orchestra), Debussy’s La Mer, and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. When the BPYO played the Debussy and Tchaikovsky in Carnegie Hall a week ago I thought they had reached an all-time high in their development, but the Terrassa performances went even beyond what they had achieved in New York, and against all odds. The unforgiving clarity of the dry acoustics made every note audible – even the slightest slip in intonation, lapse in ensemble, lack of control of quality of sound, really, any lapse of any kind would be immediately obvious. Few orchestras can withstand such close scrutiny. Yet the BPYO sounded genuinely glorious. The weight-lifting demands of Tchaik 5 are a world apart from Debussy’s delicate balancing act in La Mer. The orchestra managed the necessary quick-change act between pieces – the differences in weight of playing, style of phrasing and general sonority were so great that they sounded almost like two different orchestras. The very opening of La Mer wasn’t just soft – it was fabulously atmospheric and almost inaudible. Moments after it started the audience’s reaction was remarkable – a stillness fell over the hall as if everyone had stopped breathing lest they disturb the magic. Solo playing – flute, oboe, clarinet, English horn, trumpet – was of the utmost delicacy (I have never in my life heard the high-lying trumpet part played so quietly). Concertmaster Hikaru Yonezaki played her brief but tricky first movement solo with witty deftness and gorgeous sound. Everywhere one was struck by the balance and proportion of the playing – big climaxes came only in the few places where Debussy really intended them, and then they were not just loud, but radiant. Playing with this degree of refinement is virtually unknown among youth orchestras.
The Tchaikovsky Fifth had all the same virtues that made it such a success in Carnegie Hall. It was lovingly, eloquently and meaningfully shaped – not indulged in – and emerged with authentic power rather than with bathos. Once again first horn Megan Shusta covered herself with glory in the second movement’s horn solo. The strings played with amazing deftness in the tricky third movement, winds and brass were always eloquent (although maybe toning down the decibel level from the trumpets in the really big climaxes would increase their expressiveness, not diminish it).
The orchestra’s principal cello, Leland Ko, played the two cello pieces. The performance began with a snafu – the scores of the two pieces were piled In the wrong order on Ben’s stand, so Leland started to play Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo capriccioso while Ben began conducting Dvorak’s Silent Woods, leading to one of the famous Zander “How Fascinating!” moments. Things were quickly sorted out. Leland’s playing was eloquent, virtuosic, and enlivened with endlessly fascinating details. Some little problems of ensemble between soloist and orchestra will be ironed out by the next performance. Glinka’s ever-serviceable overture to Ruslan and Ludmila began the concert in a whoosh of jet-propelled energy. It was thrilling, but I couldn’t help feeling that slightly lower octane fuel might yield a smoother flight. The audience loved it, as they did everything else.
And this audience was something else. The cheering and rhythmic applause at the end of the concert felt as if they were never going to stop. In fact, it continued even as the orchestra was filing off the stage, and didn’t even stop when Ben left the stage and started to wander through the auditorium greeting audience members. I’ve never seen the like of it.
On Wednesday evening Ben held a master class with four conducting students at Barcelona Conservatory. The auditorium (with a packed audience) and its stage are small, so the strings had to be cut down to half their full size (halfway through the evening there was a change in the ranks, so that everyone got to play). The students showed the most common problems that one encounters among young conducting students – general insecurity in front of the orchestra, lack of clearness about their own musical intentions, failure to make a strong connection with the orchestra from the moment they mount the podium, failure to look beneath the surface of the notes to probe the deeper issues that underlie the greatness of the music, and a general inability to make their own deep love for the music clear to the players – leaving the players uninspired. This list may seem catastrophic, but actually these are typical shortcomings in almost all but the handful of most naturally gifted beginning conductors, and they are problems that can be addressed and often overcome.
Each student had about twenty minutes in front of the orchestra, playing excerpts from Beethoven’s Eroica (a tough assignment for even the most seasoned conductor). Ben didn’t waste time on details of conducting technique, which are presumably covered by their own teachers at the Conservatory. Instead he went straight to the heart of the matter – whether it was in the realm of interpretation or of personal communication. The energy and force of Ben’s interventions with the students might have been seen as almost confrontational and intimidating, had they not been so clearly designed as the most direct path towards personal and musical growth for each student. With one of the students (a left-handed conductor, which is almost never seen) it was a matter of clearly observing the dynamic marks and other directions in the score and physically incorporating them into the student’s rather inhibited and rigidly limited repertory of movements. What was really remarkable was how much deeper the orchestra’s own engagement with the music became as the conductor’s stiffness loosened up.
The orchestra itself was a model of what should happen in a conducting master class. They truly followed the instructions that Ben had given them, to ignore as far as possible his own interpretation of the Eroica, which they know well, and to play exactly what the conductor appeared to be indicating, regardless of how dissimilar to Ben’s own interpretation it might be. The conductors were extremely fortunate to be able to hear the realization of their efforts played by such a brilliant orchestra, where technical limitations were not a concern, so that what they heard was truly the result of what they were doing.
Ben’s instruction was powerful and intense – intellectually intense and emotionally intense – and left all four of the conductors elated but also reeling from the force of so many new ideas. It will take time for what they learned to sink into their psyches and to become an organic part of their physical expressiveness. There is a lot for them to chew on, mull over, live with and practice. One wishes one could revisit them six months from now, to see what they have been able to make of all the new challenges that Ben’s teaching has placed on them, to get them to the next level.
Photo: Castro Cristobal/La Torre