SALZBURG - Another tunnel brought the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra into yet another country – Austria.
And the eye could tell immediately. On the horizon one could see the jagged lines of the foothills of the Alps. Gradually the road took the buses higher and higher until they reached the town of Salzburg, where the orchestra would play Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in the great hall of the Mozarteum University.
The group had enjoyed a big dinner in a Prague restaurant the night before – the restaurant went to a great deal of trouble for its guests, providing a printed menu honoring them. Except their Google search had brought them to greet a different Boston area youth orchestra, which has a different music director! The BPYO and its music director Benjamin Zander took this gaffe in good humor, and the menu immediately became a collector’s item. “Roasted pork belly from litter pig,” “Vegan gnocchi with tomato compote and young spinach,” “sliced bread dumplings,” “potato-cucumber salad,” “French fries,” “chocolate mousse with raspberries.” And “A Big Mistake.”
The bus ride from Prague to Salzburg is long, but there was a major tourist attraction along the route, so the group stopped for lunch at Cesky Krumlov, a village surrounding an impressive “castle complex” some of which dates back to the 14th century. The place endured much in the 20th century because of the Nazis and the communists, but in recent years it has revived to become a major attraction and when we were there it was thronged with tourists. The landscape and the buildings are beautiful – there is even a functional Baroque theatre; narrow streets wind up to the castle churches and buildings in confusingly concentric patterns. These streets are lined with hundreds of shops, some of them featuring tourist souvenirs, some Czech folk arts, jewelry, particularly amber, but most of them displaying colorful inexpensive but culturally incongruous goods from Nepal and India. You could see where you were supposed to be but couldn’t figure out how to get there; a dead-end was particularly discouraging, and the cobblestones challenging, but after an invigorating “rest stop,” the group did finally reassemble and continue their pilgrimage to Salzburg.
There nearly everyone went on walking tours around the city and up to the castle and braved the crowds in Mozart’s house, where his first small violin is on view. I retreated to my room and finished up Blog Post 4.
Others dealt with the more pressing problem of the Mozarteum. The university is an outgrowth of a concert organization founded by Mozart’s widow Constanze the year before her death – she outlived Mozart by 50 years. It gradually became a major center for musical education and Mozart studies. Its larger auditorium, the Great Hall, opened in 1914.
It is a beautiful room that seats about 800 people – there is gold leaf throughout and sixteen sparkling double chandeliers hang from the ceiling. The acoustics would be ideal for a Lieder recital, a solo pianist, a string quartet, or a chamber-music ensemble. Orchestras also play there, but it is doubtful that the Mahler Ninth has been performed there often or even at all. Once the full orchestra had been seated, there simply wasn’t room for everyone to play – string players have to draw their bows without sticking their stand partners in the eye. Ultimately six of the BPYO players volunteered to take the night off.
Even the slightly-reduced orchestra challenged the acoustics and the ears of the audience. The performance had many values and in the quieter passages one could admire the solo virtues of the principal players and the attentive interactions within the ensemble. But was also very loud and assaultive, through no fault of the orchestra or its conductor. The good news is that the audience listened attentively and at the end applauded vigorously and it was nice to be in a concert crowd that was predominately young – most of them students at the university next door, and many of them had been present at Zander’s masterclass earlier in the day.
The performance had impact and emotion, but there were a few snickerers in the back who giggled through the protracted leave taking of the final Adagio, which in all the other performances of this tour has left the audience in stunned silence. Because this performance was not inferior to its predecessors, one had to feel that loutish and uncouth listeners exist everywhere, even in Salzburg. And some nearby audience members who had clearly been brought into the world of Mahler by Zander and the players did turn around and stare at the offenders. The warmth of the ovation from the audience that was farther away made it clear that Zander and the BPYO had done their jobs.
Back in the hotel our tour director, den mother, and 24-7 factotum Elisabeth Christensen created a display of “lost” items she had picked up backstage – four pairs of shoes, one pair of pants, and a camisole!
The next morning the BPYO split into two groups; each took a different train to Budapest. The journeys were uneventful but it was nice to look out at the vast, gently undulant Hungarian plains. The “twin cities” of Buda and Pest along the Danube remain beautiful and there is an uncommonly rich cultural history there, but the 20th century’s decades of war, invasion, occupation and communism have left their mark. We were able to tour the city by bus only on our way out of town and at points our guide was reduced to pointing out things we could barely see because of the route and the traffic. What we could see when we reached the Citadella that overlooks the city was a glorious view of everything below. The city looked spectacular and exercises for a small-plane race sponsored by Red Bull had begun. The buzz of the planes was unnerving, considering the history of Budapest in the second half of the 20th century – and the location; the Citadella was used as a fortress both by the Nazis and by the later Communist government. But the pilots’ loops and dives were spectacular as they negotiated tricky patterns among the pylons that had been placed in the Danube, and the planes also flew under one of the famous bridges.
The BPYO’s performances in Hungary were complementary, and they did leave me thinking about the contribution a hall makes to a performance. These concerts took place in new halls in Budapest and in the southern city of Pecs, which is near the border between Hungary and Croatia and Serbia.
The auditorium in Budapest is named after Hungary’s most prominent 20th century composer Bela Bartok. It is one of several institutions housed in a “palace of arts” which opened in 2005. It is a large-scale hall seating 1699 people; visually and acoustically it is glorious with many colorful sound-reflecting panels along the walls that can be reconfigured, depending on the event, and a clear and resonant sound. The platform is dominated by a large organ that looks magnificent – a “wave pattern” of horizontal pipes projects into the auditorium. The seats are comfortable, the lobbies and service areas large and welcoming, and the backstage facilities superb. The excellent acoustics are the work of the late American acoustical designer, Russell Johnson.
The BPYO musicians clearly enjoyed having all that room to play, and to play out, and the public clearly enjoyed their work and even before intermission the applause soon blended into the unison clapping that we were told represents the highest form of approval in Hungary. This was for George Butterworth’s The Banks of Greenwillow and for Ravel’s always exciting La Valse. Butterworth’s arrangements of two English folk ballads that he had made field recordings of (just like Bartok in the same period) brought ripely luscious playing from the BPYO strings, in particular, and supple, soaring solos from clarinets Theodore Robinson and Jason Russo, Leo Kawai, oboe, violinist Abigail Hong, and the serenely perched flute of Carlos Aguilar.
Zander, as he always does back home in Boston, spoke about the music beforehand with the assistance of a translator, which doubled the length of what he had to say without doubling its substance. And the substance was interesting, particularly when he pointed out that two of the principal themes of the first movement that Mahler develops extensively are in fact the same. The theme of hate, as Zander put it, is built on the same notes as the theme of love – or he could have said the theme of death versus the theme of life, or other pairs of opposites.
The performance of the Mahler was bold, imaginative, emotional and technically first rate. The audience loved it, and it had ample reason to. But this listener found himself uncomfortably disconcerted. The symphony despite its length, spaciousness, power and volume, its intense diversity, is an almost agonizingly intimate work. This time the grandeur of the Bartok Concert Hall worked against Mahler rather than for him – a problem that was not the fault either of Zander or the orchestra; it was a question of a mismatch between the music and the venue, which would be ideal for most other large works, including some by Mahler himself.
The public obviously did not share my reservations, but then the Budapest public is used to hearing many contrasting works of music in the space and the audience is more at home in it than this awe-struck listener was. The unison clapping redoubled and some people even stood, which is rare in Hungary.
Zander offered the BPYO’s traditional encore, the “Nimrod” section of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, a paean to undying friendship and love, remarking on how today’s America seems at odds with the rest of the world, but that the young people of the ensemble represents the real America.
Afterwards the orchestra trekked from its hotel to a neighborhood restaurant, Lugas, which has been in the same family for generations. There was an elaborate and delicious buffet; some people ate indoors at long tables, while others sat in the patio garden. The proprietor had an unexpected present for Zander – a copy of a volume of Thomas Babington Macauley’s History of England, which she inscribed, with a flourish, in Macauley’s absence (he died in 1859!).
NOTE: We've linked to a paperback version of Macauley's book published in 1979 - the year the Boston Philharmonic was founded! - and remind you that when you shop on Amazon that you can do so through their Amazon Smile program which allows your favorite non-profits, such as a certain Youth Orchestra, to earn donations when you buy your favorite products.
It was a pleasant ride to Pecs – most members of the BPYO are affable, outgoing, intelligent, curious and fun to talk to and the minutiae of music and musical life are only one of the subjects that interest them; some of them go to jazz clubs and most of them know current pop songs and enjoy singing them on long bus rides in foreign countries. They can also sing episodes of the Mahler Ninth as they ride.
The new concert hall in Pecs is named after the other important early 20th century Hungarian composer, Zoltan Kodaly. This is even newer than the Bartok Hall in Budapest – it opened in 2010. The auditorium, which seats 880-1000 people, is visually and acoustically striking. It departs from the long-established shoebox shape – there are no square corners in the auditorium and everything is delightfully asymmetrical. The interior is all made of a reddish alderwood whose surfaces have been gouged or roughened – it is a very elegant space but there is also a log-cabin feel to the whole thing. In fact the design is extremely sophisticated, and among other things, it shields the auditorium from the noise of a nearby train station.
The acoustics spring a surprise – the sound of the BPYO was startlingly immediate and closeup – as if you were listening through a set of very expensive and state-of-the-art earphones. One feels no sense of the sound spinning through space. Instead it sounds and feels immediately and provocatively present and I felt it in my body and in my heart as well as in my ears.
I wish I had had the opportunity to attend concerts by the Hungarian National Orchestra there; that ensemble has had time to figure out how to play in this unusual space and take advantage of it. The BPYO had only a short rehearsal, but the musicians seem to have enjoyed playing there, and several of them feel it was the best performance of the tour so far – although they are naturally looking forward to Vienna and Amsterdam.
I agree with them – it was a wonderful performance with a unique sonic impact which consequently created a unique emotional state. It was as if we were listening to the music from a different perspective, or even somehow inside it and the things it is about – we were no longer outsiders looking in.
Zander, without interpreter this time, spoke more briefly, and both he and the orchestra seemed to realize that these circumstances were special. The entire concert forced you to listen in a different way because you heard and experienced the music in a different way, and with uncommon intensity. It was not comfortable but it was memorable, and the audience went crazy – the unison clapping at the end was so forceful that it was almost scary, but I still had tears in my eyes.
The BPYO progressed to a buffet in a fascinating brick lined underground area – perhaps formerly a tunnel or an extensive wine-cellar. Then it was time to split up and travel to three different Pecs hotels. Our group was installed in a magnificent old-fashioned structure with a peacock mural in the dining room; if there were any ocean anywhere nearby, one could imagine Death in Venice taking place there.
And getting there was half the fun for our groups. The others rode to their hotels by cab. We were told, incorrectly, that it was only a short distance so we could walk. We set out in the dark making our way through the haunted ruins of a medieval university next to a silent church, walking along a long arcade of massive weathered statues, eleven of them glowering at us with stony gaze. Apostles? Hard to tell, although we had to pass by their unflinching eyes again in order reach an alternate route that took us past a major curiosity of Pecs, a green-domed mosque with a crucifix in front of it. There are many aspects of Hungary no one can ever explain but which are eerily human.