BPYO 2024 EUROPEAN Tour: Intrada

Jun 14, 2024 3:31:24 AM / by Jonathan Blumhofer


Wandering the Altstadt in Aarau, Switzerland.


“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!”


Is applying Shakespeare’s ringing injunction from Henry V to an orchestra tour a bit over the top? Probably: nobody’s about to risk life and limb charging the ramparts of Harfleur, after all. But the do-or-die attitude it embodies neatly captures the zeal, energy, and determination that Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra bring to these undertakings.


Let any who worried that last year’s South African sojourn would prove impossible to follow up rest easy. This time around, the powers-that-be have the BPYO doing something they haven’t attempted since “the other BCE” – that is, Before the Covid Era: passing the days between June 12 and 26 in Europe performing the music of Robert Schumann and Gustav Mahler in some of the world’s greatest halls.


Though not quite so exotic as visiting Cape Town or embarking on a safari, there’s nothing underwhelming about such an activity, at least not when the five-concert itinerary includes two of the most storied venues that exist in Prague’s Rudolfinium and Vienna’s Musikverein, two icons of more recent vintage – Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie and Berlin’s Philharmonie – and the less-well-known Swiss gem that is Basel’s Stadtcasino.



Members of the BPYO departing Zürich Airport.


And, even if this tour’s two-week duration and nearer proximity to Boston make it seem lighter than the last one, that’s hardly the case. As usual, the BPYO’s got its work cut out.


Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 ensures as much, even when you’re not bringing the piece back to its native land and playing it for audiences who just might have a stronger sense of ownership of it (or at least the tradition from which it springs) than we do. In fact, the challenges this single score presents are, to appropriate a favorite Zander term, fascinating.


Ben holds that the Fifth is Mahler’s most challenging work. Having played the thing, myself, I don’t dispute the issue. The music’s demands are immense; every instrument is pushed to the limit. Its duration raises the psychological stakes: Mahler’s musical world operates at the highest expressive and technical levels and for seventy-five minutes straight. There are no breaks (except for winds, brasses, and percussion during the Adagietto) or places to hide.


What’s more, the music’s emotional range is colossal: in one-and-a-quarter hours, the score wanders from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs. But it never runs in a straight line or goes for long without a digression or a head fake. Playing it once is exhausting; twice, doubly so. Five times in eleven days? Well, this should be fun.


What should also be fun is hearing Zlatomir Fung perform Schumann’s Cello Concerto. Zlatomir is an old friend of the orchestra’s – he played Elgar and Tchaikovsky with them on their 2022 tour to Greece – and having him back is a treat.


To be sure, he’s had a great couple of years since the last time, with an international career that’s skyrocketed and, as announced a few weeks ago, an appointment to the faculty at Juilliard beginning this fall. Did I mention he’s a grand old man of 25?


Extraordinary a musician though he is, Zlatomir is still a complete mensch: thoughtful, approachable, incredibly well-rounded. To see how he interacts with the orchestra offstage and how their interpretation of the Schumann deepens and develops over the next two weeks ought to be instructive for all parties.



Milling around during a late lunch break in Aarau, Switzerland.


Also instructive, especially for those who were on the last tour, is the shifted focus of this one. While the BPYO’s South African adventure had something of an experimental aspect to it – what have Beethoven, Mahler, and Strauss got to say to audiences in one of the far corners of the globe that don’t often, if ever, encounter their music? – things are quite different this time around.


For one, the ensemble’s repertoire is coming home. There’s no question that the overwhelming number of people who will attend the BPYO’s performances are familiar with their Mahler and Schumann.


Some of them, in fact, may know it better than some of us do. To be sure, European concertgoers are serious about the art form. They appreciate it and generally treat it with a reverence it doesn’t find on our shores. Forget New York: if you can make it in Vienna playing Schumann and Mahler – and in the house that Mahler, Walter, Klemperer, Karajan, Abbado, and Bernstein conducted it in – you really can make it anywhere.


As if that’s not enough, the long shadow of history, especially Mahlerian history, follows the BPYO everywhere it goes. The great man directed the Neues Deutsches Theater in Prague in the 1880s, the Stadttheater in Hamburg in the 1890s, and the Hofoper (now Staatsoper) in Vienna for the decade ending in 1907. In 1903, he conducted his Second Symphony in the Musiksaal in Basel and was a frequent visitor to Berlin (where, in fact, he led the premiere of the Second in 1895).


If all this doesn’t induce anxiety in a young orchestra, so much the better: it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to propose an undertaking like the one we’re on – what have a bunch of American teenagers, of all people, got to tell Central European audiences about their music? – let alone pull it off.


And yet, if ever there were a group up for these challenges, here’s the one. At least as much as last year’s missional test, the present trip gets after what makes Ben and the BPYO so unique.


When we chatted about the tour in April, Ben noted that the “sense of purpose, seriousness, dedication, and love coming from the [orchestra]” is something audiences aren’t used to. This infuses their playing. The ensemble, as he put it, is “a group of accomplished human beings and it tells a story from the ways it behaves…it’s not just an orchestra, it represents a way of approaching life and it affects every single person who hears it…It’s a revelation, really, for people.”


Indeed it is, as local audiences know well. The folks who will hear us abroad aren’t in the dark – both Ben and the BPYO have developed a large international following – but it has been a while since they’ve travelled through Europe together; the last time was in 2018. Given the tumult and uncertainty of the present moment, the time seems especially ripe for the pairing’s singular brew of professionalism, freshness, inquisitiveness, and hope to make its way around the other side of the Atlantic.



More of Aarau’s charming Altstadt.


As with all these expeditions, much is unknown. How the journey’s innumerable moving parts – the layers of travel, music, meaning, history, personal experience and understanding, enthusiasm, exhaustion, illness, and all the rest – are going to converge is anybody’s guess (and part of the purpose of this journal).


One can count on all sorts of things not going to plan and surely there will be unforeseeable hiccups, though, unlike in Soweto, the Philharmonie’s lights probably won’t fail five minutes before the end of this year’s Mahler. Then again, who knows?


Regardless, the Schumann Concerto and Mahler’s Fifth are testaments to the idea that music is fundamentally a relational art. As it happens, Ben and Zlatomir are two intuitive musicians who manage to tease out the mysterious connections between composer, performer, and listener consistently and meaningfully. Given where they’re taking us, one should expect more than a few transformative experiences.


True, to accomplish as much, all hands must be disciplined, self-aware, alert to their surroundings, and constantly alive to the moment. But those are manageable aims, not to mention the hallmarks of Ben’s philosophy of Possibility.


Suffice it to say, the ingredients are present for an extraordinary two weeks. Accordingly, we might approach them with an adaptation of the end of the speech from which the opening quote came and offer up a cry of “God for Ben, the BPYO, and Possibility!” Onwards and up.


Topics: BPYO, Benjamin Zander, 2024 BPYO European Tour

Written by Jonathan Blumhofer

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