Photo Credit: Paul Marotta
Buenos Aires, Argentina – This Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra tour blog has shamefully left the reader behind in Lima, Peru. So today while pied piper Benjamin Zander and his merry band are off for another side-by-side rehearsal with a local youth orchestra here in Buenos Aires, I have remained in my room in the NH Hotel and hung the “non molestar” sign on the door. After several days of nonexistent or malfunctioning internet that collapsed under the strain of 110 simultaneous users in small hotels, this particular line of communication is again open.
Getting to Argentina from Peru will be easier to write about than it was for anyone to do – it was a long day. The orchestra, tour staff, instruments and equipment made the journey from Lima to Cordoba, Argentina, through four airports on two planes and multiple busses, and the journey Tuesday took about 20 hours. The slowest part of the trip was through lines at check in, security, immigration, baggage claim, and customs, all of which we did twice. Waiting time felt longer than moving time; among some of us the crowds and delays have become known, affectionately, as “clusters.”
Nevertheless the BPYO doesn’t waste time. On the plane from Lima to the first Buenos Aires airport – the group had to travel between the international airport and the national airport by bus - I found myself across the aisle from a gamine young woman named Maria d’Ambrosio who boasts a captivatingly mischievous smile when she isn’t playing the French horn. She had two projects for the plane. She carries a pencil case that zips up to become a stuffed animal, and her first project was to place it gently on any BPYO musician who had fallen asleep, and then take a compromising photograph.
Her second project found her writing notes on music paper. “What’s that?” I asked. “A counterpoint exercise?” “No,” she responded, purposefully “I’m making an arrangement for four horns of ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.’’’ Next to her, I felt like a dullard – all I wanted to do was eat more chocolate and sleep.
Cordoba is the second largest city in Argentina. The theater/concert hall the BPYO played in, the Teatro del Libertador General San Martin, is both beautiful and historic. In the 114 years since it opened, it has acquired a shabby-genteel patina that suggests a long and adventurous life. It stands next to a glistening new up-to-date mall filled with chain stores; there was little there to tell us that we were in Argentina rather than almost any other Western country. In the warren of streets behind the theater we were delighted to come across a small music store and school, the “Conservatorio Juan Sebastian Bach,” which teaches saxophone and guitar along with a few more instruments the real J. S. Bach was more familiar with.
The theater opened in 1891 under a different name; in the 1950s President Peron renamed it in the name of the liberator of Argentina from Spain, General San Martin.; in the post-Peron era the name was changed back to the original although the theater has more recently reclaimed the name of General San Martin. Enrico Caruso, paragon and paradigm for tenors, sang there, and so did such other now-legendary singers as the baritone Titta Ruffo and the elegant tenorino Tito Schipa. It was no surprise to read that Arthur Rubinstein played a recital there; the pianist probably played more often in more countries and venues and over a longer period of than any other musician in history – much of it before the jet was invented. In fact his formal debut took place in 1900, three years before the Wright brothers’ first flight!
If the theater is showing signs of long and useful life, so does a portion of its audience. There were bejeweled older women wearing fashionable formal dress, and they would not have looked out of place in the 19th century. One doesn’t even see patrons putting on the Ritz like that very often in Symphony Hall any more, except on fund-raising, opening nights.
Photo Credit: Paul Marotta
I heard the first half of the BPYO concert from a seat on the extreme side of the main floor, where the sound perspective was askew, although it was a pleasure to hear the precision of the violin section at close range. For the second half I went up to the second highest of the horseshoe balconies. I fled from a seat in the very front row because I felt as if I had arrived at the crest of roller coaster exactly at the tipping point. I needed a seat belt, but there wasn’t one, so I moved higher up but in the back where I could no longer see the gaping chasm between the stage and me. The sound up there in the “gods’’ was terrific, and the performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony was stirring.
Afterwards the group trouped to a Las Tinajas restaurant – the Argentine equivalent to the now-vanished Old Country Buffet in New England. The food was abundant and the musicians filled their plates with plenty of it. There was a meat station, a dessert quadrangle, another of salads, a pasta station, etc. We were to experience another restaurant in the same chain the next day in Rosario, but it was by no means as good. The beef was uncuttable which was a warning that it would also prove un-chewable and un-swallowable. I sought a dish of lemon ice cream to cleanse my palate, but it tasted the same way bus station disinfectant smells.
On Thursday we travelled to the next venue, Rosario, by bus – a trip of about five and a half hours across a level countryside I first read about in grade school where I learned the word “pampas,” which I have never since had occasion to use. Until now the landscape enforced attention, the way a Bruckner symphony does - as we sped past the vista never seemed to change, except that some fields had crops and some were fallow; some had cows; others, horses. But if you really looked there was plenty to see – as we did when we stopped in a lone truck stop “in the middle of nowhere,” except it was in the middle of Argentina. It looked bleak and isolated, and the diner’s interior looked as if it belonged in a painting by Edward Hopper. The interior included a cafeteria line, a forlorn gift shop, and a huge dining room full of unoccupied plastic tables and chairs. Outside the restroom there was an attendant who from her little stand sold toilet paper.
Photo Credit: Paul Marotta
Photo Credit: Paul Marotta
Photo Credit: Paul Marotta
Photo Credit: Paul Marotta
The place certainly changed character when the BPYO cluster fanned out over the room. The offering in the cafeteria line was road food, and if it wasn’t fully cooked – my chicken leg wasn’t – a microwave stood ready. And shelves full of liquor bottles made me worry about road safety.
Rosario is a city of 2 million inhabitants on the banks of the Parana River. It was the site of a memorable concert Zander conducted 22 years ago, and he has left an account of it in the book The Art of Possibility he co-wrote with Rosamund Stone Zander, a volume still selling briskly in 18 languages 17 years since it was first published . Zander read the relevant passage to the orchestra at the rehearsal before the concert – he told what happened when he asked the members of the orchestra to close their eyes and play from memory. He didn’t request that the members of the BPYO do that this time, but they certainly did spring to attention.
At some later point I want to about how the ideas in the Zanders' book inform as many aspects of the tour – as possible! But now I should say something about the Teatro del Circulo in Rosario and the concert the BPYO played there – the best in the tour so far. The Teatro del Circulo is similar to the theatre in Cordoba, but it is about a dozen years younger and has profited from more maintenance and renovation. It has a prestigious history too – in the room taken over by the cellos and cellists, there was a display case devoted to Caruso and containing a program from a performance of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut that the great tenor sang there back in 1904. His Manon was Gilda della Rizza, the soprano who was Toscanini’s choice for La Traviata at La Scala in Milan, and Puccini’s choice to create the title role in his opera La Rondine. I frankly wished I had been in the Teatro del Circulo for that Manon Lescaut but soon I was completely satisfied to be there with the BPYO , which continued its upward arc with its performances of Sibelius’s Finlandia and Violin Concerto and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony.
Finlandia is a piece that was heard with some frequency during World War II and its aftermath because of its powerful rejection of tyranny and celebration of freedom. But it has since become one of those once-popular, like the Franck Symphony, that have gone out of favor, perhaps because it is so familiar that no one bothers to program it any more. There may be no need to play it, but there is plenty of reason to listen to it. For me it nevertheless remains stirring both for its own sake and for the childhood memories of World War II it awakens in me. It is a call to patriotism, a hymn to patriotism, which we need now as much as we ever did; nowadays patriotism has come to mean nationalism, which is something different. And when Finlandia is conducted and played with the fervor that Zander and the BPYO bring to it tears still dim my eyes
Photo Credit: Paul Marotta
The Sibelius Violin Concerto summons visions of a landscape – Finland’s is flat, like some of Argentina’s, but dotted with lakes. The atmosphere is clear and cold; this music is almost unique in the way it can simultaneously exhibit complete clarity and the total mystery that is at the heart of everything worthwhile. The music has in it things we can see and feel as well as things we can only puzzle over and intuit – but the intuitions are real. Sibelius’s writing for violin is at the outermost level of virtuosity but in no way is any of it just for show – it becomes complicated because it is so direct and simple. Another way of putting this is that Sibelius holds a mirror up to nature – but from a different angle, so we see things we don’t normally see.
An unusual feature of the orchestration is that there is very little high and middle range in it, at least while the violin is playing. The emphasis is on low sonorities, some of them unusual – while the violin repeatedly soars into its highest registers and enters the empyrean. The violin does not interact with the orchestra as much as it does in the other repertory concertos – instead it hovers above and reports on what it sees and feels as it breathes the air from another planet.
Sibelius’s favorite interpreters of the concerto were the Polish violinist Ida Haendel and the American Camilla Wicks, the first earthy, the second beyond earthly cares. Hearing Ida Haendel play the Sibelius with the Boston Symphony was one of the great privileges of my listening life; Wicks, who was born in 1928, withdrew from her major international performing career in after her marriage in the 1950s which brought her five children to rear; she later embarked on an equally significant career as a teacher in the United States and in Norway. I never had the chance to experience her art live, but fortunately she did record the Sibelius in 1952 in Stockholm.
But there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Sibelius would have approved of the way In Mo Yang plays his concerto. It is full of life but there is also something distant and elusive about it – what he does stands apart from what others do, the way the music remains unique among a crowd of violin concertos. In Mo Yang isn’t in the least bit stand-offish; it is just that he has a unique perspective.
Photo Credit: Paul Marotta
He is still only 21, and a big career is getting underway but he is smart enough to keep himself in the safe hands of his teacher Miriam Fried at New England Conservatory. In person, he is modest and maybe a bit shy; in blue jeans before a rehearsal he looks like a kid. But he is an altogether exceptional violinist who is curating a marvelous instrument by Stradivarius. His encore since he won the Paganini Competition has been the 24th Caprice – and in Rosario he added the 1st caprice as well. I don’t think I realized until I heard him just what good pieces these are. One doesn’t hear Paganini often in concerts and recitals – right now I can only remember a piece Frank Peter Zimmermann once played as an encore after a concert at Tanglewood.
Learning the Caprices is still a part curriculum for learning to master the violin. Sisters Hikaru and Mitsuru Yonezaki tell me they study Paganini caprices at Juilliard and know that practicing them is good discipline. But they admit that they don’t enjoy performing them all that much. “I don’t play them when I don’t have to,” Hikaru says. The two sisters have played in the BPYO for all five years of its existence, travelling from New York to Boston to attend the weekly rehearsal.
InMo Yang’s discipline is to play the Caprices as music, not as etudes, and every note, even the highest harmonics, is absolutely in tune, no matter how fast it is flying by, and each note has a timbre that glows – a Strad helps, but the sounds have their origin in In Mo Yang’s ear and imagination.
When Zander speaks to audiences about Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 he calls it a war symphony and to feel that way is inevitable because of when he composed it. He wrote the symphony in 1944 as World War II was coming to its close. Prokofiev, along with other leading artists, worked in relative safety at Ivanovo, a retreat the Soviet composers’ union had established outside of Moscow – Shostakovich, Khachaturian and Kabalevsky were also there. Michael Steinberg’s essay on the symphony points out that Prokofiev composed on music paper from the E. C. Schirmer music store and publishing company in Boston. BSO music director Serge Koussevitzky sent the paper to his old friend Prokofiev because conditions in Russia during the war were so difficult, and supplies so limited.
(Just a few years earlier the totally obscure composer Vsevolov Zaderasky wrote his 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano in the margins of old telegraph forms when he was imprisoned the gulag; only recently have they been deciphered, published, performed and acclaimed).
Prokofiev conducted the triumphant premiere in Moscow in 1945 and Koussevitzky game the American premiere that same season in Boston – and made the first (superb) recording. It is not entirely possible to hear this work as a war symphony, however, certainly not in the way that three of his piano sonatas are war sonatas. For one thing the score incorporates themes and music that Prokofiev had composed years before the war.
And the tone of the symphony is sometimes harsh and aggressive, but it not despairing – the Normandy invasion had occurred and the end was in sight. The symphony does depict struggle but we know what is going to win in the end. In the context of this tour it is possible to say that the struggle is between the art of possibility and the “downward spiral.” Prokofiev’s melodies do not yearn; instead they are far-flung and celebratory, even ecstatic - they stretch across an extraordinary range of pitches – no one could sing or hum these melodies. Set against them are hostile, even sneering, violin passages that tumble downward and end in a snarl, or a series of repeated notes. Repeated notes go nowhere; melodies span the skies.
This piece calls for virtuoso playing in the orchestra, and that’s what it gets from the BPYO; even the shortest solo passages are telling – the snare drum is heard in repeated tattoos, and as played by percussionist Neal McNulty they do remind us that menace is never far away.
Bright and early the next morning the group again clambered onto the busses for another 5-hour trip, this one to Buenos Aires. The outlying port areas gave little hint of what lay ahead, a city full of color, bustle and energy, new skyscrapers adjacent to distinguished historic structures. Signs of affluence everywhere in the center of town, but not that far away abject poverty exists, as the musicians were to discover when they went for a “side by side” with very young musicians from those areas.
The first concert took place before the group had even checked into its hotel – everyone started off at the two-year-old Centro Cultural Kirchner (CCK), a truly amazing set of spaces created as a contemporary supplement and counterpart to the city’s legendary opera house, the Teatro Colon which opened in 1908. Politics move fast – the building was named for former president Kirchner, but before long his name – and even his memorial in the building were gone and the building became known as CCK.
This 21st-century facility was built within a vast 19th-century structure that housed the city’s central post office. Some details remain from the building’s prior history – elaborately wrought elevator doors, for example, and some murals, but most of it is new. There is a 2000 seat concert hall, five smaller auditoriums for music and theater, and many smaller rooms for experimental theater, chamber music, poetry readings, and other events, as well as spacious art galleries. A festival was in progress tonight and there was food and salsa dancing on the main floor.
The concert hall is suspended in the old mail sorting area. It was officially called “the blue whale” and from the surrounding galleries it indeed looks like a whale, or a blimp, or, as someone observed, a Brillo pad. Inside it is all wood; the acoustic is clear and bright, and Zander feels it is already comparable to the renowned concert halls in Europe and America.
Maybe the most significant fact about CCK venue is what is going on in the venue – and admission to the plethora of events is free. Events to do require tickets which are available in advance; and all the tickets for the BPYO were gone the first day they became available. The government believes that the arts should be freely accessible to all; they are our patrimony, our heritage, and the public visibly agrees. The place is crowded and teeming with activity; people bring their children.
It was exciting to be there but I also felt melancholy. Who in our government, local and federal, would have the interest or the ability or the imagination or the generosity of spirit to undertake and complete such a project for the public good? Or who in the private sector? A comparable post office stood until recently in Washington, D.C. and now it is a glitzy hotel that has no function other than to generate income for its owner. Meanwhile Boston hasn’t had a real opera house for more than 50 years, and most of the musical and theatrical organizations in town will tell you that their most serious problem is finding a suitable venue. There are a few glorious halls, but there is no way any of them can meet the demand.
After this reality check, we can report that BPYO ate its picnic lunches in a hallway outside the Blue Whale before a very short rehearsal before beginning a program for close to 1000 well-mannered school children. There wasn’t time for more and like most concerts for children it would have benefitted from more thorough preparation. There were two soloists, each of them superb in a different way. Elmer Churampi, the BPYO’s star trumpeter, had left the tour to fulfill responsibilities back home in the U. S., so the night before the children’s concert Zander asked talented trumpeter Mark Macha if he would play the Arutiunian Concerto. Macha had performed it before – but that was 5 years ago. And now he found himself onstage to perform it again after maybe 10 minutes of rehearsal with the orchestra at most.. There were some frantic moments because of a large cut and a page missing from his music, but frankly this was one of the most stunning displays of courage under fire I have ever witnessed and heard. The fiercest technical passages were under control and so was his sense of the music; he left no room for doubt that under more normal circumstances he could play the whole thing with uncommon flair and command. Macha is a musician to the core, and under the most terrifying conditions he produced credible and creditable music. Bravo.
The BPYO’s remarkable flutist Carlos Aguilar earned a rock-star reception for his performance of a sultry tango by Piazzolla, Oblivion. He instinctively understands the subtle tango rhythms that no one, not even Piazzolla, could actually notate any more than Chopin could notate the elusive rhythm of a mazurka. From his flute Aguilar can summon infinite variety of dynamics and colors, bend notes downwards, flutter a tone, make an octave leap to a perfectly perched pianissimo. The strings surrounded this with swooning portamentos, and the crowd of kids went wild.
Zander seems to thrive on unexpected circumstances that would freeze anyone else; he really was a pied piper with these children as he chatted with them, cajoled them, danced for them, and made sure they realized that attending a concert is a very good way to have a very good time. At the end he danced up the aisles of the auditorium surrounded by children who clamored for autographs, and he beckoned the players to come along too, making for a tumultuous melee in the aisles made the CCK staff frantic. Certainly no one was thinking about fire laws.
Finally most of orchestra was able to get away and take the busses to the hotel before turning around to return to CCK for a program of cello ensemble music featuring the 16 cellists of the BPYO, as well as two ensembles of Argentinian cellists – 42 of them in all.
At the Boston Philharmonic Mark Churchill holds a title, senior advisor that holds no hint of the many varied things that he does. One of them is supervising the sectional rehearsals of the BPYO cellists. He often begins each session by working on the literature for cello ensemble rather than whatever orchestral pieces are in their music folders. “Cellists love to play in groups and they do it all the time,” Churchill says and he knows what he is talking about because he is a cellist himself as well as a conductor – not to mention all of the other administrative, creative and visionary things he does. The BPYO could not function without him - and it would not have existed if he had not insisted that it should.
(Other musicians may love to play in ensembles of their own instrument but opportunities to do so do not arrive as frequently. The composer John Harbison, who played tuba in high school, once wrote a piece for 100 tubas that was premiered at a tuba convention.)
The kind of meticulous work Churchill does with the BPYO cello section, improves intonation, tone quality, and the ability of the players to listen to each other. This goes on all season in Boston, and every time the schedule on this tour and the layout of the venues made it possible, he presided over rehearsals for the Buenos Aires program. The first richly satisfying part of it belonged to the BPYO cello section which played nine pieces by diverse composers from Bach and Handel through Casals and Villa-Lobos to John Philip Sousa and Zequinha de Abreu – you might not know the last composer’s name, but everyone in both Americas will recognize the tune of Tico Tico.
The kind of meticulous work Churchill does with the BPYO cello section, improves intonation, tone quality, and the ability of the players to listen to each other. This goes on all season in Boston, and every time the schedule on this tour and the layout of the venues made it possible, he presided over rehearsals for the Buenos Aires program. The first richly satisfying part presented the 16 cellists of the BPYO under Churchill’s direction. Their segment comprised nine pieces by diverse composers from Bach and Handel through Casals and Villa-Lobos through John Philip Sousa and Zequinha Abreu – you might not know the last composer’s name, but everyone in the Americas will recognize the tune of Tico Tico.
Thanks to Churchill and the talent and goodwill of the cellists, the playing was of uncommon unanimity and equilibrium; the diverse parts voiced and balanced in proportion; the phrasing elegant, shapely and expressive; and the collective sonority was both sumptuous and flexible. Conductor and group made themselves entirely at home in each of the styles, restrained and devout in Bach, uninhibited in Sousa’s The Stars& Stripes Forever. Hearing a group of cellists take over the role of the piccolos was both hilarious and (temporarily) convincing.
The Argentine cellists who played the next part of the program under the spirited direction of Nestor Tedesco did not have the advantage of having worked together as extensively as the BPYO sixteen; they were an ad hoc ensemble, mostly comprised, apparently, of university students, some of them more advanced than others. Their performances did not invariably offer a smooth ride, but it was interesting to hear several pieces by Latin-American composers played idiomatically by Latin Americans, and there was no lack of energy. . At one point there was an empty place on stage for a soloist and I was hoping I would hear Villa-Lobos’s beloved Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for soprano and cello ensemble. No such luck. The chair was taken by a fierce-looking young female percussionist who produced a mighty and aggressive noise on drum surfaced with hairy skin from an animal, probably a cow. The shape suggested a bomba, a drum made from a rum barrel.
Each group boasted a highly partisan and vocally appreciative audience – there was a lot of whooping and hollering - and the two audiences became one when all 42 cellists joined to close the program with Piazzolla’s Libertango.
That was last night. Tonight brought the biggest concert of the tour in the Blue Whale with repeated cheering standing ovations from an audience of nearly 2000. THAT is another story, but it will have to wait until the next blog.