This morning I took a walk on the Esplanade to check on my cherry trees.
In the late ’70s I lived just a few blocks away in a fourth floor studio apartment on 395 Beacon Street, and used to walk my dog, Poggi, on the Esplanade twice a day. I liked gardening (and still do) and had planted and cared for some fruit trees on our property near Tanglewood. I really got into pruning.
A few years before I lived on Beacon Street, the city of Boston had planted dozens of cherry trees on the Esplanade, which was a lovely idea. What was not such a lovely idea was neglecting them thereafter. Apparently there was no money in the city budget for maintenance. By the time I started walking Poggi there, they were weedy-looking and overgrown, being choked with their own shoots and suckers. So I did what any responsible citizen would do: I bought a pruning saw and lopping shears, and pruned them myself.
The best time for pruning fruit trees in the Northeast is early spring, after the potential for winter damage but before the trees starts to bud. One freezing March afternoon, with the wind whipping right through you the way it does in Boston, I was minding my own business, pruning the city’s cherry trees, when a cop came up to me. He thought I was cutting the trees down for firewood. In retrospect that was probably a more reasonable assumption than what I was really doing.
I tried to explain to him that I was just carrying out my civic duty. He told me to get a permit. Can you imagine what one would have to go through to get a permit to prune trees from the City of Boston? We kind of gave each other a look and just nodded, and I went about my business, and he left me alone.
So I was very pleased when I went there this morning to see that the cherry trees, now forty years older, look wonderful. Someone’s been taking good care of them in my absence.
Then I went to work. We rehearsed Mahler Ninth today. At the beginning of the rehearsal I thought, “What a world of difference between the BSO and the Long Island Youth Orchestra,” with which I rehearsed a few days ago. But then it dawned on me that the differences are actually almost nonexistent. I have no doubt that virtually all the musicians in the BSO at one time or other played in youth orchestras. They are ideal incubators for first rate musicians, providing training and exposure to the great symphonic repertoire. Without them great orchestras would be bereft of much of the talent they need in order to be what they are. [I wrote a more extensive piece about this, called “Resonance,” for the March/April BSO program book, which I’ve pasted below.] It occurred to me that what youth orchestras did for me forty years ago was a lot like what I had in mind with the cherry trees: take good care of them when they’re young, and they’ll turn out fine.
“Resonance,” from the Boston Symphony program book, Weeks 19, 20, & 22
Any parent will tell you. There’s no experience comparable to witnessing the birth of your
firstborn. It’s life-changing. It’s profound. And it only happens once. As a proud parent
myself, the only thing that ever came close (other than the birth of our second-born) was
the first time I played the Schubert String Quintet. Granted, the more you hear a great
symphony, concerto, or quartet, the more you can appreciate its subtleties, its creative
structure, its motivic genius. And, yes, you can compare interpretations and decide
which was memorable, which was so-so, and which was. . . I forgot who conducted it.
But for sheer emotional impact, the sense of adventure and journey, the thrill of the
unexpected—think the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth!—there literally is nothing like a first
hearing. After that, one may try to recapture the sensation of breathtaking surprise, but
you only choke on your popcorn the first time you watch Psycho.
As an Oberlin student I first heard the Brahms F minor piano quintet on a recording with
Rudolf Serkin and the Budapest String Quartet. I was so excited by the unexpected ending,
I listened to that LP so often that the needle scratches ultimately consigned it to the
dustbin. Two years later, as a Tanglewood Fellow, I had the wonderful opportunity to
perform the quintet with no less than AndréWatts as our coach, and was a bit startled
to realize that it could convincingly be played a different way. But nothing ever matched
that first time I heard it at Oberlin.
Speaking of Brahms, his Second Symphony is among a dozen compositions on this season’s BSO schedule that are relevant to this essay. Thinking about that one work elicits a treasure trove of memories: the romantically impassioned Colin Davis Brahms Second of
1980, the classically elegant Kurt Masur Brahms Second of 1985. And then there was the
Bernard Haitink performance of September 6, 2001, at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.
To this day, those who participated in it give each other a knowing look and speak reverently about that performance as the Brahms Second. I could ramble on about other
memories evoked by this year’s programming here: Charles Dutoit’s Petrushka, Neville
Marriner’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Leonard Bernstein’s 1979 Shostakovich Fifth
at Tanglewood, to which even the Russians in the orchestra gave their coveted stamp of
approval. (And a 10 from the Russian judges!) Yet the performances of these works—and
many more—that indelibly imprinted classical music profoundly into my gray matter
were not with the BSO, but with the Long Island Youth Orchestra, the Young Artist
Chamber Symphony, and the BUTI orchestra at Tanglewood, when I was a mere strap of
a lad in high school.
I mention the Long Island Youth Orchestra first because that’s where I first encountered
much of this repertoire. Though its music director, Martin Dreiwitz, was a Juilliard-trained
clarinetist, his “day job” was as a travel agent, a profession at which he was unexcelled.
Like Moses, for forty years he led the orchestra on summer tours to every part of the
globe, from Britain to Brisbane, where we often stayed with host families, in hostels,
and occasionally in a real hotel. On our first European tour in the late ’60s, in Aalborg,
Denmark, I performed Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante with violist Judy Geist, now a longstanding member of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Beyond being great fun and adventure, the tours gave us the opportunity to perform repertoire multiple times—a rarity for student ensembles—allowing the music to penetrate deeply into our still malleable, unjaded brains. They also afforded a platform for young people to work together intimately to create something incredibly worthwhile and at the same time forge friendships that would last a lifetime.
The LIYO provided my first exposure to the Mahler First, Brahms Second, Schumann
Rhenish Symphony, Shostakovich Fifth, Oberon Overture, Alexander Nevsky, and The
Moldau, all on this year’s BSO schedule. It also gave me my first Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, Dvorák NewWorld, Hindemith Mathis der Maler and Symphonic Metamorphosis, Ives’s Third Symphony. . . The list goes on and on. The performances might not have matched a professional orchestra’s expertise—though many LIYO members have since become musicians in major orchestras—but the excitement of first blush was inimitable.
Discounting the occasional glitch—as in one particular Brahms Third when, in the last movement coda, half the orchestra diverged from the other and the music petered out
into apologetic silence—more often than not the concerts were unabashed successes.
We felt the triumph of the Shostakovich Fifth, the menace in Nevsky of the Teutonic
Knights in “The Battle on the Ice,” the awe of the Cologne Cathedral in the Rhenish so
magically evoked by Schumann in the “extra” movement with its somber, Bach-like brass
chorale. As adults we search to recapture that feeling of wide-eyed, impetuous innocence;
and though we learn to appreciate beauty in other ways, our responses as we age gradually
lean toward the cerebral, the self-conscious, the staid.
The Young Artist Chamber Orchestra, conducted by violinist Salvatore Signorelli, was a
smaller ensemble focusing on more agile repertoire. Maybe that was because unlike
the LIYO, which rehearsed Saturday mornings, it was more difficult to recruit a full
orchestra for weeknight rehearsals. Be that as it may, my first entries into Schubert’s
Fifth, Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings,
along with the likes of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and Beethoven’s First, were revelatory for the clarity of their artistic vision, exacting precision, and sense of style.
I performed Stravinsky’s Petrushka for the first time as a BUTI student at Tanglewood, with Jaimie Yannatos conducting. At one rehearsal one of the young ladies in the violin section—during the little music-box waltz with the flute solo—suddenly stopped playing, set her violin on her seat, stood up, placed the tip of her index finger on top of her head, and danced an impromptu little music-box waltz, spinning in circles. Maestro Yannatos was not amused, but it demonstrated the impression music can make on the impressionable.
And the point of all this? To suggest that the benefits of early immersion in the symphonic
repertoire are incalculable—and not just for the young musician, but also for you, the
listener. All of the violinists you see onstage have polished off every concerto in the book,
but when will they ever perform them? Most young violinists auditioning for major
orchestras are budding virtuosos, but I contend it’s those who’ve had a strong background
in orchestral playing who bring the most to the table. They’ve learned the ins and
outs of what it means to be an orchestral musician: how to listen, what to listen for, and
how to follow a conductor and section leader while at the same time exhibiting their own
artistic personality. They’ve learned orchestral techniques that are quite distinct from
solo playing. They’ve become familiar with the curious process of socialization—unlike
any other work group in the world—that takes place within an orchestra. These learned
experiences enable the young musician to hit the ground running and contribute to the
excellence of the ensemble.
Further, a young musician who has “gone through” the standard repertoire is saved from
having to learn it on the fly immediately after being thrown into the brave new world of
the professional orchestra. If you take the BSO’s schedule of some thirty subscription
weeks and multiply that by three (the average number of compositions on a program),
a musician must perform nearly a hundred compositions between October and May!
And that doesn’t include Pops or educational concerts. This is a tall order even for veteran
players. For a new player lacking prior orchestral experience, learning three new
pieces every week can be mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting. Think of it
as a second language. If you spent a few years in Italy in your youth, immersed in Italian,
your comfort level speaking it the rest of your life would be in the bag. If, on the other
hand, you only took high-school Italian twice a week for an hour, and then as an adult
were suddenly called upon to speak it fluently. . . You fill in the rest.
As a kid in New York I was lucky to have had hands-on experience with so much great
music. Here in Boston we’re no less fortunate to have some of the very finest youth
orchestras anywhere. As they tackle the challenges of Mozart and Brahms for the first
time, their skill is enviable, their enthusiasm palpable. On a very real level, the future of
the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and its audiences, is in their hands.
If you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, I invite you to visit the other pages of my blog.