Arts Commentary: Some Thoughts on the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s 2019 Brazilian Tour

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Suffice it to say, the tour was an extraordinary experience, musically and culturally, and, for me, a conspicuously potent introduction to a new continent.

Anna Fedorova receiving roses from the BPYO violin sections following her last performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in Curitiba’s Teatro Positivo. Photo: Paul Marotta.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

That was how Mark Twain saw it, at least. And, while one can needn’t look far to find examples defying this viewpoint, Twain’s observation was often on my mind during the two weeks I spent with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra on their eight-city, nine-concert 2019 tour to Brazil this past June.

The offer to go came unexpectedly: about a month before the BPYO’s departure, Benjamin Zander called to ask if I’d be interested in accompanying the ensemble on their trip; writing about their activities; interviewing players; and otherwise taking in the sights and sounds of their travels and reporting on them.

Much to my amazement, all the logistics worked out and, six weeks on, I was winging my way to South America as an “embedded journalist” with 100+ BPYO players, chaperones, and administrators. Much fun and eight blog posts followed (you can find all of the latter here). Suffice it to say, the tour was an extraordinary experience, musically and culturally, and, for me, a conspicuously potent introduction to a new continent.

I had intended a couple of reviews of the orchestra’s concerts during the trip, though, in the event, there was only time for one. Still, it captured many of the enduring qualities of the BPYO’s playing throughout the journey and documented the sort of reception that met the ensemble city after city. In lieu of more real-time footage, then, I thought some reflections in order.

Benjamin Zander conducting the BPYO in Campinas’ Teatro Castro Mendes. Photo: Paul Marotta.

What were the trip’s takeaways?

On the one hand, there was the country itself.

Brazil is enormous, yes, and, like the United States, plenty diverse in culture, music, cuisine – and myriad other things. It also shares with us more than a bit of a troubled history as regards colonialism, indigenous populations, slavery, and the like. Politically, it’s a volatile place and the nation boasts a crime rate from which our group wasn’t immune (though, thankfully, the latter only involved some petty theft).

Those incidents notwithstanding, the country’s qualities shined brightly during our fortnight there.

Our travels – by plane or bus – provided a powerful sense of Brazil’s breadth: its natural beauty and richly varied topography. We also ate extremely well wherever we went: seafood in Salvador, churrascaria in Porto Alegre, some of the world’s best coffee everywhere.

Granted, there was precious little time for sight-seeing – a pair of excursions (one in Rio de Janeiro, the other to the colonial city of Ouro Preto) were the sum total – but one got a nice snapshot of the lives of locals through several side-by-side exchanges the BPYO had with Brazilian youth orchestras, as well as visits to schools in some of the cities on the orchestra’s itinerary (more on that shortly).

BPYO violinist Victoria Pan shares a laugh with Brazilian colleagues during an exchange in Curitiba. Photo: Paul Marotta.

Then there was the experience of concertizing in this vast country (whose land mass exceeds that of the contiguous U.S.).

I remain a bit unclear on Brazil’s classical music network: its reach and the depth of its roots were obscure while we were there and have remained so since we left. That said, the BPYO consistently drew big, receptive, and enthusiastic crowds in each city we visited.

Certainly, it helped that the BPYO had Anna Fedorova in tow to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2 on all nine of the concerts. She’s an exceptional musician with stamina to burn (also an absolute mensch off-stage – but that’s another story) and her connections with Zander and the BPYO  throughout the tour left nothing to be desired. Nor, for that matter, did the rest of the orchestra’s repertoire – overtures by Weber and Wagner, Clarice Assad’s Olindo de Bonecos, Shostakovich’s Tenth and Dvorak’s New World Symphonies – disappoint.

Still, how does one explain packed halls in Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Ribeirão Preto, Campinas, Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte, and Curitiba for an American youth orchestra?

For want of a more scientific explanation, I’ll just chalk it up to a native musical curiosity we encountered among Brazilians during our time in their country. No matter how you look at it, turnout was remarkable – as were many of the halls.

São Paulo’s magnificent Sala was an immaculate space, acoustically and aesthetically. Rio’s Theatro Municipal recalled Paris’s Opera Garnier; Ribeirão Preto’s Theatro Pedro II brought to mind Prague’s Estates Theater; and Curitiba’s Teatro Positivo provided, perhaps, the tour’s best overall acoustics.

The most striking venue, though, was in Porto Alegre, where an amplified BPYO and Fedorova played in the chasmal Auditório Araújo Vianna, a 3000-seat venue that principally hosts pop acts. What a performance they delivered there: invigorated, focused, exhilarating – and totally feeding off the concentration of an audience (around three-quarters of the seats were filled) that was equally committed to taking in the BPYO’s playing.

From a sound standpoint, the Porto Alegre concert wasn’t the orchestra’s best. But otherwise it was one of the most memorable orchestral performances I’ve ever attended: a kind of surreal Gesamtkunstwerk concert – one that, on top of the music, involved a Volkswagen beer bus and vendors hawking popcorn and water in the aisles during intermission.

Side-by-side exchange between BPYO and Salvador’s NEOJIBA orchestra. Photo: Paul Marotta.

Of course, not all of the tour’s concert settings were so singular. And the trip’s highlights weren’t limited to formal performances.

Mixed in among the BPYO’s nine concerts were a series of side-by-side exchanges with local music students. These ranged from Salvador’s NEOJIBA orchestra to playing alongside college-aged musicians at Curitiba’s Universidade Positivo.

The most touching, though, took place in an El Sistema-inspired school in a favela in Porto Alegre. We received a police escort into the impoverished neighborhood (and back out, all the way to the airport afterwards!), but what love for and joy in making and hearing music the kids we met there demonstrated, whether they were hearing the BPYO give full-throated attention to the New World Symphony’s finale, or if they were playing arrangements of Brazilian dances. That afternoon was music-making of the freshest, most natural, and joyous kind – precisely the sort of thing that will stick with you as long as your memory remains intact.

At the heart of the tour, though, were Zander and the BPYO itself.

Now eighty and having spent forty years leading the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, Zander, his TED Talks, educational endeavors, interpretation classes, affinity for Mahler, lectures, and writings are something of a known quantity. Yet what he’s endeavoring to do with the BPYO is really remarkable: in a word, this orchestra’s his legacy.

With it, Zander’s goal is to “create a generation of leaders by engaging these young musicians as artists as well as enrolling them in his personal philosophy of ‘possibility’ – namely, enabling them to take creative advantage of whatever situation in which they find themselves (musical, professional, personal) to positively affect those around them.”

It’s a tall order, yes, and nobody’s perfect: I can’t count the number of times I heard the terms “on-track” (good) and “off-track” (deviating from “on-track”) over those two weeks, and we did have a meeting in São Paulo to address some “off-track” behavior early on.

Benjamin Zander with members of the BPYO post-concert in the foyer of Rio’s Theatro Municipal. Photo: Paul Marotta.

But to see how the players responded to Zander’s guidance (musical and otherwise) as well as the direction of BPYO manager Elisabeth Christensen and the quiet-but-steady leadership of BPYO senior advisor Mark Churchill – adapting to last-minute changes in the itinerary, taking ownership of various aspects of the tour, and the like – was (as I wrote in the above blog post) “refreshing as it was heartening.” To be sure, there are many ensembles (and youth orchestras) in our world. But, without a doubt, the culture of leadership and responsibility that permeates the BPYO is singular.

The kids who comprise the ensemble certainly are. I got to chat in-depth with a fraction of them, but what a brilliant, thoughtful, articulate, engaged, and talented lot they are. You get a sense of that from the white sheets Zander asks them to fill out after each rehearsal and at the end of every tour: blank sheets of paper on which orchestra members can freely speak their minds.

A sampling of their end-of-tour reminiscences is in order.

“One particular thing that surprised me,” bassist Evan Tsai wrote in his, “was how the side-by-side exchanges would directly affect me. I had become so accustomed to playing music in a little ‘bubble’ (at school and in Boston) that I took the little things – what everyone considers ‘necessary’ to become a musician – for granted.

“Yet, after seeing Quinn’s [BPYO trombonist Quinn McGillis’s] generosity in donating a trumpet and trombone to the school in Porto Allegra [sic] and playing alongside those kids, I realized that there were still kids with a desire to learn music and kids that love music already without the proper resources to fulfill that passion. Those few hours spent at that school inspired…me to…ensure that …future generations of musicians and leaders(!) have access to instruments and musical training. Although they ultimately might not choose music as a career path, being exposed to music shows them how to love, communicate, as well as teaches them discipline, respect, perseverance, and a good work ethic.”

Cellist Jonah Covell noted the transformative aspect of touring with the orchestra in his white sheet: “Throughout the year we [the cello section] played together, and that was about it. We could sound good, sometimes excellent, we could blend our tones, we could come in on time, we could lead and follow one another, and we usually played in tune…

“But our experiences in Brazil changed something in our section’s coding…somewhere between Logan Airport on the 13th and Rio De Janeiro on the 17th, our section became a community. We were no longer a group of musicians, but we were now a unit as cohesive as can be. We supported each other on and offstage, we joked around together (admittedly, sometimes onstage), ate together and did a million other things as a group. We were no longer just a section in an Orchestra dedicated to playing well. We were a family driven to create a singular sound that expressed the souls and spirits of each of our members. In our sound was our love for each other; for the people we’d met; the places we’d taken in; and, above all, for the experience of making music with those we really love.”

Benjamin Zander, the BPYO, and musicians from Porto Alegre’s IPDAE school. Photo: Paul Marotta.

And some touched on the BPYO’s larger place in the musical firmament.

“What distinguishes the BPYO from any other orchestra in the world,” violinist Simeon Radev observed, “is that we have a mission. We’re not just making music, but we’re making music with a purpose, and that purpose is to share our joy and hope and love with the rest of the world. Our message is so powerful, that we cause people like William to fly to São Paulo right after he hears our concert in Rio, or we have a lady nearing 100 years of age, in Ribeirão Preto, who says that if she dies today she will be happy because she has heard our music, or a person like Peterson in Curitiba, who was brought back from a path of disillusionment with music, to a path filled with light and hope through music, all because he heard our final, and most emotional, concert…

“I do not know of any orchestras, organizations, or people in general who can cross language barriers and all sorts of other difficulties in order to touch the hearts of a completely different people and cause such profound reactions in their lives. Of course, I am still quite young and have not seen much of the world and have not lived enough life to say that with certainty. But I am confident that you would not do what you do for each and every single one of us if you did not believe that what we do here is totally unique and powerful.”

There are scores more like these. Seen in that light, then, labeling the BPYO’s Brazilian tour “wonderful” and “extraordinary” seems only a starting point.

Perhaps the final word belongs to the indefatigable Zander, whose energy and enthusiasm for spreading the Gospel of classical music and Possibility knows no bounds. Looking back on the tour, he wrote:

“The energy level didn’t drop, ever. Why give less at the end of the tour, on the final afternoon, when everyone is exhausted? Dvorak needs all from all of us. Age is no barrier to generosity – young or old!

“The camaraderie and open-heartedness spreads out to everyone through the group and beyond. One-hundred-eighty kids outside on a courtyard reliving young love and death under the sun.  Why pull back?

“The performances got better and better, even though there was no time to practice, because enthusiasm penetrates the group’s psyche.

“There are no ‘bad apples’ only people ‘on track’ and ‘off-track.’ Mistakes can bring people closer, instead of dividing them. Hence the meetings. You never give up on kids!

“Music is an irresistible force that unites those that play and those that only watch and listen.  The audiences reacted in the way they did from relief and joy when they realized everyone is connected. That used to be the province of religion, now it’s a youth orchestra on tour!”

Sunset in Salvador. Photo: Paul Marotta.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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