We’re experiencing the coldest week of this year’s winter yet, with temperatures hovering around zero. It is, literally, freezing. By coincidence we are playing this week in Basel’s majestic and virtually -in spite of assiduous efforts- unheatable cathedral. Playing here is, under any conditions, like an act of grace. The room soars above us and reminds us of higher things, the music is carried toward the heavens, spirits are uplifted. Bodies, however, seek refuge in warm socks, long underwear and discretely draped blankets. I have to say that I truly respect the listeners who brave the extreme discomfort of a cold behind and port-a-potties in order to hear music of absolute sublime beauty. Thank you!! You are true heroes and deserving of the comforts of the beautiful concert hall we will one day return to. The loyalty of our audience is not without reward, however. This week’s conductor, Mario Venzago, is an old companion on our route to becoming the Sinfonieorchester Basel. It was he who took the helm at this orchestra’s beginning, and whose care and efforts helped to unite us as a musical entity. I’d forgotten how adventurous he can be and how he tends to leave the beaten path during a performance. If you don’t follow very carefully, you can quickly land by the wayside. This tends to create music that’s highly alive and breathtaking. I also think he quite enjoyed conducting us in the „newer and improved“ version of ourselves. His precision was a godsend as we accompanied Dutilleux’s complex cello concerto, „Tout un Monde Lontain“, played with depth and passion by Nicolas Altstaedt, a consummate musician. He paid us the ultimate compliment by joining the cello group for the performance of Bruckner’s third symphony. To be honest, Bruckner isn’t my favorite composer. But last night, I forgot the cold and submerged myself in the glory of sound and structure that is his music. Music can warm the soul – and body. I’m looking forward to tonight’s repeat of this extraordinary bonfire of emotions.
It’s early morning, the house is quiet and I’m practicing before I go to rehearsal. That is, I should be practicing. But there’s something that I need to say before I can concentrate on the notes. You see, we from the Sinfonieorchester Basel had a meeting yesterday to talk about our workplace. Obviously I can’t go into details, but I left this meeting with a sense of humility and of more respect for my colleagues than I’ve ever felt before. Why? Because those who were there as well as many who weren’t present, are continually investing time, thoughts, and efforts into creating a future that will be worthy of our dreams and wishes. Realizing what is happening in my colleagues‘ heads is also showing me what they hold dear. Starting from our principal conductor down to the lowliest rank-and-file violist (me), we all share a common goal: to further and nurture this wonderful instrument of our own creation, Sinfonieorchter Basel. I was recently told by a highly esteemed conductor how much he appreciates the way our orchestra interacts. He says that many orchestras waste time and energy in hating each other, and I believe him because I’ve seen this in an earlier life. I’m thankful that we in Basel share a common vision and a dream of a future based on our love of music and our pure desire to turn dreams into reality. This is not a love letter, but it is a hymn of praise. Twenty years after merging two orchestras into one, our hope and optimism only grows. I didn’t realise how very dedicated we are to one goal and to each other. Now it’s time to go to work.
Yesterday I found myself sharing a dressing room with a group of young beauties. Around me, slender forms prepared themselves for a pageant of ceremony. I shared intimate moments of quiet conversation and gentle, animated banter: here in Italian, there in Japanese, Swiss German, or English. The beauties revealed to me were not just in well-toned muscles, stunning make-up, and sophisticated hairstyles, although these were the rule – I being the exception. These young women captivated me by their gentle elegance, education, and cultivated manners. In other words: these women are beautiful in every way. Most of you will never see this scene that I was privileged to witness, because you’re not party to backstage before a concert. It’s not a Jane Austen style ballroom of genteel ladies that I speak of, but of my colleagues in Sinfonieorchester Basel. After the concert, they’ll go home and put their children to bed, perhaps do some ironing, practice for the next rehearsal, or watch a film with their partner. Beautiful as they are, my colleagues are everything but purely decorative. These are women at the height of achievement, they make me proud to be one of them.
Today we are bringing a bouquet of Richard Strauss’s music to the Burghof in Lörrach. At the end of a very pleasant and rewarding week of working together with Erik Nielsen, I’m looking forward to this richly textured collection from a composer whose works never fail to challenge and delight me. Strauss’s enormous technical difficulties make orchestras work hard to perform his music well and I think there’s no orchestra that doesn’t love doing this. We’re also in an extremely athletic phase, as we’re in the middle of our run of Strauss’s opera „Elektra“ with Erik at the Theater in Basel: we’re fit and ready to go. I feel fortunate that I’ve had the chance to work with Erik, whose qualities go way beyond „good musician“ and who has shown the orchestra enormous respect and encouragement. Today’s program includes Strauss’s oboe concerto, a piece written toward the end of his life and one filled with the golden sunlight of great maturity. It was conceived in a time when peace had just been achieved at the close of the second world war, and was inspired by the visit of young corporal John de Lancie, solo oboist of the Pittsburg orchestra, to Strauss’s villa in Garmisch. It’s a true work of reconciliation, not only between two formerly warring sides, but of a man who celebrates the beauties of his long and richly-lived life. Our solo oboist, Marc Lachat, plays with touching charm and breathtaking virtuosity. In listening to him I sometimes forget to play my own entrances. Today, Salome will join forces with Hérodiade, the Rosenkavalier and the poetic oboe concerto to offer a fragrant and vibrant burst of color to the wintry landscape.
I’m getting some new colleagues for Christmas! Well, not exactly for Christmas, but for the season to come. It’s exciting to experience the expansion of the orchestra’s borders to include four new nationalities: our new colleagues come from China, Israel, Turkey, and Slovenia. I still find it fascinating that one common goal, creating music, can be the common denominator for a peaceful professional coexistence. Never in my memory have there been personal conflicts within the orchestra deriving from nationality, race, or religion. Conflicts, to be sure, do exist, since we’re only human beings, but they are the exception among us and not the rule. Perhaps we should give the world musical instruments so that all can practice unity instead of division? The small world of our orchestra gives me hope that – with common values and guidelines – there can be room for all in equal measure, each one given a role to fulfill in dignity and solidarity. Yes, I’m a dreamer. But our world becomes smaller all the time, and to fill it with music would be a step toward a world of peace. Peace on earth, a timely message.
What is a tour blog without a tour? Yet, on a snowy afternoon in front of the fireplace, I notice that there are readers checking in every day to browse a past blog, or perhaps hoping for a new one? So I thought you might like to read about the ghosts of tours past, present, and to come. Touring really began for us in 2004, with the first concerts we ever played in China. Before that our tours were run-outs to neighboring Swiss cities. These weren’t without their charm, but never had the strong qualities of teamwork that longer tours (more than one day) bring forth. Since then, the orchestra has seen snowstorms and traffic jams in Moskow, swooning fans in Bregenz, a sumptuous banquet under starry skies in Beijing, and perfect pastries in Pavia. We’ve breakfasted in Besançon, enjoyed standing ovations in Cardiff, minimal music in Basingstoke, and outdoor illuminations in Guebwiller – and the list goes on. At present our touring is limited to pilgrimages between our rehearsal and concert venues. The holiday season calls for our continued presence in the Basel area because music makes the holidays even more magical, and we are primarily here to serve our loyal audiences at home. I wish I were at liberty to talk about the tours to come, but these are still under wraps. However, since I’m dreaming, perhaps I could slip in a wish or two to keep dreams alive? How would it be to steal off to Hamburg and play in the Elbphilharmonie? Or perhaps a hop over to Royal Albert Hall for a Prom with Ivor? What say you to a few days on the road with a gorgeous singer? Does that sound tempting? Even if my wishes aren’t fulfilled, I’m richer by having them: what would life be without our wishes and dreams?
After our successful concerts with Berlioz, we’ll soon be braving Beethoven with Bolton in Baden-Baden. I must say, though, that Berlioz has really left an imprint on me: the music is still spooking through my brain, it’s almost annoying. Berlioz’s music is taking unusually long to cede its place to the next occupant who, in this case, will be Elgar. I have yet to accompany Sir Edward Elgar’s violin concerto, although this music has a special place in my heart. We’ll be performing it with Daniel Hope, who could be said to have a close relationship with the piece. Daniel Hope’s teacher and mentor was Sir Yehudi Menuhin who, as a young boy, went to visit Sir Edward with the intention of playing his concerto for the composer. The story has it that Sir Edward, after listening to a few bars, excused himself to play a few holes of golf. It was clear to him that his piece was in good hands. I feel certain that we’ll be just as privileged with our soloist and can discover a work that is too rarely played in our region. The second piece on the program will be Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the last vestige of our UK tour. We’re riding the wave of energy and confidence that Ivor prepares for us, it feels like we rise to every new challenge with optimism and the joy of making music. Right now, I have the best job in the world.