This was the first sign that greeted the Minnesotan contingent backstage at the Concertgebouw:
After snaking through the maze of players, staff, trunks, and instruments, I stepped out into the auditorium with flute player Wendy Williams. I watched her watch my slack-jawed reaction. Her excitement and exhilaration were contagious. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she gushed.
“Oh, my God,” I said. Then I think I said: “I’m – I mean, it’s – ” and then I couldn’t even imagine what else to say.
“You have goosebumps, don’t you?” Wendy smiled. “I can feel from here that you have goosebumps.” I don’t remember, but I think I said something voluble like “yes.” (I hope I said yes.)
I will always treasure this first impression of the Concertgebouw, and especially the memory of its dark, mysterious, seductive quality of light. Yes, ahead of rehearsal the stage lights were blazing bright, but the house lights had been turned down, the reds and cream gilds blurring a bloody purple on the ceiling. Composers’ names were – probably literally – plastered on the balcony front: Ravel. Reger. Wagenaar. Tschaikowsky. A plush velvet rope swooped up and down with dignity at the front edge of the stage, but it seemed a mere winking concession to formality, since the stage itself is so cozy and nestled so tightly within the audience space. This is a hall that effortlessly embraces the seemingly irreconcilable dichotomy of grandeur and intimacy. It is a space that must be experienced to understand.
I took a seat, almost dizzy with exhaustion and awe. (Ex-awe-stion.) Osmo hopped onstage, jaunty and energetic as ever. Violin cases were scattered throughout the front rows of seats, string players leaning their ears to their shoulders, trying to tune, trying to hear. Colleagues who weren’t playing for certain pieces sat behind the orchestra, waiting, assessing, absorbing, their faces serious. Transitions were gauged. Tiny details were picked apart then put back together again.
I kept glancing up through the dark purple light at those names, emotionally torn between competing strains of gratitude, bewilderment, and intimidation.
All rehearsal long, I kept waiting to experience the world-famous acoustic. But I never really did. In fact, truthfully, the only moment that made me giddy was when Osmo guided his troops through the blossoming of sound between the third and fourth movements of Beethoven’s fifth. I’m tired, I reassured myself; I’m not hearing right. But deep down the voice of experience told me otherwise. Yes, this orchestra will always play well; that’s a given. But will they transcend?
After rehearsal ended, I wandered through the dark emptiness of the hall, feeling like some kind of corporeal spirit, definitely not a part of the world of the folks chatting and laughing and practicing onstage…but certainly not part of the Dutch audience, either. Unlike at Carnegie, there were no staff members eager to escort onlookers away, so I just drifted down the aisles, alone, snapping pictures like I was stealing something. I felt I might pass one of the green gilt columns and run into Mahler (Alma and her imperious gaze not far behind).
Finally I brushed past some violists practicing in the corner, resolved to push open a tall door, and stepped out into a hallway. I’m trying to recall what it looked like. I don’t remember, and yet the memory is growing clearer in my imagination: clearer and sharper and grander. Tall ceilings, gilding, plush red carpet, chandeliers, sconces, history itself dripping off the walls. It’s the kind of scene your subconscious might visit in a dream.
In the far distance (or so it seems in my memory), ushers were starting to greet the first clumps of audience members. I dazedly made my way down the corridor to show them my ticket and join the throng of people – when I suddenly came to my senses. If you are a music lover, and if you get the chance to roam the Concertgebouw hallways alone, you should probably roam the Concertgebouw hallways alone. So I turned on my heel and silently polished my excuses in case anyone happened to notice I was an intruder (and an early one, at that). (The signs are in Dutch. I’m a dumb American. The building is rectangular and I’ve lost track how many sides I walked.)
But happily, no one gave a crap. The bartenders took no notice of the suspiciously early patron in the wrinkled houndstooth skirt, and instead just kept polishing their spotless glasses over and over again.
The seats I’d bought were behind the orchestra. I asked for directions from one of the few staff members circulating, and she kindly gave them, then I promptly forgot everything she said. I stepped up the marble stairs and kept walking…and walking…and then, in a hilarious twist, one of my lame excuses came true, and I actually lost track of how many sides of the Concertgebouw I had walked. There are worse problems to have.
I kept turning to the left, hearing individual players warming up through the walls, secure in the knowledge I couldn’t really get lost.
Eventually I stepped into a lush abandoned corridor. I could hear the rumble of a low voice behind a door. My subconscious mind wondered if that voice might be familiar. My conscious mind was busy craning my neck at the red velvet and tall ceilings.
Suddenly a new voice: “And about your entrance…” And I froze. I had completely forgotten: the Concertgebouw’s famous stage stairs lead up to a velvet curtain, and that velvet curtain opens to a hallway, and across that hallway must be the soloists’ and conductors’ rooms…and it turns out, I had come within a few steps of walking past Osmo’s door. I was so surprised by the near-encounter, and so horrified by the idea of coming across as some kind of lame creepy orchestra stalker, that I just turned around again and quickly shot in the opposite direction.
Finally, with great relief, I found my door, then my seat, achieving my lofty goal of not accidentally walking into Osmo or Pekka’s dressing room. *thumbs up*
Wendy had suggested that I buy a ticket behind the orchestra. I’d followed her advice. After all, tours are the only chance Minnesotan audiences have to sit behind the band. I took my seat on the aisle. To my right were the timpani and percussion instruments, crowded tight in front of the famous pipe organ.
In front of me was a gloriously empty hall, a sea of stands, a few musician friends in tails…and well, wow, principal trombone Doug Wright’s music. I was so close I could read it. When he came out, cool and confident as always, he grinned at me and asked, “You want to play? Alto clef!”
Again, I don’t really remember my response, but I’m guessing it included wild incredulous terrified laughter at the idea of making my Concertgebouw debut playing trombone.
Seatmates are an incredibly important aspect of the concert experience, but we never talk about them much. I’ve had seatmates who have assumed I’m gay. I’ve had seatmates who smell like a discount department store’s cologne aisle. I’ve cried with seatmates, had quasi-religious experiences with seatmates, gotten uncontrollable giggles with seatmates. I once had a seatmate who wore yellow pants.
But I think my favorite seatmates of all time were the ones I had at the Concertgebouw: two Dutch women who were chattering back and forth between themselves. Before the concert even started, the one nearest to me smiled and asked me a question.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, the words now well-worn, “I’m from America and I only speak English.” Of course she then switched to perfect English. Again, in the glamorous blur of the evening, with an eager friendly crowd filing through the doors, and dashing musicians dressed in black ascending the stairs at the side of the stage, I’ve forgotten what her question even was. But somehow we ended up discussing why I was there.
“I’m traveling with the orchestra,” I said. “I’m from Minnesota. I’m a writer, and I’m writing about the tour.”
The woman immediately turned to her seatmate and gleefully related this information, and my heart was touched that she cared. It hadn’t occurred to me until then, but maybe it means something to the Europeans that this tour means so much to us.
When Erin tuned and the lights dimmed, a silent electricity began to crackle. I felt it before a single note was played. This would be a moment, I knew it, and it was going to be good. The audience began applauding; I realized that Osmo’s curtain must have opened. He breezed right past me, gracefully hopping down those stairs, flamboyantly sweeping his hand toward his band once he reached the stage. His players stood.
I’ve said in an earlier entry, I have limited interest in hashing over three concerts that consist of largely the same repertoire. (Four, if you count the Minneapolis preview show…) And again, the more I look back, the less I trust my impressions. But little memories stick in my mind like left-behind cake crumbs after dessert…
A caveat: my seat had an extremely unusual balance, so I can’t assess with any authority how the performance went. Everything was heavy on brass and timpani and bass (no sh*t), and I know I missed some string playing, and maybe even ensemble issues. But for this night, for this experience, the seat was perfect. I loved being so close. I felt like a junkie who finally made the leap from snorting heroin to straight out shooting it.
For the first time, the Stucky that opened the program flowed and blossomed and gelled, showcasing lush gorgeous lines. For the first time, I actually saw English horn player Marni Hougham performing those lines, just down the stairs and to my right. When Osmo triumphantly trotted back up the stairs, I realized I was grinning and looking at my shoes (still coated with the dust of Ainola) and shaking my head at how unlikely this moment was…marveling at how many things had to go right, and how many things had to go wrong, for this moment to mean what it did.
As for the Beethoven, there are no words to describe it.
But best of all, I finally heard the famed Amsterdam acoustic. It was so blindingly obvious once the show began that I wondered how I missed it at rehearsal. But a few days later I chatted with a musician, and without my even asking, he advanced a theory. He thinks the presence of an audience is the magic ingredient that changes the Concertgebouw’s acoustic from dreadful to divine. I don’t know how popular this opinion is (it sounds a touch heretical), but it certainly explained everything I experienced. Because for that night, the orchestra boasted a huge fat golden sound, the kind you might associate with Chicago or even Vienna. Yet it was clearly our orchestra. Only a better version of our orchestra.
Pekka Kuusisto was, of course, rapturously received. As every night went on, I respected his playing and his personality more and more and more. As he trotted upstairs and backstage – his violin within grabbing distance – (trust me; I was tempted) – my mind turned to the encore.
It suddenly hit me: Osmo would be walking right next to me, clarinet in hand, to surprise the audience.
It was one of the most unexpectedly beautiful moments of my listening life. I kept biting my tongue and then scanning the crowd, reminding myself of how thousands of eyes would be focused on the force of nature a few feet away. Everyone will know if you start crying, I told myself. Photographers are here. You must not memorialize this moment by losing it.
When Osmo’s haunting clarinet finally joined Pekka’s lonesome fiddling, it seemed as though the sound was seeping into the hall from another dimension. Everyone turned around simultaneously, their faces lit by surprise, then delight, then awe. I couldn’t at first. I was too overcome. What is this moment? So instead, I just listened. I was so close to the source of the sound that my ears almost hurt and when Pekka looked up the stairs at Osmo it felt like he was looking up the stairs at me and I heard Osmo’s sharp intake of breath shape the phrase and the orchestra was humming a whispered drone and the sophisticated audience was completely spellbound and it was so, so, so hard not to crumple.
My seatmates asked me afterward to explain the encore; they hadn’t been able to hear Pekka’s description. I hesitated in front of the responsibility of telling its story, which is our story.
It’s a Swedish folksong, I finally said, carefully. Written by Scandinavians in the mid-nineteenth century. They were leaving all they knew for the chance at a better life. Lots of them went to the upper Midwest, where Minnesota is. Pekka and Osmo dedicated it to all who leave their homes unwillingly, whether they’re settling the American Midwest or they’re modern emigrants dying attempting to cross the Mediterranean. “That’s so beautiful,” they murmured.
When the music started again, they were gasping at the Beethoven. They were looking at each other in amazement. Stamping their feet at the rhythmic parts. At the end, they were among the first to leap to their feet.
After the first encore, the applause slackened ever so slightly. The climb up and down those stairs between bows takes a long time, even when Osmo runs up them two at a time. I sensed…danger. I sensed the audience thought this was it. But The Second Encore I Knew They Had Must Be Performed. (“Do they always play an encore?” my neighbor had just asked me earnestly.)
So I resorted to old habit, impulsively deploying the scream the Minnesotan audience perfected during the lockout: high-pitched, sustained, and from the lungs. Anything to intensify the energy in the hall, to make the audience curious. I didn’t care I was making a fool of myself. Because I Wanted That Encore To Cap Off My Perfect Night.
One of the women touched my shoulder. “This must be your favorite!” she grinned.
“Yes! Yes, they’re my favorite, but they have another encore!”
“Another encore?” they asked, wide-eyed – “THERE’S ANOTHER ENCORE!?!” – and immediately they began to chatter in Dutch and then to copy me, screaming with a brash American gusto. And like everything else, it’s a blur to remember now, but it felt like that was the moment when the energy in the hall pivoted to curiosity, to the suspicion that more was coming. Osmo trotted triumphantly down the steps again and finally we were treated to the last Hungarian dance, and of course it totally brought down the house. The musicians had to begin leaving the stage to make the applause stop.
When we parted, the women cried, “Good-bye!” at me, their grins so wide they were nearly splitting their face. “Good-bye!” I cried back.
Moments like these, I realized, is what a tour is all about. Seeing new things. Exchanging stories.
Writing new ones.
In my now-blurry-memoried ecstasy, I took two bold steps down the staircase and onto the same stage where so many legends have tread. And for some reason, I didn’t feel like an imposter anymore. Maybe because I finally realized the greatest lesson the Concertgebouw can teach us: an audience is just as integral to the art as the performers. There’s a reason why in this, the greatest of halls, we’re just two steps away from the players.
I had to weave my way around the basses; they were gathering to get a section portrait. When a group of Amsterdamers realized a few Minnesotans were staying behind for pictures, they clambered toward the front to keep the applause going.
“How is the next performance the last performance?” I asked myself that night, right before tumbling into a very, very deep unconsciousness.