Last night I experienced the most magnificent, moving concert of a lifetime. I went to Snape Maltings to hear the Youth Orchestra of the Americas , on the final night of their inaugural European tour.
It was an impressive sight from the start. Snape is not a large concert hall, with 830 seats - for the Proms, the middle front section of seats is removed for the Promenaders, who pay £5 to sit on the floor. This is the best bargain in concert-going. My own seat cost £23 (with a pound discount as I had booked a number of tickets together). I was greeted politely by neighbours on both sides as I arrived – Snape is a very friendly concert hall. And on the stage were over 100 young musicians from all over North, South and Central America – some 20 countries were represented altogether. There were several flashes as the musicians themselves took photographs of the full concert hall from the stage.
The programme started rousingly, with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. I was amused to see the couple in front of me do huge double-takes and stare at each other questioningly – evidently they had not read their programmes properly and had expected something else. Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole followed, then Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, with the wonderful young Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero. Afterwards, when we applauded long and vigorously and would not let her go, she demonstrated her enjoyment of improvisation, by asking for a snatch of a tune, on which she played a series of variations. The skill and wit of this was hugely enjoyed by us all, on stage and off, and we left for the interval feeling invigorated.
The conductor was Benjamin Zander. Between each item he chatted to the audience. He started with his memories of Aldeburgh in the early 1950s when, for 3 years he and his family had spent their summer holidays in a caravan so that he could receive music lessons from Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst. Mr Zander is an accomplished speaker and, as the evening went on, worked us skilfully; we listened with pleasure and indulgence to his anecdotes and reminiscences, he charmed us with his enthusiasm, he reminded us of the fear and oppression that artists such as Shostakovich had lived with in Russia – he sat each evening with his coat on and his bag packed, such was his conviction (held with good reason) that, at any time, the secret police might arrive to arrest him, and he did not want his children woken up and terrified. And Mr Zander drew a lesson from that, that not all of the countries these lovely young people come from are peaceful and free or seen as such; indeed four members of the orchestra, from Colombia and Cuba, were unable to obtain visas for this country and had to return home early. He read out a note he had received from one of the cellists present, David Estoban Escovar, from Colombia, who said that, with all the troubles and wars in the world, he had wondered if becoming a musician was a trivial pursuit, but his experiences in this tour have convinced him of the worth and value of his profession.
And then, after the interval, they played Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. With the conductor’s words fresh in our minds it had a particular resonance. Shostakovich had written one movement in a sort of code; played at full speed it is rousing and designed to appeal to the authorities, but at half-speed it is a lament for his country, and that is how it was played last night.
Afterwards the conductor spoke to us all again, about the unifying and inspiring effect of this tour on these young players. And it moved us all, many of the orchestra were in tears and we were not immune either. The applause went on and on – there were calls for an encore which I felt was a little greedy – had they not given us enough? But they were ready for us – with one further anecdote about the nature of Englishness, which made us all laugh, they played ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations; and I can truly say I’ve never heard a more beautiful and expressive version of that well-known piece.
And after that? We hadn’t finished with them yet, nor they with us. We were indeed a reserved, if enthusiastic English audience, but we were on our feet by then, clapping on and on. And then the conductor returned to the stage and put his finger to his lips and we stopped. He shrugged; he didn’t know what was going to happen either. The drums started beating, the double-bass players twirled their instruments, several musicians came to the front of the stage and started dancing, and they went into an exuberant celebration of Latin American dance. For, I don’t know, 10 minutes? we stood, clapping while they danced and played. Some of the audience joined in the dancing onstage. And when they finally finished with José Gomes de Abreu 's Tico Tico and stood, hugging each other, we filed out, past Benjamin Zander who had come to shake hands and say goodbye. “Pleased to meet you” he said, courteously to me – he, too, was a little spaced out by then too. “Amazing, isn’t it,” I heard one man say to his wife, “that we were all in tears a few minutes ago, and now we’re all laughing.”
The orchestra has been in Europe for a month, for rehearsals and preparation for a 3-week tour in Belgium, Italy, France, Germany and England. And today they are flying home again. Few of them have visited Europe before and, wherever their lives take them, this has been an unforgettable episode. And if any member of the orchestra find this on Google at some time (unlikely perhaps, but it could happen, I’ve often been surprised to find myself so easily, rambling on about sheer trivia), then do, please, say hello – it was a privilege to share a moment of it with you.
And sorry, everyone, that this has been so long and so inept – it’s clear that I am no sort of a reviewer and no real musician either – you’ll notice that I have kept well clear of technicalities, and even of a description of the music. If you can’t do justice to something, don’t do it at all. But, sorry you weren’t there – you’d have loved it too.