Australian Youth Orchestra International Tour 2019
By Alison Wormell
After our ten-day experience of Dutch culture in Ede, it may be surprising how eagerly AYO anticipated going to Amsterdam. That is, until you factor in performing at Het Concertgebouw at which point the reason becomes clear. The Royal Concertgebouw is one of the world’s most famous concert halls, with a rich history, beautiful acoustics, and appreciative audiences. And how it exceeded expectations!
A full house, standing ovations, six curtain calls, and two encores (not including soloist Jan Lisiecki’s)… an undeniable success for what was a once in a lifetime experience.
We arrived in the early evening on the day before our concert, and members of the orchestra found a wide variety of activities to amuse themselves with. Cycling, visiting the city centre, eating stroopwafels, exploring Vondelpark, wandering along canals, and hunting down the best dinner a per diem can buy. The fun started immediately. However we all made sure we were well rested before the balance rehearsal the following day.
Keen to get into the hall for the afternoon’s rehearsal, there was a flurry of activity in the hall long before it commenced, as musicians flooded in to take photos, try out solo repertoire at the front of the stage (I mean, who wouldn’t?), and warm up to make sure we sounded our best in the evening. The percussion section recieved special treatment as they were shown around the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s instruments and percussion rooms by principal percussionist of the RCO, Herman Rieken, who had tutored them in Ede.
For all its reputation, the Concertgebouw is surprisingly small. Quite wide, but not very deep, the stage is aesthetically reminiscent of the Sydney Town Hall with large risers, and red seats, and an organ behind. The names of landmark composers line the room, reminding everyone of the rich history of our art form. Dvořàk’s name in particular overlooked the first and second violins, from the balcony.
Personally, my excitement was mostly about the acoustics of the hall. I had been to a few concerts in the Concertgebouw before, and so had experienced the clarity and resonance of the acoustics first hand. As a bassoonist, sometimes we really feel like we have to fight to be heard, and so to play using soft colours and still have every moment be clearly audible is a luxury.
The wind section were presented with a welcome challenge – the freedom to risk pushing the boundaries of dynamics, colour, and expression to create amazing music, while balancing our risk taking because if the risks we took didn’t pay off, it could be pretty noticeable. This led to some very funny moments in rehearsal where we played incredibly softly because we could, whereupon we realised that actually we should probably be playing louder.
After a brief adjournment for a break and perusal of the nearby museum district, it was concert time. Following a Dutch introduction, our conductor Krzysztof Urbánski took to the podium with a little speech. He amused the audience with a short anecdote; the temperatures in the Netherlands had been the highest on record for 200 years, and the forecast for our concert was to be a record breaking one too!
Upon finishing, Krzysztof turned to the orchestra and we launched with vigour into a spirited rendition of Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla Overture, always a fun concert opener. Following the Glinka, Jan joined us onstage for Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto. The concerto’s rich textures and silky harmony changes were even more satisfying with the audience in the hall. Jan’s performance – as always – was tender yet powerful and the audience thought so too, as he returned to the stage to play Schumann’s Träumerei for an encore.
The second half brought Dvořàk’s seventh symphony. The orchestra was more relaxed, and relished the chance to explore a larger work. In the acoustics of the Concertgebouw, the wind solos soared over the strings, both perfectly blended and clearly discernible. The string section’s warmth sung throughout the work, and the brass added brilliance at key points. Two special moments for me was the wind chorale at the start of the second movement, and sharing melodies with the celli in the third movement.
And then, we were done! At least according to the program. In a rush, the audience leapt to their feet to give us a standing ovation. And then a second curtain call… and another… and on the fourth, we performed Dvořàk’s eighth Slavonic Dance as an encore, the audience finally silent again.
Following this was another ovation. I think we were all completely overwhelmed by this stage and Krzysztof was called out for another two bows. A cheeky second encore ensued, with the final four bars of the Dvořàk dance, whereupon the audience were informed via sign language that we needed to sleep, so we all laughed and went home.
Visiting Amsterdam with the AYO to perform at Het Concertgebouw was an inspiring, once in a lifetime experience. Now we’re off to Germany for some more fun performing!