The Beethoven Journey: Paris, Boston, New York

9 March 2015
timothy summers

timothy summers



For me, it was not just place-travel, it was time-travel: I met my wife in Paris in 2005, and I went to college in Boston from 1990 to 1995, and I went to graduate school in New York from 1995 to 1998. And that was our tour: two concerts in Paris, one in Boston, and three in New York, with loads to remember piled on top of the usual loads to see and do.

There was also the matter of being the sole American member of the MCO, which left me with a lot to explain — or at least talk about, since there a lot of things happen in America that just plain don't make sense. Not-making-sense is part of the deal over here (I’m still here as I write, in Charlottesville, Virginia). And I'm always a little shocked to re-experience American vertigo. There's nothing quite like it. It's big.

So I'll just try to tell it in order, and see what shows up in the telling. I can try to figure out what it means later.

It all starts in Dortmund, which feels right because Dortmund is a raw-material sort of place. A lot of our tours start there, with our Orchesterzentrum residency. For a day and a half, we make preparations in Dortmund. Preliminary rehearsals; a bowing change here and there. Leif Ove is strong as ever, and has clearly been considering and re-considering some elements of phrasing and harmony. Questions and jokes; re-finding the shapes and tempos and otherwise re-animating the pieces as we know them. (We do know them quite well by now.) A few of us also rehearse Stravinsky Dumbarton Oaks and the third Brandenburg Concerto for a small private concert in New York. We stay at the usual hotel. Trains out the window. Sandwiches from the train station. The unusual quantity of pants for sale, displayed on the lower half of mannequins lining the street between the Orchesterzentrum and the Konzerthaus. And the next day, the train to Paris, where performance begins.

The trip to Paris is an ICE to Cologne and then a Thalys through Belgium to Gare du Nord. This seems simple, since our hotels at either end of the trip are very convenient. However, we have to switch trains in Cologne, and in Cologne it is Rosenmontag, which is the German Monday version of mardi gras. So the train station is full of drunken tigers, bees, leopards, princesses, and so forth. People in hats. The threat of pure chaos (and a train station floor slippery with beer) doesn't materialize, though. It all turns out smooth and pretty civilized. There is something a bit Harry Potter about the whole thing — going to the wacko train station to get started on your magic-theatrical journey on a purple train. There are in fact a number of wizards at the train station. So off we go.

Paris is still beautiful, the whole city seems lifted like a handkerchief at the point of the Eiffel tower. Lights, arches, fashion, tourists, boats, theatrical rudeness, spires, falafel, hamburgers, pain au chocolat. A run along the Canal Saint-Martin each morning. But it was hard to escape the sense of unease, the presence of security forces dressed like combat robots, the newness of horror. Shifting eyes on the Metro; an extra flinch at the traditional jumping of turnstiles.

And then, suddenly, a cycle of Beethoven Piano Concerti at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, amid the limitless elegance and expense of the Avenue Montaigne. Leif Ove is finding ever greater ease (if you can use that word to describe playing five concerti), and the resulting freedom is powerful. With each concert, with each cycle, something grows. These pieces benefit from clarity. The simpler they seem to us, the more possibilities open for color and time. There are so many inner similarities, so many almost-repetitions, that the pieces just open further and further. These were good concerts, and, while I must be proud of the performance and development of the orchestra, I must say that Leif Ove is doing something staggeringly strong with this cycle.

Charles de Gaulle airport is never easy. Our buses are evidently too tall for the driveway, so we end up somewhere between terminals in a rainy, cracked-concrete, diesel-smelling labyrinth, laden with our suitcases, instruments, and carry-on comforts. Then our airplane must be replaced, which takes a few extra hours. Eventually, we fly to London. Heathrow has a great playground, and you can always get fresh food, so that makes for a bit of a reprieve. Finally, in a strong headwind, we make a long, bumpy flight to Boston.

Boston is being crushed by snow. I lived in Boston for five years, and there were storms, and there was cold, but this is different. There are two meters of snow. There are tons — literal tons, thousands of pounds — of icicles hanging from roofs. Cars are lost at the side of the road, buried. There is nowhere to put the snow. It won’t melt, not for a while. Still, I got to take a group around the Harvard campus, and we got to visit the Busch-Reisinger Museum. The Harvard museum has a spectacular, intense collection of central European art, among other things. I also take a group to see the Mark I computer in the Science Center. It's so big and crazy, it feels important. A computer built in 1944. For the war.

Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory is one of the warmest concert halls in the world. You can play infinitely quiet. We don't play the whole cycle of concertos there, we play only ('only') the second, third, and fourth, in one concert. The Boston audience seems disheveled and studious, sort of homey. This is perhaps exaggerated by the fact that everyone has to wear extreme sports gear to go outside at all, but still, there is a clever casualness about the audience, something that also warms the hall. I spent a lot of time at NEC in my Boston years. I will not attempt, not just now, to describe how strange and excellent it was to play there as a guest from Europe. I took a lot of comfort, too, in the breakfast at the Trident Bookstore Cafe on Newbury Street. Maple syrup can make many things right, especially when it's so bitter cold.

On first glance, Carnegie Hall seems also rather warm and comfy, with bright reds and whites, but after a moment you realize that it is simply huge. It is drafty, even windy, on stage. The room seems large enough for a weather system to form inside it, like clouds might build over the parterre. (Perhaps it will rain later, over by the left balcony.) Those in the balconies could view you through the clouds using binoculars.

And then you begin to play — it resonates, and begins to feel a bit smaller, more human. You can feel the pressure to tell your story, to control this large atmosphere in a surprisingly literal way. One feels a certain pride in having been able to fill this room with people and warmth and song and the story of the performance. Above all, the feeling that the grand fifth concerto could so expand — more even than it had to this date — is a source of amazement from the first chords.

There was a lot to hear. And along the way there was a lot to see. We saw it all with our son Nicholas, who is now about 4.6 years old. In Dortmund it was the trains and the big U at the old brewery. In Paris it was Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe. Pain au chocolat and madeleines. At Gare du Nord there was the TGV (Double-decker!) and the Eurostar to London. We visited the Centre Pompidou (the inside-out building!). In Boston there was snow taller than people. We visited old friends with nice kids; we saw Dad's college; we took cabs; we had pancakes.

New York was Empire State building and Rockefeller ('Rocketfeller') Center and Natural History Museum. A new idea of what's big. In every city there was a lot of coffee for older people, lots of fruit salad for younger ones. We almost lost the wombat (seen above, with the Eiffel Tower) at the hotel in New York, ut he was miraculously found at the back of a drawer in the last minute. Behind all of this lay the spectacular effort of the orchestra (office included — getting an orchestra to America is  very difficult) and especially of Leif Ove Andsnes, carrying his astonishing cycle of Beethoven concertos all over the world.