Notes from Europe – Orchestra Edition

By Kevin Tan: 

“You know, you’re actually getting a feel for where most of the music you are playing comes from,” says Cleveland Orchestra conductor Franz Welser-Möst, immediately following our concert. “Getting a flavor for this part of the world is a great experience for you. Try and digest that. Brahms, actually, lived not too far away from this place you’re performing at.”

That puts us in Vienna, international hub of renowned musicians and music. The concert billboard posted outside the hall declares: “Performing at the Minoritenkirche, The Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra.” This venue was the second stop on our ten-day international tour through the Czech Republic and Austria. It was a summer journey that would take us straight into the heartland of Europe’s classical music tradition.

COYO’s final concert at the Mozarteum. (Tan/TYG)

On the morning of our Vienna concert, our orchestra had visited the Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera) for a Q & A with Franz Welser-Möst. In the palace-like opera house—reminiscent of a Belle Époque Vienna from the late 19th century, where anybody who was anybody made themselves visible at premiers of Bruckner, Brahms and Strauss right in the same hall we were sitting in— Welser-Möst talked about the struggles and delights of having two musical homes. The Staatsoper is one of them, where musical giants such as Gustav Mahler and Herbert von Karajan formerly held his post as music director. The other, Severance Hall, is where our youth orchestra rehearses and performs back in Cleveland, sometimes with Cleveland Orchestra members and always under the directorship of our beloved conductor, assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra James Feddeck.

COYO, the acronym we fondly refer to our orchestra by, has been making music together for a long time. Some veterans have been with the group for over six years, rehearsing every weekend, four hours at a time. Our musical repertoire is as expansive in scope as it is thorough in preparation—from baroque counterpoint in Bach’s St. Anne Prelude and Fugue to modern rhythmic dissonance in John Adams’ minimalist creation Short Ride in a Fast Machine. But for the twenty-five years since COYO’s conception, something held us back from being spiritually close to the music we put our body and soul into. Cleveland is not Europe. And Europe is where ninety percent of our music comes from. This summer changed all of that. Beginning in June, flyers, word of mouth, and even some radio commercials began to spread word of COYO’s first-ever international tour.

Our two packed tour buses started buzzing less than thirty minutes after we landed at Prague Ruzyně Airport. Along a rue noticeably narrower than typical American city roads, we passed a bright orange sign announcing “Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra at Dvorak Hall (home to the Czech Philharmonic).” Moments later we crossed the Vltava River towards downtown Prague.

The Prague concert flier for COYO. (Tan/TYG)

Much of the trip was allotted to culture exploration (we did have the option of staying in the hotel and practicing, but needless to say our instruments stayed in their cases until concert time). Prague was highlighted by sauerkraut and dumplings and whole pigs on spits; a meandering afternoon in the old town square where Euro 2012 sponsors erected a billboard-size screen, and where rowdy fans drank to show their support for team Czech; a dinner cruise on the Vltava River, the inspiration of centuries-old folk tales and tunes and Smetana’s symphonic Má Vlast. In Vienna, shopping at Zara stores along Mariahilfer Straßeand and then sitting in the shade for a wiener schnitzel and egg noodles. You know you’re in Vienna when the Burger King has a marble ceiling with classical sculpture (and you know you’re in Europe when it costs a euro to use the “water closet”). These were global cities, exemplified by a mélange of language, migration and industry, or simply when we passed Rohm Emanuel and Larry David on the same walk over the Charles Bridge.

Prague’s old town square, featuring Euro 2012. (Tan/TYG)

What touched me most, however, wasn’t the cosmopolitanism of Prague and Vienna. Between these two cities we journeyed through a simpler Europe. We took a stop at the medieval Karlštejn Castle to experience Bohemia’s landed origins; even the most urban Czech citizens treasure their rural background. Then, we crossed the idyllic Austrian countryside and visited the small town of Linz. It was the stuff of Beethoven’s pastoral symphony, an Old World mentality storied in the music we studied. In fact, despite this being my first time in Europe, it felt like it was nothing unfamiliar. The lonely shepherd, the country fiddler, the medieval city walls and the Alpine mountainscape are all eternalized in the Western collective unconscious through fairy tales and literature, movies and music. Salzburg, birthplace of Mozart, was my favorite city of the three for this very reason. Behind our hostel was an unsuspecting tree-lined hill. Towards the top of the deceptively large hill, the trees gave way to an open plain of green grass and wild flowers. Some grazing sheep surprised us as they rambled towards us.  We then turned west and saw that the hill overlooked the entirety of Salzburg and met eye to eye with the snowy peaks of the Alps far across town. We snapped pictures of each other reenacting Sound of Music and making bouquets of wildflowers. A bell tolled from quaint Salzburg down below.

High on a hill were lonely goats in Salzburg. (Tan/TYG)

A wise person once said to me that even travel is just a means to an end. She wasn’t talking about the destinations though. It’s the people you’re with who add color and manifest stories. Even after two years in the orchestra, there was very little I knew about most of the members, since Saturday rehearsals are a hit and run sort of deal. It’s quite amazing how much personality comes out from living together continuously, even for as short a time as our ten-day tour. The brass section did a ska routine, the basses provided slapstick humor, closet fashionistas broke out and showed off their Euro gear, amateur dancers polkaed with street musicians. There was even some fancying. In the words of my friend Wesley, “who knew COYO has drama?”

COYO members, dancing by a Mozart statue. (Tan/TYG)

I think it was all this that made our last concert at the Mozarteum in Salzburg unforgettable. During the months before Europe our orchestra hashed out phrasing and dynamics so thoroughly that we not only knew our own parts perfectly, but we also knew other instruments’ parts almost as well. The night of our last concert, however, we brought out something that Severance Hall had never heard from COYO. It was in the riotous vigor of the Akademische Festouvertüre, the introspective nuance of the Engima Variations, and the unleashed passion of the Romantic hallmark Tristan und Isolde. Semantically we were on point, having crossed and internalized the Bohemian countryside, which conceived the folk melodies that run through Dvorak’s eighth symphony. Emotionally, the source of tears shifted from the audience—many women of the audience back in Dvorak Hall in Prague were seen crying back when we performed their nation’s music—to the very musicians on stage (I admit it got to me in the Nimrod variation).

Orchestra is all about how the ensemble communicates across stage and listens to each other for cues for rhythm and timing on the surface and below that, for mood and meaning.  Getting to know the tuba player or the librarian or your stand partner means the difference between making music in an orchestra and making music as an orchestra. Our purpose, music making, did not just happen on stage, but also on the bus, in hotel lobbies, and over dumpling soup and schnitzel. Music flowed from the old town square and the inexorable Moldeau River; from grand cathedrals and relics of a mighty Hapsburg Empire to hamlets nestled in rolling hills and valleys along the Danube. Most of all, music flowed out of the people: shop keepers, tour guides, our audience, to whom music was as deep and integral to their upbringing as the history of their nation.

COYO members sitting along the Danube in Vienna. (Tan/TYG)

Right before our last concert, our conductor Mr. Feddeck told us that the music would have its most meaning afterwards. Despite how emotionally charged we were there in Salzburg, fuller understanding was still be found farther down the road.  Maybe it will come to us when we’re back in the States, an ocean apart and years in the future, reminding us that the Old World is in every way still alive.

Kevin Tan ’16 is in Calhoun College. Contact him at