Friday, March 21, 2014

Amsterdam, My First Step into the Big Musical World

It was 1962 when I got that phone call from the Concertgebouw Orchestra inviting me to come and audition; I was 23. I was half way through my sixth and final year with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and had I had finished my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Eastman School of Music. Those six years in Rochester as a student and a member of the Philharmonic Orchestra were the best learning years that I have ever experienced.

My sixth year, however, was only playing in the orchestra and, quite frankly, I missed the intensity of my simultaneous student life. That, plus a huge curiosity of how music was played abroad, particularly in Europe, was what prompted me to write letters to 20 different symphony orchestras asking if, by chance, there might be a tuba opening I could fill (I was naive 52 years ago!).

Miraculously, I received two positive responses, one from L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Genève, Switzerland and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Holland. First, I was asked by the Suise Romand to come to New York and audition for Ernst Ansermet. A violinist and I drove after a Saturday night pop concert, through a severe blizzard; in my 52 Chevrolet to a 9:00am meeting with Maestro Ansermet in his hotel room at the elegant Park Hotel, next to Central Park. Even without the malevolent specter of terrorism that we live with today, the security personal of the Park Hotel seemed extremely concerned that, at 8:40 in the morning, I was warming up in the 10th floor restroom. Well, at 9:00 I was in the maestro’s room playing through the standard orchestra audition pieces. It was the best audition I ever played. Short story: I was invited to join the L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and I immediately started studying French.
After returning to Rochester and taking my hero-lap through the halls of the Eastman School of Music, I received the phone call from Amsterdam. “We would like to invite you to the audition in Amsterdam in the Concertgebouw (concert building) this Saturday at 10:00 am; it was Tuesday! The next day I went to the KLM office to pick up the ticket they said would be waiting for me.
“Hello Mr. Bobo, may we see your passport please?”
“We have to see your passport to issue your ticket”
“Please go the New York Port Authority and explain your problem.”
I went and explained and I was told I would have to wait 3 weeks for the passport. In explained that I needed to get to Amsterdam the next day for the audition. They seemed shocked and told me that in special circumstances they could give me the passport on the same day but it would cost $150 dollars; that was a huge amount of money in 1962. Fortunately, I had the cash. When they gave me the passport it was warm just like a piece of bread that had popped out of the toaster. I took the passport and went to the airport and successfully boarded the flight to Amsterdam. I arrived in the evening, was met by the orchestra’s artistic secretary, taken to the hotel and told the audition would be the next morning in the Concertgebouw at 10:00. That night I learned the real meaning of a word I had only heard a few times: Jetlag!

The next morning I was at the front door of the Concertgebouw at 9:00, waiting for someone to open the place up. By 9:30 I was in a nice room able to freely warm up. At 10:00 I was called on to the stage of the Kleinezaal (small hall) and asked to play. The orchestras 1st trumpet player sat with me and told me what to play; he was a very nice, jolly man named Marinus Komst. Also as I heard from all the Condertgebouw Orchestra recordings I had listened during the past few days, I was abundantly aware that Heer Komst was a truly great trumpet player. He chose the pieces I would play.

The Overture to Mendelsohn’s Midsummernight’s Dream. It went well but he asked for the legato lines to be accented. Being legato (slurred) and having heard Mr., Kompts’ style on all the LPs, I knew he meant breath accents. Not only did it work fine but it was also clear in was stylistically correct.

Next came the overture to the Meistersinger. I knew very little about F tubas then and it worked very well on CC.

Next was to Prelude to the third act of Lohingrin, I asked him if he wanted me to play through the three bars that were left out because of the high register, he smiled and said that all tubist should play that, it sounds weak when the tuba drops out and the 3rd trumpet takes over. I did as he asked, which was what I wanted to do in the first place!

Next came Mahler’s 1st

And finally, the finale to Bruckner 7th, which I loved and knew. Forgive my small brag but I was on a roll.

There was only one other player and he, after a few years, became a very good friend and a highly respected teacher in the Friesland part of the Netherlands.

There was and still is an overwhelming atmosphere in the Concertgebouw; when you first enter you immediately sense something quite unusual. First. Even in complete silence there is an ambient accustic, a void of sound that had mystical presence. And the first note, that first note that I played in that new environment. The hall made it sound so beautiful it made me jump. After many years, I returned to the Concertgebouw on tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Returning to that same place where I had played that first magical note more than 40 years before I was no less shocked.

I still try to analyze this magical acoustic. Certainly there are many aspects that make it a great hall but I think the principal magical thing is this: It resonates at a very soft dynamic. In other places where I’ve played one can hear the hall “light up” at certain dynamics, usually f or even ff, it sets off a feedback, a sonic enhancement. In the Concertgebouw that enhancement takes place at a much softer dynamic.

Amsterdam and the Concertgebouw were my first steps in the real musical world, the world at large; that world is still expanding for me and I hope to be experiencing it for a long time.

Aboard Virgin Atlantic flight #901 from Tokyo to London, connecting to Amsterdam; the first stop on a masterclass tour through Europe ending with the weddings of my daughter, Melody, and of Steven Mead and Misa Akahoshi. March 21, 2014.