The top high school music students from across the planet have converged, for the 51st year, at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute in Western Massachusetts, the world’s premier summer program for aspiring orchestral and chamber musicians, ages 10-20.
This Saturday, August 12, at 2:30 p.m., under the direction of internationally acclaimed conductor Ken-David Masur, the high school students will take on an extremely challenging program of music a million miles away from standards like Beethoven’s 5th.
The pieces can be so difficult that as Masur says, “Anything they play after this will seem easy.”
Maestro Masur also takes on the title of Associate Conductor at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In October, he will be conducting a staged version of the complete incidental music of Grieg’s Peer Gynt and Beethoven’s Egmont.
The Maestro took a few moments from rehearsal to speak with HuffPost about the upcoming Boston University Tanglewood Institute concert.
Michael: Who are the students? Where do they come from and what’s the process to get in?
Ken-David: First, you send in an application with an audition recording. There are hundreds of kids that apply to be part of this program because it’s such an intense learning experience. The Young Artists Orchestra, which is one of five BUTI Young Artists programs for instrumentalists, singers and composers, is a six-week program, and every day is completely filled with lessons, master classes, and rehearsals. Of course, they have the opportunity to go to see the concerts at Tanglewood by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and others. Many of these kids may be part of an orchestra, but they also come to BUTI performing or playing chamber music for the very first time.
Michael: Tell me about the program for Sunday.
Ken-David: The big piece is Lutoslawski’s “Concerto for Orchestra”. That is a difficult piece by any orchestra’s standards. It is highly virtuosic and a piece full of challenges but, of course, also great rewards. A few years after he had completed the concerto, he was invited by Aaron Copland to Tanglewood to teach. So Lutoslawski also has this direct connection to Tanglewood.
Lutoslawski was, in many ways, a great choice for this program, and it’s extraordinary that these kids are willing and ready to tackle this difficult piece. I think they’re going to be absolutely extraordinary.
Michael: What about the first half?
Ken-David: The first half has a colorful and wide range of pieces. First you have the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger and his “Pastorale d’ete,” the “Summer Pastoral.” That’s a piece that is with single winds and strings, and it is very descriptive. The students need to figure out, “How do I make a sound that is not just what’s written on the page, but that really evokes the humidity in the air?”
Today, it got quite hot in the barn where we rehearse, which is appropriate, since you have to produce the sound that describes how hot it is. George Gershwin’s “Summertime” does the same thing in its own way. Here you have a completely different take on how to evoke a hot climate, a hot afternoon with music.
Next is a piece by Camille Saint-Saëns, a tone poem that is rarely performed, “Phaeton.” It’s based on the mythology of the son of Helios, the sun God. That tone poem is just absolutely extraordinary. It’s a wonderful piece. Phaeton drives the Sun chariot and almost crashes it and threatens to destroy Earth. Then Zeus has to kill him, so it’s a big drama.
This program now gives them a whole other range of tasks and pieces that will prepare them to tackle the next level and move on toward whatever may come afterwards. I believe this program is filled with so much that they should feel afterwards that they’re quite equipped for whatever, wherever they’re going.
Michael: Why these pieces? What are the technical challenges for the young musicians?
Ken David: Many people call Saint-Saëns the most German of the French composers. He loved Bach and, as a romantic composer, he wrote with the old forms in mind. I think it’s great to play this, because all of the things that you can learn from it. They don’t have to play the evergreens they might be playing in other orchestras or in other youth orchestras in the future, but here, they get to hear music by the great composers and hear music that’s unknown, that are still masterpieces, and that will equip them for the style and for the technical skills they need to have.
Michael: Where do the musicians go from here?
Ken-David: Some of these kids go onto some great conservatories and schools, and maybe we’ll see them continue in the concert hall. Maybe they will make the decision to become professional musicians. That’s great, and even if they don’t, we know that this is going to be memorable and unforgettable for them regardless.
Michael: Do they appreciate the challenge?
Ken-David: Definitely. When I was a student, we were happy to play anything that was fairly easy to grasp. There are so many more aspects than just playing the notes, of course. We’re asking these kids to understand that what you practice in your room is less than half of the story. Coming together as an orchestra is an extraordinary experience. In order to make sense of that, you need to be open-minded. You just prepare what you have, but you need to remain open to the story and telling the story to the audience in a relevant way.
It’s extraordinary that they get to see so many great performances and be inspired. Then after they’re inspired to hear a performance by some of the great artists, they go back and they practice. They want to practice more; they want to get better. Then they go back and get inspired some more.