by Debra Tinkham and Donna Bailey-Thompson



Open Rehearsal


Conducting, Christoph von Dohnanyi

Soloist, Yo-Yo Ma

AUGUST 13, 2011




Tanglewood’s Saturday morning open rehearsal on August 13, 2011, was narrated by Robert Kirzinger, a BSO Assistant Director of Program Publications.  The rehearsal was in preparation for the Saturday evening performance named “The Caroline and James Taylor Concert,” dedicated to Norio Ohga, in memory of his generosity to Tanglewood and his passion for music.  Ohga died in April of this year.


As Mrs. James Taylor stated,”In 1993, all of us at the BSO watched the newest addition to the Tanglewood landscape come alive.  It was a beautiful and elegant and practical design.  There it stood, in a field beyond the Koussevitzky Music Shed, looking somehow raw and yet perfectly at home.”  Ohga, then President and CEO of Sony Corporation, donated $1 million.  He and his wife, Midori, then donated $1.25 million of their own money, in addition to another $750,000 contribution from Sony.


It was assumed that this elegant and practical design would be called “Ogha Hall.  Taylor goes on to say, “Then one morning in early spring of that year, my phone rang.  It was Seiji (Ozawa).  ‘Guess what!’ he exclaimed.  ‘Ohga-san came to my concert last night in Tokyo and he wants to name hall for me!’”


Of interest, Taylor said, “The first time Mr. Ohga came to Tanglewood, he arrived by helicopter.  The Tanglewood grounds crew spread a sheet on the lawn, marking the spot of landing.  While we waited to greet him in typical Tanglewood attire (sandals and L.L. Bean), Mr. Ohga emerged in an impeccable navy suite and while shirt with French cuffs, for the walk through the high grass and dirt to the site.”  In July, 1994, Yo-Yo Ma, Seiji Ozawa and Norio Ohga met the press for the Seiji Ozawa Hall inaugural ceremony. 


That being said, first on today’s docket was Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, which, by the way, was written in fifteen days.  Keep in mind, rehearsals are casual attire (sandals and L.L. Bean) with a more relaxed atmosphere, except when Yo-Yo Ma walks onto the stage.  He nonchalantly entered, greeting many members of the orchestra as well as the Concertmaster, Malcolm Lowe, and Associate Concertmaster, Tamara Smirnova.  Then, a big greeting for guest conductor, Christoph Von Dohnanyi, heralded as one of the world’s most highly respected orchestral and opera conductors.


“Nicht zu schnell” was light and fun.  Ma’s exquisite dexterity of his entire “keyboard” was intense and playful.  The maestro could barely stay in his chair.  His emotions were just as intense when playing as not.  Between the rich fullness of his Stradivarius cello and his playful, but intensely alert interaction with Von Dohnanyi, Kirzinger stated, “…energy pervades the entire symphony.”  During “Langsam,” while the cellos are “pizzicato-ing,” Ma is doing a finger dance, and often cued the violins with his bow during their back-and-forth musical conversations.


Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, which modulates into C major, had many interruptions by Von Dohnanyi.  After all, it is a rehearsal.  He stopped the orchestra for ‘passage improvement,’ i.e., stronger dynamics, cleaner interpretations, better phrasing, articulate bowing, and emphasized the need to “watch me.”


It took passages through Schumann and most of the way through Brahms for Von Dohnanyi to break down the stoic barrier and reveal his musical personality.  Rather rigid in stature, he finally seemed to relax and enjoy the view.


Last, but certainly not least, on this beautiful Saturday morning, now turning into afternoon, was Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, often referred to as the “Classical Symphony.”  The lack of a piano was a huge learning curve for Prokofiev, as that’s all he knew in his prior exercises and experiments of composing.  Also, not present were the large brass – tuba and trombones.


“Allegro” was short, sweet and dynamically profound.  The “Larghetto” featured a beautiful bassoon solo, with strings echoing into a wide crescendo.  “Gavotte” also was short and sweet, offering a pleasant recapitulation to the main theme.  By the time the orchestra reached the “Finale,” they started getting frisky by stomping their feet to the march-like movement, much like a marching cavalry, mimicking the quickening tempo and the grand end.



The more the world wobbles, the deeper Tanglewood's tenacious roots comfort. After too long a hiatus, to return to the pastoral beauty and musical excitement generated at this hallowed landmark was to recharge not just by batteries but my soul.

Unchanged are the shallow pock marks in the worn clay-like floor of the Koussevitzky Music Shed. Absent, surprisingly, were the birds. However, the bells still ring to alert any straggling music lovers to take their seats while outside the back wall of the shed, picnicking families and friends give joyful meaning to squatter rights.

For me, the big draw at the Saturday morning rehearsal was my first opportunity to savor, in person, the widely respected and appreciated Yo-Yo Ma. The prodigy label he honored had long-since matured into World Music Ambassador (my attempt at an all-embracing title). In the program (geared to the official evening concert), attention was called to his “multi-faceted career ... his continual search for new ways to communicate with audiences ... find connections that stimulate the imagination” while carrying on a balancing act as soloist. “One of his goals is the exploration of music as a means of communication, and as a vehicle for the migration of ideas across a range of cultures throughout the world.” He doesn’t just talk the walk: “He has mentored thousands of students worldwide, in countries including Lithuania, Korea, Lebanon, Azerbaijan and China.” He’s only in his mid-50s.

Members of the renowned Boston Symphony Orchestra, in colorful casual attire, were in place when Ma and Conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi entered, greeted the musicians, acknowledged the audience’s applause, and quickly began the rehearsal -- Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor. Composed when Schumann’s mental illness (probably bi-polar) was in a rose-colored glasses, life-is-wonderful mood, in other words, manic, helps to explain how he was able to compose the romantic and intellectually interesting three movements between October 10 and 24, 1850 – two weeks. His instructions included the Concerto was to be played “without pause” because he detested the European custom of interruptive applause between movements.

Is there any richer sound than a well-played cello? Ma’s first mellow strokes set the tone (please, just ignore unintentional puns). Out of Schumann’s mental disorder, musical serenity had been born. (A dichotomy? Close enough.) While Conductor Dohnanyi’s audible “baa baa baa” expressed tone and beat, Ma’s eyes seldom left the conductor’s face. When strings lilted in, Ma acknowledged their presence. Often, Ma leaned in towards the conductor, as if asking a question – or a series of questions – his face composed in a warm smile for the conductor. The concerto was played without stopping. Much of the principles’ communication had been silent.

But not the second time around. Whatever needed attention was out in the open. Conductor Dohnanyi expressed his notes to the orchestra as well as to the soloist. Perhaps a second syllable needed accenting. Or a note needed to be hit squarely. Or an accent reinforced. It quickly became clear that Dohnanyi knew exactly what he wanted. If necessary, he did not shy from belaboring a point.

I became fascinated by Conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi’s insistence that whatever inaccurate interpretations or errors he detected, they were to be corrected. He was not passing up the bonus of a working rehearsal. At times a three-way conversation occurred – conductor, soloist, musicians. To get it right was to everyone’s advantage.

From the audience’s point of view, there’s an added advantage: we get to hear some of the world’s most beautiful phrasing over and over.

I became so caught up in the music that I don’t remember how much of the Concerto was played during the second go-around. But I remember recognizing the Concerto’s rehearsal was done. After exchanging pleasantries, several left the stage including the conductor and soloist. I had finally witnessed Yo-Yo Ma “for real” and as a bonus, been introduced to the dynamics emanating from Conductor Dohnanyi.

Following a brief break outdoors, in the morning sunshine, probably around 72 or so degrees, it was Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C minor’s turn. The dark, moody opening, the dramatic drum beat – what portends? – sounding like marching feet in the background. Soulful. The music could provide a plot line for a movie whose background music is already in place. Sinister. Tension.

From the beginning, Dohnanyi talked over the music to the musicians and at times sang out too. The interruptions became so frequent and mostly brief that I had no idea where I was in the total scheme of things. Rehearsals offer a huge challenge when the listening ears’ specific musical knowledge is far from complete. He skipped to another place needing help – long bowing of the first violin, followed by a sustained note, beautiful in its simplicity, as pure as the purest white. I embraced the easiest option: relax, enjoy, and get lost in the richness of Brahms’ majestic chords.

After a 20-minute intermission – sun higher and warmer – Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D, aka “Classical” opened with its signature allegro that to me suggests spritely dancing on soft grasses, dainty girls with garlands in their hair. Looking on, admiringly, are young men, who join in the dancing (lots of leaping). Dohnanyi stated he wanted a “crisp ending” to the first movement. Certain sections of the “Classical” he repeatedly found resistant to his requests. This insistence on perfection (or as close to the impossible one can get) is alluded to in a Wickipedia bio of Dohnanyi’s almost two decades as music director of The Cleveland: “Dohnányi's kinship with Szell, both in terms of musical training and micro-managerial conducting style, portended that his relationship with the orchestra would be a successful one.” Indeed!

From the program notes: “During his years with the Cleveland Orchestra, [he] led the orchestra in a thousand concerts, fifteen international tours, twenty-four premieres, and the recording of more than one hundred works.” Starting in 2002, he began making guest appearances with the major orchestras of the East Coast. He’s in demand in Europe, including opera houses. This coming Friday evening (19 Aug 2011) he will conduct the BSO at Tanglewood – Schoenberg, Schumann, and Beethoven. In September he will celebrate his 82nd birthday. His meticulous nature, his attention to minute details, is reflected in how an orchestra performs.

Maybe Christoph von Dohnanyi should be recruited to round up our Congress, to order them to form an orchestra, make them toe the mark, so they learn how cooperation to achieve a goal that benefits the United States creates music that is a win-win for everyone.



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