“I realized that my job is to awaken possibility in others.”


Jonathan Blumhofer
Articles — June 17, 2024

Basel isn’t a city that necessarily puts one in mind of funeral marches, like the one that opens Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. But that sprawling, tragic first movement has at least one thing in common with this third-largest Swiss metropolis: you only need to spend a brief amount of time with it to understand that it contains multitudes.


The Basler Münster.

In Basel’s case, those layers are primarily the result of a mind-bogglingly rich history. This town is old. You’re reminded of the fact walking through the mazes of streets that comprise the central Altstadt: nearly all of the houses there have the date of their original completion painted above their doorways. The oldest one I saw said 1269, which would make it twenty-two years older than the Swiss confederation.

The Basler Münster, though, has that one beat by at least two hundred years: it was consecrated in 1019 and still towers over the city thanks to its strategic location atop a bluff on the south bank of the Rhine. But that’s nothing compared with the ruins of a Roman colony in Augusta Raurica that the BPYO visited on Friday morning. That particular settlement was founded in 43 B.C.E.

Clearly, then, this place has seen a lot. Our time here is short, so we’ll only get to glean a fraction of its stories and circumstances. Even so, the beginning of our tour has been promising.

The big news is that everybody made it to Zürich on Thursday. What’s more, so did all our luggage and instruments. The last is no minor miracle: it hadn’t happened on the three previous tours I’ve accompanied.

Friday eased in to the business portion of our trip with the outing to the ruins (which included an amphitheater that brought back happy memories of the BPYO’s 2022 tour of Greece) and then the first musical activities of our expedition in the form of a Mahler rehearsal and a side-by-side with members of the Junge Sinfoniker Basel.

The former was vivifying. Benjamin Zander is, as we know, very alive to Mahler and the Fifth is one of his specialties. Perhaps as a result, Friday’s rehearsal was plenty energetic. Not only did the ensemble sound great but they clearly have grown more comfortable with this music since performing it at Symphony Hall last month: at one point they delivered the opening minutes of the first movement from memory.


BPYO cellists and guests enjoying Friday’s side-by-side.

The exchange was also enjoyable. Though Switzerland might not immediately come to mind as a mecca for orchestras, the country punches above its weight in that department: there are world-class ensembles in Zürich (the Tonhalle-Orchester) and Geneva (the Orchestre de la Suisse Romand), as well as excellent groups in Luzern (Luzerner Sinfonieorchester), Lausanne (Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne), Bern (Camerata Bern), and here in Basel (Sinfonieorchester Basel and Kammerorchester Basel).

The thirty or so members of the Junge Sinfoniker seemed right at home with the BPYO. They certainly were game for the intense, two-hour-long session that Ben pushed them through, rehearsing “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations and a good chunk of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.

All of that activity served as a good warmup for Saturday, which finally brought us to the first concert venue of the BPYO’s tour. What a find Basel’s Stadtcasino proved to be. The original building dates from 1876; its Musiksaal was the one in which Mahler led his Second Symphony in 1902. A picture of the First World Zionist Congress that was held in the space in 1897 suggests that the spot boasts basically the same size and layout now as then.

It’s always interesting to note how a hall transforms an ensemble’s sound, for good or ill. In the Musiksaal, the bright, airy resonance of the place acted like an x-ray on the BPYO’s ensemble: everything was exposed and to a degree not necessarily heard even at Symphony Hall. Accordingly, the morning’s rehearsal involved the group familiarizing itself with the room about as much as fine-tuning their Schumann and Mahler selections.

By the time the evening’s concert rolled around, it was clear those hours had been well spent.

Few people would likely argue that Schumann’s Cello Concerto is the flashiest vehicle in the canon. Though it’s no walk in the park, it offers fewer flights of bravura fancy to hide behind than, say, Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante or Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. The soloist needs to be a true musician who can convey what’s going on behind the notes, all the while navigating Schumann’s sometimes spastic changes of mood and occasionally disjunct lines of musical thought.


Zlatomir Fung performing Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor with the BPYO in Basel’s Stadtcasino.

Zlatomir Fung, who was making his Basel debut Saturday, certainly understands this. His reading of the Concerto was as remarkable for its clarity – the precision of his left hand is a thing unto itself – as for the dreamy, poetic depths it mined. Nowhere was this combination more breathtaking than in Zlatomir’s tender, songful account of the central “Langsam,” which combined almost unspeakably beautiful tonal production with quiet, edge-of-your-seat intensity.

The BPYO was in also fine fettle here. In the morning’s rehearsal, their playing in this unfamiliar hall took a little while to find its happy place. But, by concert time, all was resolved: the orchestra and Zlatomir were clearly listening and responding to one another and the latter’s slow-movement duets with principal cellist Sophia Knappe were spotlessly blended.

Similarly, Saturday’s Mahler Fifth crackled. Sure, there were a few moments in the finale where fatigue seemed to set in and every orchestra can aim for clearer textures and better balances the next time around.

But the night’s reading called to mind the best moments of the BPYO’s already impressive Mahler tradition: this group sounded like a bona-fide, Old World Mahler band. (They also looked like one, the first four or five stands of both violin sections swaying to the music like the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonic’s strings do.)

Ben’s current interpretation of the Fifth generally follows the pattern he recorded with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the ‘90s, though his phrasings are perhaps a bit more flexible now. He still likes for the tempos to move, though, and, on Saturday, they did. Yet the larger reading never lost sight of the big picture or the unforgettable, only-in-Mahler touches (like the soft cello section recitative in the middle of the second movement). Particularly notable was the great Adagietto, which unfolded with glowing warmth and shapeliness.

The audience, which followed the whole concert with the knowing concentration of the best European houses, responded vigorously. Ben eventually rewarded them with an encore of “Nimrod,” but first he recognized the contributions of longtime Boston Philharmonic and BPYO benefactor Hansjörg Wyss.

The Swiss native is a known quantity in Basel, where he serves as chair of the board for the city’s Fondation Beyeler. I only learned that fact later, which helped explain the conspicuously hearty applause he received in absentia from the crowd on Saturday.

Though the focus of our three days in Basel was primarily musical, there were a few breaks for the larger group to, as the Germans say, ein Spaziergang machen (“take a stroll”). There was much to see: in addition to all the old sights, Art Basel was in full swing, and the Union of European Football Association (UEFA) championships are underway.

By the time we headed out Saturday night to prepare to leave for Prague, Basel – or the little corner of it we’d been in – was just starting to feel familiar. So it goes with these things. Of course, the next time any of us are there, we can continue dipping into its story and unraveling its mysteries. But who knows when that will be? Happily, for both the Mahler and Schumann, we needn’t wait long: the BPYO’s date at the Rudolfinum fast approaches.



The audience response to Saturday’s Mahler Fifth in Basel.



Zlatomir Fung and Benjamin Zander post-concert on Saturday.

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