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


Jonathan Blumhofer
Articles — June 28, 2024

All good things, the adage tells us, come to an end. Even orchestra tours. Bittersweet though this truth is, at least the BPYO got to wrap up its two-week sojourn in the city Mark Twain once dubbed “the Chicago of Europe.”

Berlin’s been through a lot since Twain’s visit in 1892, but in some respects it now far exceeds its sister metropolis. Certainly, for cleanliness, efficient public transportation, and safety, the Windy City might these days only aspire to become “the Berlin of America.” Boston, too, for that matter.

That the German capital has turned out so well is impressive, given its tumultuous last hundred-plus years. Left in ruins at the end of World War 2 and then split between Eastern and Western zones of occupation, the rebuilt, reunified conurbation is a sprawling amalgamation of old, new, and what we might call post-war drab. As a result, it lacks the magic of Prague and the beauty of Vienna. Instead, Berlin presents more of a quirky, functional disposition.


The inscription “the German People” above the entrance to the Reichstag. It was installed in 1916 by the foundry of Albert and Siegfried Loevy, assimilated German Jews whose families, a plaque on the front of the building notes, were later murdered by the Nazis at Plötzensee, Theresienstadt, and Auschwitz.

Not that it lacks for charm. Unter den Linden, the city’s major artery, is bracketed at one end by the Brandenburg Gate and, at the other, by the incredible Berliner Dom. Though it hasn’t got the elegance of the Champs Elysées, its sheer spaciousness (plus the imposing palaces, museums, and concert halls lining it) lends the central boulevard of this great Hauptstadt a fitting grandeur.

So, in its own way, does the Reichstag building. Though regularly associated with the Third Reich, all that remains of the structure from the Hitler era is its façade (which was patched up after the war). The interior is entirely new and capped by a magnificent glass dome that provides sweeping vistas of the city: Alexanderplatz to the East, the enormous Tiergarten to the West, Potsdamer Platz to the south.

In a sense, the structure itself is an idealized, microcosmic representation of Germany, old without, renewed within. Or so one hopes, though far-right political parties have lately made inroads here for the first time in generations.

Even so, today, Berlin is a city in which history and memory very much collide.

Though the effort has been belated and sometimes grudging, there is no shortage of public reckonings about what happened during the years between 1933 and 1945. The most striking of these is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe that’s situated a stone’s throw from the Reichstag. Taking up nearly five acres, its assortment of 2700 nameless steles functions as a stark, sobering, and deeply affecting memorial to the victims of Nazi hate – as well as a physical reminder about how quickly actions can spiral out of control: the center of the memorial descends into a valley. One begins on the fringes, standing above the stones, but, walking through the space, quickly ends up dwarfed by them.


Unter den Linden in Berlin. The pink façade of the Staatsoper, which was founded in 1743, saw the premiere of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in 1925, and counts Giacomo Meyerbeer, Richard Strauss, Erich Kleiber, Herbert von Karajan, and Daniel Barenboim among its musical directors, is to the left.

More subtle are the Stolpersteine that mark the former dwellings of Jews murdered by the Nazi regime. We’ve seen these “stumbling stones” in Hamburg, Prague, and Vienna already: their metallic luster sets them apart from the surrounding cobbles. Berlin, though, has an outsize number of them; Benjamin Zander’s grandmother, who died at Auschwitz, is acknowledged on one.

Another memorial to those dark years – but of a rather more hopeful type – is the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche. Consecrated in 1905 and named after the first emperor of the Second German Reich, the building was heavily damaged during World War 2. After the conflagration, its iconic steeple was left in its damaged condition and the ruined sanctuary repurposed as a place for reconciliation and peace.

The old Philharmonie – the one Hans von Bülow, Arthur Nikisch, and Wilhelm Furtwängler conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in – was similarly reduced to rubble. When the time came to rebuild, the orchestra went in a very different architectural direction than before.

Opened in 1963, the new Philharmonie, where the BPYO gave its final tour concert Tuesday night, screams mid-century chic. The curvaceous, wave-like exterior alternates textured gold panels and white stucco, its lines perhaps anticipating the ethos, if not quite the style, of Frank Gehry. Inside, the public areas spread chaotically across multiple levels, all of which open onto outdoor terraces.

One of the special characteristics of the Philharmonie is that, unique among any major concert hall I’ve ever been to, it’s surrounded by a lawn. This, in turn, reflects a commendable enthusiasm among Berliners for green spaces. The Tiergarten’s only the most expansive of those; smaller parks and trails are sprinkled throughout the city.

Perhaps the most unique one is the Tempelhofer Feld. When the historic airport was closed in 2008, the city opted to convert it into a public park. Today, you can have a picnic on the tarmac, jog or stroll its runways, or play a game of ultimate frisbee on one or more of its lawns. When I visited early Wednesday morning, it was already bustling with bikers, runners, roller bladers, and dog walkers.


A Stolperstein in Prague.

That’s the thing about Berlin: it teems with energy – perhaps not always so carefree or exuberant as the ebullient Rondo-Finale of Mahler’s Fifth, but there’s a pulsing life to the place that’s unique to the five cities we’ve visited.

Unfortunately, though, our time in this fascinating town was exceedingly short, less than forty hours from arrival to departure for about half of our group. Yet, I think, to a person, we found that the hum of life in Berlin was an easy thing to tap into; there’s something familiar and comfortable about its aura. Fittingly, the BPYO’s concert at the Philharmonie was grounded in the last.

As was the case with every city we visited, Mahler’s long been a known quantity in Berlin. He conducted here with some frequency during his lifetime and many of his greatest early champions and advocates – like Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, and Arnold Schoenberg – had strong ties to the city. More recently, the Berlin Philharmonic was led by two great Mahler conductors in Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle.

So it was right that Ben (who Rattle, on a previous BPYO visit to the Philharmonie, labeled “the world’s oldest teenager”) and the orchestra had the chance to present the final outing of this year’s Mahler in that hall. To be sure, the Philharmonie sounded different from every place before it. Gone was the golden luster of Vienna and the warmth of Prague. Instead, there was a bracing clarity not unlike what we had in Hamburg – though the Berlin acoustic was, to my ears at least, drier and fresher.

Regardless, Tuesday’s rendition of the Fifth was a true culmination of the orchestra’s experience with this music. As in Vienna, their sense of Mahlerian style was fully intact; again, the Scherzo tripped and the finale sparkled. The last, in fact, was masterfully done, its rhythms snapping and huge dynamic range discreetly shaped.

Ben drew out the kaleidoscopic colors of it all – the first movement’s surging exclamations; the second’s spastic shifts of mood; the Adagietto’s soaring, warm lyricism – with knowing focus. His larger approach to the piece exhibited its usual flexibility of phrasing, breathing, this last time around, with invigorating rightness. To be sure, Tuesday’s was edge-of-your-seat Mahler from start to finish. If you missed it, you’re in luck: the performance was recorded and videotaped by the team that manages the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall for future release.

Zlatomir Fung’s fifth and final Schumann was likewise engaging. Though the same, slightly-too-big ensemble of previous nights still accompanied him, their attention to detail on the Philharmonie’s stage was nothing less than expert. Every note Zlatomir played emerged pristinely. And, at last, the orchestra functioned as the lithe dialoguing partner it had been aiming to become all tour long.


The Berlin Philharmonie.

Afterwards, Zlatomir provided a Bach encore and, to wrap the BPYO’s 2023-24 season, Ben led the orchestra in a final round of “Nimrod.” After that, amid many tears and pictures, the full house kept roaring its approval. Berlin audiences, which have seven professional orchestras and three opera companies to keep them occupied, are not known for frivolous ovations – yet, like the horde in Vienna on Sunday, the 2000+ in the Philharmonie didn’t seem to want the evening to end.

Neither did we, though, like all things, it eventually did. Backstage was crowded with lots of BPYO friends, including former Berlin Philharmonic concertmaster Guy Braunstein (who actually joined the orchestra for the Mahler, anchoring the back of the first violin section) and conductor Rafael Payare, who was there with his wife, cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Those who’ve been with BPYO from the beginning will remember that the couple performed on the first-ever BPYO concert at Symphony Hall in 2012.

Then it was off to a final, celebratory tour dinner and our usual last meeting of the trip where the behind-the-scenes crew traditionally gets acknowledged.

One of the notable things about these undertakings is the consistently high quality of the BPYO tour staff, which this year had a few new faces. Chaperones Derek Beckvold, Jen and Todd Mabray, Deb and Sasha Ramsay, and Loralyn Christensen ensured that none of our 100+ were left behind on any trains, planes, or buses, or in any airports, transportation depots, or hotels.

Marie Svoboda, Harold Rivas, and Alfonso Piacentini managed stage setups and breakdowns in five different halls with very different sets of rules with professionalism and spirit. Paul Mardy, our photographer, coolly navigated similar strictures in each venue; the excellence of his work this trip speaks for itself. Meantime, Peter and Maryanne Sheckman were our intrepid medical team, attending to any and all health concerns with wisdom and understanding.


Benjamin Zander conducting the BPYO in the Philharmonie.

Mark Churchill, Lauren Radnofsky, and Bob Jordon functioned as the well-oiled machine that helped keep Ben going and ensured that he got where he needed to be. Meanwhile, Classical Movements’ Johan van Zyl and his team of guides led the rest of us from Point A to Point B and beyond with patience and good humor.

Presiding over all of this was BPYO managing director Elisabeth Christensen, whose command of all the details, as always, was second-to-none. What made this tour particularly poignant is the fact that, after we return to Boston, Elisabeth is wrapping up her time with the BPYO (and Boston Phil) to become the Chief Operating Officer of Classical Movements.

Her centrality to the organization is hard to overstate. She has been like a rock for the BPYO, managing every hiccup and detail that needs to be followed up on, both on tour and in Boston, tirelessly and with seemingly endless reservoirs of forbearance. Her departure marks a sea change for the institution. Derek Beckvold, who will take her post in July, might do well to adapt Thomas Jefferson’s comment about following Benjamin Franklin as the American minister to France: “I am only her successor; no one can replace her.”

Neither can anyone replace Ben, who, at 85, remains the BPYO’s intellectual, musical, and philosophical mainstay. While all tours are special, this one seemed to have unique significance for him. It can, I think, partly be read as a celebration of his big birthday earlier this year.

But, more significantly, it seemed to represent a new sense of purpose to his teaching and conducting. As he and I discussed several times during the trip, he’s at the point in his life where his primary ambition is to pass on the traditions handed down to him to the next generation. Especially when it comes to the music of Mahler, few conductors have his combination of experience and understanding. And there’s simply no better place to fully come to grips with this fare than in Europe.

Ben’s got a wonderful sense of history and is a real respecter of places, so it’s no surprise that he was fully in his element visiting each stop on our tour. In fact, in the four trips I’ve gotten to go on with him and the orchestra, I don’t think I’ve seen him so consistently thrilled to be in each new locale and venue; he radiated joy and musical purpose throughout our travels and that proved contagious.


Schalltrichter auf! The BPYO playing Mahler.

What was also touching was his personal connection to several of the cities we came to, especially Berlin. As Ben noted to the Philharmonie audience on Tuesday, had the political situation been different in the 1930s, he would have been born there. At one point he choked up imagining how proud his parents might have been to see their son leading his youth orchestra on the stage of the Philharmonie – after which there were few dry eyes left in the house.

What is one to make of all this, then? Two weeks, five concerts, one program, 10,000 miles travelled (give or take), audiences in excess of 8000, and countless memories made. By about any measure, this was a great tour, an unforgettable experience, and a lot of fun.

Musically, it was rewarding on multiple levels.

The halls the BPYO played in were special in and of themselves. In fact, as far as our five venues went, this wasn’t a youth orchestra tour at all; those type ensembles don’t play in such spaces. Even some professional groups don’t make it to the Musikverein or the Elbphilharmonie. Yet each performance these young musicians delivered lived up to the standard of the building in which they were appearing.

Even more than that, to travel around Europe listening to Zlatomir play Schumann was both a joy and a revelation. He’s an artist whose astonishing technique is matched by a mind that’s always willing to seek out fresh musical paths and, off-stage, a personality of enormous generosity that’s fully reflected in his playing on it.

Before this tour, I’d never been particularly taken with the Schumann Cello Concerto (“It’s a hard piece to sell to an audience,” Mark Churchill, himself a cellist, conceded). By the end of it, though, Zlatomir had made a convert of me. There was an Orpheus-taming-the-Furies quality to the music that really emerged in the interactions between cello and orchestra in Berlin, and, for sheer beauty and simplicity, his playing of the central slow movement was, night-in and night-out, pristine.

Ben’s take on the Mahler Fifth was likewise terrific. There are countless recordings of the piece, some better than others. But even the most high-profile of those – say Bernstein’s, Abbado’s, Tennstedt’s, or Tilson Thomas’s – don’t always capture the sheer thrills that Ben drew from the BPYO in it. (“We heard Dudamel conducting Mahler [Symphony No. 6] with the Berlin Philharmonic last week,” a patron told me after the BPYO’s final concert. “It was good – but nowhere near as exciting as this.”)


Benjamin Zander and the BPYO reach a summit in Mahler’s Fifth.

The Fifth, of course, is music of hardship, sadness, and suffering. But it also expresses love, joy, wonder, and mystery. If not so universal in scope as the “Resurrection” Symphony the orchestra took to South Africa last year, it still embraces a world all its own and offers at least a few morals.

One of them involves overcoming challenges. To adapt John F. Kennedy’s great American University speech from 1963, the Symphony’s musical problems are both man-made (or, more specifically, Mahler-made) and solved by man (aka Mahler). Sometimes that’s achieved through a kind of musical combat, sometimes by leaving things behind, sometimes by perseverance. Ultimately, there’s transformation but, interestingly, that only comes through the prism of love.

Ben holds that the Adagietto is Mahler’s great love letter to his future wife, Alma, and there’s ample evidence to support that claim. At the same time, there are more than a few similarities between some of the movement’s turns of phrase and things we hear in the greatest of Mahler’s songs, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” which was written around the same time but isn’t about romantic attachment.

What I’d contend is that the idea of love in the Fifth can be understood more broadly than Eros; the Adagietto’s larger point seems to be vulnerability and sensitivity to someone – or something(s) – greater than oneself. On some level or other, then, it’s about humility and sacrifice. Only once that’s understood is the metamorphosis of the finale finally achieved.

Or, as Ben put it after the BPYO’s first performance in Basel, “Joy and creativity are available for all of us if we have the vision, energy, and daring to reach out and go for it.”

The other great takeaway of our time in Europe was the utterly warm welcome the orchestra received everywhere it went. European audiences, as I noted earlier, are, generally, serious and knowledgeable. They listen, sometimes with an uncomfortable intensity.

But they also respond to what they hear better than any others. Each of the BPYO’s concerts was received the same way: with robust enthusiasm and hearty cheers. In fact, the orchestra’s reception in the last two stops – Vienna and Berlin, arguably the most intimidating places for any ensemble to perform this music in – was overwhelming and the applause may have gone on even longer than they did, had the players not started leaving the stage after ten minutes.

Being among such crowds was inspiring and refreshing. So was walking the streets of these cities, which, for the historically minded among us (or simply the intellectually aware and curious), provided a sense of perspective and history that was oftentimes humbling and moving.

The overall experience called to mind, in fact, more Twain, who had particularly strong ideas about the benefits of travel, particularly for his fellow countrymen. “It does [Americans] good,” he offered in a timeless, late-1860s lecture, to see the world. “It rubs out a multitude of [their] old unworthy biases and prejudices…it enlarges [their] charity and…benevolence, it broadens [their] views of men and things…

“Contact with men of various nations and many creeds teaches [them] that there are other people in the world besides [their] own little clique, and other opinions as worthy of attention and respect as [their] own. [They find] that [they] are not the most momentous matters in the universe. Cast into trouble and misfortune in strange lands and being mercifully cared for by those [they] never saw before, [they begin] to learn that best lesson of all…that the world is not a cold, harsh, cruel, prison-house, stocked with all manner of selfishness and hate and wickedness.”

This is precisely the sort of understanding our world needs more of today and we had plenty of opportunity to learn some of those lessons during our two weeks in Europe. We saw it in the shining eyes of the thousands upon thousands we encountered in concerts, exchanges, and during other group activities. We learned it interacting with locals and hearing the stories of guides as we wandered the streets of Basel, Prague, Hamburg, Vienna, and Berlin. We tasted it in meal after meal of hearty Central European cuisine our number enthusiastically devoured.

Most importantly, we felt it time and again in those ineffable, quasi-spiritual moments of connection that seem to only emerge through music. Nothing, Ben likes to say, brings people together better than music. As Hugo von Hoffmanstahl put it in the libretto of Die Frau ohne Schatten, “So ist es gesprochen, und so geschiet es” – so it is said and so, during our incredible fortnight abroad, it proved to be.



The Philharmonie audience applauding the BPYO’s performance on Tuesday.



Zlatomir Fung playing Schumann’s Cello Concerto in Berlin.



Benjamin Zander and Guy Braunstein reuniting on the stage of the Philharmonie.

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