One of the 97 musicians currently on tour in Europe shares their experiencs from the Orchestra’s first entire rehearsal period abroad.

That’s a big coffin!” “Now I bet you wished you played piccolo!” For me, the Australian Youth Orchestra’s 22nd International Tour began trying to elegantly parade through domestic airports guiding a double bass in its flight case at the front, dragging a suitcase behind and with a bow case slung across my back – a look that always receives plenty of comments from passers by, to which I acknowledge with a sly grin and a slight head nod.

Musicians gathered in Melbourne for a quick tour briefing where there was much excitement as reunions were embraced. What followed can be collectively considered as a blurry commute where days folded into each other, sunrise and sunset were ambiguous as we crossed time zones, and fresh air was scarce. Two flights, one cross country coach ride (plus a flat tyre!) then ensued, amassing 34 hours of travel until we arrived in the quaint town of Ede, Netherlands. Many musicians joined us from Europe, where they were either travelling, living or studying. In total, we were a force of 97 musicians.

Akoesticum Performing Arts Training Centre. All photos © Oliver Brighton

This was the first time the AYO has had their rehearsal period entirely outside of Australia; and the Akoesticum Performing Arts Training Centre was the perfect place. Initially constructed as a military academy in 1906, this now turned performing arts centre has 12 rehearsal rooms and 56 hotel rooms, plus all the necessary facilities for musicians to unwind and enjoy themselves after long days of rehearsing. To me, the parallel between a military academy and an orchestra is uncanny. We are all there for one another, we play for each other and forge strong bonds of camaraderie.

To help us settle in and overcome our jetlag, our first day was a free day – many musicians took the train out to nearby cities in the Netherlands including Amsterdam, Utrecht and Arnhem. When the first rehearsal came around, a lapse of four days had clocked by without any music making; it felt like an electrified force field once we stepped foot into our rehearsal space. Anticipation had built up and soon erupted as Associate Tour Maestro Fabian Russell ignited the spark through Mahler. If this first read-through was any indication of how we would sound once concert season started, the tour was bound to be special.

During the rehearsal period we were fortunate to be nurtured by an all-star cast of tutors, many of whom are AYO alumni and are currently working in some of the world class orchestras across Europe. These tutors started out just like us. The relationships that quickly blossomed between mentors and students reminded me how fortunate we are to have the AYO providing aspiring young professionals with such opportunities. By day we soaked up the words of wisdom during section tutorials and by night we listened to their insightful stories and invaluable career advice.

As time flowed by, there was plenty of opportunity to relax and unwind. Perfectly situated near the heart of the forest, every opportunity was seized to get in touch with nature; whether it be an energetic run, brisk walk or cathartic traipse. With this gorgeous landscape, it was not hard to channel Mahler and the seven octave spread of As that open his First Symphony.

Each day, we delved deep into the music, accessing the minds and emotions of Gustav Mahler, Antonín Dvořák, Johannes Brahms and Maurice Ravel. Mahler’s First Symphony takes us an emotional journey from the awakening of nature at first dawn, to a flowering chapter followed by a solemn funeral march and an extremely overt expression of a wounded heart. Dvořák’s Symphony No 9, From the New World, is always thoroughly enjoyed as a symphony of melodies and it didn’t take long for everyone to hum, whistle and sing these tunes as we wandered around AkoesticumRecognised as a sentimental work which recalls the Bohemian countryside, feelings of Dvořák’s homesickness are tossed about – running parallel with feelings of my own.

Enter, Maestro Manfred Honeck. The hushed silence that accompanied his entrance sent goosebumps down my spine, and with a glance across the orchestra, eyes widened and mouths gaped. At the drop of his baton, we kicked into gear, responding to his expressive gestures and movements. Learning at the elbow of a master was incredible. Every insightful detail and nugget of wisdom he imparted dramatically changed our orchestra’s sound – each instrumental group combined to produce a vivid tapestry of colour. Each rehearsal led me to a deeper respect and admiration towards my peers. I’m constantly in awe of the standard of the music we are making. Being immersed in this setting, day in, day out, continues to inspire me.

Manfred Honeck conducts the Australian Youth Orchestra

Our residency at Akoesticum has now come to an end, and we depart with the staff as familiar faces. We hit the road and made our way to Bad Kissingen, Germany. Called BK by the locals, the city impressed us all; from the thick green plains, to intimate laneways and picture-book architecture. Bonus feature for the orchestra was a beach inspired relaxation garden adjacent to the concert hall which overlooked the river. What a way to feel at home with sand between the toes!

We were joined in Bad Kissingen by our tour soloist Hélène Grimaud. Being granted the opportunity to work with Hélène has been incredible. Not only is she a deeply committed and passionate pianist, but such a relatable fellow human being. As they say, ‘musicianship is caught, not taught.’ Combined with Maestro Honeck, these two musicians’ artistry has certainly been catching.

Hélène Grimaud, Manfred Honeck and the Australian Youth Orchestra

13 days in Bad Kissingen later, the day finally arrived where we commenced our touring concert season. 97 musicians and 2 musical titans assumed their positions onstage. Take a bow, Maestro Honeck – actually, take 10 bows. A thunderous reception that lasted 8 minutes was a clear indication of how the performance was received. This was my first time onstage in Europe – a place where Western art music is so widely appreciated and intertwined into the everyday culture. Watching Maestro Honeck walk on and off stage in such close proximity, was a real highlight for me. His smile grew larger and larger as he stood up members of the orchestra to take a bow. Being able to work with such a passionate musician and observing how much he cares about music making and educating the youth of today has enriched this experience exponentially.

Now we embrace and prepare the way for our next stop, Wiesbaden. We will perform four concerts over the next six days. Our swift check-in/check-out, packing and coach napping skills will be refined over the next week – all equally important to instrumental practice for a tour of this proportion.

Signing off,
Double Bass, Australian Youth Orchestra