Amsterdam, The Netherlands


Dear Readers,

Greetings from steep Amsterdam! I say steep because, while the landscape here is relatively flat, (which is why the residents can get away with riding upright bicycles), most of the houses and buildings have narrow, dauntingly steep staircases (and few elevators) to take visitors to upper floors. The hotel we were staying in this time had such a steep ascent to the second and third floors that mountain goats would have felt at home. It nearly killed me on the first day, but quickly got my legs in shape! And good thing, too, because in my concerts this week in the Concertgebouw (Amsterdam’s famous concert venue), the conductor and I had to enter the hall twenty feet above the orchestra and descend to the stage in full view of the audience via several dozen steps. Because I’d had recent practice, the audience didn’t have to see me struggle up and down the stairs. On the last night, I think I actually ran.

This week was very memorable, musically speaking. It was the first time I’d worked with either the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam (called “the Concertgebouw” for short) or conductor Riccardo Chailly. Maestro Chailly has led the Concertgebouw for 14 years, and it shows. He and the orchestra work extremely well together, at least as far as I could see. The focus in rehearsals was purely on preparing the music well, and by the time of the concerts, everybody was ready to roll. In addition, Riccardo Chailly was somehow able to hear what I was about to do on stage, before I did it, and because of that, and the orchestra’s ability, the details all fell into place, right where they needed to be.

One thing was a particular treat for me this week: the concertmaster, Alex Kerr, is a former classmate of mine. He graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music – my alma mater – in 1992, two years after I entered, and I could remember watching him play in the Curtis orchestra. Back then, he seemed to be all grown-up (to my eyes) at the ripe old age of 22, and he remembered me as being a little squirt, at the age of 12. Now, ten years later, there he was, playing just off to my right as concertmaster of one of the world’s great orchestras, helping to shape the orchestral part of the Shostakovich… It was kind of exciting. But it made me wonder: if I’m 22 now, do I seem as grown-up to a 12-year-old as Alex used to seem to me? That’s a strange thought!

I should probably describe the hall a bit, since the Concertgebouw (Dutch for “Concert Hall”) is one of the most renowned performance spaces in Europe. It was built at the end of the 19th century, and it carries great style in its design – ornate in a tasteful way, decorated in cream, red, and gold. Its acoustics seemed wonderful from the audience’s point of view; and the orchestra seemed to have mastered the unexpected fact that in that hall, it is sometimes difficult to hear other sections of the orchestra on stage. Composers’ names – some well known, some less so – were gilded in the trim near the ceiling and on the fronts of the balconies. I looked for Shostakovich, but he wasn’t to be found (probably because he was born too late), though Stravinsky, Brahms, Beethoven, and Bach were present. So were the names of several Dutch composers.

Speaking of Dutch: I learned some Dutch language this week! It wasn’t so difficult for me to understand or read, since it’s an equal combination of German and English; but trying to pronounce it was another matter. The way the Dutch say their g’s is unlike anything else I’ve ever heard – very guttural, in the backs of the throats, sounding like a cross between a hiss, a gargle, and a growl. Nevertheless, I delivered my encore announcement in Dutch – g’s and all – and people seemed to understand it – maybe too well. A number of people tried to speak Dutch to me at the signing after the concerts, only to discover that the only Dutch I knew was my encore announcement!

After the last concert, one of the banks that sponsors the orchestra threw a huge party for its guests and employees in the lobby and in a ballroom in the corner of the building. A rock-and-roll band was playing loudly, and people were dancing, having loads of fun. I would’ve danced, too, if I were a little better dressed for it (I’d already changed out of my concert clothes). Afterwards, in the wee hours of the next morning, I slipped back into the concert hall and listened for a few minutes to pianist Mikael Pletnev preparing for his recital the following evening, then I had to leave to pack for my trip today. It was an evening of music and fun, one that won’t slip out of my mind anytime soon.

Yours from Amsterdam,

Hilary