Very Nice Places to Work


Dear Readers,

My shoe got stuck in a crack in the stage last night. Not for long, not badly stuck, but just long enough that I wondered what would have happened had I not been able to yank myself free in the course of a single stride. A collision? A crash? A comedic moment? I’m not wearing stilettos these days, and for that, especially in sticky moments, I am glad.

Several common concert hall features make it clear that most venues were not designed by women. One is the aforementioned width of the cracks between joints of the stage (ideal for swallowing heels). Another is the location of certain structural gaps and hidden vents in the stage, which can emit strong breezes that inflate skirts like balloons. Also, nearly every time I try to do my makeup or hair backstage, it is difficult to make use of the mirror – either it is held at a distance by a table or sink, or the lighting is unfavorable, or the mirror tops out beneath my shoulders.

But I’m not complaining. The venues are truly wonderful here in the world of classical music. The audience sits in comfortable seats in a setting designed for acoustic performance, the floors are clean, the temperature is regulated, the dressing rooms are decently sized, the deadbolts work, and the staff is helpful. There is room to practice. There are electrical outlets in the walls and private bathrooms for the performers. Concert halls are very nice places to go to work.

Often, especially in Europe, the halls are located in the center of town, surrounded by restaurants, plazas, and stores. This is the case in Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, where I played last night. The concert hall is connected to a small mall, next to a main square, and at night, when it is time for the locals to party, they gather in the neighboring bars and restaurants and stroll down the surrounding streets with their friends, speaking, shouting, laughing, or singing. I certainly noticed this last night, the eve of Queen’s Day, the celebration of the Queen’s birthday (which, as I understand it, is in January).

The crowd reminded me of one that has just been let out of a stadium after an exciting game. The hubbub and waves of people had a momentum all their own. A couple of very enthusiastic men stopped to have a loud, jovial, inebriated conversation with my taciturn, disengaged, sober taxi driver. Tall women careened down the sidewalk. Scents – fried food, perfumes, beer breath – hovered in the air. People talked over each other and over music pounding from oversized speakers somewhere in the near distance. And apparently, the party had only just begun.

Every week I travel, there’s at least one thing that mystifies me. Yesterday, it was a tendency to turn everyday acquisitions into gifts: in a well stocked but normal kitchen store, for example, people were buying everything from whisks to potholders and water filters, with every single purchase being, at the request of the customer, gift wrapped. I bought a very ordinary small travel appliance myself. The clerk asked if it was a gift, and I had the impression she expected me to say yes. But why? Do people give each other presents for Queen’s Day? Do they send kitchen knickknacks to the Queen? Or is it a general thing: do the Dutch believe it’s bad luck to buy their own kitchen supplies? Do they do their Christmas shopping in the middle of the fourth week of April? Or does everyone get married in May? I may never know.

I was in Eindhoven to start a tour with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and conductor Ivan Fisher. I’m excited about this tour. For one thing, the BFO and Ivan were the first people I ever worked with outside of the United States; they invited me to Budapest when I was thirteen, to play the Bernstein Serenade in an American music festival. I remember the chocolate pudding I was treated to during a rehearsal break, the process of an orchestra learning such an unusual and complex piece (one step: Ivan saw my gigantic metronome lying idle on a seat during rehearsal and plugged it into a set of speakers!), the audience’s thrilled reaction to the work, the beautiful concert hall in the Liszt Academy, and the cloud of cigarette smoke in every hallway of nearly every building.

Also, a soccer game in the countryside – BFO vs BFO, the concertmaster’s bloody arm, arguments over plays, Ivan in the middle of it with the best of them, and the Romani horse trainer in the background – and afterwards, the most enormous pot of goulash I will ever see, and being amazed that people actually ate the hunks of animal fat floating in the soup. This time, of course, the context is different. We are, for the touring portion of this engagement, out of their hometown, I’m more than twice the age I was when we met, and we’re playing a Mozart concerto. It’s been a long time since we all worked together. There are some new faces in the orchestra. But still, it feels familiar.

I’m also glad to be playing Mozart again. You might recall that I made a Mozart sonata recording a few years back and performed Mozart’s Concerto #3 for the Pope’s birthday. I’ve found that every time I play even a phrase by Mozart, it makes me actively happy. This is difficult to explain, because – considering that, no matter what the repertoire, I love performing, I’m pretty much always happy onstage, and music in general resonates positively with me – this particular Mozart feeling is more of a nuance than a novelty. I should also note that, contrary to the composer’s popular reputation, much of Mozart’s music has a dark undercurrent, and the themes are not always upbeat.

At any rate, I’m not sure why this occurs, but it seems infallible. That’s what made those sonata recording sessions some of the most enjoyable I’ve experienced, and that’s what makes performances of Mozart so energizing for me. It’s wonderfully fun. And at this time in the concert season, when I’ve been on the road for a while and juggling so much repertoire, as I complete many of the projects and performances that were ahead of me, I feel like this music lifts a weight off of my shoulders. Ivan, too, is great to work with; the way his approach meshes with mine onstage is so natural in this repertoire that he might have a window into my brain.

One further note about Mozart 5: when I first met Ivan, when I was 12, after a rehearsal of his with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, this is the piece that I played. He sang along onstage, illustrating the orchestral line, and I was grateful that he took the time to interact with me and give me some advice.

Now I’m in Antwerp. I was surprised how short a trip it was from Eindhoven. After all of the traveling I’ve done, I am still astounded when two sizeable cities in two separate countries are only an hour’s drive from each other.

Yours from the road,
Hilary