Curtis Orchestra day-trips to Dresden with nervous anticipation of London

The Curtis Symphony Orchestra at rehearsal Wednesday in Dresden’s newly renovated Kulturpalast prior to its evening concert. (Photo: Oliver Killig)

DRESDEN, Germany –The prerehearsal announcements were sobering.

Often, such moments for touring musicians are about housekeeping matters, like taking better care of concert clothes and looking nattier onstage. But on Wednesday at the Kulturpalast here, Curtis Institute of Music’s dean of students and faculty, Paul Bryan, was looking ahead to London, where the 112-member Curtis Symphony Orchestra will fly Thursday on the next stop of its nine-city European tour – the orchestra’s first multi-city European sojourn since 1999.

“No travel alerts are keeping us from going there,” he began, while assuring the musicians that he had been in communication with the State Department as a result of this week’s fatal bombing of a concert venue in Manchester.

But with the city on high alert, he had a plethora of just-in-case suggestions. Travel in groups. If you don’t have a working cellphone, make sure you’re with somebody who does. Don’t walk down the street while on your phone. Be alert to your surroundings. And, in what may be more a matter of good manners than security, “don’t be the loud party in the back of the restaurant. Keep a low profile.”

Best to lay down those laws in the afternoon, when the players are fully alert. After a two-hour-plus bus ride from Berlin, the orchestra had about 45 minutes between arrival and rehearsal, which allowed some of the players to take a quick tour of one of Europe’s most ornate cities.

Others stayed behind and practiced, such as associate principal cellist Andres Sanchez, who said, “This is an Ein Heldenleben day.” For orchestral musicians, you need say no more. The most demanding piece on the touring program, Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben is the kind of piece that can’t lay dormant for even a few days without opening the door to unwanted in-performance consequences.

During a busy day crammed with bus rides, rehearsal, and 45 minutes of sightseeing, musicians from the Curtis Symphony Orchestra rehearse for their Dresden performance. (OLIVER KILLIG)

The hall was truly an unknown factor. The large, boxy, East Germany-era structure in the heart of Dresden, whose original cavernous interior felt more like an airplane hangar than a concert hall, reopened in late April after a full interior renovation, with attractive acoustics and “vineyard seating” resembling the famous Berlin Philharmonie. The orchestra is among the first to play the hall as part of the Dresdner Musikfestspiele, where various Curtis groups have been a presence in recent years. The big news, however, is that the famous European conductor Marek Janowski, who reportedly left the Dresden Philharmonic for lack of a good hall, happily returned only days ago. Now, the city has an alternative to the beloved but busy Semperoper opera house.

Osmo Vanska, the conductor of the Curtis tour, seized the occasion for a particularly detailed rehearsal with the musicians. Heldenleben had to get a little nastier. But for Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, religious imagery came into play for the second consecutive day. “We are at a church,” he said, “or whatever you consider your holiest place.” Pianist Peter Serkin also worked intensively with the orchestra for quieter, more subtle effects.

Pianist Peter Serkin and conductor Osmo Vanska confer during rehearsal in Dresden. (OLIVER KILLIG)

Everything paid off at the evening’s concert. The warm acoustics accommodated all of the details in the Brahms and were even more flattering to Serkin’s encore, the magical opening movement to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The hall also accommodated the Olympian orchestral workout of Ein Heldenleben. Two encores followed: Prokofiev’s march from The Love for Three Oranges and one of the fastest-ever versions of Bernstein’s Candide overture.

Among the many ovations, one of the strongest went to concertmaster Maria Ioudenitch for her solo in Ein Heldenleben.

After such a workout, plus the two-hour-plus bus ride back to Berlin, you might think the musicians would be a bit weary of touring. Seems not.

At a reception Tuesday night after the orchestra’s concert in Berlin, philanthropist and former board chair Nina von Maltzahn (who has made a $55 million gift to the Curtis endowment that aided the current tour) dropped a mini-bombshell: “I hope that in my lifetime I’ll see the orchestra touring every year.” Her regard for Curtis is deep, partly because she loves the one-on-one attention that the students receive from their teachers. Curtis on Tour is named in her honor – “The Nina von Maltzahn Global Touring Initiative.”

So what about that? In the middle of their long Dresden day, at least two of the musicians – violinists Timothy Chooi and Luosha Fang — caught their breath at the idea.

The benefits to them are numerous: “It’s important to learn how to play in other halls,” Fang said. Also important is gauging audience reactions, which are expressed differently from one country to another. A slow, steady clap in one city equals a standing ovation in another. Such benefits don’t stop after graduation. Both of them are alumni (Chooi graduated this May), called back for pieces such as Ein Heldenleben that require more players than the school presently has.

Chooi said annual tours would also be great for meeting contacts. Already, Curtis is a celebrity name in China – particularly thanks to graduates such as Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. Far East tours by the Curtis orchestra would raise the profile even more.

Then there’s the Vanska Question. With the tour going so well, and given his successful engagement three years ago with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, one can’t help but speculate that a Curtis faculty position could easily augment his North American commitment to the Minnesota Orchestra. Vanska deflected by laughing. “We’ll speak about that later after the tour.”

Then he added, “Just kidding!”

David Patrick Stearns is touring this week with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra in Europe. On Thursday, the ensemble crosses the channel to London where they’re slated to perform Friday at Cadogan Hall. He will rendezvous next week with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra on the Mongolian leg of the Philadelphians’ Asian tour.