European Orchestra Festival

[From IAYO Newsnotes, September 2015]

The 10th European Orchestra Festival took place in June of this year in the beautiful and sunny city of Cremona in Northern Italy. The Festival is run by the European Orchestra Federation (EOFed) in conjunction with local partners (usually the national associations for youth and amateur orchestras) and happens every three years in locations around Europe although, in 2015, it happened with cooperation from local orchestras in Cremona and part of its aim was the establishment of an Italian amateur orchestra association.

The Festival was originally held for amateur orchestras only but, since 2009, youth orchestras have become more and more involved. In that year, the European Association of Amateur Orchestras (Europäische Vereinigung von Liebhaberorchestern) and the European Association of Youth Orchestras merged to form EOFed. It is the case in many European countries that youth orchestras come under the umbrella of the amateur orchestra associations and it was felt that the international association would have a bigger voice if representing both. (You can read more about what EOFed do and what they are involved in at www.eofed.org).

The original idea for the European Orchestra Festival came from Käthi Engel Pignolo and René Pignolo of the Swiss association, Eidgenössische Orchesterverband, and is more than a festival where orchestras come and perform for each other. An integral part of the proceedings are the ‘workshop orchestras’ in a variety of genres and sizes. In attending the Festival, it is most desirable that full orchestras attend but there are also quite a number of individual musicians or small groups attending that are particularly helpful in filling out the gaps in rare-breed instruments. In advance of arriving at the Festival, all players choose which workshops they would like to take part in, ranging from Baroque to Contemporary in various orchestra sizes and formats with options to take part in improvisatory ensembles, the composition of new music in a workshop process or in groups to play the traditional music of the host country. The players will take part in four three-hour rehearsals and a performance with their workshop orchestra in addition to rehearsing and performing one or more concerts with their own orchestra. This gives a great opportunity for musicians from different orchestras and different countries to rehearse and perform together and to create new friendships with like-minded people from across the continent. Each Festival is very different, given the different locations, orchestras and the local partners in organising the event. I have been to three thus far, in The Netherlands in 2009, Estonia in 2012 and, this year, in Italy and each has had its own unique atmosphere and, presumably, its own set of challenges for the organisers also.

Cremona is a wonderful choice of venue for the Festival given that the city is beautiful, the weather is incredible and the city is small enough such that all the accommodation, rehearsal spaces and concert venues were within walking distance of each other. As a Board Member and Treasurer of EOFed, my place at the Festival is to observe as much as possible of what is going on to bring knowledge to the EOFed Board and also back to my own work in Ireland. Due to the most inconvenient timing of direct flights from Cork to Milan, which is just 100k north of Cremona, I end up having to travel to Cremona two days before our Board meeting and I have a full day off to myself to do as I please. I decide the best thing to do is to go exploring the city using the festival programme and get to know the venues and work out how I will get to see and hear as much of the Festival as possible. I check in at the Festival office with Daniel Kellerhals (President of EOFed and chief organiser of this Festival) and Tommaso Napoli (President of the AIMA amateur orchestra in Cremona and the local partner in the Festival). It is a hive of activity with more than twenty volunteers for the Festival busy at work packing the 700 bags for participants with Festival programmes, local information, discount vouchers etc. I offer my services, which are declined as all is in hand, get myself a copy of the programme and head off to find my way around Cremona.

At first, the city is a bit confusing with lots of narrow streets but I manage to orient myself with the Festival map and make my way around to all of the rehearsal venues and performance spaces. I can’t get into them all but at least I will know where I am going over the four days of the Festival which is a good start. I am struck by the oldness of so many things in Cremona. It contrasts with the previous festival in Tallinn in 2012 which had an entirely different sense of history about it. The old city of Tallinn still maintains much of the town centre from Tallinn’s days as a trading city of the Hanseatic League, but the outskirts have a much more recent history to show off Soviet occupation and a country that has seen very big changes in its recent past. Cremona, by contrast, has the very old and the very modern side by side. There is plenty of cracked and crumbling stone in the old buildings but they are part of the long history and the whole city gives a sense of being very well maintained.

The streets are very narrow but that is, of course, because all the old buildings have courtyards within them – the outside space that is used by people is within the walls of the homes and apartments, blissfully shaded on the days when it is too hot to be out in the sunshine. I see into many of the courtyards through the open gates and they are oases of peace and tranquillity. The old city itself is very quiet as there are heavy restrictions on vehicles allowed to be here. It is nothing like the traffic chaos that the world associates with the large Italian cities. A brief walk around the vicinity of the rail station in Milan, in contrast, had cars and busses travelling in all directions, horns beeping and motorinos driving across the footpaths. In Cremona, it is far more sedate, fitting for a city that has more luthiers per square foot than anywhere else on the planet. It was, of course, the home of Stradivarius and has a very long history of violin making and is, I am told by some violin-making students, a very quiet city most of the time. Time out on the town consists of lots of discussion about the qualities of various parts of violins and how to get them to make the most beautiful sound.

Cremona was also the birthplace of Claudio Monteverdi who lived and studied there and was maestro di cappella at the Cathedral of Cremona, so the city has a long and venerable music history – a fitting place to hold a European Orchestra Festival. The rehearsal venues for the workshop orchestras are a mixed bunch, given that the city boasts just under 70,000 inhabitants and getting access to ten suitable spaces was, no doubt, difficult. Some orchestras were purely spoiled, working in historic buildings and churches with height and space and light and steeped in history. A couple were not so lucky, being in modern rooms in conference centres that were just a little bit too small for the amount of people rehearsing in them. The ‘Italian Baroque A’ workshop was held in the Fondazione Città di Cremona playing music by Corelli and Vivaldi and in a room lined with large Baroque paintings by Bartolomeo Bersani. The ‘Classical A’ orchestra rehearsed Schubert ‘Unfinished’ in the Renaissance Palazzo Fodri in a beautiful bright room complete with suits of armour. The ‘Classical B’ and ‘Contemporary 1’ orchestras were not quite so lucky, however, being in the conference rooms of two of the local hotels, modern and lacking in that same sense of beauty and history.

All-in-all, there were ten workshop orchestras accommodating the 700 participants, minders and observers. These comprised two each of Italian Baroque, Classical and Romantic, a ‘World Outside the Music Stand’ orchestra that was largely improvised and ‘riff-based’, an ‘Italian traditional’ orchestra that played a selection of opera overtures and arias – because they are the Italian tradition. Finally, there were two orchestras preparing contemporary works, one of which was commissioned specially for the Festival. The conductors of the orchestras were all well accomplished in their own fields, some of them being also conductors of the attending orchestras. Like the orchestras themselves, they hailed from all across the continent and gathered in Cremona for the Festival.

The orchestras started arriving on the evening of Wednesday 3rd June as I settled into the light formality of the EOFed Board meeting and we received reports from our colleagues around the continent. There is a certain amount of, ‘It’s the same all over’, in orchestral circles at present as politics continent-wide seems to have taken a step to the right and funding for music in all spheres has declined. We in Ireland have been lucky, in a way, in that we didn’t have that much funded infrastructure to lose as part of our recession and interest and involvement in amateur and youth music making have actually increased over the last number of years.

By Thursday morning, the small city seemed to have been invaded by instrument-toting musicians, many probably a bit unsure as to whether it was safe or not to leave their instruments unattended. By two o’clock, I am on my journeys to see and hear as much as possible. I have already accepted that I won’t get to hear the end results of every workshop as some of the concerts clash but I will try to get a look in on all of the orchestras as I go.

Workshop 1A, Italian Baroque is the aforementioned rehearsals of Vivaldi and Corelli in the Fondazione Città di Cremona under the baton of Mario Gioventù, an Italian conductor as you might guess from the name. The room, in a beautiful old building complete with shaded courtyard, is lined with large biblical paintings as the mixed-aged players gather, tune and prepare to play. Young players in this orchestra outnumber the adults by about two-to-one and I wonder has the Festival been taken over by youth orchestras. The conductor speaks in bouncy, Italian-accented English and starts with passion. Within seconds, he is pulling up the orchestra on their tuning – but very nicely – and he takes a few minutes to tune the orchestra following which they restart with an immediate improvement. There are only two violas in this group starting out – another problem that is truly international – and the sound is slightly weighted towards the cellos but the maestro manages it very well. What the orchestra does have, though, is two flutes, two oboes, and one bassoon. Yes, it’s a bassoon short but the balance is not really affected as the two bassoons mostly the cellos and basses with occasional solos for the first so, for practical purposes, we have all the chairs filled. And that is the way with almost all the workshop orchestras – they are well balanced with all the instruments they need and nowhere a great excess of flutes as can so often be the case. The largest orchestra, for Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture is, I think, short of a bass trombone, tuba and cor anglais but does very well without them.

As I leave Baroque 1A, Mario is admonishing those players that have not marked their parts in advance. The marked score has been distributed – ‘have your parts marked for tomorrow’. All in the nicest way, of course, so that the players will do as asked but not mind being told to do it. And so, on to Workshop 5 – Italian traditional music. What will this be like, I wonder? I remember the Estonian traditional in Tallinn, which had much in common with our own Ceili Bands. This, on the other hand, sounds very classical to me as I arrive in to rehearsals of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. There are indeed a number of different indigenous folk traditions throughout Italy but the tradition that is best known, and by far the most popular, is opera. It is traditional and pop rolled into one for Italian culture. Again we have lots of young people in this orchestra, playing in the theatre of one of the competing city halls from the city’s mercantile past to cries of ‘Grazia, Bravo, Bellissimo‘ from maestro Paolo Flamingo.

I swing quickly by the Romantic B orchestra at the Palazzo Fodri. They are rehearsing Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ under Swiss conductor, Martin Studer. The building is beautiful and the orchestra is very large but they have just started their break so I decide I will head back towards my hotel to the mysterious WOMS, the ‘World outside the music stand’, taken by Finnish contemporary jazz violinist, violist, composer, and researcher, Ari Poutiainen. His doctoral thesis, Stringprovisation – A Fingering Strategy for Jazz Violin Improvisation, makes him an ideal candidate for working with orchestral musicians on close-to-freeform performance. The WOMS is based in one of the less salubrious rehearsal venues – the basement of the Hotel Impero. It’s adequate to hold the players although a bit squashed but I just can’t help feeling that the players are getting less than the best Cremona has to offer. WOMS is based on some simple jazz lead sheets with a number of tunes penned by the conductor. The rehearsal that I watch is largely about getting people to learn to play freely and improvise around the tunes. The participants first improvise as sections – a bit noisy but nonetheless gettable – and then individuals offer themselves for solo slots. Many of the wind players are more obviously experienced and comfortable with what is going on but Poutiainen is very encouraging and gets participants relaxed and willing to take a chance. Some aspect of ‘free’ music-making has been a part of this festival for many editions and it tends to vary greatly depending on the leader chosen on any given occasion. Again, with WOMS, there are far more young players than adults. I’m beginning to wonder where all the grown-ups are at this festival.

Finishing off the first day of the Festival, I attend a reception with the Lord Mayor and the head of the Chamber of Commerce before continuing to the opening ceremony which is, of course, a concert. The ceremony is in a church that I haven’t yet been in to and is not on the roster of rehearsal or performance venues for the workshops. The Chiesa S. Agostino is a large church hiding behind a red-brick facade that doesn’t give the impression of being so big from the outside. The 700 participants and accompanying adults plus a few hundred more are mostly seated by the time I arrive from the reception and the only seats remaining are reserved for the Lord Mayor and entourage so I perch myself on the wrong side of one of the pillars – I don’t really need to see the orchestras, just hear them. The most notable item from this opening concert is the Tri Fjordar (Three Fjords) by Norwegian composer, Geirr Tveitt, performed by the Volda University College Symphony Orchestra with soloist on ‘violin d’Hardanger’ – a traditional Norwegian variation on the violin. I had to leave my perch to match up what I was hearing to the sound of the orchestra. The drones of the opening reminded me of the sound-world of Shaun Davey’s Brendan Voyage. Although it went in a completely different direction from there, it somehow felt very much closer to home than the warm Italian air that was waiting outside the church door, into which we went for the opening feast – a buffet of Italian deliciousness in the courtyard of the Palazzo Fodri. I went for small portions and tried absolutely everything whilst bumping into my international colleagues and being introduced to numerous more and trying to retain all the new contacts and things I said I could and would do for them whilst on the way, encouraging all-and-sundry to go ahead and start their plans for orchestra tours to Ireland.

Friday brings more touring of the workshop orchestras and I realise that the older people are concentrated in the Classical and Romantic orchestras – Schubert and Tchaikovsky seem to have much less appeal amongst the younger players whilst Beethoven and the Dutch composer, Fodor, are also less pleasing to them. Perhaps my favourite of the music being played by the workshop orchestras is Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture conducted by Belgian conductor, David Ramel, who is President of the World Federation of Amateur Orchestras. WFAO will hold their own international orchestra festival in Milan later in the year as part of EXPO 2015. In this rehearsal, I notice a new type of participant – there is someone sitting behind the back desk of cellos, score in hand, observing the rehearsals just for the pleasure of it. I have arrived for the very start of this rehearsal and note that there are some late arrivals that were not present for the previous day and are getting themselves set up with seats and stands. It is definitely a difficulty in organising such a festival to get everyone to attend all rehearsals.

Next, I travel across town to the two classical workshops, the first by Dutch composer Carl Anton Fodor, conducted by Dutch conductor, Gerhart Drijvers. It strikes me as very much in the style of Haydn which, when I check online, is exactly what the author of his Wikipedia article feels too – despite the fact that he outlived Beethoven by a good 19 years. It seems, though, that from his opus list that most of his composing was done early in his life when Haydn was very much an influence. I also find out that, even though the orchestra is rehearsing his fourth symphony, he has apparently only written three! Again we have a well-balanced orchestra with all the necessary seats filled and, as I mentioned, with an older age demographic than on my visits to other orchestras. Tormod Kanpp from Norway is conducting a substantially larger Classical orchestra with Beethoven 1. This takes place in the conference room of the Hotel Continental. This orchestra is somewhat cramped and has lost out on the beautiful rehearsal venue stakes but I note that, now in their third session, the music is really starting to come together.

Arriving at the last session, I go for broke and see if I can take in the last three orchestras before it comes time for the concerts. Unfortunately, I can’t find Contemporary 1, or is it Contemporary 2? I spend some time at what I think is Christof Brunner conducting Spring Flakes, commissioned for the festival from Liechtenstein composer, Stefan Frommelt. The venue is the right place but I know that there was some last-minute rearranging of the spaces for the contemporary orchestras so I just have to guess I am in the right place. The piece is very riff-based and reminds me of music I have heard in films – not very descriptive, I know but ‘modern’ music can be a bit that way. I hope to get back and listen to the full performance in concert as the conductor seems to be working intensely on a number of different fragments.

And so I come to my last workshop rehearsal – Baroque 2, this time with Corellia and Vivaldi – and am interested to note that the conductor is the only female conductor out of ten orchestras. It’s a matter of interest at IAYO as we have been contacted a number of times recently as to the proportion of females to males conducting our member orchestras and, more particularly, taking part in our conducting workshops (the figure for the latter is 80% female participants between 2010 and 2014). The conductor, Anna Rebekka Ritter, is a specialist in Baroque violin and is working with the orchestra in an old church that is missing some doors and windows and is pleasantly cool after walking around outside. The group is sounding good but I do feel that their conductor is looking for a bit too much from them given that they are amateur players on holiday. It must be said that it is so nice to listen to music in the surroundings it was written for. While some things sound best in a concert hall, the slight reverb of this empty church on an Italian summer’s day makes it sound more at home and complete.

It’s curious the type of things you find out when you are travelling to events like this. Sitting down with my Norwegian counterpart, Terje Winter, on Friday evening prior to attending a concert of participating orchestras (as opposed to workshop orchestras), I find out why we have a John Field Room in our National Concert Hall, hearing about Field’s life in Russia and how he influenced composers such as Chopin and Liszt, particularly with his invention of the nocturne. I also hear about the Norwegian Association’s policy of including youth orchestra players on their Board of Directors. Their youngest board member thus far has been thirteen and the youngest Chair was under twenty. I ask how this works. ‘Very well’, is the answer. There had been a certain amount of consternation from member orchestras when the idea was first implemented and questions of legality which had to be dealt with but it has proven to be a strength of the organisation and something that will continue. I bring the idea back to Ireland as something that could be useful here for both our own association and for member orchestras only to discover that, as of June 1st, 2015, it is no longer legal for a Company Director to be under the age of 18. I’m sure there are good reasons for this around matters of legal liability but, in the same month that our Minister for Children and Youth Affairs launches the National Strategy on Children and Young People’s Participation in Decision-Making (2015 – 2020), it seems a bit of a retrograde step. Terje has also been to Dublin a couple of times. He was fascinated to see how Vikings were seen from the other side and how the Irish have absorbed our Viking past into our culture – not just raiding parties but ultimately settlers that became part of the scenery. I somehow managed to not make any notes on the Friday evening concert. I only know that I was late having stayed too long at dinner with Terje – a good reason to be late.

Saturday morning arrives and with it the performances of the workshop orchestras. There have been some rearrangements made to timings and venues here so I head off and hope for the best. I’m certainly not disappointed. I know that Romeo and Juliet is on at the Chiesa S. Marcellino, where I have heard them rehearse, so I head there first. I arrive at the church at a minute past nine to the Italian Traditional in full swing – am I late or is this just a pre-performance rehearsal? It turns out to be the latter. We’re in Italy after all and shouldn’t expect a to-the-second start of performance. The 9am concert kicks off precisely at twenty past nine with an overture and an aria to start. They are much improved since I saw them two days ago. It’s all very informal as I share my seat with a couple of violin cases to the sound of soprano singing De Curtis ‘Non ti scordar di me’ and the overture to Rossini’s L’ Italiana in Algeri as the maestro hunkers down for pianissimos through to crescendos and bounces up and down for fortissimos. It is a really pleasant start to a day of listening to workshop orchestras. A quick swap over to the much bigger orchestra for Romeo and Juliet. Are we in for another dress rehearsal? No, but what we do get is a full introduction to the piece from the conductor who guides the musically literate audience through the plot and the musical structure, complete with extracts from the orchestra, to show how they are aligned. Some of the subtlety may be lost on the audience as the presentation is in English (the official language of EOFed and the Festival) but, for me, it brings back memories of analysing the themes of the piece in college when my analytic skills weren’t quite up to the task. I decide I’ll download a score from IMSLP when I get home and revisit the piece with a better understanding of musical structure.

I also manage to take in the Baroque B and Classical A orchestras during the day and that concludes my attendance at the performances of the workshop orchestras – very good work by all involved and supportive and enthusiastic applause from all the audience members. One of the benefits of this Festival having so many participants and the way it is structured is that good audiences are more-or-less guaranteed between the players that are performing in the same concert and those that are performing at different times turning up to hear and support.

After lunch on Saturday, we hold the Assembly of EOFed, an event that takes place during the Festival every three years. We are joined by more colleagues that have arrived since the start of the Festival and move through the official business fairly quickly before getting down to the real business of discussing ongoing problems for orchestras and what may be done about them. Access to music continues to be a big problem for orchestras, especially anything that is still in copyright. Everyone agrees that the music publishing business needs to move into the modern age but, in most countries, a small number of companies, or even a single supplier, have a stranglehold on the sales and rental of orchestral music and keep the prices too high to be realistic for amateur orchestras. Daniel Kellerhals, as President of EOFed, continues to pursue the matter directly with publishers and through the European Music Council. In the meantime, the national associations will help each other as much as possible. It is noted, however, that this keeps orchestras from performing a great volume of 20th Century music.

On Sunday morning, we have the final performances and, by this stage, many of the participants are already boarding coaches to airports and making their way home. There are a couple of performances not mentioned in the programme, in particular a Borodin Nocturne by the Varna Chamber Orchestra from Bulgaria to the sound of bells, birds and the choir from the Church across the way. There is another item from a very small but very accomplished orchestra: I have no idea what the music is but I really like it. Finally, we have the orchestra ‘Cremaggiore’ (playing the written programme in order). And then, at the concert venue, we say goodbye to most of our colleagues as they head for planes, trains and automobiles to head on their journeys home to various parts of Europe and a few that are travelling to Milan to make advance preparations for WFAO. Cremona loses 700 musicians and supporters and settles down for a quiet Sunday evening of talking about violin posts, tail-pieces and fingerboards.

At this stage, it has already been decided that the 11th European Orchestra Festival will be held jointly by the Amateur and Youth Orchestra associations of Norway in Bergen in 2018. We hope to see you there!