Our European Reception

By Daniel Watson, trumpet

Vienna

After the last rapturous chord of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony finally ceased ringing throughout the glorious Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, the audience erupted in applause.

Or at least I figured they did.

The orchestra’s location against the wall off to the side of the altar, paired with the great stone pillars and magnificently massive organ obstructing my view, made it difficult to tell if our viewers liked us or not, or whether there were many viewers at all. (When you sit in the back of the orchestra, you accept the fact that you’ll miss a thing or two.) The immense 12th century structure aided my worries by dissipating any sound of applause beyond the front row, although they seemed to be quite pleased. What could have been a thunderstorm of claps was reduced to a light drizzle, but that didn’t stop us from glowing with pride and awe.

The sprinkle of applause persisted after we had performed our encores, Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” and Elgar’s “Nimrod.” It came to our attention that the sprinkling would not stop until we exited their line of sight (at least for those in the karten mit sicht, meaning the seats where we were visible). Row by row we began our procession toward the back room, but to our surprise we did not leave unattended! Lining our path stood our grateful viewers as we paraded through to a true downpour of applause! My worries were no more!

Budapest

Unlike the hallowed echoing chamber of Saint Stephen’s, the gorgeous golden Liszt Academy was comparatively compact, and this time we were center stage. A full house of eyes anxiously looked on from all sides as we came to an energetic finish to Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, marking the official end of our European performances. This time, the applause was unmistakable. Even more so, the applause was unforgettable.

It began as any other American audience would have reacted, clapping vivaciously in joyous discord. There were a few noticeable differences, however. First, there was no shouting. No hooting and hollering. Only clapping. Second, there was no standing. Our audience was seated, silent, and clapping. How on earth were we to know that they liked us then?

As if out of nowhere, the fury of applause was simultaneously joined into single giant claps. Perfect unison. Perfect time. Synchronized.

Clap.   Clap.   Clap.   Clap.   Clap.

Claps so steady they would put clocks to shame. And if they ever did speed up, they would eventually be halved back to the initial rock-like pace. A metronome of hundreds.

It was incredible. It was breathtaking.

It was terrifying.

It felt as if we were in the middle of some kind of ritual, with us as the sacrifice. The chant would only cease if we started playing again. But even after barreling through both our encores and bidding final farewell by reperforming the end of Gershwin’s An American in Paris (and nearly grooving my chair into a gap in the stage and falling over), the chant. Would return. And wouldn’t. Stop.

Maestro Milnes attempted leaving the stage and coming back, but they wouldn’t have it. He tried reacknowledging the soloists, but they wouldn’t have it. He even had us stand up one at a time in a giant wave (in time to our metronome, of course), but they still wouldn’t have it. By this point we realized, we could be here all night!

With a wave of the hand, we hurriedly filed off stage. At long last, after what felt like an eternity, our metronome shut off. What a rush! It was as if we were rock stars, hiding from a crowd that would beg for more until the sun came up. For the remainder of our tour, “the clap” became a staple for all orchestra-related gatherings, although we could’ve used a lesson or two from our Hungarian counterparts.

UC Berkeley at LAM, Budapest

The Great Hunt for Gustav Mahler

Our tram came to a stop at Grinzing, the end of the line, far into the northwestern part of Vienna. The four of us, three trumpets and a trombone, were on a mission: Before we could leave Austria, we needed to visit the grave of Gustav Mahler.

For many brass players, Mahler is king. To perform one of his symphonies is to brave a musical gauntlet; a test of power, endurance, and will. From the robust chorales of the Second Symphony to the fiery themes of the Fifth to the epic beauty of the Ninth, the brass test their metal in the forge of Mahler’s genius. For any young aspiring brass player, Mahler symphonies are a rite of passage to becoming a true man or woman of music. Thus, we live and die for him.

We had little to go on save a map with a few circles inked onto it and my word. I inquired at the front desk of our hotel where he might be located. The desk clerk conducted some research and made the necessary markings on my map. It was strange to me that his whereabouts were not more readily available. After all, this was the music capital of the world. Nonetheless, knowing our scavenger hunt would end with a great treasure made it worth our while.

Our pilgrimage began with a trek through intermittent rain from the city center to the tram station. We were losing hope as the unexpectedly long walk and unanticipated drizzles ate at our morale. But with our hearts set, we persevered and made it on our tram.

The previous day, upon arrival in Vienna, we had visited Zentralfriedhof, the central cemetery, resting place to some of the greatest composers who ever lived. We were awestruck standing at the graves of Johann Strauss, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms. Their tombstones were ornately carved and laden with flowers. A large marble cube fittingly marked the grave of Arnold Schönberg. György Ligeti’s grave was a simple etched glass headstone, also very characteristic of his style. As I sat on the line 38 tram, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of elaborate and poignant structure epitomized our mighty Mahler.

At last, we disembarked the tram and began the final push to Grinzinger Friedhof. Thankfully the rain had subsided for our journey on foot. No signs guided us through the quiet residential streets, but after venturing through a grassy alley, only a modest open gate stood between us and the cemetery.

The cemetery was desolate too; not even a security guard at the entrance. It was dead silent with the exception of our feet on the gravel. We located a map and identified the block our hero resided in. Our hunt was coming to an end. Now we need only spot him.

With eager steps, we scoured the cemetery block. My eyes darted from name to name on beautiful marble headstones hoping to see his in its elaborate glory. In my haste, I nearly missed it. But once I set my sights on it, I stopped dead in my tracks.

There he was. No ornately carved marble. No field of flowers at his feet. Before me was a single giant slab. A pillar of dark, coarse rock. A monolith. And across the top in bold: GUSTAV MAHLER. It was so simple. It was perfect.

The four of us stood in awe at the spectacle. A simple, massive stone. A small grass plot. A few meek flowers strewn around an unlit lantern. We expected more, but it was still such a statement.

Once all necessary photos were taken, we decided to honor him with some of his music. One of our travelers took out his tablet and put on perhaps the greatest Mahler moment in his arsenal: the finale of the Second Symphony. While the grandeur of the strings and brass and chorus filled the still Vienna air, we looked on in respect and adulation at the master’s feet.

And to our surprise, the rain returned. And the wind picked up. And the more intense the music became, the more intensely the rain poured downed on us until we found ourselves in the middle of our own personal storm. The spirit of Mahler was stirring!

When our recording reached its end, the weather returned to its placid state. We were dumbfounded and slightly scared. Perhaps it was chance, but we were convinced we shared a moment with Mahler in that peaceful Viennese cemetery. We bought some flowers and set them at his grave as a small symbol of our gratitude. After a few more minutes of reflection, we paid our respects and began our journey home. It was an adventure we’re sure never to forget.

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