After a break of a year, the Emerson Quartet returned to South America for the second visit in its entire 35-year history. On this trip the quartet returned to the countries of Brazil, Argentina and Chile, and added Colombia and Ecuador to its international destination map.
in David’s words…
MAY 20-22: SÃO PAOLO
The first stop on the Emerson String Quartet’s tour is the bustling metropolis of São Paulo, Brazil. Home to a population of over 19 million people (in the metropolitan area), São Paulo is arguably the cultural and economic capital of South America.
It’s not every day that a New Yorker takes a picture of another city out of the airplane window – New York possessing a cityscape that is continually a thrill to witness even for a long-time resident. But the concentrated sprawl of São Paolo, Brazil is so vast that it appears practically an optical illusion.
With such a large population that has expanded rapidly over the past decades, the congestion in the city is quite overwhelming! That being said, São Paulo is a fascinating city with an interesting juxtaposition of contemporary and classic architecture as well as an impressive cultural scene. São Paolo is largest city in the Southern Hemisphere, which includes, remember, not only most of South America but also half of Africa, Australia, and all nations of the South Pacific region and Indian Ocean. At last count, the city itself is home to approximately 11 million inhabitants (New York, 8 million; Los Angeles, 4 million; London, 7.5 million).
São Paolo’s rich history is of course closely tied to that of Brazil itself. Colonized by the Portuguese in 1500, Brazil is the largest Portuguese-speaking country in the world. The country’s exports such as coffee, gold, and before 1888, slaves, brought in not only wealth but immigrant workers from many countries. São Paolo has, for example, an enormous Italian population and heritage, as well as people of African, German, Spanish, Japanese, and Middle-Eastern descent.
The city of São Paolo feels like New York in many ways. There is a vibrant street life, streets lined with chic restaurants and high fashion shops, tons of traffic, garbage and litter.
There are the tallest skyscrapers in South America. There is a heightened sense of security, with all apartment buildings of any social stature enclosed by gates and usually attended by security guards. Apparently there is a lot of drug trafficking in the seedier neighborhoods – one of which surrounded our concert hall, the Sala São Paolo.
The quartet’s two performances in São Paulo were at the Sala São Paulo, a beautiful concert hall that was originally a train station and underwent one of the most ingenious and beautiful architectural transformations I’ve ever seen. The facade of the building is distinctly European with a large clock tour in a baroque style. The train station was completely renovated in 1999 and the old ‘great hall’ of the station was converted into a gorgeous concert hall. The hall was designed in a ‘shoebox’ style and has beautiful acoustics (other notable examples of this particular style include Boston’s Symphony Hall and Vienna’s Musikverein). The concert hall also serves as the primary performance space for São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, one of the top orchestras in South America.
The architecture and acoustics are great, but even more amazing are the audiences: filled with young people whistling and cheering after listening to Shostakovich in rapt silence. What more could a classical musician want?
The hall sits next to a converted building that is now an art exhibition center. The place was a torture prison during the era of dictator Emilio Garrastazu Medici (1969-74), and was converted to become an arts center as a gesture in the spirit of setting things right.
The quartet was also kept busy on our arrival day with a television studio performance and interview, plus an additional television interview and radio interview. All were conducted by highly knowledgeable and perfectly prepared journalists who asked meaningful and challenging questions.
In addition, on the day of our first concert, Larry was transported to a “shanty town” approximately 45 minutes from the center to teach at a community music school (please see the Emerson Quartet Facebook page for photos ). Many of the students showed up at our second concert and I promised to visit their school the next time I am in São Paolo. (And for those of you in the photo: whoever you are in glasses to the left of me – everyone in the picture now has your eye because everyone’s eyes came out red except yours. Congratulations!)
Through our entire stay, we were afforded world-class hospitality and the warmest personal attention by the staff of Cultura Artística, the presenting organization which is currently celebrating its 99th year. We warmly wish them another 99 years of success in bringing classical music to this extraordinary city.
MAY 23-24 BUENOS AIRES
Our second stop on the Emerson String Quartet’s South American Tour is the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires. Not as large as São Paulo, the city is still incredibly bustling and full of life and vigor. Buenos Aires has a distinctly European feel, perhaps from its complicated history of Spanish colonization as well as attempts for takeover in the 19th century by England and France. Today Buenos Aires is a diverse and culturally rich metropolis, and clearly a hub for commerce.
Our return to Buenos Aires was highlighted by an historic occasion for the Emerson Quartet: our debut in the city’s renowned opera house, the Teatro Colón (Columbus Theater). The present Teatro Colón was built in 1908 and is universally renowned for its spectacular acoustics. Known primarily as an opera house, the Teatro Colón has presented some of the foremost opera singers and orchestras throughout its storied history and is a testament to the cultural vibrancy of Buenos Aires.
Built in the grand style of concert halls such as Vienna’s Musikverein, the imposing building houses a space considered to be one of the five great opera houses of the world. It was completed in 1908 after two decades of construction, and had been preceded by earlier versions which catered to the city’s opera-hungry public (in 1854, 53 different operas were performed in Buenos Aires!). The first opera performed in the new hall was Verdi’s Aida, and since then, virtually all the great operas and great singers have been presented on its stage.
We were somewhat skeptical about a string quartet’s ability to fill this large hall (2,487 seats). But we were more than pleasantly surprised. The hall was completely filled two nights in a row with two entirely different audiences. The quartet’s program was the same: Mendelssohn’s Op. 44 #3, Bartok No. 6, and Beethoven’s Op. 131. The highest balconies were filled with the youngest listeners, enabled to attend through generous ticket policies of the presenting organization, the Mozarteum.
The Mozarteum, celebrating its 60th year, is a distinguished organization befitting the stature of this great city, the autonomous capital of Argentina and the second largest Latin American city after São Paolo. Industrialization in the 19th century brought money and immigrants, making Buenos Aires not only an important financial hub of South America but a multicultural city graced by European-style architecture. Many elegant streets, fancy restaurants, and fashionable people make you feel you might be in Paris.
The Mozarteum has been presided over for many years by the beautiful and regal Jeannette de Erize. Now 89, she attended both of our concerts, and after the first, we were hosted for a superb meal at the residence of her son and daughter-in-law Luis Alberto and Monica Erize. A lawyer by day, his connection to and support of the Mozarteum has endeared him and his family to the greatest musicians of our time, and over two dinners (they joined us the next night at our favorite restaurant, El Establo) he regaled us with stories of his encounters with many of them.
But among the many great artists that were recalled, one dominated both in terms of the number of accounts and the admiration and affection in which he is held by us all: Mstislav Rostropovich, who virtually took this city by storm, as he did all the world’s musical capitals. I have, without a doubt, exchanged more extraordinary stories (with more people worldwide) about Rostropovich than about anyone else on the planet. The Erizes’ relationship with Slava was so close that they were invited to his 80th birthday party in Moscow, which was attended by Putin, Seiji Ozawa and other notables, at which he was honored by a large crowd which knew it would probably be the last time they saw him. Slava, indomitable as always, had literally willed himself to see his 80th, and to be recognized in Russia’s capital by the government which once had stripped him of citizenship. He succeeded, and was dead from cancer a month later.
As it had been in São Paolo under the care of Cultura Artistica, we were treated throughout our visit with the utmost grace, and personal and professional care by the dedicated staff of the Mozarteum. And judging from their spectacular concert seasons of recent years, plus their enormous, rapt audiences of all ages, they are definitely doing things right. The classical music presenters the whole world over would do well to have a look at them, and learn something from their example.
MAY 25-26 SANTIAGO, CHILE
The journey from Buenos Aires to Santiago began in chaos, as our two drivers (I had insisted on a hotel around the corner from El Establo) brought us 45 minutes outside the city to the wrong airport. No one seemed to be able to pin the blame on anyone in particular, although I have my own suspicions that the Emerson’s unshakeable habit of changing its mind numerous times on travel plan may well have been the root of the problem.
Our meeting up by surprise (I was certain that I was the only one in the wrong place) was the beginning of a frantic and (to my eyes) rather comical race through various terminals trying to find a flight we could get on to Santiago.
The sun suddenly came out when our South American manager, Felipe Silvestre, suddenly showed up, having flown in from his home in Brooklyn for two days to meet with us and various presenters in Buenos Aires and Santiago. Cell phone in hand, and armed with all the phone numbers and the Spanish language, he was soon able to sort everything out and we boarded a very crowded bus to take us back to town, where the other airport is located.
Felipe (whom for some unfathomable reason we had never met even though he lives in Brooklyn and organized our tour two years ago) is a very interesting guy. Born in Brazil, he studied the violin and at the age of 18 decided to go study in Munich. Upon arrival he absorbed and became fluent in German, and went on to study 3 more years in Salzburg, where he apparently began doing some entrepreneurial work. His company, FAS Arts Management, books the world’s most visible artists in South America, and he has recently branched out to begin booking in North America, his first project being a fascinating production featuring actor John Malkovich, a Baroque orchestra , singers, and music of Beethoven. He certainly has our admiration and confidence, having been the one who finally, after three decades of our having to wait, got us to South America. He is also among a handful of young managers with whom we work who possess the energy, optimism and charisma to propel the classical industry forward. We are grateful to him for his efforts on our behalf, we wish him much success, and we look forward to working with him in the future.
The flight to Santiago included a spectacular ride over the Andes mountains. The name “Andes” derives from an ancient word meaning “where the sun rises”.
Landing in Santiago after 4 pm did not leave a lot of time to prepare for a 7:30 pm performance, but thankfully the beautiful Ritz Carlton hotel, where our presenter the Beethoven Foundation had housed us, was right across the street from the concert hall, and we managed to rehearse and give a performance that seemed to please a full house. Another spectacular dinner followed at a beautiful restaurant, and we very much enjoyed the company of Felipe and our host, Sylvia, from the Beethoven Foundation.
Our second concert in Santiago, however, proved to be something out of the ordinary, to the extent that I believe the entire quartet would agree that we had never in our careers, either as a quartet or individuals, experienced anything like it. An account of this event warrants going into some detail.
Picked up punctually by the van and Sylvia at our ultra-luxury hotel, escorted into the bus by a team of doormen all speaking perfect English and knowing our names, we soon found ourselves out of the city center, bouncing our way down long cobblestone streets in residential neighborhoods. Arriving at the theater, we were shown the front entrance, which looked like that of an old, rather broken-down movie theater. We were escorted into a dingy alley behind the theater, secured from the street by solid metal doors.
Our next experience proved alarming: as soon as we entered the building, we were practically overcome by an incredibly powerful, unpleasant chemical smell. My first thought was that it was some kind of fuel; others among us guessed insecticide or perhaps some cleaning agent. As we walked into the old, worn theater we saw two gas umbrella-style heaters, lit, in front of the stage (like the kind you see in outdoor restaurants) plus other heating devices near our chairs on the stage. The whole experience – just walking in there – was truly of the “uh-oh” kind.
Gasping for air, we were shown our dressing rooms – two of them – which were equally dingy except that the presenters, and probably the venue as well, had made some effort to make them welcoming.
It was a scene that we were, for better or worse, not accustomed to, and a certain amount of trepidation took hold of our proceedings as we made our way, through really squalid conditions, to the stage.
The smell was overpowering and some of us began to get light-headed. However, as is our style, we found ways to joke and laugh about it, and to marvel at how in just a couple of days we had come from the splendor and luxury of the Teatro Colón (not to mention our hotel) to a venue of such un-cared for condition. We finished our rehearsal, working as hard as we always do, and ventured back to dressing rooms, which were considerably colder but at least smelled less.
Just steps from the stage, we could hear the hall start to fill up with people talking animatedly. A bunch of early arrivals positioned themselves quickly in the best seats.
At 7:30, our local stage manager (who had been brought to this venue by our presenter from the previous night’s venue) gave us the word that we could begin the concert. And, as we walked onto the stage, the evening turned a corner that would lead to one of the Emerson Quartet’s most fantastic and memorable concert experiences – ever.
As soon as Gene emerged into the light, the crowd, which completely filled the hall, erupted into clapping, cheering and whistling the likes of which we had never heard. It was as if every one of them already knew us. The din was accompanied by a barrage of camera flashes from the first row to the top of the balcony. We bowed, I sat down, and they still wouldn’t stop. Although it was a great welcome, we were still possessed by that “uh-oh” sensation.
However, once we launched into the Mendelssohn quartet, things changed. Although the flash cameras didn’t stop, there was dead silence. There was some clapping between movements, which, as it happens in many places, was shushed down indignantly by some. But this crowd was listening with the intensity and concentration of the world’s most elite and knowledgeable audiences.
Adding to this remarkable phenomenon was the age of this audience. I counted two people (that I could see) with grey hair. The rest seemed to be in their teens, twenties and maybe thirties. A couple of older people were wearing coats and ties, but most were in street clothes and appeared on the scruffy side. There were four young cellists in the front row, their cellos in canvas cases on the floor between their legs. In my whole career I have never played to an audience that looked like this.
After the Mendelssohn, the crowd went crazy, cheering, whistling, screaming. I had never heard anything like it. And with every piece, the ovation (if you can even call it that) got louder, longer and wilder. By the end of the concert, the crowd was more or less out of control. There was not much to do but marvel and laugh, and perhaps thank God that there is a place in the world where four older guys like us can simply walk out in tuxedos and play three great string quartets, with no hype or hoopla or artificial nonsense, in a straight concert format without bars and disco lights, and there is a room of young listeners that responds as though it was the greatest thing in their lives at the moment.
The sight of this crowd prompted me to do something unprecedented: to take my camera out during one of our many bows and take their picture. Needless to say, this drove them even wilder.
Backstage we were mobbed with young autograph-seekers. It was truly touching to look into these adoring – and often adorable – faces and see such excitement. The warmth and affection they showed us unabashedly will remain one of the fondest memories of my career.
I had the good fortune of at least two entire classes of cello students in attendance. My Cello Talks – as is beginning to happen often now – preceded my visit and so many of the students, including their professor Martin Osten, told me of watching them and learning from them and thanked me for making them. One cellist among them, Fernanda Guerra, had earlier in the day sent me a very fine performance on YouTube of the Dvorak Concerto.
On the long plane flight to Bogotá and Medellin I find myself still entranced by last night’s experience, thinking deeply about what it all means.
In a very profound way, last night’s concert reinforced convictions about classical music that have guided me and Wu Han in our lives as performers and presenters:
- We have never believed, contrary to many popular opinions, that classical music is out-of-date, out-of-touch, and irrelevant for today’s listeners.
- We have never agreed that classical music needs help to make it accessible and attractive to listeners.
- We do not believe that classical music has to be presented in special, non-traditional settings for people to become interested in it.
- We don’t believe that traditional concert attire should be a hindrance to listeners’ engagement with the music or the performers.
I could go on. But the point is that we honestly think that those who have lost faith in the validity of classical music, including musicians themselves, presenters, managers, publicists and especially journalists, are simply wrong. Would that all of them had been with us last night: the musicians would have seen that they could dress conventionally and not spend energy trying to look cool or fashionable, and that they could perform deep and serious music that is dear to them; the presenters would have observed an audience undeterred by obstacles and furthermore unspoiled by comforts and extra-musical enticements; the managers would have seen a concert that would inform and inspire them to impart faith in the traditional to their artists and to their clients; publicists would have learned what really to talk about to raise the profiles of their artists; and the classical music press – many of whom seem simply bored and bent on emphasizing the negative – would have witnessed a concert in which both musicians and audience collaborated and gave their all, simply in service of great music.
When you analyze what goes into making performances either succeed or fail, there are really only three elements that count: the greatness of the music, the quality of the performance, and the mindset of the listeners. What made the difference last night was the third part of the equation. This was an audience hungry for the experience. How difficult it is to find such hunger among privileged listeners in large cities with myriad high-quality entertainment offerings. The truth is, you cannot feed anyone regularly, or overfeed them, and expect them to be hungry. Or worse, as is done so often these days in the classical music industry, try to create artificial hunger through artificial means.
Would that Beethoven, Bartok and Mendelssohn have been at our concert last night. Because they would have seen people playing and listening to their music in the way they imagined people playing and listening as they were creating. They expected nothing less, and nothing more. All of us in classical music can do our art a service by respecting how composers dreamed of their music being played and heard, and by having faith that this approach, if executed with passion, conviction and expertise, is part of a great tradition and also a secure path for an endless and vital future.
MAY 27-28 MEDELLÍN
After a late night meal and little sleep, the quartet took a six-hour flight north to the airport of Bogotá, Colombia, to transfer to a short flight to Medellín for our next concert. Thankfully we had a free night as the journey took most of the day. We were met by Adelaida Gomez, who graciously guided us through our stay in Medellín.
Medellín was our first concert in Colombia, ever. The historic city sits in a valley at an altitude of 5000 feet, and this valley is reached via an arduous climb and descent on a twisting road over the mountain that is between the airport and the city. At the crest of the mountain, the city of Medellín came into view below, its millions of lights sparkling like the stars themselves. Unfortunately I could not get a picture but one is so high above the city it is very much like an airplane approach.
Medellín, the second largest city in Colombia, is unfortunately known the world over as the home of the infamous Medellín drug cartel that flourished in the 1980’s, making the city at one point the most violent in the world. Because of the extradition arrangement between the Colombian and U.S. governments, captured drug lords could be sent to the U.S. for trial (something they were not happy about) and this resulted in countless assassinations of government officials.
What can be said about Medellín today is that as the cartels’ power and influence became greatly diminished, the city grew into a thriving center of commerce, culture and learning. A small town whose initial exports were coffee and gold, Medellín today, with over 3 million inhabitants, boasts a wide variety of industries. Cultural activities are rooted in its historic past all the way back to the city’s founding by the Spanish in 1616, and that history includes a great number of writers and painters, including Fernando Botero. The University of Antioquia is a leading institution in South America, known for developments in medicine and vocational training.
The concert the next day, at 6pm, took place downtown in the Teatro Metropolitano de Medellín, a large, modern concert hall with excellent acoustics. Backstage we were greeted with great warmth by the hall’s director, Claudia Lucia Sierra Vega and her team.
After the concert we were ambushed by eager young listeners backstage as we were attempting to dash to the airport for a 9:30 flight to Bogotá (our concert in Bogata was the next morning at 11am). Among them was the very fine Tayrona Quartet, who are still studying but making a serious career in South America.
Our expert team of handlers, including stage hands, Adelaida, our bus driver and others, miraculously got us out of there and over the mountain just in time for the flight.
A long, bumpy bus ride to the hotel in Bogotá, and a dinner beginning at 11:30 pm concluded the exhausting day.
MAY 29: BOGOTÁ
Winding through small streets in a big van, it was not until we crossed the threshold of the Hotel de la Opera that we realized what an elegant neighborhood we had entered.
The beauty of the hotel’s interior mirrored what I would discover outside on a walk early the next morning: an historic area of entrancing atmosphere. The hotel was located in the historic center, whose streets have a distinct charm and rise on one side towards the neighboring mountains.
It was satisfying to finally reach Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, a city I had of course heard about my whole life. The city’s name derives from an ancient word meaning “planted fields” and was founded in 1538, soon becoming a center of Spanish colonial influence and power. The city was liberated from Spanish rule by the famous Simon Bolivar in 1819.
Bogotá is a tourist destination, having recently improved its safety ratings and constructed numerous, internationally-known shopping malls. Bogotá is also a center of education with over 100 institutions of higher learning. As for culture, Bogotá has dozens of museums, art galleries, theaters and libraries, and a symphony orchestra. The Cristóbal Colón Theater is the country’s oldest opera house and is situated right next to our hotel, but was closed for renovation.
Our concert took place a few blocks from the hotel in a large, Brutalist architecture-style building that houses the Sala de Conciertos. Built in 1966, the structure reminded us of Lincoln Center in many ways, built around the same time of similar white limestone. Upon arriving backstage, we realized quickly from the photo gallery that an enormous number of musicians have appeared there.
The hall itself is quite a marvel: I have never seen anything quite like it. In addition to being quite an historic architectural example, it has wonderful acoustics and an intimate atmosphere very accommodating for chamber music.
At over 8,000 feet above sea level, one feels the altitude in quick and sometimes unexpected ways, like when playing the second movement of the Shostakovich 8th Quartet. The forward-looking organizers of the series had asked us for an unusual program of Debussy, Bartok and Shostakovich, in that order, and the largely young audience was with us and the music the entire way through.
Afterwards, as we had now come to expect in South America, we were besieged with young fans, all of whom wanted our autographs and photos taken with us. I have to say it’s really nice to feel like a pop star sometimes.
Once again, it was off to the airport after the concert for an early evening flight to Quito. But we promised our hosts to return to Bogotá not only for multiple performances but also the chance to work with some of the city’s enthusiastic young musicians.
MAY 30: QUITO
An hour flight brought us to Quito, Ecuador, just to the south of Columbia, and inland from the coast about six hours by car. Ecuador, so named because it is on the equator, is a tropical climate and boasts ownership of the Galapagos Islands, its major tourist attraction. There is even an airline named after them, Aero Gal, on which we flew.
Having never been to Ecuador, I learned a lot about this interesting country in a short time. Bisected north to south by the Andes mountains, it includes the tropical Pacific coastal region to the west and the Amazon rain forest region to the east.
Conquered by the Incas in the 15th century and then by the Spanish in the 16th, the 18 or so still-extant native Ecuadorean peoples retain their individual characteristics, including traditional dress.
Quito is the capital of Ecuador and is the second-highest capital in the world, at over 9000 feet. It lies in the midst of the northern Andes in a valley between volcanoes, and is a World Heritage site. After being met at the airport by the director of the Casa de la Música, Gustavo Lovato, and taken to our hotel, I begged the favor of seeing the historic city center, which I had heard was spectacular. I had not heard incorrectly.
The heart of the city is beautifully preserved and protected (now) by strict zoning laws. Apparently one can buy a nice apartment in the center for a reasonable price, as the upper classes have all moved to the high rises in the surrounding hills. I am tempted: this is one of the most gorgeous and stunning historic districts I have ever seen. The buildings are beautifully lit at night, and, being Sunday, the streets were practically deserted. We visited gracious Independence Plaza, which is bordered by the Presidential Palace and the residence of the Archbishop.
The Spanish brought with them the Catholic religion, and today the city is 95% Catholic. The church sponsored the creation of art, mainly through the building and decorating of its churches, and today those churches and their treasures are among the prime tourist destinations in South America.
The next morning we had our first and only South American press conference, attended by a bevy of beautiful journalists and a few photographers.
Afterwards, we were driven to lunch at the elegant home of Maria Clara Crespo de Correa, President of the Casa de la Música, and a frequent host to visiting artists and supporters of the organization. Her magnificent apartment, filled with art treasures including her own work, apartment overlooks the city of Quito.
During lunch, we learned of the extraordinary history of the Casa de la Música: it was constructed only in 2005 with a bequest from Hans and Gi Neustaetter, refugees from Nazi Germany who settled in Quito in the 1930’s. Besides funding other major philanthropic projects, they firmly believed that classical music would raise the standard of living for the entire city. The concert hall – apparently the highest in the world – was just visible on the side of the volcano across from Maria Clara’s home, making me all the more eager to get there for our 7pm concert.
The Casa de la Música is a state-of-the-art concert hall, situated on beautifully manicured grounds overlooking the city. The intimate hall was designed in consultation with a top acoustician imported from Germany who did the work gratis.
After the concert we were again greeted not only by our hosts but a small crowd of eager music students. They are all my newest and dearest friends in South America!
We had a last opportunity for a group photo and an occasion to thank Gustavo not only for taking such good care of us but for his marvelous work presenting concerts at the Casa de la Música.
Larry and I left the hall at 9:15, amid heavy traffic, trying to catch an 11:30 flight back to the States. This was the last of several harrowing, yet successful, bus rides that we had in South America.
This tour, consisting of nine concerts in about eleven days, was both exhausting and exhilarating. The inspiring audiences, the many young listeners, the hospitality of the presenters, the art, the culture, and yes, the food, have all made South America one of the Emerson Quartet’s favorite touring opportunities. We are grateful to all who helped make it happen, and we look very much forward to returning.