When I was in high school, I played the French horn in a youth orchestra based at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts. The orchestra, known as the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra or YPO, was a collection of talented musicians from all over New England. Being a member of YPO felt like a real honor but also like something I had earned, recognition for all those hours of practicing, the rehearsals and concerts in the big city of Boston were often a highlight of my week. We rehearsed enough music for a full program for around two months, and then typically gave one performance, before moving onto the next program.
At the end of my junior year in high school, YPO embarked on a two-week tour of Spain. We took a program that included Mahler’s 5th Symphony, which with five movements clocking in at around 70 minutes is quite a challenging piece of music to perform; one conductor has described Mahler’s 5th as the musical equivalent of climbing Mount Everest! Mahler’s 5th also has phenomenal brass parts, and those of us in the brass section were thrilled with the idea of performing this monumental symphony six times over a two-week period at different venues in Spain. Little did we know that we would be performing not only in large urban concert halls in Madrid and Barcelona but also in small churches in rural villages in front of adoring crowds that had never had seen such a large ensemble perform before.
Our trip began with a great deal of excitement as we pondered the destinations and musical experiences that lay ahead. The combination of little sleep on the outgoing flight, jet lag, and adjusting to the tempo of life in Spain that goes very late into the evening all combined to make my memories of the first few days a bit hazy today, but I clearly remember being surprised at the number of people who came to see us perform in the city of Valencia, as well as the fact that our concert didn’t even begin until 9:00 PM. Clearly, things worked differently in Spain! When we played our last note that evening, our hosts invited us to a dinner in the town hall that lasted well past midnight and was full of conversations with our hosts about life and music that somehow managed to overcome the language barrier.
As we moved around Spain, performing in Barcelona, Mallorca, Madrid, Toledo, El Escorial, and some smaller mountain towns, we were treated warmly, plied with food after performances, and regaled with enthusiastic responses to our performances. The first violin player and solo trumpet player became celebrities, with kids asking for their autographs after our concerts, and addresses were exchanged as a precursor to many letters sent across the Atlantic as a means to keep to these newly formed memories alive. I also got to know the program much better than any previous program due to repeat rehearsals and performances, and I developed an appreciation for Mahler’s 5th symphony that is still with me twenty-five years later.
This tour helped me understand that music can open doors and transcend cultural differences in a profound way, and help forge relationships that would last well into the future.
Outside of the performances, our group was visiting amazing cultural and historical sites in Spain, getting to know each other better through shared meals and excursions, and generally having the experience of a lifetime. This tour helped me understand that music can open doors and transcend cultural differences in a profound way, and help forge relationships that would last well into the future. I never imagined that when I began playing French horn that this difficult and unwieldy instrument would lead me to such incredible experiences, but I still consider those two weeks in Spain as one of the great voyages of my life. Upon returning to Boston, our group was both exhausted and exhilarated and full of stories from our adventures in Spain to share with friends and family back home. While every festival and concert tour is different, all of us here at Music Contact International hope to develop and arrange trips for every group that travels with us that provide both amazing performance opportunities and a plethora of new memories.
-Oliver Pierson, Music Contact International Tour Coordinator