On YouTube, there’s a video of a 1973 concert with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Bernard Haitink performing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with soloist Artur Rubinstein. It’s an extraordinary concert to hear, between the young Haitink, the 86-year-old Rubinstein, and the orchestra’s signature sound (consistently described as “homogeneous and transparent at the same time”). The way the sound travels in the Concertgebouw forces musicians to listen to one another more closely than in other halls, and even the largest symphonies take on some of the intimate qualities of chamber music.
It’s also an extraordinary concert to watch: Out of more than 100 musicians onstage, only a handful (if that) are women. Like so many European orchestras of this era, it is transparently homogenous. This ran counter to the changing face of the Netherlands in the 1970s. Ten years earlier, when Haitink became the RCO’s chief conductor, just over 3,500 people had immigrated to the country. By the time he retired from that role in 1988, the annual rate of immigration was nearly 25,000. One 2001 working paper on migration in the Netherlands pointed out that the late 20th century was the first time that the Netherlands had “shifted from an emigration to an immigration country” in over 300 years.
Since that Beethoven performance 50 years ago, the roster of the RCO has diversified and begun to more closely reflect its hometown’s panoply of identities. Over 25 nationalities are represented. Of the 120 musicians on their roster, 50% are female. When the orchestra was named the world’s greatest in 2010 by Gramophone Magazine, its then-music director Mariss Jansons described his role as something more symbiotic than dogmatic: “It’s my task to find out their special qualities and preserve them. Then, if through a natural process my own individuality adds something—and theirs to me—that will be fine.”
Ideally, this same dynamic holds true between an orchestra and the city it represents and reflects. The former provides a sense of identity for the latter, but it’s also up to that orchestra to match the city’s true identity. “A task for our orchestra, and also in general for the whole sector, is that you keep on looking for talent and that you keep on looking beyond your own boundaries,” says Lili Schutte, the RCO’s Manager of Education and D&I. “We all have our own bubble, but there’s a lot of talent around.” This is especially true in Amsterdam. As of 2021, the population of Amsterdammers who did not have some direct or generational ties to immigration was in the minority—44%.
As Schutte points out, diversity goes beyond race, ethnicity, and gender, especially in Europe where social and cultural inequalities are not always readily visible. “It’s not only your cultural background, it’s also the economic situation of your parents, it’s your religion,” Schutte says. “It’s also: Do you live in a city with a lot of infrastructure around you, or do you live outside of the city where you have to drive an hour every time to go see your music teacher?”
Schutte and other members of the orchestra took notice of these disparities; between 2016 and 2018, the orchestra toured all member states of the European Union, performing with local youth orchestras in each country. Through this experience, the question of hidden talents emerged: Who had musical talent but lacked the right opportunities?
Over the last five years, Concertgebouworkest Young, the RCO’s youth orchestra initiative, has worked with groups of young musicians aged 14 to 17 to address this question in a way that’s unique to the European youth orchestra ecosystem. El Sistema Europe’s members don’t necessarily target students who are dedicated to pursuing careers as orchestral musicians or soloists. The European Union Youth Orchestra and Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester both require students to be at least 16 years old and accept students already training at the conservatory level. They also require longer time commitments from their musicians, which can often be prohibitive for those without the resources to participate in a year of playing and touring.
Concertgebouworkest Young fills a necessary gap, and has the full resources of one of the world’s top-tier orchestras at its disposal. Schutte cites Carnegie Hall’s NYO2—an orchestra designed for high school-aged musicians who come from communities underserved by and underrepresented in classical music—as a close inspiration for their program. “They want to focus on the diversity of the young musicians and to endorse that; we saw them as an example of how we could also make a similar project in Europe.” Also important for Young was to open applications up to not only students from EU member states, but from all countries on the continent, regardless of membership, from Albania to the United Kingdom.
Young’s first call for applications went out in the fall of 2018: “We are looking for young talented musicians who need some extra support and who preferably reflect the diversity of actual European society.” They received 323 applications. “If we had to choose, for example, between two players, where one has already won a lot of prizes, has the best teachers, and a lot of opportunities to develop themselves [and one did not], then we would choose the one who didn’t have all of that,” Schutte adds of the application process.
The musicians spend most of August in an intensive summer camp: two weeks of musical studies—with some additional workshops on social and personal development and community-building—held on a performing arts campus in Ede, a town about an hour east of Amsterdam. Tuition and travel expenses are covered, along with room and board, and there is no fee to apply; all elements designed to remove barriers that otherwise talented musicians face to entry. This is followed by two performances: one at the Concertgebouw, another in a nearby city. The first cohort of Young performed at Brussels’s Flagey Concert Hall with conductor Pablo Heras-Casado. This year, after a performance at the Concertgebouw on August 23, the students of Young will appear on the stage of Berlin’s Konzerthaus on August 25.
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Growing up in Lisbon, violist Teresa Caleiro had several opportunities as a musician, including the benefit of living in a capital city, where she attended a music-focused high school and participated in a few local youth orchestras. Still, she says, something would often go wrong in the orchestras and logistics were always a concern. One of her classmates in Portugal had been part of the first class of Young in 2019, so she applied that fall for the second round. “It was one of those opportunities where you just apply and then you don’t need to worry about anything else in terms of flights and paying fees, and that’s really helpful for a musician’s life,” she says. The following March, during the second week of lockdown, she received her acceptance email.
The second round of Young was ultimately delayed by a year due to the pandemic, but what Caleiro remembers is how well-handled the logistics of the program were in the period between her acceptance and the following year. “In Portugal, in youth orchestras, something doesn’t go well,” she says. “And that’s okay. But in Young, everything went with the flow. It was a super well-organized thing.” The RCO worked with its Young 2020-21 students during lockdown, including group sessions and master classes held via Zoom. That summer, Caleiro worked with RCO violist Guus Jeukendrup on Brahms’s Sonata in F Minor, which she used for conservatory auditions. She landed a place at her dream school, the Conservatorium van Amsterdam.
The first day of Young is a flurry of move-in and orientation activities. But with such a tight schedule, the students still play in the evening, giving a post-dinner orchestral run-through of the central work on their eventual concert program. It’s the first time the students play together, and, in the case of Caleiro’s cohort, the first time that many of the musicians played in an ensemble since the beginning of the pandemic. “It was so nice, because we were just practicing our parts in our rooms in other countries,” Caleiro recalls of her cohort’s first-night play-through of Brahms’s Symphony No. 2. “And then the next day, you’re just playing with a whole orchestra, made up of people just like you.”
“If you look at the difference between this first try-out, the first concert, and then the second concert, there are huge—huge—steps,” adds Schutte. “I find that fascinating.” The musicianship improves, but more importantly, the confidence and camaraderie does as well. “It’s a bit like a pressure cooker, really. They’re all about the same age and are already exceptionally good musicians. It all suddenly kicks into high gear, though, and their level skyrockets,” says RCO tubist Perry Hoogendijk, who then echoes the “go-with-the-flow” feeling that Caleiro highlighted: “The funny thing is, they don’t notice it because it’s all very casual and relaxed.”
In the current climate for young musicians, Schutte sees this balance as a necessity: “The pressure is there in general with young children, but with young musicians who are in conservatory or have just graduated, the pressure for doing auditions is such a difficult thing. And also playing in an orchestra, first year to second year, is so stressful.” The pressure has only grown over time, she says, citing fewer orchestras and funding difficulties. The non-musical workshops of Young, led by United World Colleges, were designed to address some of the many pressures experienced by young musicians: dealing with stress and stage fright, recognizing and experiencing disadvantage, and generating ideas for how they could serve as ambassadors for classical music post-Young.
In an accelerated environment, the musicians come together quickly, and begin to replicate some of the dynamics behind the RCO’s own signature sound. Their special qualities are preserved and their individuality adds something to the whole, but there is also a sense of symbiosis. “The collective is so amazing, because they listen to each other,” Schutte says, stressing the word “listen,” a key act for any RCO musician on the Concertgebouw stage. Caleiro echoes this sentiment; her strongest memory of the first night play-through of Brahms was of “listening quite a lot.” As diverse as their backgrounds are, they are quickly able to find common ground. “There is a love for playing in an orchestra and in a group of people that I didn’t have before Young,” says violinist Ulilan Szymańska Pereira, who, like Caleiro, played in the 2020-21 cohort, hails from Portugal, and now studies at the Conservatory in Amsterdam. She credits the program with giving her a foothold in the city that she now calls home.
Like all Young alumni, both musicians are also active as ambassadors, part of Young’s mandate for alumni to continue building diversity and opportunity within orchestras and audiences. Once Caleiro and Pereira returned to Amsterdam for their studies, they reconnected with Schutte, who has sent local Young alumni to perform and teach in schools both in the city and suburbs (Caleiro is also working with her on developing her own idea for performing in retirement homes). For Pereira, these school concerts are especially poignant as it was during an open-stage concert that she first heard the violin demonstrated and discovered her love for the instrument. Schutte adds that, as Young continues, she would like to see these initiatives develop into a special program for alumni, in order to build on the peer-to-peer ambassadorship that she feels is vital for the future of classical music (50-year-old YouTube videos only get you so far). “If we say as adults and as 130-year-old institutions, that classical music is very important, it’s very beautiful, and you have to know about Brahms and Beethoven and Bach… I mean, younger people don’t care. They have to make their own stories.”
This sounds fundamental, but it’s an eye-opening experience that most young classical musicians have to come by honestly: the realization that the art form has limitations, and that these limitations are artificial. It can light a fire in many to break down those barriers, whether they’re a question of high ticket prices or the blood sport of debating the merits of clapping between movements. “The same thing happens in Portugal, where people who go to classical music concerts always have the posture that they’re better than the ones that don’t go… So yes, I think that will be present in my career,” Caleiro says of her desire to challenge this attitude. “Young made me realize that the world is so much bigger than what I’d thought.”
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