The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s eight-city, 12-concert European tour almost screeched to a halt before its grand finale this week, but quick thinking and resourceful teamwork ensured that the show went on.
On Monday, mechanical problems grounded the orchestra’s noon flight from Paris to Amsterdam, the tour’s last stop. That meant about 145 people (some 110 orchestra members, plus staff and guests) were stuck at Charles De Gaulle Airport, hundreds of miles from that evening’s concert. This was after days of performing in cities from London to Vienna, Hamburg, and Berlin.
Speaking by phone from Europe on Tuesday, BSO managing director Mark Volpe said the orchestra’s 180-seat charter plane to Amsterdam was initially delayed 45 minutes before it was announced that the aircraft was entirely out of commission. Alternative modes of transportation were considered — trains, buses — but the only viable option was a smaller plane, in Luxembourg at the time, with 76 seats, far too few for the whole group and for all the musicians needed to perform Shostakovich’s massive Symphony No. 4 that night. The score calls for a huge complement of players; the BSO had plans for 112.
BSO music director Andris Nelsons, already in Amsterdam, communicated with Volpe, artistic administrator Tony Fogg, and members of the BSO players’ committee and artistic advisory committees to find a solution. They knew they could perform the first work on the program, Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade (after Plato’s ‘Symposium’),” which called for a smaller orchestra of strings and percussion accompanying violin soloist Baiba Skride. And they settled on a new plan: Instead of the Shostakovich, they would play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which the orchestra hadn’t performed since the summer of 2017 at Tanglewood. The management of the Royal Concertgebouw hall in Amsterdam agreed to push the concert start time back from 8:15 p.m. to 9 p.m., and staff at the hall printed the orchestral parts for the Beethoven that the BSO library staff quickly sent over from Boston.
After the 76-seat propeller plane arrived in Paris around 4:30 p.m., the BSO had to determine who would go ahead to Amsterdam, and who would stay — and then re-do the plane’s passenger manifest, a lengthy process.
“It’s not a coincidence that bureaucracy’s a French word,” joked Volpe.
Travel agents arranged for buses on the tarmac to whisk musicians to the Amsterdam hall, where most of their instruments had already been brought by truck. They changed into concert clothes, ate a quick meal at the Concertgebouw’s canteen, and took their places to perform the Bernstein and Beethoven with no rehearsal. The hall’s president made a speech informing the audience what had happened.
“There are conductors who need to talk to explain everything they want to do . . . and then there are conductors who can just conduct,” said principal cellist Blaise Déjardin, describing the Amsterdam concert by phone. “Those are the best. Andris is one of those rare people who can really convey with his baton, his technique, what he wants us to do with the music. That’s why it can work in this type of situation. . . . We’re very, very lucky to have him.”
The audience clearly recognized what such a concert had demanded of the musicians, and they responded with enthusiastic ovations, according to the BSO.
“[Nelsons] didn’t just beat time. He made music, he took chances, he pushed tempos. It was quite exciting. Total eruption at the end of it,” said Volpe.
As for those who were left behind — including bassist James Orleans, who was retiring and missed the last concert of his career — they hit the duty-free shops for a picnic.
And they decided they might as well have a drink, recalled associate principal clarinetist Thomas Martin, speaking by phone after landing in Boston. “We were sick of sandwiches,” he said. “Someone got a big can of foie gras and some crackers, and we were passing it around.”
The same plane that had transported musicians to Amsterdam returned to Paris for the second group. They arrived after midnight, and the caterers for the BSO’s after-party had kept the food hot for them, Volpe said.
Déjardin noted that he felt bad for those left behind, but grateful and happy for the way everyone pulled together. “I didn’t see anyone being upset or angry,” he said. “We made the best out of it.”
Volpe agreed. “I think there’s a continuing intense . . . loving relationship between conductor and orchestra. They wanted Andris to have this concert. Andris wanted them to have this concert,” said Volpe. “I think there’s a great spirit and can-do resilience and flexibility. . . . The spirit in this orchestra is ‘We’ve gotta get to Amsterdam and play a concert.’”Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.