Arts + Culture

An Inside Look at the Naples Philharmonic’s Opening Night

How the first concert of the 2018-19 season took shape.

BY January 23, 2019

The day before the Naples Philharmonic’s opening night performance of the 2018-2019 season, the orchestra’s musicians gather at Artis—Naples for rehearsal. It’s Wednesday morning, a quarter to 10, and this is rehearsal three of five. The musicians arrive in their street clothes, sunglasses perched on their heads and instrument cases slung over their shoulders. They line up the cases on tables backstage, carefully remove their instruments and take their places beneath the bright lights onstage. The dissonant sound of instruments tuning fills the hall as they warm up. Piano keys click, bells chime, a viola plays a single high note. As the clock approaches 10, the activity onstage increases. The violinists’ bows rise up and down, the kettle drum thunders. A woman in sweatpants and sneakers walks by carrying a French horn. There is the low chatter of conversation, the flipping of sheet music, the shaking of a tambourine. Glenn Basham, the principal violinist, or concertmaster, arrives and takes his seat. The sound onstage mounts to a mad frenzy. Woodwinds playing. Horns blowing. Backstage, fluorescent lights shine down. Onstage, the yellow stage lights glow. But then 10 a.m. is nearly here, and the cacophony edges toward stillness. Soon it’s just the French horn and the percussion and an occasional plucking from the violins.

At exactly 10 o’clock, Basham stands and says, “Good morning.” The orchestra falls silent. On Basham’s cue, the principal oboist plays an A above middle C, and the woodwinds and brass tune. On his signal, she gives a second A for the strings. Basham plays alone for 3 seconds then the rest of the section follows. When the orchestra is ready, Andrey Boreyko, music director of the Naples Philharmonic, steps from backstage and onto the conductor’s podium. He carries his baton in his right hand, and he is easy in his body as he stands with his back to the sea of empty seats. He greets the musicians and indicates where he would like to begin. This morning they will work on a piece by Mason Bates, followed by Symphony No. 4 from Johannes Brahms.

“One, two, three . . .” Boreyko counts, and the orchestra begins.

By the time the philharmonic reaches its first performance of the season on Oct. 18, the three pieces on the evening’s program will be so close to flawless that it will be easy to forget that the near-mystical moment of orchestral perfection was many months in the making. From the selection of the season’s program, to the pre-rehearsal preparations, to the rehearsals themselves, a single Masterworks concert involves mountains of effort.

At the Wednesday morning rehearsal, Boreyko stops the musicians after a few notes. He speaks about pacing in his Eastern European accent, a blend of Polish, his first language, and Russian, the language he grew up with. He gestures with his hands to capture what he’s looking for, first a side-to-side movement, as in “so-so,” and then a fluid serpentine movement. The orchestra begins again.

Boreyko follows the melody with his feet together, his back straight, but his arms, hands and head both leading the music and informing it. He pauses again.

“Brian,” he says to the principal percussionist. “Can you play it stronger? Lift it?”

“I can try,” the percussionist responds.

Boreyko gives him the sound of what he wants. Tee dum dum ba dum. Then, again. Tee dum dum ba dum.

Boreyko is unfailingly polite as he gives direction, saying “thank you” often and delivering his instructions in the form of requests. There is nevertheless a firmness to his movements, his tone and his directions, as well as a confidence and a certainty.

“He brings a tremendous amount of intensity to the rehearsals,” says concertmaster Basham of Boreyko’s style. “This is really where he’s doing his work. That’s where he coaches the orchestra and solves any problems. He has such a clear vision of what he wants before the first note is even played. That is so important. It’s what distinguishes a really great conductor from other conductors who are just leading. And it’s our job to realize that, to make it happen. He’s extremely efficient in rehearsal. He asks you to do something, and if you come back the next day and you forgot, that’s really uncomfortable. You really have to pay attention. When he comes to town, everybody is ready. You have to be really, really prepared because you want to make him happy.”

And at this rehearsal, Boreyko is happy. He follows the music in a way that is like dancing with the orchestra, first the violin section then the woodwinds; then he is stock-still with just his baton gently waving up and down. He holds a finger up to the brass section as if to say, “Wait,” then gives an emphatic nod of the head as if to say, “Yes, yes. That’s it. You’ve got it now.”

He pauses, calls for strings and woodwind, and with a nod and a wave of his baton, the orchestra continues. He turns around to the assistant conductor, Radu Paponiu, who is sitting in the audience. 

“Works?” Boreyko asks.

Paponiu nods.

Boreyko takes the piece all the way to the end, and in the silence that follows the final notes the musicians glance at once another with pleased smiles.

“Yes, thank you,” Boreyko says. “Bravo, bravo.”

Long before this rehearsal and many months before the season’s 10-concert Masterworks series was announced, Boreyko worked over potential combinations of scores. Each season, he strives to build the very best possible program, one that will not only please his audience with familiar pieces but also introduce them to new music. It’s a careful balance.

“In the U.S., we should always remember that classical music exists because people are supporting it,” Boreyko explains. “It’s not like in Germany or France, where the government is covering 75 to 80 percent of the budget. On the other hand, we should be very careful in suggesting that we perform only the music our audience knows. It’s a very European way of thinking, but I still believe that what we are doing, it’s not only entertainment. We have bigger goals than to make people happy and smiling. Art in general is a way of thinking and a way of communicating. If we don’t ask ourselves sometimes to do something new or unusual or difficult, we will stay at a certain stage of development. That’s why I believe that we must introduce to our audience music which they probably have never heard before, music maybe they don’t accept from the very first moment. But we should do it in such a smart way that people will open themselves and their hearts and souls to something which is unknown. If we limit ourselves to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart, we limit our ability to communicate with each other.”

For the October season opener, he decided to begin with a 7-minute score from Mason Bates, Attack Decay Sustain Release. Bates is a living American composer and former DJ, just 41 years old, whose compositions are inspired and informed by electronic dance music. 

For the second piece, Boreyko chose the concerto for two pianos by composer Max Bruch, whose most well-known work is the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26. Bruch’s much lesser-known concerto for two pianos requires two pianists, and for this performance Boreyko chose to bring in the twin Naughton sisters, Christina and Michelle, a pair of much-celebrated Juilliard-trained pianists. 

And for the more familiar part of the performance, the symphony that would anchor the show? Here, Boreyko made a very personal selection with Brahms’ Symphony No. 4

With the Naples Philharmonic, Boreyko has already conducted Brahms’ symphonies No. 1, 2 and 3, but Brahms’ 4 has remained elusive. 

“Brahms is very difficult to perform,” Boreyko says. “You have to work with what’s inside the music, not just the notes.”

He admits that he has not played that particular symphony since his student days, and it’s one he wanted to hold until the right moment in his career, when his skills as a conductor aligned with his emotional readiness for the piece and the perfect orchestra to perform it. 

He describes his first encounter with the score:

“I was 12 or 13 years old, thinking about football and hanging out with my friends. I wasn’t a prodigy, even though my parents pushed me to practice. When I was free, I went to see my neighbor, who was about 20 years old, and he had a small collection of LPs—The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. One day he showed me, like a precious stone, the LP from a group called Yes. The album was titled Fragile, from 1971. There was one particular song, and I said, ‘This is the best piece of the LP.’ I heard it again and again. I was falling in love with this piece, and I asked to see the title. It was Cans and Brahms. The next day in school I went to the library and asked for the music of Brahms, and the next week I went to the philharmonic to hear Brahms. The music from the LP was the third movement of Brahms’ 4. When I was listening to this music, I thought it was the music of Yes, but it was really the music of Brahms. On this day, I decided to become a classical musician.”

Boreyko spent this past summer working through the score and preparing for the October performance and his professional debut of Brahms’ 4. He was deep in the symphony, he says, with both his head and his heart in it.

“I couldn’t wait to get to rehearsal.”

The orchestra held five rehearsals the week of the performance—two on Tuesday, two on Wednesday and a dress rehearsal Thursday morning with the first performance that night. The rehearsal schedule began Tuesday morning with the Bates and the Brahms and focused solely on the Brahms on Tuesday evening. The Wednesday morning rehearsal again went to the Bates and the Brahms, and the Wednesday afternoon rehearsal was for the Bruch piece and included the Naughton sisters. The Thursday morning dress rehearsal took the performance through all three pieces.

Though the rehearsals marked the first coming together of Boreyko and the orchestra’s musicians for the season, the orchestra members had been readying all summer. After all, these are not hobbyists. Being a member of the orchestra is a full-time gig, with a paycheck every two weeks and health insurance.

“Just like any other respectable job,” Basham says.

What this means is that the members have spent the summer months performing locally and preparing for the Masterworks concerts. They also made the adjustment to a new co-concertmaster, Emerson Millar, just 23 years old, who was appointed this summer. The 2018-2019 season marks the first time the Naples Philharmonic will have two concertmasters, a practice more common in Europe. Millar and Basham will take on the concertmaster role at different performances. At the moment the orchestra and Boreyko came together for the first rehearsal for the Oct. 18 concert, a tremendous amount of back work had already gone into the performance. For the musicians, it was in the form of practicing and prepping their instruments. For Boreyko, it was months spent considering the piece, readying it in his mind and making critical choices about the music.

“What does it mean to perform a very well-known piece like the Brahms No. 4?” asks Boreyko. “For some conductors, it means to play it perfectly from a technical point of view; all the notes are perfect, the pitch is perfect. It means that every element is very well-balanced, that the orchestra is playing together, 16 violinists are playing the same tune to create the impression that it’s one big instrument—these are all technical things. The right tempo, rhythm, pitch. These type of conductors are usually doing their work at the concert. They are controlling the results of their work. They’re not really improvising. For me, it’s a different way of thinking.”

Boreyko begins with a solid foundation: musicians who can play the music perfectly, who know the score inside and out. From there, he expands to interpretation, pulling from his own life in this particular moment to deliver a performance that moves beyond the technical notes on the page. No two performances are alike, he says, because our lives are in constant flux. He remembers conducting Brahms’ first symphony as a younger man in Poland when his father died unexpectedly. Though it was a piece he had conducted before, he brought a new interpretation to the music. He was experiencing his own pain, not the pain described by someone else, and that emotional experience carried to his interpretation of the music.

Bringing this kind of temporal inspiration to the score is his goal, Boreyko says. Not to make a piece better, exactly, but to make it unique to the moment. And on the evening of Oct. 18, that moment had arrived.

The blue velvet seats in the auditorium of Artis—Naples filled with patrons as the musicians gathered onstage, the men in white-tie tuxedo and the women in all-black dresses or skirt ensembles. In the final moments before the performance, Basham stepped onto the stage and was greeted by respectful applause from the audience. He gave the signal, and with two A notes from the oboe the different sections of the orchestra tuned. Lastly, Boreyko made his entrance. He gave a graceful wave to the audience, and the orchestra members stood for him. He bowed politely. As he ascended the podium, the musicians, now seated, watched with rapt attention. Instruments were held ready and bows raised. He took a moment to gather the tension in his body, drew himself up like a loaded spring, then leaned forward and in one swift motion raised his baton and uncoiled his energy outward. The orchestra moved as one, and together Boreyko and the symphony launched into the first triumphant notes of the season.

Much later, after the final music of the performance has faded to silence, after the applause has stilled and the audience gone home for the night, Boreyko will still be thinking about the concert and what can be improved for the next night’s performance. He will make notes on tempo, on dynamic contrasts, on the efforts of the soloists—always striving for something closer to the interpretation he holds in his mind.

“Each concert is a wonderful opportunity to perform a piece not exactly the same way as it was performed last night, but slightly differently,” Boreyko says. “And even if the concert seemed perfect—which is never the case for me—the next one can always be even better. Music is unpredictable. And I am very happy it is!”