National Youth Orchestra of Germany helps remember power of music to heal

Kristalnacht, The Night of Broken Glass, occurred the night of Nov. 9 and early morning of Nov. 10 in 1938, 80 years ago this week. Hundreds of Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed by Nazis things during an orchestrated assault.

The National Youth Orchestra of Germany is made up of some of the best 100 young musicians aged 14 to 19 that country produces. The tradition of classical music is strong in Germany and these young people often get to work with the best including Sir  Simon Rattle, who is Conductor Laureate. They have also worked with, over the years, Herbert von Karajan, Kurt Masur, Gerd Albrecht, and Gustavo Dudamel. It was found in 1969 and since 2013 has been an official partner of the world famous Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. The orchestra is making a rare trip to Ottawa this week to take part in concerts that recall the end of the First World War and the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, that night in 1938 when Nazi thugs destroyed the homes and businesses of German Jews in a presage of the Holocaust to come. ARTSFILE spoke to one of the members of the orchestra, 20 year old cellist Lukas Plag, about his love of music and the importance of concerts such as these. He’s been a member of the orchestra since 2014. Here is an edited transcript.

Q. Please tell me about yourself, your life in music and why you are pursuing it?

A. I have had music around me since I was a child. Almost 12 years ago, I picked up a cello and invested a lot of time in it. But I also discovered a wonderful world of expression, stories, emotions and lots of lovely people.

I took lessons, changed teachers, learned a lot, but trouble, questions and doubt have been around. Lately, I had to decide if I want to study music further or open up myself to another world of possibilities. That made me ask myself: Why do I want to make music? And is it worth spending so much time in practice rooms? When it comes to the question of a job, music might not be the first choice, but I believe that music — and culture — set some important unspoken values in our society. Finally, its about how we act together, what our understandings of relationships between human beings are and so much more. It makes us think differently. Maybe music lets us become or stay understanding, emotional and rational people.

Music has the power to “soften“ our souls; it has the power to keep us together. I even would go further, Art in general has this power.  In order to keep myself as a “human being“ and to have a colourful life, I am pursuing this career.

The National Youth Orchestra of Germany performs in three concerts this week.

Q. Please tell me a little bit about the National Youth Orchestra of Germany.

A. The National Youth Orchestra of Germany makes it possible for young people to experience being part of a big and professional orchestra.

But the orchestra is so much more. These young people bring an insane amount of energy into the organization and that makes the music really intense. Enthusiastic playing is one of its primary features. That is also what well-known conductors say about this orchestra.

It is also a wonderful experience and great fun to travel around the world with a big bunch of young people.

Professionally, many chamber music combinations started at the Bundesjugendorchester. We get used to a variety of different conductors and soloists and we are allowed to play in some of the biggest concert hall on the planet. It is a gift for everybody who comes here.

Q. Is this your first time in Canada?

A. For me, yes it is the first time and I’m very excited to see this country and to meet new people.

(NACO’s Music Director) Alexander Shelley invited us to play with him and this is something we are really thankful for. He conducted the National Youth Orchestra of Germany in 2017 and before that we worked work with him.

We are going to play Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem with the professionals of the National Arts Centre Orchestra. There is so much to learn from professionals.

We played the War Requiem in April in Germany and Poland. I think everybody will find that this piece, these words and this music cannot be said often enough.

Q. These are troubled times and the concerts (on Nov. 10 marking Kristallnacht and with the NAC Orchestra) you are performing in Ottawa recall other times of trouble. Is it important to you to take part in such performances?

A. Yes, the importance of such projects cannot be said loudly enough. The best thing to prevent us from getting into even more complicated times is to show what happened, to not hesitate to talk about the destruction and the atrocities and to be part of that remembering and make others part of too.

We won’t reach all the people that we would like to reach, but it can be a sign, carried really far by people talking about this. Britten did not write a usual Requiem. It includes poems and stories from the Second World War and that brings the content so much closer to the listeners. It is the perfect piece to show what happened and to make us reconsider what we do today.

Q. My understanding is that the orchestra members picked pieces of music to perform at the concert remembering Kristalnacht. What piece did you choose and why?

A. We had the opportunity to suggest pieces from Jewish composers whose music was forbidden by the Nazis. I chose The Prayer From Jewish Life by Ernest Bloch. Unfortunately it did not find a place in the program.

It is a quiet, well known piece, nevertheless for me it is one of the most beautiful and honest portrayals of Jewish life and culture. It is a really intense prayer written with such a passion. It’s almost unlike anything else. Musically it is wholly different … different scales, different musical elements, and that also makes it really interesting.

Of course there might be no direct connection between these two pieces — the War Requiem and The Prayer — but still, Britten’s work touches on what happened to the jews during the war. This music might be a way to seeother cultures and to give people look at how life can be.

And last but not least, there should be always some room to pray in complicated times.

Q. Do you think music can make a positive contribution to a political debate?

A. It should, but it’s not that easy. I have the feeling that projects like this are too far away from the politicians. Maybe they see us playing the music, and maybe they’ll emphasize the importance, but I’m quite sure everyone would love to see a lot more effort to achieve peace. The more people are impressed and inspired by music the more they will talk about its meaning and this will hopefully end up as an appeal to the politicians to work for freedom and peace. In that way, music is, at least indirectly, able to take part in politics.

Q Does music soothe the savage beast in all of us?

A. To be honest, it depends. There is so much different music out there… But, as I described earlier, when we are listening to music, we allow ourselves to “be” because music contains all these emotions. This is always a first step to finally becoming  somebody who is not ashamed about his or her feelings. Is this the key to soothe the beast in us? Possibly.
Nobody can guarantee anything. We can only try.

However, music is capable of something else. It always connects people: When you listen to the same song, music or story and you see others having the same reaction. You realize you don’t have to be afraid of being wrong or weird. This leads us to tolerance and acceptance, which is a big part of making and experiencing music.

Music can do a lot. Give it a try, let yourself be human.

The German National Youth Orchestra Remembers Kristallnacht
With Constanze Beckmann (piano), Atis Bankas (violin), Cantor Jason Green
Opening remarks Justice Rosalie Abella
When: Nov. 10 at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Ave.
This is a free concert but tickets must be reserved:

The War Requiem
With the National Arts Centre Orchestra, National Youth Orchestra of Germany
Soloists Albina Shagimuratova (soprano), Isaiah Bell (tenor) James Westman (Bass-baritone)
Combined choirs directed by Duain Wolfe: Ottawa Choral Society, Capital Chamber Choir, Ottawa Festival Chorus, Ewashko Singers, Ottawa Regional Youth Choir, Ottawa Children’s Choir, Chamber Choir
Where: Southam Hall
When: Nov. 9 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:
The World Remembers
Featuring the National Youth Orchestra of Germany with members of the NYO Canada, Orkidstra and choirs from De La Salle and Canterbury High Schools, and the Calixa-Lavallée Chamber Choir from the University of Ottawa.
When: Nov. 11 at 12:30 p.m.
Where: Southam Hall
This is a free concert. For information:
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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.