A fortunate Boston audience was treated to the latest piece of musical sorcery from New England Conservatory’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Director Benjamin Zander on Friday, June 3, at Jordan Hall, in the maiden voyage of a program they will perform in coming weeks in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and ultimately at the much-venerated Musikverein in Vienna. Though only consisting of two pieces, the program was exceptionally long and demanding, made still longer by some ill-coordinated stage preparation that prevented the audience from entering the hall till less than ten minutes before scheduled performance time. One hopes the European stage crews will be rather more efficient.
The evening opened with Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33, for cello and orchestra, with soloist Jonah Ellsworth, 17, winner of the YPO’s Concerto Competition as well as its principal cellist. As befits its name, the piece’s theme combines elements of the Baroque and Classical periods — from a Romantic composer’s perspective. Ellsworth’s playing was refined and elegant, gracefully incorporating touches of rubato. He delivered the work’s many virtuosic passages with plenty of bravura — notably in Variation II, the multiple cadenzas of Variation V, and the final Variation VII — but his performance was just as memorable for its beauty of expression. The lyricism and arched phrases of Variations III and VI were akin to a gifted opera singer spinning out an exquisite bel canto aria. His tone is not especially large, and there were at least two places in the exciting finale when the orchestra covered him briefly. In all other respects, however, the YPO and Ben Zander were sensitive collaborators, expressive and colorful throughout. Particularly memorable were Variation III, whose lovely detached woodwind chords and string pizzicatos recall Swan Lake, and the incisively brilliant final Variation VII.
The second “half” (roughly quadruple the time of the first) was Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 in D Major. Before the performance, Zander noted some pertinent facts: as far as he knew, no other youth (high school) orchestra had yet attempted the Mahler Ninth; 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death; and the tour will encompass places where Mahler was born, lived, and worked. The music director then spoke with erudition and passion about the symphony itself, particularly noting Mahler’s unique approach to polyphony: the paradox of making an ensemble by highlighting the independence of each individual part.
The immense opening slow movement vividly embodied the salient points of Zander’s remarks. The various orchestral sections kept rhythmic ensemble but maintained their individuality in all other respects, eliminating the hierarchy of melody and accompaniment. The YPO’s flexibility of tempo and dynamics was something to marvel at — though no less than what Mahler demands. In keeping with the composer’s view that a symphony must embrace everything, there were constant contrasts: the harmonious, beautiful, and anodyne versus the dissonant, tense, and hostile. The motives representing these two opposing types of music were combined, “resolved in … a glimpse of bliss” at the end of the movement, illustrating the dilemma that hope and love are inevitably accompanied by despair.
Zander noted that the “victories” achieved at the end of the first movement are too unstable to be trusted, and the two middle movements are intended to “test” them. The second movement, marked “Somewhat clumsily and very roughly,” is a palsied parody of a dance, the Austrian Ländler. I couldn’t help recalling Edvard Grieg’s remark about a similarly deliberately club-footed dance from his Peer Gynt music: “It stinks so of cow-dung … insularity … and self-sufficiency!” The players relished this opportunity for grim humor (no doubt originally inspired by Zander) and gave us another engaging paradox: a horde of clumsy dancers who coordinate nearly perfectly. The movement gathers a sinister energy for a time — an interesting precursor to Maurice Ravel’s La Valse — before returning limply to the opening theme. The humorously grotesque final phrase is played, many octaves apart, on piccolo and contra-bassoon, “a sparrow partnering an elephant” in Zander’s apt description.
The third movement is a scherzo only if one is willing to abandon the literal meaning of the word, for there is no joking here. It is largely given over to hostility and conflict except for an oasis of tender comfort in the middle which will be developed considerably further in the final movement. Mahler dedicated this movement with bitter irony to “my brothers in Apollo [the god of music],” the critics who continually questioned his ability to write counterpoint. Though titled Rondo Burleske, it is a fugue as well, demonstrating an impressive command of polyphonic writing. The YPO compellingly depicted strife large and small, from declarations of war down to malicious susurrations. Near the end there was a dazzling accelerando hurtling into a white-hot coda whose sudden ending left much of the audience gasping.
The final movement, after a unison introduction, gives us some gorgeous string writing much like the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and Zander got a rich, burnished sound from his players. This was but the first of many reappearances of the “tender theme” from the previous movement. A later one was especially delectable as the theme was passed among some fine solo players: violin, bassoon, French horn, and English horn. (Somehow there was no credit for the English horn on the player list; this should be corrected for the tour.) Again, there were many contrasts, e.g., passages of ardent yearning and other ghostly ones marked “without expression.” Towards the conclusion there is a final magnificent climax, but it is gradually attenuated into a whispered, otherworldly ending. After eighty-plus minutes of hugely demanding music, one must salute these teenage players for maintaining focused concentration in this utterly rapt, spare coda. After the last note had died away and Zander’s hands had descended there was over half a minute of silence; no one wanted to shatter the atmosphere so magically created by these superb performers.
For once, Elgar’s Nimrod (of the Enigma Variations) was an anticlimax, Mahler’s epic journey having left most of us emotionally wrung out. Still, tradition must be served, and it was beautifully played, a moving expression of love dedicated to the graduating YPO members and, one suspects, from the players to their devoted music director. Bravi, tutti and bon voyage!
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