It hardly needs saying, to a Boston audience that knows them so well, that the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra under Benjamin Zander is much more than a simple alternative to the Boston Symphony under James Levine. In 30 years it has proved itself to be a first-rate ensemble worthy of comparison, in discipline and cohesiveness, to any professional orchestra in America, fully responsive to the expert leadership of its founder and fully expressive of his performing vision. The “Discovery” concert on October 15, in Sanders Theatre, was a fine demonstration of the high quality of the ensemble. No less excellent was Zander’s elegant and witty instruction delivered to the audience, which filled the hall nearly to capacity and included many young people who had never heard an orchestra of any kind before. (Congratulations were offered to Bryant College of Rhode Island for sending 295 students in several busloads.)
Bartók’s Dance Suite of 1923, which opened the program, is orchestrally difficult and probably for that reason is seldom heard today, but this performance was confident, energetic, hard-edged, and persuasive. The work projects alternately a thick, often crude harmony with a lush folklike impressionism, both of which are more familiar in Bartók’s ballets The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin. The orchestration is superb, and the nationalist melodic flavor entirely convincing. Yet for all that, this rhythmic music is less dancelike than Bartók’s own Rumanian Folk Dances, which are more popular. We need to hear it more often.
Excellent young performers are frequently heard in Boston, but only rarely do we hear a child prodigy, and George Li, an NEC student 13 years old — he looks younger — already plays like a mature pianist, with expert control, fine expression, and seemingly effortless technique. Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was also a prodigy. Most of his Concerto no. 2 in G minor (1868) is a frank showpiece; one commentator says that it “begins like Bach and ends like Offenbach.” The entire concerto was written in three weeks, but it is not generally known that the first and best movement was written in three days; Saint-Saëns supposedly did not even write down the piano part of the first movement but played the premiere from memory, and one wonders how Anton Rubinstein was able to conduct it from a piano-less full score. George Li brought out the expressive and dramatic dimensions of this movement to the full. The beautiful and even dazzling piano sound manages to excuse a great deal of banal musical material in the last two movements; it is especially to George Li’s credit that he understood their elegance so well. Yet for all its superficiality, this concerto is dauntingly difficult to play, and the last movement, Presto, was at a faster tempo than I have ever heard before in this piece. At the end of the concerto, the entire audience stood in appreciation that George Li fully deserved. We can expect much from him in the coming years.
Never mind that Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”, 1893) is a warhorse, one of the most popular orchestral pieces of all time. It is an unquestioned masterpiece nevertheless, and certainly it is Dvorak’s finest symphony. (Of his earlier symphonies, only no. 8 is of comparable stature; all the others, notwithstanding many beautiful moments, suffer to varying degrees from long-windedness and too-great reliance on the spirit of Brahms or Wagner or both.) As did Tchaikovsky in his own last symphony, Dvorak achieved in his Ninth a pinnacle of strength, efficiency, and even economy for which he had striven throughout his career. In terms of harmonic originality, the “New World” breaks new ground; in terms of formal structure and overall shape, it is a model for its time surpassed, probably, only by Mahler’s epochal First Symphony (1888). The cyclic dimension of Franck’s Symphony in D minor (1888) seems contrived by comparison, and that of Brahms’s Third (1883) is tame. What Dvorak does in the Ninth is virtually unprecedented: themes that appear new in each movement are restated in each subsequent movement. In the second and third movements, the earlier themes reappear as momentary flashbacks, like partially concealed clues in a dream sequence; but in the finale these same themes are integrated and developed within the essential narrative process. One might think this is a cumbersome way to write a symphony, but everyone who knows the “New World” recognizes how effortlessly successful this synthesis is.
Audiences everywhere know that the “New World” offers a panorama of drama and lyricism large and small. Benjamin Zander led the Philharmonic’s performance with unflagging energy and complete control of even the most subtle details. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better performance of this resplendent symphony, and the attentive audience seemed to agree. The overall sound, in that intimate but resonant hall, was magnificent.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.