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Taut Playing Alternated With Expressiveness For Boston Philharmonic


On its opening concert of the new season, the Boston Philharmonic programmed “the king of concertos” along with what “many feel is the best symphony” of one of the best-known symphonists.  These and other observations articulated by the Philharmonic’s long-time conductor, Benjamin Zander, captured the attention of a near full house at Sanders Theatre. The pieces? Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 and Dvorák’s Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70.

“If you had heard the Brahms before,” then this performance by the Boston Philharmonic, Zander advised, would be a “revelation.”

In keeping with Brahms’ composition, which grants equal importance to both soloist and orchestra, up-and-coming violinist Feng Ning and conductor Benjamin Zander agreed to become “collaborators” or “equal partners.” Their approach would also make extensive use of  “rubato” (slight shifts in speed that eventually even each other out in the longer haul, something like robbing Peter to pay Paul), this, for expressive purposes, instead of the usual concerto practice of virtuosic displays on the one hand, lyrical indulgences on the other.

And who could not be impressed with young soloist Feng Ning’s biography, a mile-long list of prizes and awards garnered over recent years, honors ranging from the “famous Paganini Violin Competition” to “Friends of the Royal Academy of Music-Wigmore.” It was no surprise, then, that his obvious, ever-amazing command over the “most difficult concerto of all to play” (Zander), earned the thunderous rounds of applause and a standing ovation that it did.

And the Philharmonic was in command, as well, of its own challenging and demanding “symphonic” role, which Brahms originated for his singular concerto. Polish and precision, though, afforded little room, if any, for spontaneity—something that does not always come easily, it should be remembered. With rubato as the primary vehicle for expression, a natural flow would be expected, which is what the rubato is usually about: naturalness, fluidity, freedom, and the like. Curiously, taut playing surfaced throughout and, at times, to such a degree that it seemed on the brink of bursting out of its confined space. While both revelation and rubato eluded me, their high-level technical accomplishments and disciplined clarity of phrasing kept my mind on the music.

Following the concerto, Feng Ning surprised with his imaginative and fitting choice of encore, a delicate, raindrop-like sounding arrangement of a guitar piece entitled Recuerdo al Alhambra. Crossing strings, spiccato (where the bow is quickly dropped onto and lifted from the string) appeared among the various treacherous violin techniques that Ning nimbly, and in an unassumingly stance, reckoned with before the admiring audience.

As to the 7th Symphony, Zander’s focus became real: Dvorák, the Czech’s love for his country, its folk music and its life with all of its moments of darkness and light. Where the formalism of Brahms constrained Zander, the endless flux and unbridled expression of Dvorák unleashed him.

There was space everywhere for the music to breathe. Hairpin turns of emotion occurred naturally, freely, yet with purpose: restless strings yearning and striving; powerful, triumphant brasses shrouded in doubt; quieter, triumphant woodwinds touched with humility. Explosive downbeats and fleeting dance steps in the final movement conveyed as much visually as aurally caused me to wonder what it would be like to see Zander choreograph an entire score facing the audience rather than the orchestra, his super-human energy and expression being our guide.

The Boston Philharmonic and the 7th Symphony seemed made for each other. It was a totally enthralling experience every move and movement of the way. It felt like life itself as its composer, Dvorák, meant it to be!

The Philharmonic dedicated its program to the memory of Michael Steinberg (1928-2009), “incomparable writer on music…who was classical music critic of the Boston Globe 1964-1976.”

The concert will be repeated on Saturday, October 10 at 8 pm in Jordan Hall and on Sunday, October 11 at 3 pm again in Sanders Theatre.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and Chairman of the Department at U. Mass Boston for the past 15 years, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award in Teaching and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. Also a composer, he lives in Watertown.

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  1. Excellent review of the show David. I’m going to be in town tomorrow and will catch this then :)

    Comment by violin strings — October 9, 2009 at 9:45 pm

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