On Friday, June 4, in a program of huge challenges — technical, emotional, and spiritual, Benjamin Zander and the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra achieved a triumph. A well-filled Jordan Hall heard a program whose overarching theme was human isolation, a very large — even epic — program, though it was comprised of only three pieces: the Adagio of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, and Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Before the music began we were given some enlightening and fascinating oral program notes by Mr. Zander that were a blessing, since the program booklet unaccountably provided none for the Mahler.
Any misgivings one might have about such young musicians taking on Mahler’s last completed movement, with its vast emotional spectrum, particularly its intense leave-taking of the composer’s wife (who had been unfaithful) and of life itself, were quickly erased by the deeply committed playing of the orchestra. The bleak sound of the opening for violas alone, wandering through lands unknown, was haunting from the start. When the full strings and mellow brass enter gently, it seemed both comfort and a retrospective on a much younger Mahler. Here the depth and velvety richness of the orchestral sound, so vividly evoking the sound of the composer’s early symphonies, was impressive. However, the composer seldom stays with one feeling for long, and there are a number of abrupt shifts of mood. Long sustained melodies give way to spasmodic twitchy material and vice versa. But conductor and orchestra handled all such changes convincingly, whether through transition or sudden shift. After a number of climaxes throughout the movement, perhaps the greatest occurs near the end, when nearly the full power of the orchestra is heard in a searing chord consisting of nine of the 12 pitches of the scale. What follows is a trailing off, but in the course of it are two measures of sublime beauty (highlighted in Mr. Zander’s remarks) that give momentary comfort but no permanent assurances. The movement ends rather mysteriously, not having answered any spiritual questions raised, but as it began, isolated and forlorn. This is not a young man’s composition, and one marvels, not without a certain regret, that players this young can convey so powerfully these expressions so seared by Mahler’s tragic life experiences and certainty of death’s approach. Even the audience, which had rambunctiously applauded orchestra and conductor at the outset, remained silent for some seconds after the movement ended before beginning to applaud — a high accolade.
The Shostakovich provided a fine showcase for the 16-year-old cellist Jeonghwan James Kim as well as for the orchestra. It is widely believed that the composer wrote his first cello concerto as a thinly veiled response to the Soviet Union’s savage treatment of Boris Pasternak after the writer had circumvented the government’s ban of his Doctor Zhivago by having it published in the West. There is much in the piece to suggest the isolation of the individual in the face of an oppressive power. The opening Allegretto is rhythmically insistent, bordering on obsessive at times, and the rhythm was kept taut at all times. There was a particularly interesting counterpoint between the solo cello and the principal horn, the one seeming to quixotically strive against the greater power of the other. The second-movement ritornello, characterized by a melancholy tenderness, ended with strikingly eerie orchestration, the soloist playing in the high harmonics accompanied by celesta, basses, and whispering violins finally joined by clarinet. The playing here was wonderfully atmospheric. This led without pause into the third movement, “Cadenza,” which was entirely solo cello. Here Mr. Kim displayed his virtuosity, always using it for musical ends. Still, the fireworks became ever more impressive towards the end of the section, accelerating and leading without break into the fourth movement, Allegro con moto. This adrenaline-charged finale, taken at a fiery tempo, did have a few minor ensemble discrepancies, but Mr. Kim and Mr. Zander maintained a rock-steady beat and any untidiness was quickly resolved. The deliberate stridency of the orchestration was not shied away from, particularly in the high wind instruments, making one especially glad of the excellent intonation! Mr. Kim, Mr. Zander, and the YPO richly deserved the vociferous approval the audience gave them.
The second half of the program was the Bartók, likely the most familiar piece of the three. The attraction, and the intimidation, of the piece is that it highlights every instrument of the orchestra at some point in concerto fashion, but its innovative aspect is its symphonic proportions. One again felt isolation in the mysterious, uneasy opening of the piece, soon broken by a great outcry in the violins’ angular theme, accompanied by offbeat chords from the rest of the orchestra. The players dug in here, seeming to relish the challenges. The frequently witty second movement, titled “Games of the Couples”, features pairs of wind instruments playing quite diverse tunes, each pair at a different pitch interval, with a noble brass chorale in the middle. The orchestra and conductor lost no opportunity for musical characterization. The “Elegy” third movement evokes again the mystery of the opening but with added undulating figures, a fine example (as noted by Maestro Zander) of the “night music” of which Bartók had his own unique brand. Again, the colors and atmosphere conjured up by Zander and the ensemble were impressively vivid. The fourth movement, “Interrupted Intermezzo”, has a lovely cantabile melody passed among various instruments, then broken into by a disrespectful quotation of a theme from Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (“Leningrad”) first by the clarinet, then, after a raspberry from the brass and snickering wind trills, in the strings. The players clearly enjoyed the contrasting beauty of the serenade and the sarcasm of the quotation. The final movement provided the most extended opportunity for orchestral bravura, but not without some lovely tranquillo interludes. Additionally, it features a fugue in the middle; the performers maintained a good balance of the contrapuntal voices, with the fugue subject always remaining primus inter pares. After so much musical depiction of isolation throughout the program, this marvelously life-affirming finale brought the official concert to a brilliant conclusion.
However, Zander could not let the evening end without recognizing each departing senior (38 in all) and offering one final bonus: the Nimrod variation from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This is a poignant tribute to a departed loved one: in Elgar’s case, his recently deceased friend August Jaeger, but in the YPO’s case, the seniors about to depart for college. It was a beautifully played mutual expression of love — the players for their colleagues and Maestro Zander, and he for them. We in the audience were privileged to be part of it and the rest of this unforgettable evening.