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Near Coup by Boston Philharmonic at Sanders


The Boston Philharmonic nearly scored a coup at Sanders Theatre, Thursday, October 21 in a concert of Paris connections. It was the first half of the concert that set it all in motion, with leader and founder of the orchestra Benjamin Zander’s highly successful stratagem, pairing Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. I thought that orchestra and conductor not only brought the Brooklyn composer’s singular gem to glittering American-sized life but put to rest the old saw about the one movement piece as lacking structure.

Over the din of wholehearted applause following the French composer’s unusual concerto, an avid music fan exclaimed “Wowee! Two wowees!” It could not have been said better. Piano concerto soloist Stephen Drury and a smaller Philharmonic beamed a nimbus around the Ravel. Drury addressed Ravel with pureness and impeccable musicianship. He and Zander, together with the orchestra, musicalized the concerto in a light at once radiant and indescribable.

The Adagio movement as played by Drury, I would say, may be the very best I have heard. The waltz-type left hand that continues throughout the entire slow movement always found purpose with its right hand in lyrical, arpeggiated, or trilled statements. Notes in the right hand making dissonances with the left hand, or “enemies,” (as Zander called them when speaking about Stravinsky) coalesced in a superbly rayed structure much like that as when the English horn played by Barbara LaFitte joined the piano.

One of many surprising moments began with piano arpeggios that were taken up by the harp in glissandos — sheer sonic enchantment. (Regrettably, the harpist’s name was omitted from the program.) In a few more words, Benjamin Zander and Boston Philharmonic with Stephen Drury gave unforgettable performances of Gershwin and Ravel.

After intermission, Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Debussy’s La Mer continued the Paris connections programming coup. “Austerity” describes Stravinsky’s own take on his requiem-styled instrumental piece written to the memory of his close friend, Debussy. Zander took note of this in his introductory commentary, but not in his carefully articulated pronouncement of the original 1920 version. Instead, deeply wrenching sonorities and anguished cries in Stravinsky’s somber twelve-minute piece took on warmth suggesting interpretive continuity between the first and second halves of the program. With an ethereal close, this tombeau or funeral music performance reached out again for refinement of sonorities which the twenty-plus winds accomplished with a precision that elicited harmonies closely resembling the natural acoustical phenomenon known as the harmonic or overtone series.

The morning light, plays of waves, and dialogues of wind and sea in La Mer verged on symphonic play, on human interaction and the distinct colors (timbres) of the orchestra. Philosopher José Ortega y Gasset thought that what was new at the fin-du-siecle was that art had moved away from all that, and that light expressed in art had become the pursuit of the “modern” movement.

In today’s science-bound culture, we learn about a myriad of arrangements and relationships, and at the Philharmonic’s Discovery Concert there was every bit of evidence of structural music engineering. No doubt at all that “momentum”— a key word in Zander’s introduction to the performance — played its role in An American in Paris. French patterns, mostly harmonic ones, and American esprit coalesced into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Remember the jolly and jazzy renderings? Not here! Philharmonic’s symphonic sense swayed away from all that. The playing of Eric Berlin, principal trumpet, embodied the dynamic and directed statement about an American promenading the streets of the City of Lights. A brief, softly quavering low tuba played by Don Rankin encapsulated the reserved but very real playfulness of this uniquely engineered performance.

The program will be repeated Saturday evening at Jordan Hall and Sunday afternoon, again at Sanders.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston,  was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier  Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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