It has been thirty-two years, yes, that many, since the Boston Philharmonic made its debut under founding conductor Benjamin Zander. Opening its 2011/2012 season on Wednesday evening, October 12, with a concert entitled “The Inextinguishable Human Spirit” seemed fitting. Boston audiences and critics over these past years have recognized an ongoing vitality of unusual proportions clearly emblematic of both the organization and its leader. In addition, and not atypically, a very good-sized audience ranged from loyal supporters and veteran listeners to invited guests including music students from colleges and conservatories as well as newer listeners some of them from the Pine Street Inn. The orchestra is proud of its broad outreach and rightly so.
Following its tradition, BP chose to present the popular—Jean Sibelius’s The Swan of Tuonela and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D—and the lesser known—Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, “The Inextinguishable.” This same concert will be repeated Saturday at Jordan Hall then again at Sanders Theater Sunday. It would be interesting to compare performances at the two different venues, for one reason in particular, to see just how the higher decibel and densely textured passages heard in the Nielson would come across.
BP’s glossy booklet is yet another fine touch. Program annotator Pamela Feo has it right about Sibelius capturing “a quintessentially Finnish sound” writing “he believed strongly in depicting the essence of a cultural sound rather than using direct quotations of folk music elements,” or in the composer’s words which she quotes, making “music less realistically but more truthfully.”
The Swan of Tuonela opened the program on an extinguishable note, as it were, with the central figure, the swan, doomed to death. The swan as depicted on the English horn played by Peggy Pearson veered from the elegiac to a somewhat more personal tone. For the oft- repeated ascending cello line, Rafael Popper-Keizer emphasized the stable, resting tones, rather than those having tension and wanting to climb to tug on heartstrings (he did do this, the latter, once). Overall, soloists and strings of the Philharmonic induced observable atmosphere and elegy.
But no wonder conductor Zander wanted Ilya Kaler to return for a second straight season. The Russian-born violinist took hold of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and never let go, running with it in an exciting, deeply moving and oftentimes breathtakingly brilliant stance. As Zander pointed out in his brief introduction—Zander’s “pep talks,” as I think of them, this one unusually short (and for me all the more effective) — “there is purpose in every note he plays.”
How true! To see is to hear. Kaler engaged us visually almost entirely through the movements of his bowing arm which became kind of a pipe or cable channeling information to a machine which, in turn, emitted music of a very, very high order. BP’s accompaniment steered clear of covering his playing. Livelier passages particularly excelled though details that make or break slow movements did neither in the Canzonetta, Andante. Certain winds could have given more shape to musical strands, but BP’s accelerando to the violin cadenza in the first movement, Allegro moderato, was a hair-raiser. Shortly into his solo there came a beautiful harmonic high whistle followed by a rest, at which time, Kaler glanced out at the audience inviting us into his world, so to speak. Chuckles were heard. He then continued.
Between first and second movements came applause with some audience members actually coming to their feet as a result of Zander’s earlier encouragement. What should one make of that?
Keys were the center of attention for Zander’s 20-minute-plus introduction to the Nielson symphony. Viewing the score I would have to say that the opening is not in two keys as Zander explained it—to fuss over a minor detail. The music does not sound bi-tonal for one, and for another, the lower C actually belongs in very traditional ways to the D harmony above it. All the tones constitute a single chord functioning in a single key.
In the orchestra’s tour-de-force, Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, “The Inextinguishable,” two sets of tympani battled away from either side of the Sanders stage. Both concluded with shots that may have exceeded the score’s triple forte marking. These were deafening shots with the orchestra peering through the smoke!
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. www.notescape.net.