IN: Reviews

Quite an Evening with Zander, BP and Kaler


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.




4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. the second violin concerto?

    Comment by Josh Nannestad — October 13, 2011 at 9:18 pm

  2. Thanks for the catch, Josh

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 13, 2011 at 9:41 pm

  3. Largely on the strength of Prof. Patterson’s excellent review I attended the Sanders Sunday iteration of this concert, and was very glad to have been there.  The Nielsen 4th has been a very important work for me for many years (I won’t bore readers why) and I thought the BP and Maestro Zander gave an absolutely top-notch and thrilling performance of this neglected masterpiece, very much the equal of several recorded versions I have heard, and significantly more successful than some.  The sense of unified purpose that streamed between Mr. Zander and his excellent players was palpable and very moving in itself.
    Perhaps Mr. Zander could be urged to perform the 3rd and especially the 5th Nielsen Symphonies?  He certainly seems to be as persuasive an advocate for this Danish original as he is for Mahler.

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — October 17, 2011 at 2:46 pm

  4. This wonderful concert brought strongly to mind the first time I heard the Chaikovsky violin concerto, which was at Tanglewood on August 4, 1949, with Heifetz, Koussevitzky, and the BSO. This performance thrilled me in just the same way. One of the most elegant touches was right at the end of the cadenza, where the flute begins the melody and Ilya Kaler descended with an arabesque to the low D, exquisitely timed to bring out the lyrical harmony with the flute. A Bach fugue could not have been played more sympathetically. And the prologue, Sibelius’s eternal black swan on black water, a “death force” evoked by Peggy Pearson’s haunting solo, was eloquent and strangely peaceful.
    To hear the Nielsen Fourth Symphony “Det Uudslukkelige” (“The Inextinguishable”, or “The Life Force”) was a great and novel treat. There are many traps for the conductor in this piece, including the temptation either to draw it out or to end it too abruptly. Mr. Zander and the BPO met every challenge brilliantly with skill, vigor, taste, and a deep comprehension and sympathy for the meaning of the work. And the dueling timpanists were awesome.
    Professor Patterson’s quibble with Mr. Zander’s analysis of the harmony at the beginning and the evolving root tonality misses the point. The spoken introduction fired up an audience with many schoolchildren to a rapt appreciation of a rare and difficult work, and a tumultuous acclaim for its ultimately triumphant ending. This is the kind of thing that builds audiences of all ages, and in today’s world we should be grateful for such effective advocacy for the art we love. Nielsen’s mighty Fifth also has an evolving root tonality, as well as two fugues and a manic snare-drummer who is instructed to improvise so as at all costs to stop the progress of the orchestra. As Mr. Ehrlich suggests, we need to hear that soon from Benjamin Zander and the BPO.
    William Carragan
    Contributing Editor, Anton Bruckner Collected Edition, Vienna

    Comment by William Carragan — October 28, 2011 at 2:17 pm

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