Benjamin Zander is ubiquitous at his Boston Philharmonic concerts. Present in the lobby a good two hours before starting time, he is buttonholing and offering seemingly intimate asides to hundreds of his patrons in his mission to cajole audiences into engaging with him. On Sunday, November 20, at Sanders Theatre, Ben was suited up to stamp our tickets and conduct us on a ride through Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Symphony No. 4.
Though I have attended concerts in Boston since 1965, Sunday’s pre-concert lecture was my first public experience with Ben’s cult of personality and force of will. Like the “great profile” John Barrymore, Zander fully inhabited his customary role: He danced, he sang, he played the piano, he led the large lecture audience in a sing-along of the principal theme in the fourth movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. He even asked us to sigh collectively with him. Those susceptible to charisma, and I expect it was the majority, became votaries at Ben’s Temple of High Culture.
There was musicological content in the talk as well. Ben talked about key relationships “for those who care about such things as much as we musicians do.” He opined on the importance of rubato in Brahms. He talked about Brahms’s turbulent and frustrated life. We heard about Brahms’s love for the rhythmic figure of two against three, though surprisingly, we did not hear Ben advance the familiar theory of the symbolism of the figure: Brahms’s hope that the triangle of himself with Clara and Robert Schumann might someday resolve itself into a relationship of two — Brahms and Clara.
As is his wont, Ben also enunciated lots of superlatives. “Brahms’s Fourth Symphony is a desert island piece, one of five for me, though I won’t tell you about the other four. It’s perhaps the best constructed symphony by anyone.” About the First Concerto he said, “It represents Brahms’s most personal feelings more than any other of his works. Everything subsequent to it was classicism.” Then he went on to say, “The finale of the Fourth Symphony is the summation of Brahms’s life.” The audience nodded in assent.
Prepared for a metaphysical journey, I was disappointed at the opening of the Concerto. Even though the first movement, Maestoso, was actually played at a rather slow tempo, it felt rushed, especially the first statement from the pianist Martina Filjack, since there was really no evidence of the promised rubato. The proceedings were rather notey and careful, probably because — as one of the players later remarked to me — “We just didn’t get enough rehearsal with the pianist and had trouble keeping together in the rehearsals.”
And because of the rather slow tempo in that “Maestoso” first movement, there wasn’t enough contrast with the second movement, Adagio. By the third movement, the Rondo, there was finally some fire and excitement. The orchestra, a pumped-up mix of students, amateurs, and committed professionals, was now playing just fine. There was a sheen upon the strings, and Filjack allowed herself some freedom in her cadenza. The audience demanded an encore, and she complied with Scriabin’s Prelude for the Left Hand, Op 9, No. 1. This was free and rapturous playing though somewhat limited by Sanders Theatre’s tonally stodgy Steinway.
After intermission, it didn’t take long at all for me to register that the performance of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 was at a much higher level. Zander emerged from behind the piano and with his more obvious presence willed greatness from the band and total engagement from the audience. Now I could begin to understand the maestro mystique. The first movement had shape and swing. The viola section’s big moment in the second movement worked at the rather glacial tempo because the phrases had suppleness and the dramatic line had a destination. The third movement evoked a brisk walk with an enthusiastic tour guide through a classical sculpture garden. Our friendly leader was frequently tapping us on the shoulder and telling us where to look. The fourth movement had excitement and urgency, but Zander exercised just enough restraint. He knew when to pull back and where to hesitate to set up the multiple climaxes perfectly.