IN: Reviews

Joyously Exuberant Youth Symphony


George Li and Ben Zander rehearse (Ángel A. Amy Moreno photo)
George Li and Ben Zander rehearse (Ángel A. Amy Moreno photo)

What manner of maestro can fill Symphony Hall of a Sunday afternoon with a youth orchestra? What manner of orchestra, today, can afford to offer a symphonic program of almost three hours in duration? All to ecstatic and prolonged ovations? These are certainly thoughts to ponder after we attended the second concert of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (BPYO) inaugural season.

After 38 seasons as conductor of the New England Conservatory’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (YPO), Benjamin Zander, the venerable music director, conductor, international leadership guru, and general all-purpose inspirational tornado has struck out on his own, forming a new independent youth orchestra. Successfully garnering the requisite financial, organizational and musical resources for this enterprise, of course, is a wonder in itself.

The first BPYO concert, of November 25th, 2012 (also at Symphony Hall), presented Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, and Elgar’s Cello Concerto with cellist Alisa Weilerstein. This, the second, program of the Inaugural Season, featured Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, George Li, soloist, and Mahler’s Second (Resurrection) Symphony. None of this is welterweight programming.

And so we wondered on, leafing through the hefty (expensive!) program, reviewing ringing endorsements for Zander from the profession’s crême such as Simon Rattle, Yo-Yo, and John Harbison, daunting lists of supporters, contributors, administrative staff, and learning about Zander’s personal commitment to providing transformative experience for his young players, his life’s dedication to nurturing leadership in upcoming generations.

Now as to youth orchestra performances, there just aren’t enough grandmothers to fill Symphony Hall.  (To be as accurate as possible, we estimate Symphony Hall was at 80% capacity or more. Yes, there were vacancies in the empyrean. But let us concede the moral equivalence of “sold out.”) Attending were not just adoring parents, friends, relations, and squirming coerced siblings. There were scads of Boston’s “knowing” music lovers in evidence, with professionals, and musical savants and luminaries such as critics Lloyd Schwartz and Richard Dyer. This doesn’t just happen. We are aware that there was an extensive and astute multi-media campaign waged on land, sea, air (waves), and the net, including Facebook. But just imagine: a motivational guru able to produce what he preaches. Kudos.

The musical resources deployed were semi-gargantuan. The BPYO itself is one large orchestra!—twenty first and twenty second violins, with other sections proportionate. And for the Mahler, there were wall to wall amalgamated masses drawn from Fair Harvard’s University Choir, their Glee Club, the Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus, Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum and the Radcliffe Choral Society, Edward Elwyn Jones, choirmaster. Or else, lost in a time warp, half the Red Army Chorus had wandered through the stage door.

With becoming self-effacement, Maestro Zander entered unobtrusively, positioning himself behind the raised Steinway lid, ceding the limelight to George Li’s entrance and introductory bow. Li, a 17 year-old from Walnut Hill School, is anything but a local “best kept secret.”  Already  managed by Young Concert Artists, and presented internationally, he also studies with the eminent Wha Kyung Byun (aka Mrs. Russell Sherman).

Because we heard “little” George Li a number of years ago at the NEC inauguration of President Tony Woodcock, we had few doubts about what to expect in the Schumann Concerto. Back then, Li performed a Liszt Rhapsody, the 11th, to the best of our recollection.  (Not our recollection of that event, but our recollection of what George told us at intermission this past Sunday.) What we observed way back when, in the Liszt, held true in the much more extensive exposure of the Schumann. What is astonishing, setting aside impeccable technique, is Li’s instinctive assimilation of style. He plays like a great pianist at the apogeic intersection of middle aged vigor and the wisdom of maturity. Let us just cite two examples: in the opening movement (measures 16 -19, the close of the initial theme), Li’s elegance of phrase and the articulation of staccati were tantamount to witty. His shaping of a secondary accompanimental figuration, the arpeggiations marked decrescendo, was downright exquisite. But so it went, through every measure he played. Zander accorded Li the distinction of an encore: Chopin Nocturne No. 20, in C-sharp Minor, op. posth.

Zander of course had his (many) moments in the sun with his direction of Mahler’s brobdingnagian Second.  With all its wrenching extremes of angst, despair, transcendent hope, pastoral naiveté, what better gauntlet to throw down before an orchestra of teen-somethings. And while Mahler 2nd may be a perfect conduit for adolescent turmoil, we have learned that the rest of life reserves yet many more moments, moments when we can still find much to contemplate, absorb, admire and respond to, in this hair-raising work.

One young orchestra member was writing to Zander about her “intense, earth shattering desire to affect our listeners, to make them feel something.” Well, in this moving and authoritative professional-level performance—mission accomplished.

Zander conducts BPYO (Jeffrey Filiault photo)
Zander conducts BPYO (Jeffrey Filiault photo)

What to highlight? Movement One’s soundscape evoking Doré’s Hellscapes? The Andante moderato sehr gemächlich (second movement at “Tempo I, Ja nicht eilen!”), Zander’s enchanting balance between violin and cello lines, or the delight of the pizzicato passage toward the movement’s close? The elegance of such passages where Mahler resorts to similar economies of means? Zander’s finely expressed Gemütlichkeit, be it naïve sincerity or faux naïve irony? The meticulous placement of offstage brass, maximizing haunting or stirring acoustical effect, or for that matter, the wonderful brass playing throughout, especially for a youth symphony? The Austro-Hungarian noodling by clarinet principal  Hunter Bennett in the third movement? The choral performance so beautifully prepared and with such impeccable enunciation? Likewise the clear enunciation in Robynne Redmon’s Urlicht, further distinguished by her beautiful lyrical line or her lovely blend with Barbara Quintiliani’s overarching soprano in the finale?

The tumultuous response allowed a most sweet and winning of curtain calls, with Zander coaxing up, for example, first lead clarinet, then clarinets, then woodwinds, and so on section by section.

We’ll not soon forget the rapt attention, admiration and pleasure that beamed on faces all across the orchestra as the young players sat listening to Li’s encore. And the exuberant front row of cellists practically bouncing off their seats as they down-bowed the furioso passages of the Mahler finale with all that unbridled, joyous exuberance of youth, will surely stay with us.

Tony Schemmer is a New York born composer, frequently performed locally, nationally and in Europe.  He returns to Russia this May for concerts of his music in Moscow and St. Petersburg.


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

  1. I have conflicting feelings about the past BPYO concert. For sure it was pleasurably-stimulating event but I think that there is bigger fish to fry. With all admiration that Zander unquestionably deserves for his efforts to build and to administer BPYO I do feel that the concert was in way a pedagogical failure and the failure solely lies on Benjamin Zander’s shoulders. Let leave George Li aside, he is his own man, he is as good as he gets and he has already grown up to play with orchestras and conductors who give to him more opportunities. My main focus is the play of the BPYO itself and mainly the play of Mahler.

    Let forger that they were just 12 years old kids. Let forget that they played inexpensive instruments and had just a few rehearsals. What we had? We had pretty much the same Mahler that any other adult orchestra would delivers nowadays. Any issuers that BPYO had were not specific for Youth Orchestra – the “adult” BSO demonstrates sometimes the same play. For sure BSO can play at incomparably better way. The Resurrection which opened two years back Tanglewood season with MTT was spectacular music but we all heard also BSO, with all self-serving pomposity, demonstrated sometime very much the BPYO–level of performances. Anyhow, what was so unique and only BPYO-specific in the Zander/BPYO event?

    Well, the last BPYO consert was tight-ass, over-controlled play. From the very opening bars the Resurrection was very scriptured, very proscribed, very restricted, no-breathing style overly conducted. The tempo was on slow side, sometimes imbalanced-slow, and was explicitly made to make the kids to play easy. Zander did not make anyone to go for any complex phasing (and Mahler is great playground for it). Instead Mr. Zander decided to fill the whole music by some kind of sonic placeholder where instrumentalists (and particularly wind players) delivered some kind of generic sounds in tune with Mahler Second symphony. It might sound like a criticism for bad play but in fact it is not and I am very much sure that the player delivered exactly what Zander asked them to do. The tempo’s safe-net that Mr. Zander give to the orchestra was a clear evidence that conductor waned to keep the orchestra on safe and protected side.

    For sure it was a right way to behave with 12 years old kids but it is wrong way to play Mahler first off all. The second of all is the irony that those 12 years old when they wanted to be risen to the occasion they did demonstrated some spectacular play. Some strings, particularly the first violin section, did sometimes some Mahler pyrotechnics that might make their older colleague from BSO to envy. In the end, with all typical problems/glory that BPYO demonstrated I think the biggest problem was that Zander did not make BPYO to go for full-blossomed Mahler and he did not challenged his orchestras as hard as that orchestra was able to endure. The concert was not a proof of the Zander’s point about his organization potency but a parley for 120 young musicians to the world of serious adult music. For sure Benjamin Zander knows and perfectly capable to play complex Mahler, and as an educator I think it was what he needed to aim with his Youth Orchestra.

    Well, for sure I am barking to a wrong train. Zander spend his life working with kind and he very much knows how to delegate complexity. Still, I think he was wrong in this occasion. If I had my child in that orchestra then I would like my child do not be treated like child-player but with all seriousness and demands of seasoned musician. So, I personally would like to see the same Orchestra with the same conductor sometimes during let to say the next Fall to play the same Resurrection only the full-bloom Resurrection, with complex colors, sophisticated phasing, challenging tempos, better chorus etc, etc, etc… Zander is perfectly able to ask for it and I think his Youth Orchestra is perfectly able to deliver it. The only way do not get it is to be fearful to ask for it. They are brilliant kids and there is no need to keep them in the greenhouse of limited expectations.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — March 14, 2013 at 8:24 am

  2. While you are entitled to your opinion (which many credible Mahlerians would disagree with), you have you facts incorrect. Yes, there are 12 year old kids in the orchestra. The bulk of the ensemble however, is young people aging from 16-21. I believe that there are 2 twelve year olds in the ensemble; you speak as if the orchestra is comprised of mainly 12 year olds. Secondly, while many of us have inexpensive instruments, I know many members who have some very fine instruments, sometimes given as a gifts. Moreover, instruments do not have to have big price tags to be fine instruments…

    Comment by Member of the BPYO — March 14, 2013 at 10:20 am

  3. The “Member of the BPYO”, don’t worry – to be incorrect is my specialty and I am not a member of the lodge with the chocolate title “credible Mahlerian”. When I referred to BPYO as “12 year old kids” I did not imply it in any degrading manner but rather used it as a metaphor that implies some stratification of expectations. With everything else – I do agree with what I’ve expressed above.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — March 14, 2013 at 10:36 am

  4. Dear Romy,

    Paula Muldoon
    Former Zander student
    First violin, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
    MMus, BMus

    Comment by Paula Muldoon — March 14, 2013 at 12:09 pm

  5. I’m guessing that what Romy expects by way of performance would be better delivered by a student conservatory orchestra of soon-to-be-professionals. There you would find both youthful enthusiasm and advanced competence.

    Comment by Clark Johnsen — March 14, 2013 at 5:49 pm

  6. I took my daughter to this concert and it completely blew me away. We didn’t know anyone personally playing but just wanted to be present at this event due to the pull of Mr. Zander and thinking this would be excellent music in a beautiful space. And it was! I felt lucky to be there! I was totally moved by the musicians’ focus, energy, and obvious passion for the music and the experience. It was truly beautiful. What a gift they gave that day, i’ll never forget it. And my daughter, though only six, was mesmerized too – she’s learning to play violin so I wanted to show her highly proficient young people playing in an important venue. She lasted 2 hours! and then the next day, I gently said (not wanting to over-sell the experience) is that something you’d like to do someday? And she let out a big YES! thank you BPYO and Benjamin Zander for a life-changing event for us, hope you guys know your reach.

    Comment by Veera Mylapore — March 14, 2013 at 9:25 pm

  7. What a terrific, and carefully modulated, report from the Mylapores!

    Comment by David Moran — March 15, 2013 at 12:25 am

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