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.
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.