IN: Reviews

Two-Year-Old Youth Orchestra Quite Grown Up


Violinist Max Tan (file photo)
Violinist Max Tan (file photo)

Boston’s youth orchestra scene has changed a lot in recent years. Since my own time in such an organization not very long ago, the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras has changed its name to BYSO and steered closer to the BSO, Longy has closed its youth and community programs altogether, and Benjamin Zander has left NEC’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra to found the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.

On Friday night Zander and the BPYO offered the second concert of their second season. It was a familiar youth orchestra scene: parents and restless younger siblings packed Symphony Hall and solo bows were greeted with shrieks from friends. But unlike the other youth orchestras in town, the BPYO includes students up to 21 years old making it a bit like a training orchestra. It’s good to see that the Boston area can easily support three major youth orchestras with different missions and identities for aspiring musicians and aspirational parents.

The program opened with Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. It was a surprise to see the BPYO’s full complement of strings on stage: this was a wedding party with no fewer than twelve cellos, eight basses, and at least forty violins. Miraculously, the enormous sections held together cleanly through this classic test of orchestral ensemble playing, but the colors were dull and the winds couldn’t shine through. Certainly it’s nice not to cut players in a youth orchestra performance, but Figaro is far from the first piece that comes to mind for an ensemble this size. Why not try Don Giovanni instead?

Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto came next. This is a gorgeous piece from 1939 and probably the only modern American violin concerto that has really taken hold in the repertoire. It’s also a good choice for a serious young soloist—in this case Harvard undergraduate Max Tan. It’s not too esoteric, but also doesn’t brand the violinist as a standard issue concerto competition winner.

Tan is an unassuming soloist with a warm, sweet, tone and a secure technique. He’s not a flashy player, which is very welcome, but some element of surprise would have enhanced his account of the concerto. He sounds like a musician still very close to teachers and coaches – not a surprise, of course – but hopefully his interpretations will become more personal and original with time. He already has a lot in place: tone, technique, and good taste.

Throughout the Barber, the orchestra provided gentle support, although the rhythmic precision evident in Figaro didn’t hold up consistently. The Andante was a highpoint, with the extended oboe solo by Nicholas Tisherman beautifully delivered.

After intermission the orchestra played Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and it became clear that Zander has built this orchestra for this music. Finally the enormous forces made sense and the musicians could play with less restraint.

The symphony is in five movements split into three parts, and it took most of Part I for things to warm up. By the middle Scherzo, however, a compelling performance started to emerge and Mahler’s massive architectonic was lucidly realized under Zander’s baton.

The Adagietto that opens Part III is lovely—as beautiful as anything from Barber— and is free from the artifice, persnickety writing, and references that characterize so much of Mahler’s work. The strings and harpist Anna Deloi rendered the movement with great delicacy; this orchestra sounds as good pianissimo as it does fortissimo.

Mahler’s Finale, as a compositional matter, really goes on too long and wears out its welcome. But the ensemble plowed through, the end was triumphant, the applause rapturous.

Zander is a noted champion of Mahler, and it was no surprise that his program note was a helpful aid to appreciation. But why does Mahler in particular benefit from such champions and explainers? Despite its sometimes visceral appeal, this music requires didacticism as much as intuition. Perhaps it is Zander’s gifts as an explainer that makes him both an appealing Mahlerian and a charismatic youth orchestra builder.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a Cambridge-based composer who’s recently been in residence at the Banff Centre and the Hambidge Center. Before that he attended Bard College where he studied with Joan Tower and George Tsontakis and earned a B.M. in composition and a B.A. in philosophy.


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

  1. I am an oboist, and I have known and played with Ben Zander since I was thirteen years old. As I listened to the Mahler the other night, I thought a lot about what it meant to me as a young person to have the opportunity to play great music with others who loved music as much as I did. This is the kind of experience that will shape a young musician’s life forever; I would have done anything at that age to play a Mahler Symphony with Ben Zander in Symphony Hall! The BPYO concert was truly a remarkable achievement, and I feel that we should support such events in every way we can.

    Peggy Pearson

    Comment by Peggy Pearson — March 9, 2014 at 1:25 pm

  2. Of course, supporting ‘such events in every way we can’ is not the job of any independent website, but are we to infer that this review is actually unsupportive or insufficiently something or other? I don’t see how it can fairly be so read. Sometimes it seems as though no coverage of Zander enterprises can ever be positive enough unless it raves on without qualification or ambivalence.

    That such an implication, if that’s what it is, comes from a veteran musician so deeply and fondly esteemed over the decades is dismaying. For more than 40 years (I speak from personal experience, same as many reviewers), anyone writing anything nonraving about Zander has had to be prepared for heated fan mail (which the above comment is not, really), almost no matter what the review said. To my mind, automatically defensive letters do no credit to Zander’s long, admirable, varied career. To the contrary.

    Comment by David Moran — March 10, 2014 at 4:42 pm

  3. The style is the man?

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 10, 2014 at 5:25 pm

  4. I think it’s a welcome perspective that offers some context that a review can’t capture.

    Comment by Benjamin Pesetsky — March 10, 2014 at 5:56 pm

  5. PR is all about making the public feel great (about themselves). It could be on the very opposite side of true/genuine music pursuit (true for any great matter, with politics suffering the most) in some cases.

    I am not saying anything against anyone. This is just a general idea of our world.

    Comment by Thorsten — March 10, 2014 at 6:57 pm

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