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.