Both youthful virtuosity and heartfelt emotion were large in the air at Benjamin Zander’s Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra season closer Sunday at Sanders Theater, and I can’t think of a lovelier opener for a spring day than Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole. It was a program to delight any harpist who was also a reviewer: Ravel’s two harps, the harp concerto by Ginastera, and Strauss (this is how harpists see the world) with two busy harps playing in Don Quixote.
For the Ravel, James Blachly, currently the Zander Fellow with the orchestra as well as the Boston Philharmonic, deftly conducted the orchestra for the four movements, in quite a pleasurable performance, with the winds particularly good.
Sunday’s harp soloist was Anna DeLoi, a student the past four years at NEC Preparatory School with Franziska Huhn. A frequent contest winner, DeLoi plays with nerves of steel: so much can go awry in performing on the harp, and often does, but not with her. She had solid rhythm, dead-on harmonics, a wide array of dynamics and what Ginastera requires all under complete control. It was mightily impressive. One of the things I admire most about Zander is how he nurtures those he believes in. One is DeLoi, who worked under him for years and was told one day she’d get to play the Ginastera, of which Zander is very fond.
The Ginastera Harp Concerto (1965) was one of several notable concerti commissioned by Edna Phillips, harpist of the Philadelphia Orchestra 1930-’46. The esteemed position the work has held in the harp world is unrivaled by any other 20th-century concerto. For example, at the International Harp Contest in Israel, held every three years, the Ginastera is programmed for the final stage of every other contest. It thus has gone from being a work performed only by virtuosi to one played by just about every harpist planning on a professional career. In his program notes, Michael Steinberg saw this dazzling piece as “kind of a Baedeker to the harp and its possibilities,” all colors and rhythm. It was premiered in 1965 by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra with dedicatee Nicanor Zabaleta.
Another Zander protégé is the phenomenally gifted cellist Jonah Ellsworth. I had not heard of this 19-year-old before, but I will try to hear him when he plays in town again (in the final concert of the BPO next season playing Saint-Saëns). Like DeLoi, Ellsworth has won the inevitable slew of competitions and, most impressively, has already been accepted for his first summer at Marlboro Music Festival. There is unmistakable, and frankly uncanny, maturity in his playing.
I had never heard a student performance of Don Quixote, and live, I have heard it only with Ma, Starker, or Rostropovich as cellist and my husband, Burton fine, as violist (Sancho Panza), so my expectations were high. The BPYO violist, Israeli-born Gerald Karni, was very good indeed, and Don Quixote himself would have been proud to have been as nobly and exquisitely depicted as he was by Ellsworth. It was altogether stunning, a performance I will long remember.
In spite of good supertitles, Zander couldn’t help singing Strauss’s tale of Don Q. to the children in the audience, telling them what to expect. Apparently I was the only person who minded; the audience was made up of many thankful parents and, yes, children, including Zander’s grandchild at his first concert. Famously for decades, Zander has been larger than life to his musicians and legions of admirers, regardless of their age. As the man makes astonishing musical things happen again and again, so what if he channeled his pedagogue persona?
By concert end, I felt like an interloper at a love-in. Zander made a lachrymose speech about those who were moving on into adulthood, telling them how much they had meant to him. Then they played their annual piece of farewell, “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which I have always associated with more tragic matters than graduating from high school. But a parent of one of these kids, or for that matter any parent, or anyone who appreciates talented youth should be both proud and grateful: this orchestra sounds better than it has any right to, and from the expressions all around, the experience of playing in it looks really rewarding.