Symphony Hall was nearly full Sunday and the stage extended for 125 of Boston’s finest young players, “from ages 10 to 21” along with legendary cellist Natalie Gutman. Beginning its third season following rapturously received Carnegie Hall and Concertgebouw debuts, the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra has found an essential role in our musical community in almost record time.
Before many measures had sounded, it was clear that this band is facile and quick. Strings shone, winds were lively, and the opening number, Shostakovich’s Festival Overture arrived as an exuberant multi-ring affair, so celebratory as to evoke a Russian version of Walton’s Crown Imperial. No nuance of color or execution telegraphed by the semaphore-like clarity of Benjamin Zander escaped the exuberant youth. If this did not exactly set the stage for Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, it certainly made a case for companionability with the concluding Bartok Concerto for Orchestra.
A hush pervaded Symphony Hall after legendary cellist Natalia Gutman took to her chair. Zander, Gutman and the orchestra did not disappoint. That the orchestral introduction could be still and eager at the same time is tribute to the concentration of the players and of the house, notwithstanding the occasionally operatic volume of several small children in the audience (Zander was compelled to glare at the parents after the first movement, and at the end of the second movement, clearly exasperated, he turned and said “I adore children, but perhaps you should move to the hallway”). Banishment turned out to be a fine idea, since 2000 people were ready for transcendence. Dvořák’s articulations were handled with great care, and that opening crescendo never got rushed or raucous. The big tune for solo horn was poignantly played by Lorenzo Robb, embellished beautifully by oboist Nicholas Tisherman and clarinetist Brittnee Poole.
Gutman had walked onstage stiffly, and word had it that the 71-year-old’s back was painful. We were a bit worried to watch her alight on her deeply padded chair. Once she started playing, all anxiety vanished. She began vibrating a good measure before her instrument spoke. She willed it to emote with authority. Her tone was not large, but it was lustrous and compelled us to lean in. We were rewarded by production that singers would envy. At some point I will be able to say of a fine singer that he achieved a Gutmanesque tone.
Gutman’s playing was not just about nostalgia and the bittersweet. She could register also the searching qualities of youthful angst. Zander followed masterfully and gave her every deference, even when she was playing mere obbligato.
The Adagio begins with a woodwind introduction to the cello’s most human utterances; two minutes later the tympani’s strokes of fate were followed by a deeply felt tutti and the second theme. The three horns grandly introduced the cellist’s cadenza-like interlude, which had a Bachian sangfroid until fluttering flutes conjured visions of nature. Gutman gave the young players a great lesson on when to hold back and when to be forceful and impulsive—she has lost none of the latter. Pausing at times to gather rosebuds must needs be the practice of romantic souls of any age. Nor is impetuosity solely the province of youth. Zander never rushed soloist and players, and there was a collective release when this soulful movement ended.
The duet with clarinetist Poole in movement III burned with pathos, and there was in Gutman’s execution an almost Italianate sob. The diminuendo of the trombones and tuba before the final cadence was artistic, and concertmaster Max Tan had quite a Rosenkavalieresque interlude, which was taken up perfectly in tune in the cellist’s uppermost register.
An avalanche of applause and foot-stomping from the players led Gutman to encore with the Bourree from Bach’s Suite No. 3. The composer left no dynamics, slurs or phrasing. And one wonders what Russian editions were considered authoritative during the Soviet era. For whatever reason, Gutman found new and fresh bowings and articulations, that could teach youth something about sounding young. The cello section were all attending forward toward her in awe.
Today almost every pianist graduating from a major conservatory can toss off Islamey or Scarbo without sweat. BPYO likewise knows no fear of repertoire once considered challenging, like Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by Koussy for the BSO in 1943, and a signature piece at Symphony Hall ever since. Their bravery in bringing that piece to this house was amply rewarded. If there were any weaknesses in the performance, I did not detect them.
In many ways a tour of the orchestra like Britten’s Young Person’s Guide on steroids, Bartok’s Concerto was a perfect showcase for the talented and motivated contingent. It may not have required a long attention span to bring off the constantly shifting components of the Bartoks surprisingly lively farewell work, but it does require intense concentration to execute the mercurial details with such polish and unanimity. Each section reveled in its moments to strut and color, and tunes coming back in repeats were well-differentiated. The piccolo of Hayley Miller and the high oboe registers of Jonathan Gentry in the third movement were marvels. In the finale, the flute of Katie Velasquez and again the oboe of Gentry alternated with the sumptuous strings, which managed almost vocal nuances of inflection.
From nearly nothing, Zander has fashioned an indispensable institution which executes on the highest level—an orchestra the perfectly poised 8-year-old Vida, whom I met at intermission, is already aspiring to join.