in: Reviews

February 2, 2015

A Youth Orchestra Like Ivory Snow


Yuki Beppu, one of the nine soloists (file photo)

Yuki Beppu, one of the nine soloists (file photo)

For nearly three hours a group of confident young people played like 99.44% pure professionals, with mature musicianship and expert technique. Nine student soloists participated, all playing with a self-assurance that was fully earned. These instrumentalists will be tomorrow’s respected and even renowned professionals, and that tomorrow isn’t far away. I didn’t manage to ascertain the ages of all of them, but the oldest one I talked to was 19-years-old (one was 20, someone said). They are conservatory students, liberal arts students, high school kids—but they are already much more accomplished than all but one or two students I knew half a century ago in a very fine college. They are all players in the three-year-old Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, which founder/director Benjamin Zander has brought to a degree of precision and collective sound that approaches the best that our national orchestras can offer.

The really large ensemble, with strings 21-21-13-14-8, filled Sanders Theater as fully as I’ve ever seen. Though not all seemed to be playing in the accompanied works, the ensemble could, on a few occasions, overpower the softer soloists.

The program began with Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for orchestra, Op. 16, composed in 1909 and one of the great monuments of 20th-century orchestral music. Even though after a century it is considered standard repertory, it remains enormously difficult to play. What most audiences don’t yet grasp—it took me some years, but that was long ago—is that this music is really beautiful, even when it is violent and complex. The first piece Vorgefühle (Premonitions) and the fourth Peripetie (Moving around) are as explosive as The Rite of Spring; the second piece Vergangenes (Yesteryears) is the most variable in its expression, and yet it is on the tonal verge of D minor. Robert Craft once told me that of the five pieces, this is the most difficult to conduct, and this could be because of the four-against-three meter as well as the simultaneous different contrapuntal lines. (Zander beat mm. 214-216 in four, I was happy to see.) The third piece, originally called Farben (Colors), is genuine atonal impressionism (the new title, “Summer morning by a lake” was added in the 1949 revision). The fifth piece, whose seemingly meaningless title, Das obligate Rezitativ (The obligatory recitative) Schoenberg may have included as a joke, is a contrapuntal fantasy of intensely melodic lines in steady 3/8, in which no repetition of any kind occurs except for a few short rhythms.

And what a reassurance it was to see all of this controlled by Benjamin Zander’s scrupulously clear beat pattern, always sufficient and unexaggerated, and perfectly attentive to the actual music. It’s absolutely the kind of leadership that is needed by alert and respectful young musicians who have never played this music before. But let me talk now about the soloists.

Nicholas Tisherman, oboe, a student at NEC, and Max Tan, violin, who studies at Harvard, were the soloists for the second and third movements of Bach’s beloved Concerto in C Minor, BWV 1060. Tisherman had a particularly lovely sound, and Tan’s violin tone, at times bold and forceful, at other times warm and gentle, balanced the oboe perfectly. The ripieno strings were reduced to 4-4-3-2-1, and the violins and violas played standing. Zander, at the harpsichord, gave minimal direction, and the players controlled their own ensemble with no difficulty.

The single movement we heard from a Concerto by Reinhold Glière was a stark reminder that the concerto repertory for the harp deserves to have more works that are better than this one. But Charles Overton, a student at Berklee, attacked it without disparagement. His sound was radiant throughout, and this penetration persisted through an agreeable cadenza. This was also a work that might have benefited, in a different hall, from a string complement only half as large.

Hayley Miller is studying flute at Boston University. Her choice was the Concertino, Op. 107, by Cécile Chaminade. Usually dismissed, and unfairly, as a mere salon composer, Chaminade had an expert technique and a solid harmonic imagination; some think of her as a French Mendelssohn. Miller played this sparkling piece, which is really a morceau de concours, with fine sound and expression, even amid difficult whirling triplets.

More than a few were astounded by the fearless performance of Ilana Zaks, who is only 14, but who was not in the least daunted by the Allegro vivacissimo finale of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. (It has a dominant preparation 52 bars long—about as long, in elapsed time, as the one in the first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.) This is the same concerto that its original dedicatee, the great Leopold Auer, declared to be unplayable, although he later gave in and played it.

Leland Ko, cellist, is a high school student who also studies at NEC. He played Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo capriccioso with naturalness and poise. This piece isn’t as well known as the familiar Variations on a Rococo Theme, but it is short, sweet, and brilliant. I was especially impressed by the effortless negotiation between soloist and conductor of the complicated changes of tempo.

Yuki Beppu, a 17-year-old who began playing the violin when she was four and has studied at NEC for 11 years, gave a scintillating rendition of the sizzling Vivacissimo scherzo from Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 1. There was a small dislocation right at the beginning of this dangerous movement, but not three seconds later she was back on track as expertly as any international soloist. I especially liked her high-register tone, which reminded me of Szigeti’s recording, and I was reminded also of the finale of the “Classical” Symphony No. 1, composed at about the same time.

I have heard a dozen performances of the last movement of Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto (his and Haydn’s are the only such concerti that are known everywhere) and each one is different. Every trumpeter puts in extra notes or ornaments ad libitum, and it doesn’t matter much. Elmer Churampi, a native of Peru currently studying at NEC, played with smooth and effortless ease, bright tone, and meticulous articulation, garnering lot of cheers from his friends on stage.

Max Tan and Nick Tisherman

Max Tan and Nick Tisherman

The last solo of the day was particularly unusual for a youth orchestra: the first movement of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, played by 17-year-old Sasha Yakub. This great work isn’t a matter of virtuoso display nearly as much as it is of warmth of expression and subtlety of nuance, requiring the utmost of cooperation between soloist and conductor. Like the Schoenberg which began the concert, this music would have been unthinkable for performance by any but a top professional orchestra only a few years ago; yet now we are hearing it beautifully executed by teenagers. Prodigious technique and training are obviously important; but these young people are acquiring a new kind of understanding that all of us took decades to achieve.

The program concluded with Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2, which, when I last checked, was such a favorite that it had been performed by the Boston Symphony approximately 250 times. Popular or not, it is a heroic workout for any professional orchestra, and its ultra-rich tonal harmony, which provided inspiration for decades of Hollywood sound, has to be heard in expert performance. Even in the big 5/4 Danse générale, which concludes the ballet, the harmony moves so quickly that it can become easily blurred. There are notable solos, too, such as the flute in Chloé’s dance (hats off to Katie Velasquez) and the whirling E-flat clarinet (Brittnee Pool). In the final measures, eight percussion players were simultaneously at work. After the last A major cutoff, the audience jumped to its feet with joy. It was easy to understand why.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.

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