Long lines were already forming well over an hour before the start of Monday evening’s Symphony Hall season opener of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, Benjamin Zander, conductor. By concert time, the hall was jam-packed, a din of eager voices taking over. Outside, hundreds were turned away.
Now hushed, and the BPYO tuned, Zander, ignoring the welcoming applause, instead leapt to the podium and in a blink the Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila was underway. A tempo very near the top of lightning speeds usually taken by older, more experienced professional orchestras put the audience on notice; many had to be holding their breath. It was sheer delight.
Was technique any issue? There was not a single one that caught my ear. The oft-played Russian overture of Mikhail Glinka spun away with seat-of-the pants action and enthralling instrumental acumen not to be eclipsed in any way. That din of anticipation became a burst of bravos.
Ranging in age from 12 to 21, all looked as sharp as any orchestra could. They all came to play, and play they did.
Next up was Igor Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major dating from 1931. To hear this music, to hear it live, to hear it in “the greatest hall in the world” as Zander put it, and to hear it played by these intensely focused orchestral performers with an equally committed soloist was nothing short of exhilarating.
That soloist Ayano Ninomiya began studying the violin in a public school program in Boston is symbolic of the educative mission Benjamin Zander has so genuinely and fully embraced over a good many years. Appearing before a smaller, concentrated orchestra, Ninomiya lunged into the continuum of Neo-Baroque writing by the 20th century master, delivering its sinewy stretches with equivalent might. The outer movements were energetic and festive, the inner two arias thoroughly captivating.
The chamber orchestra’s sections of strings, winds, and brass were ever so finely wrought. Ninomiya, with Zander and his team of inspired youth, drew a diamond of a performance shining in elegant brilliancy. All were in best form.
From here forward, some of the evening’s concert-goers, obviously new to such fare, had to be tamed between movements. Zander finally took to making a half turn on the podium then freezing, his baton in a stop position. Still, a few chortled—an education-in-progress.
The BPYO next took on Claude Debussy’s monumental La Mer but with less success. Not that the large orchestra filling the stage could not handle the score’s serious demands, that it did and impressively so. It was the feel of Debussy that was not quite up to par. While there were striking orchestral colors, most were on the bright side, the darker shades somewhat missed the mysterious, and ominous, counterbalancing the playful and majestic the young players mustered. Overall, Zander’s idea of the piece gave less the impression of a fluidly unfolding sea picture than of a dramatic orchestral concert work.
The unusual and somewhat lengthy program succeeded as a showcase for the first concert of BPYO’s fourth season. From the various soloists to the various sections, from the barely heard murmurs of the Debussy to the giant fortissimos of the full orchestra in Tchaikovsky, BPYO exhibited a heightened sense of discipline and dedication.
Symphony No. 5 in E Minor of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky found a rigorously informed orchestra. Romantic affections blossomed. Themes, including the well-known horn solo in the Andante Cantabile played by Megan Shusta , came shaped and sure, lovely, fierce, and triumphant. The work can present as multitudinous rhetorical culminating points, some describing minor peaks, others climaxing with grandeur, but greater differentiation among them was wanted last night.
Folks stood and cheered for what seemed to be a never ending show of support for the young musicians who for certain earned every bit of it.