The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra brought two masterworks that changed the course of musical history to Symphony Hall Friday under Benjamin Zander’s driven baton: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major (“Sinfonia Eroica”) of 1804 and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which famously caused a riot at its 1913 premiere—jolting a complacent bourgeois audience out of its comfort zone.
Zander’s introductory remarks about the Eroica, focusing largely on the questions of tempi, gave those delayed by the snow time to settle in. Much has been written about Beethoven’s metronome markings, considered by many to be wildly off the mark and often unplayable. Zander’s view is straightforward: have faith in Beethoven and do your best to follow his instructions. (In another context historian of science Tom Kuhn noted that when you see someone brilliant doing something that seems absurd, you need to pay special attention.)
What resulted was a fresh revelation of Eroica’s heroic intentions. Tempi were felt across bar lines, as for instance a slow four rather than a rapid three, allowing overarching themes to become audible. In the first movement, we heard the clamor of Arcola and Marengo as Bonaparte led his youthful generals on a battle to liberate Europe, but it was a clamor transfigured, appropriated by Beethoven for a new heroic project of his own. Beethoven recognized his own immense energy, courage and ambition in the figure of Bonaparte but he deployed these shared traits on a higher, transcendent battle field. The drama, vastness and resolve of military campaigns were sublimated into a new artistic vision, punctuated by ravishing horns led by Megan Shusta.
In the context of the BPYO’s interpretation, the funeral march confronted us with the price that is paid by heroic energy—the sorrow and pity of human sacrifice, loss, adversity and final reckoning, brought out here most especially in the wrenching fugal sections. The maggiore section resurrected hope, like a heavenly clearing in the midst of grief, affirming a noble purpose in the face of indifference, with a beautiful thunder of timpani from John Stapleton that brought a particularly poignant, tragic and memorable ending. After a hushed silence paying tribute to the fallen hero, the scherzo, played at Beethoven’s indicated tempo, emphasized joy rather than intensity. It conveyed the feeling of a liberated, just and fraternal humanity engaged in its daily activities with new hope and trust, as though ordinary life had been redeemed and infused with dignity and significance. Here what Beethoven appropriated from Bonaparte for music was the capacity to affirm and celebrate social justice, to give meaning and even heroic color to the humblest of human gestures. The deep content of the scherzo was skillfully conveyed by the noble quality of the horns: aristocratic honor now inherited by ordinary citizens who are brothers, building a new world of spirit, the cobbler and the blacksmith joyously pledged to a shared liberty, equality and fraternity.
The great discovery in this performance came in the fourth movement. The rapid tempo (the movement clocked in at less than 10 minutes) gave it a wild vitality and urgency, confronting us with a future that is already present, to be seized like a tide of possibilities. We know not what it will bring, but our human potential is now irreversibly unleashed (as Zander put it, “the world was never the same after the Eroica”). The variations flowed together coherently, as though driven by a transcendent logic of cause and consequence that includes chaos and the unpredictable. Holding steady the tempo leading into the brilliant Hungarian dance made it celebratory. Toward the end, the Poco Andante showed marvelous subtlety; brilliant flute playing from Carlos Aguilar implied gratitude as a new sublimation of the spirit of conquest and adventure, leading to a wonderfully alive and energetic finish. “Soldiers, remember that 40 centuries are watching you from the top of these pyramids.” What was made evident by the BPYO was that Beethoven took over the Bonapartian project of rejuvenating a tired and broken humanity, but he championed music and the arts as the more effective, transformative means, claiming for music a power above that of military campaigns: “Bonaparte, you did it the unenlightened way, with literal blood and guts. I will be the true hero, more lasting, more effective, more complete.”
Zander commented before the second half on tempi in the Rite of Spring, conveying persuasive evidence, based on an early Stravinsky piano roll as well as on contemporary accounts, that the composer had intended “Sacrificial Dance” to be played at nearly twice the speed at which we now typically hear it. That speed would genuinely seem to be fatal to the dancer, but noting that Stravinsky had later backed away from his initial vision, Zander asserted “We will not back away.”
Sacre unfolded savagely and thrillingly from start to finish; the youthful performers expressed every intended iota of barbarity, as though raw terror had been something familiar. After the haunting opening call in the upper register of the bassoon from Kai Rocke, the sound was raucous and violent, but also stunningly candid, without the innuendo of menace, which nicely suggested the innocence of primitive man, as yet unaware of good and evil.
The “Spring Rounds” were remarkable in evoking the physical hardship and pain of mammalian gestation and birth, reproduced in the back-breaking labor of tilling the ground for subsistence, involving a repetitious tedium for which homo sapiens sapiens is ill-suited and from which he escapes through more aggressive behaviors, war and rape, fueled by dangerous Spring hormones. “The Dance of the Earth” that concluded Part I was wonderfully frenzied, the heart of darkness. Here and throughout the Rite we felt the prodigiously powerful timpani of Carley Yanuck.
The long Introduction to Part II was especially beautiful, with its mournful colors hiding a fear of catastrophe and prompting an increasing sense of helplessness before the vagaries of Nature and the precarious urge to survive. Faced with fear, we turn to magical thinking to discharge our anxiety. In our overactive simian brains, we imagine that the death of a pure and defenseless Victim will propitiate the gods. The girls’ “Mystic Circles” were given an uncanny sound, as though bringing out our desire to manipulate the random forces that dominate us, culminating in the sudden trapped horror of being the chosen one. The “Glorification of the Chosen,” with its 11 terrifying hammer blows, gave us a powerful unleashing of cruelty and Eros. By picking the victim, a fierce predatory impulse found a target and an outlet: we were forced to hear the vivid, raw, utterly gratifying power of scapegoating. Underlying it all, the “Evocation and ritual action of Ancestors” brought out the feeling of undecipherable messages from beyond the tomb, the sense that the dead will invade the living. Thanks to Zander’s refusal to “back away” from the fast tempo, the whole piece culminated powerfully in the “Sacral Dance,” forcing the audience to participate in the sacrifice itself, as both executioner and victim, both hearing and uttering the innocent cry ringing out to heaven before the final harsh blow. Zander and the BPYO proved to us once and for all that nothing can follow the Rite of Spring. But they also proved the same of Eroica—or maybe they showed that everything follows from Eroica.