It was something miraculous when the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra sprang like Minerva from the head of Benjamin Zander a scant three-and-a-half years ago. Now our expectation that this fully fledged orchestra will continue to produce concerts at the highest level constitutes the latest iteration of the miracle. And so it is my pleasure to report that the BPYO outing at Sanders on Sunday afternoon satisfied me more fully than any other orchestral concert I have heard all season.
After looking up from Marc Mandel’s printed statement that Debussy’s orchestration for Prélude à l’après–midi d’un faune is not especially large, I had to smile at the presence of something like 127 fresh faces armed for faun. We had no idea when the piece opened with the well-remembered flute solo that Sieon Choi had stepped in on a half-hour’s notice, never having played the part before. A perfect Syrinx, she betrayed not the least reluctance, nor any unchaste tone. Moonbeams struck, she passed the theme to Mary O’Keefe’s satryresque oboe, thence to the full winds and harps, until, about a minute in, the 80 strings swelled in a tutti that would do any brand-name orchestra proud. What a sound Zander conjured from every section, down to the four French horns and, in Mahler 1, at least two turtle doves. Waves of color and saturations of expression brought the oversexed mythology to passionate life.
Brahms’s Double Concerto in A Minor for Violin and Cello may not have been a conventional choice for a youth orchestra over Mendelssohn, Dvořák or Tchaikovsky staples, but Zander’s decision seemed apt, with violinist Hikaru Yonezaki and cellist Leland Ko in the title roles. The composer may not be famous as a melodist, and even himself expressed doubt about his gifts as a tunesmith, but he needed no apologies for this concerto. Noble themes develop with remarkable lyric convolution even if we don’t leave the theater humming them. The outlier in an afternoon of nature-inspired tone poetry, Brahms’s concerto refers to no program. Abstract and not the least beery, it is lofty Brahms, coming three years after his last symphony and less than a decade before the autumnal last songs and clarinet works.
Clearly cellist Ko wanted to knock our socks off, not his own, judging from his rainbow-colored argyles, yet his extended introduction bore Bachian dignity conveyed in powerful confidence. Profoundly serious interplay ensued with gleaming violinist Yonezaki in which both players summoned invested commitment in spiritual leadership (to respond to the BPYO mission statement). Each found perfect balances of declamation and introspection, tenderness and theatricality. Though apparently endowed with very different personalities, they seemed collaboratively engrossed as in chamber music.
Zander exhorted his 127 charges to follow and support the soloists, and so it came to pass that they exalted the solo pair. The massed strings’ silky sheen and arched shapeliness simply astonished; in their own artistry, the winds and brass were exemplary. We should now think of this teen band as a constantly self-renewing mature ensemble.
In his first symphony, Mahler perhaps placed man and music side by side in nature’s wondrous realm with less complication and neurosis than in later works. The birdsongs, country dances, church bells, askew nursery rounds, Chassidic laments, and satirical Wiener Weltanschauung of the first three movements give way in the fourth to an apocalyptic “Sudden expression of a deeply wounded heart” until seven French horns ultimately rise in triumph.
Next to the probity of Brahms’s empyrean, Mahler’s and Zander’s large embrace encompasses the world we inhabit. The BPYO showed heart, sinew, and brain as they responded to the leader’s deep understanding of a work he has lived with through a long life, although not so long as to prevent his vaulting onto the podium—and once more into the lives of his players, votaries, and us grateful auditioners.