Romance floated in the air for the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s annual Thanksgiving weekend concert Sunday at Symphony Hall. It began with the Overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser and concluded with conductor Benjamin Zander’s own suite of music from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. Sandwiched in between, Boston native and Lexington resident George Li soloed in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. One could, now and then, quibble about matters of interpretation, but there could be few reservations about the playing of the huge orchestra.
The Overture to Tannhäuser is a longish — some 15 minutes — introduction that embodies the 13th-century title hero’s conflict between sex and salvation. On the one hand, there’s the company of Tannhäuser’s fellow minnesingers and his love for Princess Elisabeth. On the other, consider the orgiastic delights of the Venusberg, to which he’s abandoned himself for a time. Condemned by the minnesingers after he broke into a paean to sex during a singing contest, Tannhäuser journeys to Rome; the pope won’t forgive him, but he’s saved through the intercession of the dead Elisabeth in Heaven.
The Overture’s structure is simple: the pilgrims’ chorus from the opera’s third scene, then the seductive Venusberg music, then the pilgrims again. The BPYO’s booklet describes the Overture as encompassing the opera’s opposing forces, “Christian virtue and pagan sensuality,” and concludes, “The triumphant return of the pilgrims’ chorus at the end leaves no doubt as to who will win this particular contest.” More to the point, I think, is the comment that appears on the BPYO website: “Considerable heat is generated on both sides. It is debatable whether either side wins.” Not until Parsifal does a Wagner opera forgo sex so easily.
Zander’s interpretation underlined the contrast. The opening pilgrim section was slow, reverent, a shade literal; some sense of sweep was sacrificed in the attempt to make every note count. But the Venusberg section was animated, by turns tender and tempestuous, and exquisitely calibrated; at one point near the end you could see and distinctly hear the tambourine, cymbals, and triangle. The timpani, too, after the pilgrims’ return, was well judged, rich but not overbearing.
Nothing says classical music like Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Well, maybe Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or his Ninth. But no Beethoven release has sold like Van Cliburn’s triple platinum 1958 recording with Kirill Kondrashin and the RCA Symphony Orchestra. (This doesn’t mean that RCA, even in the recording’s numerous reissues, has bothered to spell Maestro Kondrashin’s given name correctly.) It was Cliburn who, at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in April 1958, took down first prize in the piano division, to cheers of “Vanyichka”! Americans flocked to buy the recording, perhaps to console themselves that if we couldn’t beat the Soviets into space (Sputnik 1 had gone up six months earlier), we could at least beat them at their Russian composer game.
And yet . . . nothing says “warhorse” like Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. It’s a virtuoso showpiece that critics tend to write off as lacking serious structure, particularly in the big first movement. Actually, the concerto’s structure is Tchaikovsky’s little joke. Nothing could be grander or more romantic than the celebrated polonaise-like opening statement. Those first three minutes, in D-flat major, constitute a miniature sonata form: orchestra exposition, piano exposition, cadenza, coda. An unusual but promising start. The pianist continues with that da-da da-da da-da da-da theme that surely has to be a transition. It’s even in the appropriate relative minor, B-flat. And it leads to a pair of engaging themes in A-flat major, perfect for a concerto with a main theme in D-flat. But at some point during this first movement’s 20 or so minutes, you start to suspect that the D-flat theme isn’t coming back. Ever. Worse, the recapitulation reprises the two secondary themes in B-flat major, making it clear that B-flat was the intended key all along, that the introductory D-flat section was just that, an introduction.
The fun doesn’t stop there. The Andante semplice slow movement is back to D-flat major, with a Prestissimo middle section in, of all things, D minor. And the Allegro con fuoco rondo finale begins in B-flat minor before switching to D-flat major for the lush second subject. Perhaps that grand magnificent opening will come back after all? No, it’s that second subject, now in B-flat major, that brings the concerto home.
A simpler way of looking at all this is that Tchaikovsky keeps you guessing whether the concerto, whose very first few bars are in B-flat minor, is going to wind up in D-flat major or B-flat major. The right performance will make it seem either is possible.
Cliburn himself once remarked, “I was famous before I was good.” Yet on the evidence of that 1958 RCA recording, he was very good before he was famous. His sound then possesed both weight and impulse; he can be restless or relaxed at almost the same tempo, and neither his passagework nor his golden tone ever fails.
George Li is also very good. I last heard him in 2012, when at 17 years of age he gave a creditable performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with Zander and the Boston Philharmonic. Since then, he’s shared second place in the piano division of the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition and signed a recording contract with Warner Classics. His recorded his debut disc live at the Mariinsky Theater Concert Hall in St. Petersburg.
At 22, Li is just a year younger than Cliburn was in 1958. His performance Sunday didn’t quite enjoy the overall command and cogency of Cliburn’s. But that’s about all that was missing. The opening sequence of piano chords wasn’t just banged out, it had shape. Like Cliburn, Li is able to inflect a phrase without disturbing the overall line, and when the second subject group arrived, he created a lyric mood without significantly slowing the tempo. He didn’t try to overpower the first movement, or overinterpret it. The massive cadenza didn’t just show-off fireworks, it transmitted ideas.
The Andante semplice felt a shade callow: the main section rolled along a bit too easily, and though the Prestissimo middle section was flabbergasting, the transition back to the main section seemed, for once, overworked. The rondo finale was not driven but allowed to dance; the second subject, the real heart of the movement, surged, and it all built to a grand finish.
Zander and the orchestra took on an appropriately supporting role. In the first movement of that 2012 Rachmaninov Second, the BPO covered Li at times; that never happened here. One heard the barest hint of a horn wobble at the outset, and a brassy moment or two in the finale. But otherwise the orchestra didn’t call attention to itself while doing everything an orchestra in a piano concerto should. The sensibility was thoroughly Tchaikovskian.
Li’s one encore, a transcription of the “Mélodie” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, gave equal prominence to the yearning melody and the rocking bass—a choice, and a performance, worthy of a former local wunderteen who’s matured into an international artist.
Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet runs some two and a half hours, so it’s rarely heard in concert halls. Prokofiev did extract three suites from the complete score, but, like the suites from the ballets The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, they make no attempt to tell the story, or even to present the music in order. Zander created his own suite from 13 of the ballet’s 52 numbers, in a sequence that mostly worked. I was perplexed to see “The Capulet Ball” precede “The Young Juliet” and “Masks,” since “The Young Juliet” shows Juliet trying on her grown-up dress and getting ready for the ball, and “Masks” shows young Montagues Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio donning masks as a way to crash the Capulet party. Those two numbers would logically come before the beginning of the ball, and in the score they in fact do.
It was also unfortunate that Zander provided no supertitles, as he did for the BPO’s presentation of Stravinsky’s Petrushka last month. He invited the audience to follow along with the printed notes, but Symphony Hall was far too dark to read anything. Supertitles would have been a luxury, of course, particularly in view of the BPYO’s very modest ticket pricing. And though at 55 minutes, Zander’s suite was hardly too long (Prokofiev’s First and Second Suites together run just under an hour and make far less sense), it made for a long program, over two and a half hours. A few George Li fans exited after intermission, but the vast majority of what started out as a full house stayed the course.
They were amply rewarded. Prokofiev composes precisely for ballet; he all but takes the baton out of the conductor’s hand. What counts is the sound picture, which ranges from Tybalt’s sneering “fleer and scorn” to Juliet’s impassioned “Gallop ye fiery steeds.” With 82 strings, danger always lurked that this BPYO performance would become unbalanced, but it never did. The one misstep seemed “The Capulet Ball” (also known as the “Dance of the Knights”). Zander played it to underline the sense of Capulet patriarchy and control, but anyone who saw the choreography that the late Cho San Goh created for Boston Ballet in 1984 knows how erotic this music can be.
In other moments, such as in the Tannhäuser Overture, Zander seemed too careful, too static—the “Balcony Scene,” and the following “Folk Dance,” and then “Friar Laurence.” But this was on the whole an intense Romeo and Juliet, particularly in the Introduction, the “Death of Tybalt,” and “Romeo in the Tomb of Juliet.” Along the way came some superb solo work. To name just a few: Elmer Churampi (trumpet) answering Robyn Smith (trombone) and Frank John (tuba) in the “Folk Dance”; Reed Puleo (snare drum) and Churampi in the “Death of Tybalt”; Richard Rivale (celesta) and John in “Romeo and Juliet Before Parting”; Eli Holmes (bassoon), Matthew Gellar (bass clarinet), and Christopher Forbes (alto saxophone) throughout.
How good is the BPYO? Its size—there were 123 members on stage Sunday—can make comparisons with normal-sized ensembles difficult. (The BSO had an orchestra of “only” 79 for Bruckner’s Fourth last week, though that number will go up to 119 for this weekend for Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony). In any case, the sound this orchestra achieves is professionally full and clear and well balanced, and under Zander there’s a maturity of interpretation. I’d have been happy to pay the BSO ticket price for the performance I heard Sunday.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.