The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s Sunday afternoon concert served as a strong reminder of its prestigious place among the world’s premier youth ensembles. Performing for a full house at Symphony Hall, the group’s supreme technical control allowed for potent and pictorial musicality. In Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 24 (Thomas Juhasz, narrator), Schwantner’s New Morning for the World, “Daybreak of Freedom” (Governor Deval Patrick, narrator), and Holst’s The Planets, Op. 32, the orchestra paid homage to Benjamin Zander’s storied beginnings as an English youth in contact with Britten and Imogen Holst, as well as to the significance and struggle in the life and example of Martin Luther King. The beautiful music in the hall took on a cosmic universality.
For such an important concert, the orchestra’s “American style” entrance was fitting: one by one, the young musicians trickled onto the stage of symphony hall, filling the space with the frenetic buzz of instrumental warm-up. This scene was only amplified by the congregating effect of the large audience finding their seats. Zander emerged to give a short prologue and introduce the audience to Thomas Juhasz, an oboist in the ensemble narrating the Britten. A false-start only served to contrast the seriousness with an enjoyable informality.
A musical sandbox of orchestral effects and clever orchestration ensued as the ensemble played the Britten. The variations on Purcell’s theme from Abdelazer, or the Moor’s Revenge (1695) passed among instrumental groups with nuanced accompaniment, always executed in good taste and musicality. The spritely entrance of the flute and piccolo whirled like finches, with triangle adding to the effect. A particularly seductive oboe solo emerged, joined by the strings, followed by the introduction of the clarinets in a buoyant passage accompanied by tuba. The militant and heady character of the bassoons made themselves known, in a quasi-recitative. The violins’ variation was an assertive polonaise contrasted by the oom-pa of the lower brass. The violas were sumptuous in their expressionistic variation, followed by the celli in a “le cygne”-like lyrical melody, swooned by the rocking of the clarinets. Then the basses were introduced, with instrumental contrast: upper woodwinds and tambourine were fly-like in their nagging of the large animal of the orchestra. The elegant etude-like strums and of the harp created lush colors, with the shimmering tremolos of strings underneath. The hunting call of the horns introduced themselves to the audience, as they veered through chromatic gestures. The trumpets then galloped along with the snare-drum anxiously keeping time. Trombones and tuba came to the fore in a solemn chorale-like passage accompanied by the upper instruments of the wind band. Another polonaise introduced the percussion, with ricochets in the strings. Concluding the guide, the Allegro molto fugue created a great deal of energy as each subject entrance and final stretto occurred throughout the massive orchestra. The final chord bellowed like an organ.
Joseph Schwantner’s New Morning for the World, Op.24, “Daybreak of Freedom” (with musically embedded text from the words of MLK) came next. In his introduction, Zander read an anonymous note from one of the musicians in the orchestra (a reflection written on the trademark “white sheets”), which elicited sympathetic applause:
Today, what we do as musicians struck me with renewed vitality…As we began to play the Schwantner, I absolved Dr. King’s words with an eager hope for goodness. To me, this piece is a joint-reminder of the good that has been done and a call-to-action to prevent further atrocities. And based upon [recent national events] not all of us are listening. We live in a divided time, when we need, perhaps now more than ever, a reminder that we need to bond together to aid humanity. This piece uses King’s words to enhance its meaning, giving a literal message in addition to an important musical one. Today I needed to hear that message. I will continue to hope for level-headedness in decisions that affect everyone, and that I may in some way make a positive difference.
The Schwantner opened with bass drum, strings, horns, and flutes with glockenspiel to state the major motives. A horn fanfare introduced Governor Deval Patrick’s declamation of MLK’s words, “There comes a time when people get tired…of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression.” After this first narrative statement, a more industrial interlude occurred with mixed-meter and hemiola being the main features to accompany the brilliant soundscape of orchestration and dynamic contrast. A lull opened up to the second statement: “Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here…For more than two centuries, our foreparents labored in this country without wages – and built the homes of their masters in the midst of brutal injustice and shameful humiliation.”
A sensitive and plaintive adagio, reminiscent of Barber’s seminal Adagio for Strings marked the middle section serving as a powerful crescendo to Patrick’s utterance: “Now is the time to make real the promise of Democracy…Now is the time to make justice a reality to all of God’s children.” By now, it was very clear that the narrative text served as a type of instrument that was jointly orchestrated – the most important leading voice in the texture of sound and meaning. Waves of increasing dynamics accompanied the ever intense narration, finally bringing the music back to a recapitulation of the first motivic themes: “The battle is in our hands – I know some of you are asking, “How long will it take?”…How Long? Not long because the arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice.”
Following an orchestral recapitulation, a grand pause opened the soundscape before returning to the elegiac adagio theme. This set the mood as Patrick proclaimed MLK’s most famous words: “I have a dream. The dream is one of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed;…a dream of a land where men do not argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character;…where every man will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality, and men will dare to live together as brothers.” In Patrick’s final narrative entrance, the orchestra now reached a kind of coda, a combination of the first noble themes layered together with the adagio themes as background: “Whenever it is fulfilled, we will emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into a bright and glowing daybreak of freedom and justice for all of God’s children.” With this final statement, the glockenspiel and muted strings held onto the sound as it faded away in a profound morendo. A brief reflective pause passed from the audience before a near-immediate standing ovation occurred. Patrick and Zander shared an onstage embrace in revel of an important message well-received.
Holst’s symphonic astrological depiction of The Planets begins with the bellicose, piano–col legno-5/4 ostinato, hearkening the spirit of Mars, the Bringer of War. The balance and sheer sound-power of the huge throng shook the hall. The fortissississimo entrance of Symphony Hall’s organ near the end of the episode almost simulated creation’s big-bang.
Thomas Ossi, horn, accompanied by the section of 4 flutes and 3 oboes, handsomely manifested the tranquility of Venus, the Bringer of Peace. An ostinato pulse paired with pensive harmonic shifts created an otherworldly, Brucknerian orchestral texture – an illustration of the Venusian myth, minus the Venusburg element. Other soloists each achieved maximum expressive affect: Mitsuru Yonezaki, violin, Hunter O’Brian, flute, Diego Bacigalupe, clarinet, and Annete Jakovcic, cello. The celesta and glockenspiel entered to conclude the movement in cosmic bliss.
In Mercury, the Winged Messenger, the flutter of Mercury’s wings was wonderfully depicted throughout the 6/8 meter Vivace, mixed with the disorienting rhythmic ambiguity of hemiolas. The fluid passing of lines between the orchestra showcased the musicians’ exemplary chamber music skill in creating such a tight ensemble. No easy feat!
The hallmark movement Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity began with the strings’ 16th-note rhythm at the opening, serving as the background texture for the 6 horns to make themselves known. If some thematic passing among the sections transpired less than perfectly, the expressive solemnity of the string-hymn in the middle of the movement and recapitulation of the A-section with a wonderful Mahlerian zurückhaltend went by on steady rails. The brass led the hymn-theme into a grandiose ritard before the final coda.
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age opened as desolate, oscillating tritones from the flutes and harps introduced the bass section solo: slow and weary, it depicted the passage of time. The guttural bass oboe entered in a solo by Elias Medina. A gorgeous pentatonic harmonic texture concluded the planetary episode, making one think of the cosmic statements of Ewigkeit that end Das Lied von Der Erde.
Diminished fifths in the brass declared the start to Uranus, the Magician. The bassoons, then joined by the winds, perfectly characterized the astrologic sorcerer in sharp staccati that seemed to quote Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Taps of the tambourine emphasized the tricky and grotesque character. A huge crescendo led to an immediate subito piano in the organ, where the strings filled in the texture with harp.
Various wind solos lead Neptune, the Mystic forward, continuing to highlight an oscillating harmonic motif. Glissandi and other effects achieved a Wagnerian orchestral palette, particularly in the strings. The off-stage women’s chorus, conducted by Margaret Weckworth, turned heads. In the last few moments of The Planets, the chorus de-materialized — the vastness of space having consumed the sound.
Zander’s BPYO continues to deliver huge musical inspiration. For the many, many people involved, these concerts showcase supreme virtuosity achieved at a young age, but upon deeper reflection, the development of the passion and meaning behind these qualities constitute the real lesson. On Sunday we experienced the ineffable in humanity.
The BPYO performs again in Symphony Hall, on Sunday, April 14 @ 3:00pm in a program of Wagner, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler featuring the wunderkind violinist In Mo Yang.
Cellist, conductor, organizer, commentator, and musical facilitator, Santa Barbara native Nicolas Sterner is the Collaborative Director and Conductor of the Chromos Collaborative Orchestra.