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Zander & BPYO Ask What Love Tells Us

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Inmo Yang (file photo)

 “What Love Tells Me” was the title of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s program Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall, and it wasn’t hard to see why, what with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy and the final movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony — a movement he originally called “What Love Tells Me” — on the second half of the bill. The thematic connection of the first half, which brought us the Prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, wasn’t as obvious, but the Prelude does incorporate Walther’s love song to Eva, and in the concerto you could hear echoes of the Romeo and Juliet ballet that Prokofiev composed in the same year. As in every love story, there were bumps along the way Sunday, but there was no want of love in the orchestra’s playing, or in the interpretations of BPYO founder and conductor Benjamin Zander.

The Meistersinger Prelude has been likened to a mini-symphony, and you can certainly hear it that way, with the Meistersinger and Banner themes as the first movement, the Abgesang from Walther’s Preislied as the second, the Meistersinger material in quick march as a kind of scherzo, and then Wagner’s masterful combination of his themes for the finale. Zander seemed to want to keep the musical strands discrete, so we could appreciate the beauty of the writing, but there was a nervous energy about the interpretation that didn’t feel consonant with the majesty — even the pomp — of the Meistersinger and Banner themes, and so the contrast of Walther’s Preislied, which should move more freely, didn’t register. And the balance didn’t sound quite right. I sensed that Zander was trying to prevent his massive string section (73 strong) from swamping the rest of the orchestra, but the brass, particularly the horns, seemed too loud at times, and they sounded taxed. Even the famous tuba line in the final section, though well played by David Stein, stood out more than it needed to. (Granted, too loud is better than barely audible.) The quick-march section, in which some hear a Beckmesser parody, was heavy-footed; the strings didn’t make the impact they should in the final pages. This was not a bad Prelude by any means, but it felt overthought.

Prokofiev composed his Second Violin Concerto in 1935, while on concert tour. The Allegro moderato was started in Paris and the Andante assai in Voronezh; the orchestration was finished in Baku, and the premiere took place in December in Madrid. For his soloist, Zander had South Korean violinist and current New England Conservatory student Inmo Yang, who back in March 2015 won the “Premio Paganini” International Violin Competition in Genoa. Prior to that, in December 2014, he had won the Boston Classical Orchestra’s Young Artists Competition.

Here his technique and artistic maturity were evident from the outset. Prokofiev begins the concerto with a wistful, folk-like melody for the solo violin whose two initial five-beat phrases suggest a time signature of 5/4. The music immediately settles into 4/4, but the impression is of music that’s trying to break free, and that’s underlined by the nervous ostinatos of the orchestra. Yang fashioned a long line from his opening solo, his tone both bright and warm, and Zander made the ostinatos ominous. The Allegro moderato’s second theme seems to anticipate “La vie en rose” (which Edith Piaf wouldn’t sing for another 10 years); the interpretation from soloist and orchestra was compact but songful. There were thoughtful transitions from the development into the recapitulation and then, in the recapitulation, from the first theme to the second. The motoric, Futurist Prokofiev got his due alongside the lyrical classicist. And Stalinist Russia, at a time when the composer had just moved back to his homeland, loomed in those ostinatos.

The Andante assai might have been the highlight of the afternoon, Yang ethereal even in the most stratospheric passages, Zander and the orchestra delicate in yet another ostinato accompaniment, this one lulling and steady. You could hear the intimations of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, particularly the tomb scene, and the Elgar-like stateliness of the conclusion seemed appropriate. The Allegro, ben marcato finale, with its castanets (a salute to the Madrid premiere venue?), has the feel of a lumbering scherzo in triple time. It’s not easy to bring off; here the castanets were admirably audible, but at times the orchestra was too loud for the soloist.

Yang’s performance most certainly warranted an encore, and we got one, the finale of Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata No. 2, a movement marked Allegro furioso and here furioso indeed.  

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet is, like the Meistersinger Prelude, more than a conventional overture — its sonata form includes an introduction and a coda. The piece begins in an atmosphere of religious expectation, as if Romeo and Juliet were already planning their wedding. Passions break out in the violent theme representing the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets, and then the love theme enters. The recapitulation speaks to the lovers’ desperation; even the coda, which represents Friar Laurence’s benediction, is fraught, as if anger could reproach from beyond the grave.

Performances of this piece have a tendency to supercharge, making the religious theme pious, the feud theme hysterical, the love theme saccharine. Zander was intense in the introduction, suggesting, instead of the usual devotional amble, Russian Orthodox chant. That ear-opener set up the feud theme, where he generated ample excitement without the kind of tempo extreme that Tchaikovsky deplored. The love theme, when it first appears, is muted, and Zander didn’t overplay it, but at much the same tempo there was little contrast, and that was the case even when the theme gets the full string treatment. The coda too didn’t settle — at this point there needs to be a sense of resolution between the warring families.

Mahler’s Third Symphony runs close to 100 minutes, tracing the evolution of human consciousness from its inert beginnings all the way to its awareness of Divine love and reflecting along the way on Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Listening to the sixth and last movement on its own, you’re deprived of the philosophical nature of this journey, not to mention its references to 19th-century German political movements.

Yet if there’s a Mahler movement that can stand on its own, this is it. “What Love Tells Me” tells of two sensibilities. The first, initially in D major, is an angel who’s timeless; the second, initially in F-sharp minor, is a mortal whose yearning for the reassurance of the angel prompts the crises in the music. When these two ideas appear for the second time, they negotiate; then the angel tries to go it alone, but the mortal won’t be silenced. Finally, after the flute has signaled the release of the mortal’s soul, the angel accepts the mortal’s pain and suffering as part of itself, creating a new (to humanity) kind of consciousness.

On his manuscript, Mahler wrote an epigraph for the movement: “Vater, sieh an die Wunden mein! Kein Wesen laß verloren sein.” (“Father, look upon these wounds of mine! Let there be lost no creature of Thine.”) The angel theme is developed from the slow movement of Hans Rott’s Symphony in E Major. Rott was a student friend of Mahler’s who died mad in 1884, just short of his 26th birthday. The descending trumpet figure that initiates the movement’s final crisis also draws from Rott. Perhaps Mahler is asking God why Rott was lost.         

The tempo marking of this movement — “Slow. Peaceful. Deeply Felt.” — has tempted conductors to take it ever so slowly in an attempt to sound profound. Levine with the BSO in 2001 exceeded 30 minutes. Leonard Bernstein’s two recordings, in the 25-minute range, have more shape. Rafael Kubelik has shown that you can take as little as 22 minutes without sacrificing gravitas.

Time is, of course, relative. Zander’s reading on Sunday was in the 23-to-24-minute range, in line with his 2003 Philharmonia recording. That wasn’t an issue. What perplexed me was that the D-major opening was not celestial. It sounded matter of fact, edgy rather than awestruck, and when the F-minor second subject arrived, the mood didn’t change. Throughout there was no sense of release after crises, and the brass, particularly the French horns, were too prominent. The movement just didn’t have the shape Mahler calls for. Even the closing page disappointed. Mahler marks the timpani f, as opposed to ff of the brass; what you tend to hear, even on your favorite recording, is apt to be ff from the timpani. Zander’s 2003 recording is a notable exception; the brass are allowed to produce the noble effect Mahler intended. Here the timpani were back to ff. The result was, like so many traversals of this peroration, oddly martial.

The weather was fine Sunday, part of Marathon weekend. Can that explain why Symphony Hall appeared half-empty? Where does the BPYO fit into Boston’s musical life? In this season’s previous two concerts, it brought us Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and Holst’s The Planets. Anna Fedorova’s very personal Rachmaninov would have been welcome at BSO prices, and Zander’s Shostakovich went toe to toe with Andris Nelsons’s Grammy-winning BSO reading. As for Young Person’s Guide, The Planets, and the first three pieces on this program, how often do we hear any of them live?

So for all that the BSO has a full season of concerts, there should be room in Boston for this youth orchestra as well as for the parent Boston Philharmonic. Tickets for Sunday ranged from $10 to $50. When you pay to hear the BPYO, you are, of course, investing in the musicians of tomorrow. But you’re also getting a performance that’s worth more than $50, and that includes the conducting, my reservations about this batch of Zander’s interpretations notwithstanding. My seat Sunday — at the back of the second balcony, my choice — would have been priced at $15. Boston can have few better bargains than that. 

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.

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