Only someone familiar with the Brazilian-American composer (pianist, arranger, singer) Clarice Assad could have imagined that Benjamin Zander would be co-conducting on the Sanders Theater stage yesterday with a jazz-dancing, scatting Doppelgänger.
From the downbeat Sunday at Sanders, the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s life was a cabaret, or perhaps a Carnival at Pernambuco. Indeed, for starters, the BPYO had commissioned a sunny and altogether danceable stunner with nary a dark cloud. Assad’s Bonecos de Olina augurs to become a youth orchestra standard. The percussion sounded street-smart with the tropical frevo and maracatu beats, and the 100+ young players really swung as a big band. A great setup for the concerto movements to follow.
Deerfield Academy junior and third-year BPYO member Meriel Bizri led off with a strikingly secure and beautifully inflected account of the first movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. She has chops aplenty for virtuoso display but chose a work of deep musicality. Fresh from a BSO prize-account of the movement, she obliged on this afternoon with probing poetry, intense emotion, and spot-on technique. As the well-drawn unsettling truculence from the orchestra resolved to noble resignation, Bizri returned with a luscious benediction.
The first movement from Concerto for Bass No. 2 from that most famous composer of double-bass novelties, Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889), allowed Kebra-Seyoun Charles (son of an African drummer and dancer) to scamper all over the monstrously long fingerboard of that normally stodgy underpinner. From the vocal upper reaches and harmonics to the glorious growls, Charles exuded personality and verve. His big cadenza, almost surreal in its capers, never lost the line. Zander drew muted but smiling support from the corps.
Prokofiev is one of those composers whom one can identify in a trice. His characteristic off-kilter melodies show generosity, yet the dark side lurks always. Zachary Fung showed deep understanding in the first movement of the Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra. He melded youthful energy with felicitous emotional intelligence, alternately fearlessly outgoing and contemplative; he never oversold. And we enthusiastically bought the winning collaboration of soloist and orchestra.
The first half closed with that virtuoso showstopper, Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso . . . twice. During the first traversal, violinist Mitsuru Yonezaki had to compete with a noisy and restless toddler trying to escape a front-row-center seat. How difficult it must have been for Zander to admonish and banish the towheaded cuty and his cluelessly inconsiderate mother on her very day. Zander had told us how Juilliard student and BPYO charter member Yonezaki would be going places. Luckily, mother and child did too. The redo proved relaxed and magical, and Zander had another co-conductor it seemed so hand in glove was his responsiveness to the soloist. Yonezaki gave us the virtuoso grand manner without the pretense, spinning tonal threads of pure gold.
After hearing the four winners drawn from 24 apparently equally deserving applicants, one could understand why this orchestra sounds so good. The players, ages 12-21, end up in some of the country’s great orchestras. On this day, they could hold their own with any adult ensemble. In fact, many professional orchestras would need a few strokes’ handicap to compete. And all of this is the more amazing in an ambitious season which has already seen three Symphony Hall concerts, the last one only four weeks ago. Achieving such musicality and proficiency with a rehearsal a week attests to the level of talent and commitment all round.
Zander’s personal note to me before the concert spoke to his concept of the main event, Dvořák’s New World Symphony. “D’s tempo indications are rarely followed and some of them are illuminating. I hope you will find it fresh and exhilarating. The intro to the first movement and especially the slow movement, with the English horn solo, seem to me to make more sense and be more beautiful at his more flowing tempo. It all comes out sounding like the opposite of a tired warhorse — it’s more like a frolicking Bohemian colt.”
Michael Steinberg’s reprinted notes disagree: “Now comes the famous Largo. It took Dvořák a while to realize how slow this movement really needs to be. In his sketches it is andante. Then it became larghetto, and it was only after he heard Seidl rehearse it at a tempo far slower than the one he had imagined, but which proved to fit perfectly, that he changed it to largo.”
Whatever. Fresh and exciting, brisk and clean the symphony began. Wonderful for a youth orchestra to take on tour to Brazil to show off their chops. The exuberant, churning, thrumming textures of the first movement rang out with heart and excitement; many in the orchestra must have felt righteous pride in playing this piece for the first time, and at such a high level. Colors, solos, tutti combined and adventured forth under Zander’s lofty standard.
But I side with Seidl in that famous Largo, which ran closer to andante on this afternoon. Normally I don’t resort to timekeeping, but at 10’50”, in the absence of broader phrasing and string portamentos, “Goin’ Home” felt tight. The great English horn solo (well-voiced as it was by Cameron Slaton) didn’t have the chance to bloom. One needn’t necessarily take things at Celibidache’s 16’34”, but awe comes about (and we like awe) more reliably at something like 12’30”. Let’s hope Zander will allow more space and shape in subsequent performances, as he has done previously in this movement.
Zander and the players judoed the Molto vivace third movement into a furioso dance with chivalrous ardor and marked sway and sweep. The satisfying sheen on the to-die-for string section and the intensity and alacrity of the winds stunned. With Wagnerian splendor, the brass poured out molten bronze in the opening of the fourth movement to reintroduce Dvořák’s plum pudding of tunes. Zander led an irresistible call and response as melodies materialized then fractalated. The mighty peroration died away with intimations of Valhalla.
Recognition of those departing after this seventh season came in a deeply felt traversal of “Nimrod.”
Then soon, for those who remain, on to the Brazilian tour. One could not hope for brighter, more attractive and hope-inspiring emissaries from the America we hold dear. They can serve with certainty to summon our better angels.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer