Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s Symphony Hall outing last Sunday found the players in top form. As he so often does, Benjamin Zander welcomed newcomers to the hall with warm explanations of concert etiquette and a longer précis of the featured works. In particular, he elucidated how Wagner compressed the story of his Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg into a prelude (he apparently wrote it before composing the opera) which developed the essential themes so artfully. An ability to welcome newcomers without boring experienced concertgoers forms an essential facet of Zander’s art:
About seven minutes in, a musical miracle occurs: all the themes that have been presented so far (and he explained each one) combine in a magical amalgam. If the performance has been carefully prepared and every voice is perfectly balanced, the attentive listeners can “see in their mind’s ears” a portrait of a perfect society.
The exuberant and rather loud overture achieved its mission to raise the curtain on a great show.
Then on to Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Weber, which the New York Philharmonic commissioned and premiered in 1943. The set originated in response to Léonide Massine’s suggestion for a ballet incorporating some Weber piano duets. Once quite popular, it even made the rounds for many years in a concert band version.
As I wrote of BPYO’s 2017 rendition, this Weber transformation constitutes neither the abstract and academic Hindemith of Ludus Tonalis nor the grotesque metamorphosis of Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s like-named story; rather, it’s best experienced as a benign and theatrical transformation indeed of the unsuspecting Weber’s lesser-known themes. And one wonders whether unjustified fear of the academic Hindemith led to a major growth of the audience for the second half. Those who arrived late missed a major funfest.
The highly charged youths strutted out in impressive concertante style. The Allegro opened with détaché precision as component parts interlocked like an elegant picture puzzle while the players expressed unalloyed joy in the pleasures of intricate music making. The sinuous, keening oboe of Robert Diaz made a dazzling impression as did the flute, clarinet and piccolo follow-ups. The criss-cross cadenza of the seemingly six-armed timpanist Ritvik Yaparpalvi almost stopped the show.
Turandot: Scherzo began reflectively but developed tremendous energy and wouldn’t let up. We took extreme pleasure in the mysterious repose of bassoonist Erik Paul, voluptuous beyond his years in this Andantino. Flutist Anna Ridentour’s brilliant and fluent obbligato made its mark once again.
Movement IV, March, began with something of a fanfare of trombones against horns. Hindemith’s genius left us guessing whether this was to be a military, funeral, or triumphal march: it was all three. Every section distinguished itself, and the accurate details of ensemble cohered admirably. Cirque du Soleil ought to choreograph this swaggering extravaganza.
As part of his introduction to the main act, Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Zander read a letter from bright-eyed BPYO violinist Jacob Winneg (excerpted here):
Dear Maestro Zander, there is something particularly special about the melody in the last movement of Brahms’s first symphony that has prompted me to encourage more of my friends to come. I had always loved that but just considered it another incarnation of the ode To Joy theme in Beethoven’s ninth. Now I believe that it represents the strength and resilience of the human spirit. Everyone in the world would benefit greatly hearing it.
From annotator Michael Steinberg’s 3,500-word expert analysis we excerpt a 65-word summary:
For his successors, Beethoven was a presence both scary and inspiring. Schubert responded with self-confidence. Brahms was neurotic, but when at last he brought himself to move, he moved surely. Joachim, writing to him in March 1877 from Cambridge, England, where he had just introduced the First Symphony, refers to it as a piece that “really gets to people.” That has not changed.
The 43-year-old’s first symphony must be the greatest debut in that genre by anyone ever; only Mahler and Berlioz come close to equaling the feat. Zander had waited many decades before asking a youth orchestra to play it, and in anticipation of this first occasion, he had wondered if the players had emotional depth equal to their instrumental technique. The answer is a resounding yes. And why should Zander have doubted the deep spirit of inquiry and hope that came to these 120 players (ages 12 – 21) so naturally? What better time in life to open one’s heart to Brahms’s universal verities? One doesn’t need white hair to get this. Schubert, after all, was only 30 when he wrote Winterreise.
Brahms’s themes and argumentative overlapping meters suggest a chivalrous quest for a final, well-earned affirmation. In a miraculous way, every moment of the first three movements seemed about to lapse into that favorite tune. Yet much had to develop, argue, and resolve (many words have been written about this) before this celestial moment could unfold.
Zander drew a very mature and deeply robust sound from the players. The seven double basses resonated reassuringly, and it did not hurt that he chose to double the contrabassoon at times with the tuba. Permit me to sprinkle some descriptors for the first movement: tragic, somber, darkly idiomatic, compression and release, sweep, noble causality, stunning sonorities, possessing the noble reassurance of Brahms’s Requiem. The Andante sostenuto came across as a love letter and the period-correct sectional portamento read as Ben’s private gliss to me. But I suspect that everyone in the solid house was experiencing the same sensation of personal address. Oboist Robert Diaz projected ineffable poetic arcs over the somewhat syncopated heartbeat pizzicatos in the strings. Cole Turkel’s clarinet soared in equal commitment to line and expression. The tone of concertmaster Darwin Chang enchanted. The marvelously intertwined solos and sectional ideas felt like a lofty symposium with the rarest old wines.
We were completely caught up in the gracious Allegretto’s sway. Zander shaped the complexities with marvelous ritardandos and a-tempi. And that tuba! James Curto made nice with the contrabassoon of Garrett Comrie, but Curto earlier showed us that he could step out with a trill and some lively and un-tubby facility.
We knew what was coming in the Finale, of course, but we nevertheless took great pleasure in Zander’s masterfully teasing hesitations. The pizzicatos quieted, then accelerated, everyone was digging in almost painful anticipation. Graham Lovely, true to his name, made an incredible French horn Ranz des vaches or Kuhreihen—an irresistible summons to attend to something important. How did he keep from sobbing when the rest of us couldn’t?
Violins and violas in low registers, as if through tears, introduced the big tune underpinned quietly by the very noble horns and pizzicato bass. Woodwinds and timpani grew the intensity until the profound tutti emphatically announced the grand poetic message. Hand on heart, Zander led the players and house to a lofty pinnacle of emotion and art.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer