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45, 85: A Triumphant Celebration

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What a hallmark event for the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra! Sunday’s concert celebrated parent BPO’s 45th anniversary and the “life and legacy” of the beloved Music Director-Founder over that span.

Symphony Hall filled with a crowd diverse in age and background, buzzing with anticipation; this was quite a sight to see! The educational outreach of the organization extends beyond the seats of the orchestra; especially designed programs titled the “Beginners’ Guide” were provided for younger audience members; including interactive activities, fun facts, and guided listening to help educate and engage the next generation. The official program also nearly burst with with rich and relevant information – BPYO offers not just a treat for the ears but also for the enrichment of minds.

Challenging music comes with high risk. But as the saying goes – the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward – and what a reward it was! Zander gave deep thought to his bold choices. Each piece held some connection to Boston (some connections more apparent than others), and also held significance to Zander’s life, BPYO as an organization, and the talented youth making up the orchestra. Entering the stage Zander immediately captures the attention of all; talking just a few moments, he changed the whole dynamic. The audience became a part of the shared experience. Providing clear ideas to help guide our listening and easing the nerves of perhaps less seasoned listeners ― Zander has set the stage for us all.

Benjamin Zander and Anna Fedorova (Hillary Scott photo)

Within the first sounds of Britten’s Peter Grimes: Four Sea Interludes, we recognized that this is not your typical youth group. While the ages of the ensemble range from 12 – 21, close your eyes and you would imagine mature professionals. The opening movement Dawn was adorned with delicate but brilliant sound, the entrance of the brass brought a strong rumble that stirred the ensemble leading to a smart juxtaposition of the strings and the brass brilliantly painting the essence of daybreak. In the second movement, Sunday Morning, Zander maintained perfect balance of blend and soloing. The soaring trumpet and warmth of the cellos in the third movement made their marks. The ending movement, Storm, presented commanding, enthusiastic fortes, enthusiastic while pulling back with complete control when needed. The orchestra accomplished nuances of colors of tones, and understanding of balance, and brought about one of the cleanest uses of accelerando and dynamics I’ve heard. Britten ‘s ability to capture the essence of life in music is masterfully apparent in this piece. Zander showed tremendous sensitivity in translating that into meaningful sonorities. His personal relationship with the late composer kept the latter alive for us. The final chord of the Britten rang with intention and energy, and the audience erupted into applause and cheers – no doubt they would!  WOW, brilliantly played; excellent!

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1, 0p.23 featured Ukrainian pianist Anna Fedorova, who on top of being an accomplished musician has been using her gifts for humanitarian work to help aid the victims of the war in Ukraine. Right off the bat, the phrasing allowed us to wallow in Tchaikovsky’s romanticism. You can hear Tchaikovsky’s flavor in the instrumental pairing to the dynamics and pitch range. The natural sense of movement is so pivotal in his output, and soloist and orchestra handled it with great sensitivity. Smart phrase matching was consistent in every movement with the echoes of lines between the soloist and ensemble. Balances retained a constant equilibrium. Kudos to Zander;  he clearly kept a keen ear to these sensitive exchanges and the many passing lines between solo and orchestra. Fedorova moved through each movement with command. Her tireless fingers are an orchestra all in one. Her expressive freedom while maintaining clarity of articulation captivated us. Thanks to her stylization, we’d been invited to the conversation with Tchaikovsky. The work in whole passes with many pleasing moments; at the ending you can’t help but smile with satisfaction.

The orchestra dedicated the concert “to the memory of master-teacher John Heiss, who devoted his prodigious gifts and vast generosity of spirit to the members of BPYO in countless coaching sessions.” Heiss, introduced Zander to Ives, whose Three Places in New England opened the second half. The first movement, “St. Gaudens” on Boston Common, holds significant relevance to not just Boston as a location, but as a reminder to the heroism of Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment, one of the first Black regiments of the American Civil War. The players apparently took deep inspiration from a visit to the memorial. Ives challenges instrumentalists, listeners, and conductors. Luckily Zander set us all up by preparing our ears and elevating our hearts to the emotional and compositional essence. The orchestra rose to the challenge and gracefully captured the variety of aesthetics between the three movements.

BPYO rose to the challenge of performing Ravel’s famed Daphnis et Chloé in Symphony Hall, where the Boston Symphony Orchestra has laid claim to it. Principal flutist Sarah Goodman made much of her solo opportunity. The orchestra shone with brilliant displays of dynamic contrast, phrasing, and balance. You could see and feel the joy and the enthusiasm! The orchestra’s vitality especially shone in the zest of the fortes. The orchestra delivered strength throughout. We were witnessing the emergence of the next generation of top orchestral personnel.

As Zander says “music is the most powerful means of communication…” and in that is a value of possibility. In my own conducting I often ask myself – “Who is this for? What is it saying? And Why?” BPYO didn’t just give us music for the sake of music, they also dialogued with us and  invited us to connect. The organization builds on a bedrock of community. In weekly reflections through “white sheets,” “they share their thoughts on all aspects of the music and rehearsal process.”

In recognition of the “extraordinary musicianship, leadership, and service, inspiring countless students, professional musicians, and music lovers across the Commonwealth” The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and The City of Boston have proclaimed March 9, 2024 – Benjamin Zander Day in recognition of the Maestro’s 85th birthday and tremendous importance on so many levels.

The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra is a unicorn. Outstanding organizations for students usually come with high tuition, but BPYO remains tuition-free. With its European tour in June on the horizon, the support is crucial. You can contribute here. BPYO will offer Schumann’s Cello Concerto and Mahler’s 5th at Symphony Hall on Friday May 3rd. Don’t miss it.

Stephanie Beatrice is Music Director for the Cambridge Chamber Ensemble, Calliope, Sudbury Savoyards, and is a sought-after guest conductor. She holds degrees from UMaine (BME) New England Conservatory (MM) as well as continued studies at the Juilliard School.

 

 

A year younger, Zander celebrates his 84th. (BMInt staff photo)

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  1. Thanks for this review. It was excellent finally hearing Benjamin Zander conduct Ives after he attempted the Third Symphony a few years ago. You could tell he took what Mr. Heiss said to heart. I would have reviewed it myself, but I was a guest of the family, so that took precedence. His daughter broke down in tears during the Ives. We nearly all did. She had his famed hat as well.

    Comment by Ian Wiese — March 13, 2024 at 7:50 pm

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