Some of the most inspired and inspiring Mahler performances I’ve ever heard have been with Zander and the New England Conservatory’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, especially on their international tours. Zander, not by his own choice, is no longer affiliated with NEC. Now the Boston Philharmonic has announced the formation of a tuition-free Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, with auditions taking place during the next two months. Concerts including major works by John Harbison, Bartók, and, yes, Mahler are already scheduled for Symphony Hall, and a Carnegie Hall concert is in the planning stages.


Even among chamber groups, especially string quartets, I’ve experienced a similar pattern: good performances of familiar repertoire that seemed missing some sense of surprise or discovery, and more gripping, committed performances of newer or odder pieces. (The Borromeo Quartet has been a major exception, and I’m sorry I had to miss their recent program of the three most challenging of Beethoven’s five late quartets.) The Emerson String Quartet is one example of an excellent and popular group that often comes up short. In its most recent Celebrity Series of Boston concert at Jordan Hall, the players delivered fine, smart, pointed versions of Haydn’s F-major Quartet, Op. 77, No. 2, the last quartet he completed, and Beethoven’s last quartet, Opus 135, also in F — well-chosen repertoire. Yet neither performance was a revelation.

But the Emersons really ignited in the Boston premiere of a quartet by the brilliant British composer Thomas Adès commissioned for them by Carnegie Hall. It’s called The Four Quarters, and the first of its four movements, “Nightfalls,” begins with the two violins each ticking off a chilly, almost nondescript two-note theme; but their overlapping creates a catchy four-note tune. The second movement, “Serenade: Morning Dew,” consists mainly of syncopated pizzicatos (the dew dripping?), interrupted by cacophonous bowing, then returning to the teasing pizzicatos. “Days” opens with an insistent ostinato from the second violin and ends with a climactic unison for all four players. The last movement has the most mysterious title (“The Twenty-Fifth Hour”) and the most mysterious music, combining a high, angular melody with pizzicatos, strumming, and a quiet, spacey ending. Inventive, colorful, tuneful, and tightly packed, it’s not a note too long. The Emersons played it as if they meant it, as if they knew what every note meant. The audience brought them back for an encore, the first movement of Ives’s “Salvation Army” Quartet, and it was another winner.


On the basis of the first three pieces in Richard Pittman’s New England Philharmonic concert, I wasn’t sure if the orchestra would be up to Andy Vores’s tricky Violin Concerto, An Other I (which was a 2005 NE Phil commission, when Vores was composer-in-residence). The strings in the preceding Donald Harris Fanfare (an unusual fanfare, Copland-esque but with lots of strings), the famous Offenbach Barcarolle, and the exquisite Berlioz cantata The Death of Ophelia, didn’t sound quite ready, and the demure, affectless singing of the women of the Chorus pro Musica and the Simmons College Concert Choir hardly suggested the “inebriated” sexuality of the Offenbach, or the aching pathos of the Berlioz.

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