Changing lives

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  December 15, 2006

The YPO’s farewell concert at Jordan Hall before the departure from Boston wasn’t promising. The ambitious program (Strauss’s DonQuixote, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, and Stravinsky’s RiteofSpring) seemed endless. Best was the Strauss, with two fine string players in the “roles” of Don Quixote (cellist Sebastian Bäverstam) and Sancho Panza (violist Alexander Peterson). The Ravel, with NEC concerto competition winner Larry Weng, lacked Ravel’s unique combination of wit, the jazzy fizz of the dryest champagne, and warmth. The Stravinsky had few audible errors, but it was relentlessly aggressive, without the shapely vigor or sensual allure of Zander’s 1991 performance and recording with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. Surely the concerts would get better on the tour, but how much better could they get?

The answer turned out to be: quite a lot. On my first day in Caracas, I was taking a siesta when the sounds of Stravinsky started reverberating in my hotel room. It sounded like a very good recording, until I realized it was the orchestra in the hotel rehearsal hall. I rushed downstairs and heard music that was now compelling and sexy—Stravinsky’s orgasmic metaphor for creation (which grows out of destruction and sacrifice). It was even better in the hotel auditorium in Puerto la Cruz, after the 12-hour bus trip and in impossibly cramped acoustics—an exciting yet shapely rendering, with the lonely opening bassoon solo breaking the ice (literally—the spring ritual emerging after a frozen winter) and the crucial little upward runs on the flute—part of both the scenario and the musical structure—among the most satisfying I’ve ever heard. Zander had been trying to stave off an attack of vertigo (he suffers from Muniere’s disease), but after the Part One of the Stravinsky, assistant conductor Jonathan Cohler, sitting in the first row, at less than a moment’s notice, stepped in to complete the performance from Zander’s heavily annotated score.

By the time the YPO got to Rio’s sumptuous Theatro [sic] Municipal, a week and a half into the tour, the performances were masterful. Ravel’s RhapsodieEspagnol was a model of subtle and intricate dynamic shadings (the opening emerging mysteriously from silence) and rhythmic snap; I don’t remember ever being more seduced by this brilliant score. DonQuixote had become a mesmerizing narrative—every detail contributing to the story of an idealist defeated by the world’s intolerance of ideals—the orchestra now living up to Alexander Peterson’s increasingly bumptious characterization and comic timing, concertmaster Emily Smith’s touching elegance, and 16-year-old Sebastian Bäverstam’s luminous, profoundly moving embodiment of Don Quixote. Not even Yo-Yo Ma has been more inward, especially in the yearning and resignation of Don Quixote’s last breaths of life. Someone in the audience shouted “Maravilha!”

Though the Rite ofSpring was still not my dream performance (Pierre Boulez and the London Symphony would be hard to surpass by any orchestra), this uncompromising YPO rendition had become a legitimate version and more powerful than what most professional orchestras offer. The final Strauss and Stravinsky performances, in Sao Paulo (for which I was unable to stay), were recorded for radio broadcast in Brazil—it was evidently the first time DonQuixote was ever played in Sao Paulo and the first performance of the Stravinsky there in 20 years.

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