Over (and under) the top

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  November 24, 2008

The concert opened with Beethoven's penultimate quartet, Opus 132 in A minor, the profound piece that helped inspire T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Everything went beautifully, yet I heard no surprises, nothing new. The evening closed with George Crumb's anti–Vietnam War Dark Angels, in which bows get drawn not only across strings but also across the sides of a tam-tam and glasses of water and the players not only play but cry out and whisper and click. In 1970, it seemed both avant-garde and sentimental; now, it has a certain amusing but tedious nostalgic charm. The Pacifica four played it as if it they'd never heard anything like it before.

Benjamin Zander planned an intricately interconnected program for his latest Boston Philharmonic concert: the familiar reconstruction of Bach's Concerto for Oboe and Violin (the lost version of what has survived only as Bach's later transcription for double keyboard), the Berg Violin Concerto (which uses a Bach chorale in its elegy for the death of Manon Gropius, the angelic 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler and architect Walter Gropius), and Beethoven's Eroica Symphony — a powerful contrast to the intimacy, playfulness, and spiritual sublimity of the Bach and the heartbreakingly personal Berg.

The soloists in the Bach were the BPO's extraordinary principal oboist and Bach specialist, Peggy Pearson, and the Algerian-born French violinist (now living in Southern California) Gilles Apap, a protûgû of Yehudi Mehuhin, and perhaps better known for his improvisatory excursions into various kinds of folk fiddling than for his classical work. It should have been magical — teasing, playful, sublime — but the two soloists seemed to connect only in the tenderly entwining love duet of the slow movement. Zander led as if Bach didn't need the kind of interpretive nuance he gives everything else.

The Berg, however, was exceptional. Apap proved up to both the technical challenges and the emotional depth. And so did the orchestra, combining fierce intensity and a Viennese lilt that can easily get lost. Apap was warmly received, and he played a couple of encores that relieved the tension of the Berg: a buoyant Bach dance that morphed into an Irish reel, down-home bluegrass, and sexually insinuating jazz, and then, with the orchestra, a free-spirited Gypsy number.

Zander is famous for his conviction that Beethoven's startlingly fast tempo markings should be taken seriously. So this Eroica had a rare youthful exuberance (Beethoven was only 35), though it lacked dimension and spiritual grandeur, and the high speed came at the heavy cost of technical finesse.

In 1977, Zander guest-conducted one of the most exciting — and controversial — Bach performance I've ever heard, a B-minor Mass with the Cecilia Society (now the Boston Cecilia). The latest Cecilia B-minor, led by Donald Teeters, celebrating his 40th season as Cecilia's director, alternated between the stirring and the understated (and sometimes timid). The chorus itself sounded a little weak, but the period-instrument orchestra was superb (flutist Christopher Krueger thrilling in two obbligato accompaniments), and Teeters assembled a strong contingent of vocal soloists.

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