The throbbing Sibelius was well played — BPO's strings are in excellent shape — though the work itself struck me as the least compelling of the Four Legends, and I could understand why it's not done more often. Not an issue with the Prokofiev. Though I prefer the spikier First Violin Concerto to the more luscious Second, this was a performance that could make me revise my judgment. It's a piece that has some of Prokofiev's most seductive melodies, and for that reason has always seemed a little soupy to me. I first heard violinist Stefan Jackiw in 1997, playing a ferocious movement from Wieniawski's Second Violin Concerto at an Opening Night at Pops concert. He was then a diminutive 12-year-old. Four years later, I heard him play the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Zander and the BPO. I wrote that he was the most gifted young musician Zander has worked with since Yo-Yo Ma, and that I couldn't wait to hear their collaboration again.
Jackiw has since graduated from Harvard and the New England Conservatory and now lives in New York and has an international career. He's always been a phenomenal player, though I've had some reservations about a certain emotional reticence. So this Prokofiev might be the perfect Jackiw piece, since it benefits from a refusal to wallow. Jackiw didn't wallow, and the tension between Prokofiev's excess and Jackiw's restraint resulted in a performance of both staggering brilliance and the deepest feeling. He had the ability to turn on a dime from hair-raising technical dazzle to lyrical expansiveness, to vary his rich tone and not worry about making everything sound beautiful. He has solidified his place among the top young violin virtuosos who are also thoughtful, exploratory musicians. His dashing good looks — he's part German, part Korean) won't hurt his career either (was this the first time the BPO program and billboard had photos of the soloist rather than the conductor?).
There was more superb string playing in Don Quixote, which was engrossing, witty (Don Quixote and the hilarious fluttering-brass of the bleating sheep), and at Don Quixote's final return to sanity, deeply poignant. Don Quixote is represented by the solo cello, and Rafael Popper-Keizer, the BPO's principal cellist, played with lean, tensile power and complex characterization. The Don's final breath, a disappearing downward slide, like a resigned exhalation, was heartbreaking. Violist Lisa Suslowicz made an amusing and touching Sancho Panza. From Zander down, everyone concerned seemed committed to telling the story from the inside out.
Zander and the BPO will be featuring another brilliant and serious young virtuoso, pianist George Li, playing the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, on a program with Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, at Jordan Hall and Sanders Theatre, November 15, 17 and 19.