Benjamin Zander’s Philharmonic Youth Orchestra debuted at Symphony Hall last November with an especially impressive performance of Richard Strauss’s elaborately demanding autobiographical extravaganza, Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”). It was no fluke. BPYO’s second concert (March 10), a signature Zander program, was an even more substantial success.
Zander opened with Schumann’s mercurial and romantic Piano Concerto, another love letter to his celebrated pianist wife, Clara. This chamber-like concerto seems to elude most orchestras these days, but given 17-year-old virtuoso George Li’s poetic soul and the superb orchestra’s nuanced playing, this performance worked. Li projected the Schumann extremes — both thoughtful interiority and extroverted, almost manic, fun — though the sheer size of the orchestra, some 120 players, is just too big for Schumann’s intimacy and overwhelmed some of Li’s glittering artistry. But not his solo encore — a heart-stoppingly beautiful Chopin Nocturne.
After intermission came a Zander specialty, Mahler’s vast Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection) — a work I don’t think Zander has ever performed with a youth orchestra. But these kids played their hearts out, and have the chops to do it. Zander allowed it to follow its own sometimes wayward path; so even as it moved inexorably forward, we could always hear Mahler’s unexpected detours. In the midst of crushing funeral rites, a sudden vision of heaven arose on an ecstatic cloud of yearning. The second movement’s nostalgic yet witty country minuet had delicate twists and turns and some delicious rhythmic prestidigitation (the two quietly conclusive notes made me chuckle). In the slithery Scherzo, Mahler’s orchestration of the folk song about St. Anthony preaching to the fishes (who pay him as little mind as his parishioners do), I wished each fish had been more individualized and nastier, the playing being almost too refined for Mahler’s raffish irony.
Placing Mahler’s offstage brass soloists in the balconies (at the round earth’s imagined corners) gave them a haunting ethereality. Soprano Barbara Quintiliani sounded radiant (though slightly diminished, seated invisibly behind Zander, during her first solo with the chorus). Mezzo-soprano Robynne Redmon’s warm-hearted rendition of Mahler’s profound song “Urlicht” (“Primal Light”) — with its octave leap to heaven — and the youthful Harvard University Choirs helped. But the triumph of the blazing final movement, and the entire symphony, was Zander’s and the orchestra’s — pouring it on, pouring it out, with total and overwhelming conviction, abandon, and, as Mahler requires, surprise.
Jurowski Round Two
You don’t often see BSO higher-ups at non-BSO events, but at least two of the highest-ups were in the Symphony Hall audience for the young Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski’s Celebrity Series of Boston concert with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (March 8). Jurowski’s BSO performance of Shostakovich’s seldom-heard Fourth Symphony was last year’s most exciting orchestral event, and the prospect of a role for Jurowski in the BSO’s future (possible successor to James Levine as music director?) was surely in many thoughts.