In classical music these days, it seems the only thing that separates the top-flight professional groups from youth ensembles is, well, youth. Training is now so effective that many young musicians have professional-level technical chops. What they lack is simply time—the accumulation of years and personal and musical experiences that add nuance, subtlety, and deeper expression to their playing.
The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra demonstrated this in their season-opening concert Sunday afternoon in Symphony Hall, viewed via livestream. Under conductor Benjamin Zander, they played a meat-and-potatoes program of Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger, Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. It was pure pleasure hearing an orchestra playing repertoire music with such great sound and spirit.
Zander used the occasion to introduce the audience to not just the basics of classical concerts—asking for quiet and also for people to hold their applause between movements—but also speaking at length both about the music and the experiences of the young musicians. The former was constructive in introducing the themes of Wagner’s Prelude to new listeners, and also as an interesting explanation for the quirky use of the tuba in Symphony No. 1. Zander pointed out that the very first performance of the symphony in Boston, in the 19th century, had the BSO substituting the tuba for the contrabassoon, because there was none to be found in Boston. It also meant the tuba player could perform on the second half.
The opening C major chord of the Meistersinger Prelude had a magnificent size and shape to it, a warm and grand feeling. It was indeed a prelude of things to come, as this orchestra doesn’t just have the highly drilled precision of a lot of youth ensembles, but a big, classical sound, multidimensional in its depths and colors.
This was especially upfront in the Hindemith Metamorphosis. The composer has an odd place in contemporary classical music culture. His work has long been, and continues to be, a staple of instrumental training and youth group repertoire, but has fallen off the scene for professional ensembles. This is a shame, because beyond the colors, energy, and the excellent technical details, it has a freshness to its sound that’s compelling, especially in the context of not just a romantic program but in the Neo-romantic flavor of so much contemporary composing.
The orchestra played this with great elan, the feeling they were having fun. Instrumental solos were lively and polished, even as one missed the depths in Hindemith that more experienced players would bring out. Where this group really shined was in how they took to the music’s rhythms, young players tend to be rhythmically flexible and their playing had something close to swing to it. That was terrific.
The orchestra continued to impress in the Brahms symphony. Again, the weight of their sound and variety of color were excellent. Perhaps it was their youthful spirit that made for an ideal sense of forward motion in the stolid opening statement. Elsewhere, they seemed galvanized by the force built into Brahms dotted- and cross-rhythms, and orchestral articulation was clear and expressive.
The Beethovenian theme in the finale was lyrical and absolutely lovely. This would have been an impressive performance for any professional orchestra.
Click here to listen to Wagner’s Meistersinger Prelude.
Click here to listen to Brahms’s Symphony no. 1.