“What’s the difference between this orchestra and a professional one?” I was asked by a patron while leaving Symphony Hall after the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s March concert. “Well, they’re younger and the players aren’t unionized. Yet,” was my response.
That drew the intended laugh. But the question’s a complicated one to answer, even though, as far as quality of playing goes, the difference is small.
Lest we become jaded to this fact, it’s good to be reminded as the orchestra concludes its eleventh season that the BPYO is an exceedingly rare phenomenon. That playing of such technical refinement from a rotating membership of (mostly) teenagers has been maintained over the years is remarkable.
But polish alone can, to some extent, be explained. Besides, that quality doesn’t necessarily make for a great orchestra. Purpose, energy, excitement, color, sensitivity, intentionality, and heart do. The more palpably those characteristics come across, the better.
And that’s where this youth orchestra has long held an advantage over any number of standing professional groups. The enthusiasm that emerges in their performances – the sense of wonder, epiphany, joy, and meaning that permeates their playing – is contagious.
In fact, it often leads them to fulfil Robert Schumann’s diktat that the role of the artist is “to send light into the darkness of men’s hearts.” That was surely the case with the radiant Mahler Symphony No. 4 that marked the BPYO’s return from its pandemic hiatus in 2021.
Also, the devastating Shostakovich Fifth they played a few months later at Symphony Hall, days after Russia invaded Ukraine. It was the situation, again, in their stunning Bartók and Tchaikovsky double-bill in March as well as throughout the towering, cathartic Mahler Resurrection Symphony that closed the current season.
What ties their successes through the years together is BPYO founder and music director Benjamin Zander, whose extraordinary gifts as an educator, coach, mentor, musician, and leader find their fullest outlet in his work with this ensemble. Indeed, to see the bond between conductor and orchestra – the shared engagement with, excitement in, and love for the music at hand – consistently reflected in their performances is inspiring.
Even more significant is Zander’s ability to illuminate the meaning behind the notes and its enduring relevance to life as it’s lived. As a result, the canon often emerges in BPYO concerts not as a distant, abstract, generically pretty thing but, rather, as an entity that is living, breathing, functional, and necessary.
Perhaps that’s to be expected, given this orchestra’s professional-caliber technique and assurance, its interpretive maturity, and the sense of revelation that’s inherent to youth. Even so, it’s nothing to take for granted.
Indeed, it’s not too much to say that the living example that Zander and the BPYO set – reminding that the fresh thrill of discovery and emotional renewal through music is ours for the taking – is, in this dark age, one of their greatest gifts to us. That it’s conveyed by a group of teens who happen to form one of the country’s finest instrumental ensembles, period, is another.
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