CAMBRIDGE — “I’ve heard tell that old people have to slow down, but I haven’t had any signs of it yet,” Boston Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Benjamin Zander told me earlier this year. In case anyone has any lingering doubts, one only had to observe his entrance onto the Sanders Theatre stage Sunday. Instead of walking through the orchestra’s chairs, he sprinted up the side stairway, and no sooner had he hopped up onto the podium than his baton was raised and the orchestra was off on a rip-roaring ride through Glinka’s Overture to “Ruslan and Lyudmila.”
Zander and his orchestra strove for maximum impact. To that, it really feels like “his” orchestra. It’s tough to imagine what the Philharmonic would be without Zander, who celebrates both 40 years with the orchestra and 80 years on Earth this season. Not only does he know the music, he knows the musicians. Cellist Jonah Ellsworth, the program’s featured soloist, has been in Zander’s orbit for years. The 24-year-old Cambridge native is now a member of the Boston Trio, and he’s performed with the Boston Philharmonic and Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, as both a member of the cello section and a featured soloist.
It’s easy to see why Zander likes Ellsworth. Both are alchemists of emotion in music. It’s quite easy to like Ellsworth as well; wrapped around his cello, he palpably gave his entire body and soul to Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. His tone was gracious but raw, the underlying sinews of each note showing through. The passages in the second movement where he wove an agile filigree of melody through the orchestra were remarkable, as was the elegiac coda to the final movement, which sang out with noble tenderness. Around the soloist, the orchestra’s sound buzzed with color, as though someone had turned up the saturation.
All concert long, the orchestra chased the superlative and the affecting; with Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, that’s easy to do. Under Zander’s baton, four movements illustrated a large arc from darkness to determination. I wished for more small arcs in the first movement; from the first notes, the listeners were dropped into an intensity of feeling that didn’t abate. In the third movement, the melody sat on the front of the beat as if brimming with excitement, and stark chords grounded and reined it in, as if to say “don’t dare hope that much.” Whitacre Hill’s horn solo in the fourth movement brilliantly conveyed a welcome sunbeam, and Lisa Hennessy’s flute carried on the same feeling, echoing like a memory of a fleeting moment.
The program notes cited a pronouncement by Brahms’s contemporary Joseph Joachim that the piece “really gets to people.” It seems that would be the highest honor for this orchestra, and with this program, they succeeded in that.
Click here to listen to Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila.
Click here to listen to Dvorak’s Cello Concerto.
Click here to listen to Brahms’ Symphony no. 1.