“I realized that my job is to awaken possibility in others.”

Young climbers of BPYO scale peaks of early 20th-century music

David Wright - Boston Classical Review
Concert Reviews — March 4, 2024

Conductor Benjamin Zander had more than the usual reasons to wax nostalgic at a concert of his Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra Sunday afternoon in Symphony Hall.

Recollecting one’s own youth is a privilege—sometimes the only privilege—of advanced age. In this case, however, Zander’s personal history also illuminated the piece about to be played.

Acknowledging the presence of his sister in the hall and his brother streaming the concert in the U.K.—“all of us in our eighties,” he said—he recalled Zander family vacations in the English seaside town of Aldeburgh. Why there?  Because 9-year-old Ben had been invited to take composition lessons with the town’s most famous resident, Benjamin Britten.

Few conductors have approached Britten’s tragic opera Peter Grimes—or the often-played excerpts the composer called “Four Sea Interludes”—with such intimate sensory knowledge of its village setting. Introducing the work in his own words, Zander made the audience see the moonlight on the ocean, and hear the hiss of the retreating surf, before a note was played.

Musicians age 12 to 21 may not know all the dark corners of human nature, or the finer points of orchestral teamwork, but it was clear from the livestream broadcast on Sunday that Zander had fired his young players’ imaginations. That—and probably more rehearsal time than professional players enjoy—resulted in a performance of the Sea Interludes that, for ominous atmosphere and vivid imagery, would be the envy of many a big-city orchestra.

In the first movement, “Dawn,” a brass chorale evoked the depth of the sea, strings the wind on its surface, and crying woodwinds the birds overhead. “Sunday Morning” vibrated with string and brass clusters imitating change-ringing in a church steeple. The placid scene of “Moonlight” was spiked with ominous knocks and pings of uncertain significance. The closing movement, “Storm,” painted not nature but human nature, a troubled mind pulsing with nervous energy and anxiety.

The afternoon’s ambitious program then shifted gears into a large Tchaikovsky work, his Piano Concerto No. 1. (And still more challenging pieces by Ives and Ravel waited in the wings. As is often said of young artists and athletes, “If they knew how hard this is, they’d never do it.”)

Zander’s comments on the concerto focused not on himself, but on the soloist, the Ukrainian pianist Anna Fedorova—admiring her work for humanitarian relief to her war-torn country, and her style of playing, which Zander described as having “rhythmic freedom that looks back to when music was a living, breathing thing.”

The proof of that pudding was in the playing, and sure enough, after crisply executing the concerto’s opening pages, Federova luxuriantly stretched out her first solo passage, then dared conductor and orchestra to keep up with her alternately dreamy and impetuous playing. Which they did, to marvelous effect. The first movement’s wonderful building-up-steam coda paid off handsomely, drawing whoops and excited applause from the audience.

The achingly romantic theme of the Andantino semplice unfolded in delicious solos by not just the pianist but young orchestral soloists on flute, cello and oboe. Orchestra and pianist tossed off the dizzy waltz at mid-movement with lightness and flair.

There was no lolly-gagging in the high-kicking finale, not even in the tender second theme for muted violins, as conductor and soloist made sure there was always an undercurrent of suspense and expectation until near the end, when the tender theme burst forth in forte glory, and an athletic coda capped the proceedings.

Called back repeatedly to the stage, Federova offered an encore, Chopin’s Waltz in D-flat major, Op. 64, no. 1. She introduced it as the “Minute Waltz,” but she took a lot more than a minute over it, whimsically flexing the fast figurations and floating off to dreamland in the tuneful middle section.

“I know some of you have never listened to music before,” Zander told the audience after intermission. Not exactly what he meant to say, surely, but his concern that listeners would be mystified by the seeming chaos of Ives’s Three Places in New England was evident.

So Zander painstakingly outlined the stories the music told—the black Civil War soldiers in “The ‘St. Gaudens’ in Boston Common,” the dueling bands in “Putnam’s Camp,” the serene river and distant choir in “The Housatonic at Stockbridge”—and the bits of musical Americana threaded throughout the score.

In performance, these highly-trained young musicians hit their marks and gave a fair, if not exactly transcendental, rendering of Ives’s perplexing score—a most worthwhile adventure for players and audience alike, and sure to inspire long thoughts and curiosity in at least some who were present.

On the other hand, few would have difficulty understanding the exotic beauty of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë Suite No. 2, with the sun rising from fluttering flutes to a blazing tutti, the tender pantomime of love, and the wild bacchanal at the end. In a sentence or two of introduction, Zander recalled that this was the signature piece of Charles Munch, the Boston Symphony’s music director from 1949 to 1962—whom Zander heard conduct in person, of course—and that his players should be “in awe” of performing it in Symphony Hall, “and at such an age.”

The young players didn’t appear intimidated, but acquitted themselves splendidly, especially the first flutist, who richly earned her individual bow, signaled by Zander almost before the last chord had died away. Then the flute section of four players, and soloists in other sections, had their turn in the spotlight, all well deserved.

One imagines that Munch, and likely Ravel himself, would have been impressed by their bravery, and ultimately their accomplishment, in tackling this score, in all its subtlety and immensity–and at such an age.

As the audience was filing out and Zander returned to the stage to chat with the musicians, a group of brass players serenaded him with “Happy Birthday,” in recognition of his 85th birthday, coming six days later, on March 9th.


Click here to listen to the Britten.
Click here to listen to the Tchaikovsky.
Click here to listen to the Ives.
Click here to listen to the Ravel.

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