Concert Review: Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra at Symphony Hall

By any measure, this is an impressive orchestra, as technically accomplished as any number of professional ensembles, domestic and international.

Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in action at Symphony Hall. Photo: Courtesy of the BPYO.

Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in action. Photo: Courtesy of the BPYO.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

One of the surest ways to tell how good an orchestra is, I was often told by conductors of orchestras in which I played growing up, is to hear them play soft passages together. Those moments offer opportunities to demonstrate not just (oftentimes exposed) technical control but, more significantly, how closely the players are listening and responding to one another and their leader.

I was thinking about that observation quite a bit on Monday night while listening to Benjamin Zander direct a substantial program of music by Glinka, Stravinsky, Debussy, and Tchaikovsky with his Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (BPYO) at Boston’s Symphony Hall. The ensemble, made up of 100-plus players ranging in age from 12 to 21, is now in its fourth season and, this summer, participated in a triumphant, eight-city European tour. And it’s a group whose mission is only partly musical, as Monday’s program booklet made abundantly clear. Where their extramusical interests and opportunities will lead these players is anyone’s guess but, from a musical standpoint, they’re a sharp, finely attuned ensemble, as any number of quiet moments on Monday night capably demonstrated.

The evening began loudly, though, with a mercurial reading of Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila. This is a showpiece, pure and simple, one that doesn’t take itself too seriously but demands players of, individually, the highest caliber and, collectively, tight ensemble coordination. It took a few bars to settle in—orchestral balance favored the winds and brass over the strings at a few points in the evening, including the opening of the Overture—but, once things got rolling, both of those qualities dominated this performance. The vigorous unison string passage at the Overture’s midpoint was as crisp and focused as I’ve heard it, and the BPYO delivered the big cantabile tune with rounded warmth and soul.

If the Glinka offered a show of brawny orchestral ability, Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, which followed, provided a striking aesthetic and textural contrast. The Concerto evinces Stravinsky at, if not exactly his most abstract, certainly his most Neo-Classical, that (for him) most objective of compositional styles.

Even if it’s a bit restrained, the Concerto’s far from an off-putting piece: the writing in it burbles with wit and, in the middle movements especially, a certain pathos. Soloist Ayano Ninomiya mined it all with plenty of confidence and a strong, steely tone that suited the piece well, though, to these ears, her overall performance might have benefited from something of a lighter touch. She was at her best in a soaring account of the third movement—this is music that, if anything, flatly contradicts Stravinsky’s own assertion that “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all.”

The orchestra takes something of a back seat in this work, though it’s by no means an uninvolved partner. On Monday, textural clarity, particularly in the outer movements, was the name of the game. Zander took these movements at a slightly deliberate clip, but all the lines were audible: the gurgling low bassoon trills in the first movement, the whimsical little horn duets in the finale (gamely led by principal Nate Klause), the sprightly percussion-initiated coda, and so on. Highlights of the middle movements included a dulcet flute duet (led by principal Michelle Sung) in the second and clarion trumpet/violin ritornellos between Ninomiya and principal trumpet Elmer Churampi in the third.

After Ninomiya’s encore of the unaccompanied melody of Bach’s Air (something of an odd choice, well played, though filled with occasionally thick vibrato), the BPYO turned to Debussy’s La mer. It takes, if not chutzpah, at least a certain nerve for a visiting orchestra to bring any major Debussy score to Symphony Hall, so long have the Boston Symphony’s performances of this repertoire defined it for American orchestras. And, on the whole, the BPYO did themselves proud. Yes, some transitions fell out of focus in the first movement, the first part of the second movement could have benefited from a freer sense of playfulness, and the closing thwack in the finale might have packed a greater punch. But the overall focus of the reading, the timbral refinement the orchestra brought to each movement, and the sheer thrill of all of the big climaxes was such that any such shortcomings were more than forgivable.

Here, too, one had ample opportunities to hear just how fine a bunch of musicians the young members of this orchestra are. The beginning of the first movement, as delicate a depiction of dawn as there is in the repertoire, unfolded on Monday from nothingness with admirable transparency and focus, not to mention rhythmic precision. Once the second movement relaxed and found its characteristic footing, there were some marvelously nuanced dialogues between solo winds, violin, and harps. And the finale, which around its middle quiets down into an extraordinary passage of violins playing harmonics over low-string pedal tones while harps and winds obsessively iterate its main theme, was pure magic.

Much credit for the success of this reading is certainly due Zander, whose interpretive powers were perhaps at their keenest in La mer. The music’s many moving parts were consistently discernible and its sometimes sprawling-sounding structure flowed in clear, logical paragraphs. But a good conductor only carries an idea so far; the orchestra has to do the heaviest lifting, and the BPYO was more than up to the challenge on Monday night. Among many deserving solo bows after the performance were ones for principal flute Hayley Miller, English horn Andrew Port, concertmaster Hikaru Yonezaki, and harpists Deanna Cirielli and Liat Shapiro.

After intermission, Zander and his orchestra wrapped up the evening with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Certain moments in the outer movements might have been more polished: textures in the first were sometimes jumbled and the brass blared a bit through climaxes. In the finale, the string articulations of the brisk first theme could have had a more aggressive bite. But these, by and large, are interpretive quibbles and, as in the Debussy, excusable. Simply taken as a performance, Monday’s was an exhilarating ride.

The slow introduction to the first movement smoldered and, though sometimes unbalanced, its big moments packed a physical punch. So did the corresponding passages in the finale, which were neatly balanced by the sweet lyricism of that movement’s second theme. And the charming third-movement waltz danced amiably.

But the highlight of the performance (and possibly the night) came courtesy of a mesmeric account of the slow second movement, whose myriad solos were led off with nobility and burnished warmth by principal horn Megan Shusta and closed with delicate beauty by principal clarinet Paul Hafley. In between came playing by the orchestra of such searing intensity and galvanic passion that you could be excused for thinking this ensemble a group of grizzled, world-weary, emotionally experienced adults; when it ended you could hear a pin drop. It was one of those moments that, if you go to enough orchestral concerts, you hope to experience far more often than you actually do. I won’t forget it anytime soon.

Monday’s capacity audience (admission to the concert was free, thanks to the Free for All Concert Fund) responded to the piece with a lusty ovation that was as expected as it was warranted. By any measure, this is an impressive orchestra, as technically accomplished as any number of professional ensembles, domestic and international. That they are so is as much a testament to the impressive abilities of the individual players as it is to Zander’s extraordinary ability to draw forth the best, both musically and personally, from these young musicians.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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